The District Assemblies were initiated in 2001 in response to the social, political, economic and representative crisis that strongly affected Argentinian society.
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Problems and Purpose
The District Assemblies were initiated in 2001 in response to the social, political, economic and representative crisis that strongly affected Argentinian society. They consisted of meetings of more or less spontaneous origin among the inhabitants of the neighborhoods, who were summoned to work on a wide variety of topics. In principle, they responded to a territorial division and were based on horizontal rules of organization and a system of direct democracy. Its main function is the deliberation and the decision making on initiatives to solve local problems of all types. In some municipalities (such as in the city of La Plata), assemblies are recognized to date and act articulating agents in other stages of the implementation of local public policies, for example being the scenario of participatory budget assemblies.
Background History and Context
The initial motivation for the first District Assemblies to appear was the unanimous rejection of the so-called "Financial Corralito", arranged by the former Minister of Economy Domingo Cavallo. In general terms, the “Financial Corralito” was the expropriation of hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized account holders, in an attempt to save banking institutions from bankruptcy.
These measures not only meant a direct impact to the impoverished middle class, who were the government’s main supporters, but also had a devastating effect on the general domestic consumption, deepening a recession of more than four years. This situation led to a growing disbelief and rejection of the traditional forms of participation, and witnessed how a disappointed middle class, that felt betrayed by those in power, gathered in District Assemblies, created new ways of articulation with popular sectors, contested traditional institutional political channels, and questioned representative democracy in practice.
The District Assemblies as a movement started as the need to boost the efforts after the “Cacerolazos” uprisings on December 19th and 20th of 2001, initiated in the district of Liniers city of Buenos Aires, and extended to the rest of the country shortly. Even before these events, and in the face of the increasingly pronounced deterioration of the economic and institutional situation, in some districts, neighbors began to gather, almost spontaneously.
In the two weeks following the fall of former president Fernando De la Rua, the phenomenon multiplied, creating about twenty neighborhood assemblies and an inter-district assembly “Interbarrial of Parque Centenario”, a weekly meeting, in which the proposals of the District Assemblies are coordinated and the participation has an average of 3000 self-appointed assembly members from all city districts.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The appropriation of public space and the establishment of collective bonds of solidarity are two of the characteristics of these innovative instances of social deliberation. With presence in several provinces (especially in Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Santa Fe), only in the Federal Capital have been reported more than ninety assemblies, although its dynamics of operation and number of members varies according to the district or region.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
At the beginning, the assembly movement was very incipient, and it started to grow very fast. Within the movement coexisted neighbors with no experience in political participation with "experienced militants" from the entire left spectrum and even some poorly camouflaged "leaders" of the discredited traditional parties.
Methods and Tools Used
Each assembly is autonomous from the rest of the assemblies. No assembly speaks or decides more than by itself. This autonomy is reflected in the inter-neighborhood coordinating assembly, where in a way that is closer to federalism than to centralism, although with the logical shortcomings of every nascent movement, all assemblies usually have the same opportunities when exposing their proposals to the rest.
Assemblies work, in general, horizontally, with rotating coordinators and speaking times. Neighbors express themselves quite freely, with interventions of all kinds. Predominantly, however, the voice of "common sense" and a marked distrust and rejection of everything that smells of institutions, leaders or political parties. Another feature that’s important to highlight, in the case of the inter-district assembly “Interbarrial of Parque Centenario”, the coordination rotates every week, having two neighborhood assemblies as coordinators or organizers.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Its main function was to promote citizens claims and, at the same time, create a space where common objectives could be discussed. However It’s worth noting some degree of fragility in these assemblies, this fragility is perceived in aspects such as the lack of patience in the face of difficulties that arise from a horizontal model of deliberation, particularly in moments of taking decisions or voting resolutions, many of them feeling that “it’s a loss of time” and also about the power to implement these resolutions, often not achieving the desired impact on the actions.
In some cases, assembly’s role was distorted, becoming an arena for discussions between the most sectarian political parties and leftist organizations. This was perceived by numerous Assemblies, which decided to generate intermediate spaces of articulation among themselves, according to geographical proximity and neighborhood affiliation. This is how the “Interzonales” emerged as medium-level articulation tables, with about ten Assemblies, although their number fluctuates depending on the case.
These spaces benefit from an exercise in direct and popular democracy, although they reduced the level of intervention of the neighborhoods in the “Interbarrial of Parque Centenario”, they also called for a deep debate about the modalities of deliberation in the Interbarrial. As a result, it was finally decided to modify the participation dynamics in the Interbarrial, restricting the resolution vote to a delegate with mandate per District Assembly.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Some outcomes had a material result, for example the recovery of privatized properties by the community, that’s the case of the Assembly of Self-appointed Neighbors of Villa Urquiza and the Assembly "December 20" of San Telmo, who recovered some former public land that was irregularly privatized by corporations.
Although social movements had been protesting and resisting the economic model for several years, for example the “Piqueteros” movement, the majority of the population who shaped the District Assemblies in Buenos Aires came from the middle class. There was a general assumption that the movement would retreat after the months following the fall of ex-president De la Rua, however it was the opposite, because the District Assemblies kept on consolidating its horizontal and democratic practices in the territory.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Unity between assembly members and “Piqueteros”, is one of the most interesting and positive aspects of this process. Since the beginning there was a sort of implicit agreement between the movement of District Assemblies (middle-class) and the “Piquetero” movement (lower-class), the later one with more years of experience struggling and resisting neoliberal policies. In this sense, it ended up strengthening civil society in opposition to state and market.
There were some difficulties at some point of the process: threats or repressions received from some members of the party in government “Partido Justicialista”; also, certain leftist groups attempted to take over the decision-making process. This scenario generated intermediate spaces of articulation materialized in the “Interzonales” that emerged as a medium-level articulation strategy. While these spaces reduced the influence of District Assemblies in the “Interbarrial of Parque Centenario”, they also called for a deep debate about the modalities of deliberation.
It should be noted that proposals with more freshness and originality arise almost entirely from the assembly members not framed in political parties or union structures, or at least not completely influenced by ideology structures and discourses. Nevertheless, it’s important to emphasize some kind of naivety and out of range in many of the resolutions, for example the proposal demanding that information hided by mass media must be sanctioned by the penal code. The fact that there are contradictory resolutions among District Assemblies faithfully reflects the heterogeneous nature of the assembly movement, in addition to its understandable immaturity.
Ouviña, Hernán 2002. “Las asambleas barriales: apuntes a modo de hipótesis de trabajo” en Bajo el volcán (Puebla: Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla) Nº 5.
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