Before arriving in Argentina, two things sparked my curiosity – the country´s thriving cooperative movement, for which I have a personal interest due to my work in the UK with the Cooperative College, and the wider political situation in the country.
In terms of national politics, it is currently a very interesting time to be in Argentina, as there has recently been a drastic change of government following the national elections in October 2015, when right-wing neoliberal candidate Mauricio Macri beat Daniel Scioli, the candidate supported by the outgoing socialist president Christina Kirchner. As the margin with which Macri won was a tiny 2%, I knew that I was entering a deeply divided country politically. I was interested in hearing Argentinians´ reactions to the elections, and more specifically I wanted to know what Argentinian cooperators thought about Macri´s new presidency. As I soon found out, the Argentinian cooperative movement is as divided on this issue as the wider population.
The first cooperators I spoke to were in the wonderfully welcoming ‘cooperative capital’ of Argentina, Sunchales in the Santa Fe province (read blog below to find out more about Sunchales and specifically their school cooperatives). This town’s co-operative history is a long one, dating back to 1929 when thirty-two dairy farmers in Sunchales came together to establish their own milk cooperative (Sancor cooperative, still active today and one of the most successful dairy companies in the country). In 1945 an insurance cooperative was set up to provide insurance for the members of the dairy cooperative, Sancor Seguros, and has evolved into an incredibly expansive and financially successful business with a strong presence across the entire country.
These cooperatives, along with many other cooperative businesses in the town, come from an old, traditional breed of cooperativism, rooted in rural and agricultural areas and effectively responding to the needs of their members, be them producers or consumers, whilst also focusing on maintaining a strong, profit-driven business model. It was therefore not overly surprising that some of the people I spoke to were somewhat negative towards Christina Kirchner’s previous socialist government, and were ready for a change. I do not want to generalise here, as I am sure that there were also many co-operators in Sunchales who did not agree with Macri’s new neoliberal policies, but from the conversations I had there, there was a general feeling of frustration with the ‘planes sociales’ of the Kirchner administration. Some people said that they felt the previous government gave out handouts to people who were lazy and took advantage of the socialist system and that money was being wasted on projects that did not help the majority of the Argentine population. One man I spoke to who was on the Board of Cooperativa Agricola Ganadera (Sunchales’ agricultural cooperative) was very optimistic about the new policies that Macri would introduce. He said that under the previous government, Argentina was isolated from most of the world market, and therefore the cooperative had struggled to export any of its produce outside the country. With the new government he was hopeful that they would be able to maximise profits thanks to the opportunity of exporting more overseas.
This is an interesting conflict that cooperatives face the world over – despite their principles of democratic member engagement and social responsibility, cooperatives are ultimately profit making businesses that to a certain extent have to work within the current capitalist system in order to survive. This is often more visible within larger, more traditional consumer cooperatives, whilst more ‘radical’ cooperatives, often with non-hierarchical structures and worker membership, also have more radical politics. In Buenos Aires, I came across some of these cooperatives.
The cooperative movement in the capital is thriving and extensive, with a large range of different models of all shapes and sizes. Many cooperatives there are relatively new when compared to the decades-old cooperatives of Sunchales. They include the ‘empresas recuperadas’, which sprung up following the countrys financial crash in 2001, which left many enterprises bankrupt and at risk of closing down, leading the workers to take the businesses over and turn them into worker-owned cooperatives. There are now over 300 of these businesses, as well as many other worker cooperatives with horizontal membership models. I spoke to one of these, a media cooperative called DesdeAca. Their members were certainly not optimistic about the changes that Macri was introducing in the country. They criticised his support for the free market and despaired that this would only benefit the wealthy elite of Argentina to the detriment of the rest of the population. They also lamented the inevitable decline of the empresas recuperadas now that Macri was in power – Christina Kircher was very supportive of this cooperative model and offered many worker-owned factories public contracts, whilst the people I spoke to believed that Macri would scrap these contracts, outsourcing to multinational corporations instead.
Whilst in Buenos Aires I also had an interesting interview with some members of Idelcoop, a non-for-profit educational institution aimed at developing the cooperative movement through education and research. Sitting with them all in their office and passing round mate between us, (the Argentinian national drink of local herbs which is drunk in a traditional mate cup through a metal straw) we instantly got onto the topic of national politics. These cooperators were clearly pro-Kircher and anti-Macri. They explained that the origins of the cooperative movement in Argentina have always been divided politically, with the agricultural, rural cooperatives being more interested in trade and pro-business policies, whilst their side of the movement was more tied to communist politics and also linked to the left-wing Jewish community. According to them, the previous Kirchner government was more supportive of smaller grass-roots cooperatives, whilst the larger consumer cooperatives suffered under the government´s high corporation taxes and restriction of global trade. Now with Macri in power, it is the smaller, more radical cooperatives that are suffering. As an example of this, Idelcoop mentioned a radical cooperative social housing project in the north of Argentina called Organizacion Barrial Tupac Amaru. To me, this project sounds like an incredibly empowering and wholly democratic social movement that merits a blog to itself (watch this space!) Kirchner was extremely supportive of Tupac Amaru and its charismatic leader and activist Milagro Sala, providing the movement with financial support in the form of housing subsidies. However, in January this year Milagro was arrested on charges of fraud and a fierce debate has opened up. Many people on the left, including those at Idelcoop, are criticising the Macri government for shamelessly oppressing social movements such as Tupac Amaru.
It was very interesting to speak to Argentinian cooperators from various political stripes and consider the complex mix of motivations and interests that different cooperatives have, sending them in one political direction or the other. Whilst the global cooperative movement is in many ways a united one that goes beyond party politics, with cooperatives ultimately aiming to meet the needs of its members in whatever way is necessary, there is clearly a broad political spectrum within the movement, not just in Argentina but across the world. This has always been the case, and is not necessarily a bad thing – cooperatives can still work together and support each other on some level, no matter what their political ideologies may be. However, on a personal level, it is sad to see that the current climate in Argentina means that the smaller, grass-roots cooperatives and affiliated activist groups that support a non-hierarchical and socially equal society, are the ones that are being oppressed and attacked by the new government. Time will tell whether these socially minded cooperators in Argentina will be able to withstand the strong shift in the country´s economic policy, or whether their premonitions will come true.