Lending a Hand to Argentina's Protesters
Foreign Volunteers Glean Perspective On Globalization

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 25, 2005

LA MATANZA, Argentina -- It's not the usual sort of vacation destination, hidden away among crumbling brick bungalows on a rutted mud road. Accommodation is a bunk in an unheated room. Days are spent working without pay in a neighborhood bakery, or marching in street protests.

But for hundreds of young American and European activists, the new way to spend summer break is living and working among Argentina's piqueteros, or picketers -- the protest marchers who have filled the streets of many cities and towns since the country's massive economic collapse in 2001.

In this ragged neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the college-age visitors say, globalization is more than a vague concept to be criticized from abroad. Here, they say, it has caused real problems and sparked creative solutions.

"In the U.S., you might have a big protest of 200,000 people in Washington, and then everything just goes away," said Tessa Lee, 20, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But I heard that here in Argentina, they were getting things done. That's why I came."

Since the 2001 crisis, which many activists here blame on Washington-led economic policies, some of the piquetero groups have branched out from protesting and set up networks of small, neighborhood cooperatives that deliver social services to the poor and jobless.

One such organization in La Matanza, the Unemployed Workers' Movement, has launched a "receptive tourism" program that invites foreign visitors to volunteer at its bakery, preschool, sewing workshop and flea market, all located in a crowded, 16-block neighborhood.

The cost of participating is $150, plus $12 per day for room and board. So far, organizers said, they have hosted 50 to 60 overnight visitors, plus many more who stop by during the days to see their programs.

By working with universities and travel companies specializing in "reality tours" -- trips that showcase the grittier aspects or corners of places that guidebooks normally gloss over -- the group hopes to become an international hub for like-minded activists.

Some of the start-up money was donated by foreign embassies and nonprofit groups, and most of the workers are neighborhood volunteers who lost their job during the crisis.

In the bakery, about 30 cents buys a sack of pastries. In the sewing room, volunteers make items such as hangers with padded pockets to hold cosmetics, which will be sold to Avon Products Inc. At the community market, neighbors display and sell items including bluejeans and cold medicine. In each place, there are a few eager younger foreigners at work -- Americans, Canadians or Europeans.

"They come to learn," said Vilma Anzoategui, 20, who works at the preschool and also coordinates the tourism program. "This week, we have three who are sleeping here, and three more are coming to stay with us during the days."

For the visitors, Argentina provides the perfect lens to view what they consider to be the damaging effects of globalization. When the nation's economy imploded four years ago, millions of people were suddenly plunged into joblessness and poverty, and left largely to fend for themselves.

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company