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Lending a Hand to Argentina's Protesters

Tim Stallmann, right, a student from Raleigh, N.C., volunteers at the bakery in La Matanza, outside Buenos Aires.
Tim Stallmann, right, a student from Raleigh, N.C., volunteers at the bakery in La Matanza, outside Buenos Aires. (By Silvina Frydlewsky For The Washington Post)

After conquering hyperinflation, pegging its currency to the dollar and opening its financial markets in the 1990s, Argentina became an international model for the benefits of economic globalization. But the collapse immediately transformed Argentina into a symbol of its failures, especially among activists who oppose the stringent lending policies of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Medea Benjamin, founding director of the San Francisco-based group Global Exchange, said the communal philosophy espoused by groups like the Matanza movement has increasing appeal to the young Americans who sign up for the reality tours offered by her organization. She said it has taken about 150 tourists to visit piquetero groups.

"It used to be really hard to get people to go on our trips to Latin America, but it's thriving now," Benjamin said by telephone. "A lot of people in the U.S. feel disempowered after their attempts to stop the war and to get Bush out of office in November. Seeing the grass-roots movements that have sprung up . . . provides a real shot in the arm."

During their stays, most of the visitors accompany the Matanza members into Buenos Aires for street protests, but most of their time is spent at the cooperatives, baking bread or monitoring preschoolers.

"When people are left without any other options, they get very creative," said Tim Stallmann, 21, a math major from Raleigh, N.C. "The crisis here was caused by the bad side of globalization, but we recognize that there can also be a good side to it: It's done wonderful things for social movements, for example."

Stallmann, like the two other tourists sleeping in the Matanza bunkroom last week, said he decided on his own to come to Argentina after hearing a guest speaker at the University of North Carolina describe its social movements. Two Canadians also visited, and one said she would earn college credits for the trip.

The visitors, most of whom have participated in large marches back home, said that while they respected the tenacity of the Argentine piqueteros , their own experiences in antiwar and anti-globalization rallies had taught them the limits of protest.

"For me, the message is: Put away the placards and get to work," said Garry Fry, 56, an accountant who was visiting from Calgary, Alberta. The Matanza group emphasizes its work ethic, discouraging unemployed members from accepting government welfare bonuses worth about $50 a month for families.

When he returns to the United States next month, Stallmann said, the experience of meeting people who think like him, but live thousands of miles away in vastly different circumstances, would fuel his activism.

"Just knowing now that there are a lot of cool people here doing these kinds of things . . . it's a good feeling to wake up to in the morning," he said.

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