SUNS #5156 Tuesday 9 July 2002 (

Argentina: Social leaders gear up to replace politicians

[Readers may want to examine this phenomenon in Argentina in the light of threefolding. Could it be confusing and collapsing a cultural aspiration and movement (new values including a different kind of politics and a process of inner transformation) into a purely political expression? What will be the resulting checks and balances in Argentinian society without an autonomous independent cultural force?]

Buenos Aires, 5 June (IPS/Marcela Valente) -- Leaders of non-governmental organisations that have carved a growing space for themselves in Argentine society are working hard to provide an alternative to the traditional politicians in elected posts who are scorned by a large portion of the nation's 37 million people.

Civil society groups have been gathering in Argentina to discuss legislative bills, exchange information and foment the direct participation of their leaders in government decision-making arenas, to replace the traditional politicians who they claim no longer represent them.

Joining forces in this phenomenon are leaders from some 20 entities, including the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Citizen's Power, Doctors in Catastrophes, Conscience Foundation, Social Forum for Transparency, and Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity organisation, who have met twice already this month.

Argentina's profound social, political and economic crisis led non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to consider it "desirable" that their leaders participate in the government, a change from their past distancing from politics, Ariel Umpierrez, president of Doctors in Catastrophes, told IPS.

"We NGOs are extremely worried. On the one hand we have a traditional governing class that has failed, which ruled the country for the last 20 years, alongside a political left that is outdated and irresponsible. On the other, we have millions of Argentines who have been expropriated of their livelihoods, abused and left without access to their basic rights," he said.

The Argentine crisis exploded in December in the context of a profound four-year recession. Unemployment now surpasses 24% and over half the population is poor, with several million falling below the poverty line just in the last few months.

The administration of Eduardo Duhalde, who was named president after the December collapse of the government of Fernando de la Rua, announced early elections this week, scheduled for next March.

Umpierrez pointed out that "the universities, neighbourhood associations, business groups and all sectors of civil society have our own organisation and our own highly-trained human resources, but we are always left out of the decision-making sphere when it comes to government policies."

In the past it was common for citizens' groups to present their proposals and studies to the government, but those initiatives were nearly always cast aside because they clashed with the interests of the parties in power, commented the activist.

"It was the adolescent phase of the movement," when it was believed that identity was based on maintaining ourselves on the margins of government, but the crisis changed everything, he added.

"We must realise that our work is not party-based but it is still political. And we often debate public policies," said Umpierrez.

Doctors in Catastrophes was founded in 1993 in Argentina to assist populations that were victims of war.

Their first humanitarian effort was in Rwanda, and then the UN called on the group to set up temporary hospitals in conflict zones or crisis-ridden areas of Burundi, Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Liberia, Haiti and Kosovo.

The Duhalde administration called upon the group of doctors in January to entrust it with a mobile health service project that would use the country's rail system to reach the isolated populations in rural areas.

But in the end the Duhalde administration ruled out the plan after the Doctors in Catastrophes withdrew, saying the health trains would be used for political ends by the ruling Justicialista (Peronist) Party members who were put in charge of the project even though they had no experience with health services or social actions.

"We are tired of meeting with the president, with ministers, with legislators, who we can never influence in a concrete way to change things. The party interests are always stronger," said Umpierrez.

The notion of more active participation in government decisions is shared by other civil society groups, though with some variants.

The Conscience Foundation suggests modifying a series of laws to allow citizens greater participation in political activities and greater transparency in public operations.

Meanwhile, at the NGO meetings this month, the Social Forum for Transparency has stated that Argentina's uncertain future has obligated the group to "assume a commitment for a public agenda."

"We are going to have to do it from the grassroots because that commitment will not emerge from the political leadership," stated one of the Forum's representatives during the debate.

In this context, Citizens for Change, a network uniting some 15 NGOs, decided to work towards providing the Argentine people the tools needed to push the politicians of greatest disrepute from their public leadership positions.

For example, Citizens for Change is promoting the elimination of the blanket lists of candidates in the next elections.

Under the traditional system, the voters choose an entire list and may not eliminate single candidates. The NGO is seeking to establish a system in which voters choose from among individual candidates, not party lists.

The activists criticize the lists, saying they serve as a channel for incompetent or unpopular politicians to win a seat in Congress, and have increased the electorate's political apathy.

Agustin Machado, a university student member of the NGO network, told IPS that there is a proposal in the works to gather signatures to force Congress to consider a new electoral law, which would include the division of the country into smaller electoral districts.

If that is achieved, the lawmakers elected would be genuine representatives of society, and not just of their political parties, he said.

Many of the matters worrying the NGOs were laid out in February during a round- table discussion sponsored by the Catholic Church and the UN Development Program, convening political, social and cultural leaders to propose changes in seeking a way out of the country's crisis.

Throughout the several months of meetings, it became evident that the politicians were hesitant to make changes, while the civil society delegates showed great motivation to grow and educate themselves to replace the much-questioned traditional politicians.

"The solution must be developed from the grassroots, based on a new form of citizenship," said bishop Jorge Casaretto, who led the round-table talks.

"The leaders holding electoral posts must leave so that new ones may enter," added Casaretto, president of the local branch of Caritas, which attends to the needs of some 600,000 poor and indigent people in Argentina.


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