SUNS #5156 Tuesday 9 July 2002 (www.sunsonline.org)
Argentina: Social leaders
gear up to replace politicians
[Readers may want to examine
this phenomenon in Argentina in the light of threefolding.
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politicians who they claim no longer represent them.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that is outdated and irresponsible.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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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.