Nicolás Tereschuk is an Argentinean political scientist and journalist. He is editor of a personal blog of political discussion (http://vidabinaria.blogspot.com) and co-editor of the collective blog http://artepolitica.com.
Sebastián Miquel is an Argentinean photographer and political scientist. Works as a free-lance photographer. Has developed the series “Abya Yala, Sons of The Land, Documental Photography about Tupac Amaru”, exposed at the Palais de Glace, in Buenos Aires.
“Milagro” is Spanish for “miracle” which is what many think Milagro Sala has accomplished. Like other jobless groups in Argentina her organization, Tumac Amaru (named after a revolutionary 18th century Inca), received money from the government. But unlike most of them, the organization of this diminutive Indian woman has gained the love and respect of her people.
After the Argentine economy recovered, the govern- ment channeled money for food and housing to social groups in poor regions of the country. Tupac Amaru took a decision which proved to be the right one: to empower all its members and make wise investment. They built two factories for bricks and steel to reduce the cost of building new housing. And their move paid dividends. In the northern Jujuy province the government spends over $30,000 to build a family house whereas it costs Tupac Amaru just $20,000 and their houses are built at four times the speeds of state-contracted construction companies. Their logic of autonomy and intelligent spending also ensures sustainability for the projects.
Another key aspect of the Tupac Amaru “philosophy” is the way it seeks to give people true human rights, to make them feel they can do as well in life as richer people. For instance, they decided to build an aquatic park in a neighborhood where people never even dreamed of having a swimming pool. Or a park for kids, with big dinosaurs and cartoon characters figures that seems like Disney World to the boys and girls of neighborhoods that were shanty towns only a few years back. As they say, “The poor have a right to fun”.
Many lives in one
Who is Milagro Sala? And why does she go against the grain of traditional politics in North Argentina?
A native American Kolla, Milagro grew up in a “white” family until she was 14. From that time on she remembers being segregated from the highly stratified and traditional Jujuy society where the color of her skin was enough to keep her out of the public pool where rich white kids played in the hot northern summers. Her life was played out on the streets where she quickly developed a familiarity with drugs, poverty, violence and police harassment. It was also the time when she realized that she would never meet her biological mother, one of her abiding dreams.
Since her first active involvement in politics, Sala knew the truth of Juan Peron dictum that “organiza-tion beats time”. She organized a protest for better food and was arrested during a scuffle with local police. Later on she became a public service official and became involved in the trade union where she fought against neoliberal reforms in Jujuy.
The Argentinean crash of 2001 – a fall of over 10 points on GNP – left the poor regions of the country clamoring for food and shelter and strengthened solidarity between people in poor neighborhoods. In the shanty towns around Buenos Aires and the even poorer areas in the north, mothers were desperate to feed their children and looked to mutual self-help, government hand-outs and other new ways, making it easier for leaders like Milagro to bring people together. She was “trained” in the 1990s when various sections protested against the neoliberal reforms – privatization, the open economy and the dominance of the financial sector – which caused a tripling of unemployment and in a mere ten years a widening of the gap between the richest and poorest sections of society from a factor of 15 to a factor of 26. The then president Carlos Menem was the “best disciple” of IMF policies and privatization boosted the fortunes of foreign capital companies while thousands of small businesses went broke. Unemployment, inequality and the corruption of public services (education, health, justice) for the poor peaked in 2001. With the economy in deep recession, that year’s mid-term elections were a defeat not only for the party of the former president Fernando de la Rúa but for the whole of the political class as large swathes of voters protested against traditional political parties by voting for Homer Simpson or other cartoon characters over actual candidates. When the government fell in the middle of a major financial, political and social crisis, the streets resounded with the cry “All of them, go home!!”. The middle classes saw their savings gobbled by bankers who were bailed out by the state. Workers suffered as their salaries were weakened by devaluation and inflation. And the unemployed could not even make a living by working in the informal “grey” economy.
Tupac Amaru took off when Milagro Sala started to organize her neighbors to feed the children of starving families. “When we went on the streets to demonstrate, we had good TV coverage but we still had nothing to eat”, she remembers, *_speaking at a local TV show._*
When the political turmoil of 2001 passed, after an economic recovery based on devaluation of the peso and a boom in exports, the poorest people started to receive government help which came in a variety of channels but mainly from the ruling Justicialista party. This was the time when the idea of letting people build their own houses was first floated. “We went to Buenos Aires to ask for money. The government refused because we weren’t able to show them any experience in this field – which was actually true, we had none! We fought hard for the funding though. We told them we had cooperative groups already formed, the skills needed and the land”. Once the money was secured, a whole organization was set up through the indefatigable leadership of this Kolla native woman with 50 builder groups defined and ready to receive materials to start their job. Things went much better than they would have done under a private contractor. Milagro Sala led her people to a better use of public funding and also tackled alcohol and drugs – two issues which were endemic problems for the people of the Arid Puna region. One of the obligations for people joining Tupac Amaru is to avoid addiction to alcohol and drugs and the best way of doing this, as Sala says, is to give them stable employment. Delinquency, unemployment and a lack of personal projects were also major issues in the poor neigh-borhoods of San Salvador de Jujuy yet through its activities Tupac Amaru has actually lowered crime figures in the region. To tackle the high school drop-out rate, Tupac Amaru members must not only go to school and learn to read and write but are also encouraged to strive for the higher levels of the educative system. “We need professionals to serve in their own neighborhoods”, Milagro says _*in a local documentary about her life*._ And in terms of domestic violence, Tupac Amaru empowers women in their neighborhoods to seek help and denounce violence against them. In a traditional society like Jujuy, violence against women goes largely unpunished. Even though national laws do protect children and women, local officials are frequently unwilling to apply them. Today Tupac Amara is about much more than food and housing. It has also set up health and education services and through its agencies poor Native American boys and girls can now play sports like hockey or water polo which were once the exclusive preserve of the rich.
Tupac Amaru is different from other social organizations in Argentina because its main focus is on concrete achievements like employment, housing, and food. “Some political sectors in Jujuy are very upset with us because they also receive money for housing, but their money always goes missing”, Milagro Sala has repeatedly told the national press. Big media groups in Buenos Aires accuse Sala of using “violent” methods, but she says that what they really fear is the collective power of the 70,000 people who make up Tupac Amaru.
How do traditional politicians react to an organization like Tupac? Mainly with fear and distrust. Local political parties don’t like an organization which spends less time talking and more doing hard work. Milagro Sala does not have to spend money, time and effort in political campaigning, even though she may be the most powerful woman in the north of Argentina. The kind of power she has is based on providing the people with those housing, health and food solutions which the state, in a highly un-equal society, has proved incapable of delivering. These solutions are made possible through the use of public investment which is neither administered by the state nor by the private sector but by the third party of an organization with its own set of rules to define its own objectives and efficiency standards.
Milagro is accused of being violent. Is she? Imagine 70,000 people ready to go on a demonstration if their leader, the person who has shown them how to cooperate and build a better future for their children, asks them to. They may be described as “violent” but are they? As Milagro Sala says, “We can show results in terms of houses, and factories. The political leaders who accuse us of being “violent” simply can’t”. The leader of the old radical party in Jujuy, Gerardo Morales, called Tupac Amaru a “mob”. And the same message is sent out by the big media groups. A “mob” is certainly an organization which develops activities independently from the state. But, does that make Tupac Amaru members a mob of gangsters?
Milagro Sala has founded two schools for 2,500 students and Tupac Amaru pays the salaries of 150 teachers. There’s not much in common here with the gangster activities of a “Cosa Nostra” mob! Rights and opportunities for all could well be the slogan for Tupac Amaru. If they build a neighborhood, it won’t look like a “second best” for a shanty town but will come complete with parks for children, access to schools and a good service infrastructure. If they build a school, it will look like the ones in Buenos Aires: with libraries, and science and computer rooms. In a country where a child from a poor background is more likely to do badly in school exams, projects of this kind are a valuable contribution towards equality of opportunity.
Imagine a region with a high child mortality rate like Jujuy. Tupac Amaru has administered government money and its own resources to build two small hospitals staffed by over 40 doctors and nurses. Medication, X-rays and blood tests are free for the members of the organization. These poor people – some of the poorest of Argentina’s poor – have grouped together and bought a computer tomography and mamography system for the prevention and cure of a range of lethal diseases. And they are now planning to build a rehabilitation center for the disabled. Medical services in the Alto Comedero neighborhood, once the poorest in San Salvador de Jujuy, are so good that Tupac Amaru hospitals now offer their help to state hospitals in an effort to shorten their notoriously long waiting lists.
Dental care is the most recent medical service offered by the organization. In 2003, Tupac Amaru started to educate its members about the importance of dental care, and develop preventive campaigns. A mere two years later and they opened a dental healthcare center.
Participation, empowerment and sustainability
Milagro Sala is not the “one and only” leader: she asks all members of the organization to participate and empowers them to make decisions. In exchange, they receive concrete benefits and have the right to debate and decide in assemblies on how to use resources and which plan to follow. A weekly “congress” of 900 delegates makes the final decisions. Working within this structure, they have prioritized the building of six factories financed with public resources.
Sustainability is another characteristic of Tupac Amaru projects. Factories supply materials to build houses. A textile factory produces aprons for kids and doctors. Recently, they have diversified production and are now selling the Ministry of Social Development T-shirts and shorts kit for national-level sports. This forward-looking proactive thinking is what makes Tupac Amaru different from the “passive” model of organizations for poor or unemployed people.
The neo-liberal Argentina of the 1990s saw the emergence of / piqueteros / – groups of organized unemployed who demonstrated to gain the government’s attention. The first major social plan to help the unemployed was put together in 2002. It provided most poor families with 50 dollars a month. By 2004 large-scale protests and unrest had abated by 2004 but there were still many / piqueteros / groups asking the government for money. Even though some of these groups could show specific advances for their people, most depended on a life-line of public support for their survival and some found their power ebbing away as members started to find jobs. Nothing of this kind has happened to Tupac Amaru with its close cultural affiliation to northern Kollas.
Until the last major economic crisis in 2001, Argentina had considered itself as the most “European” country in Latin America in a self-understanding that originated in the 19th century when hundreds of thousands of Europeans arrived in the country in search of a better life. The rich owners of the “estancias”, the “powerful” of the time, encouraged immigration as they believed it meant people from northern Europe. But things did not happen according to plan and instead a wave of mostly illiterate Spanish and Italian families arrived in Buenos Aires.
The “European” image of Argentina asserted its dominance reinforced by an extensive education program guaranteeing access to public and free schools for most of the population. The education system neglected diversity and inculcated an understanding of Argentina not as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country but rather as a nation whose origins were to be found in a “crucible of races”. This constructed image, in which racial conflicts were absent from the public eye, tended to hide the reality of discrimination, private violence and exploitation that the Native Americans of Argentina were subject to.
The political vision nurtured by Tupac Amaru tends to break this image. Diversity has finally been recognized, and as Max Quispe, a member of the national board of Tupac Amaru puts it, “Every poor person has a bad time, but the color of your skin is an extra mark against you”. Quispe says that “Tupac has a native American vision by rising the Whipala (the flag of the Aymara Quishwa people). You learn that Tupac Amaru exists. You learn more about conflicts you were only vaguely aware of. You realize you are a son of the land. We have a great challenge now which is to come together with, meet and grow stronger with Mapuches, Quom, Kollas, Guaraníes, and every race of people. We must recover our identity, our land, our languages. Native American have now woken up! Our time has come!”
The spread of such ideas has been encouraged by the Bolivian president Evo Morales who became the continent’s first Native American head of state. In a recent meeting with different ethnic groups, Milagro Sala expressed a feeling that is growing across the Andean region, “They wanted to divide us, but we are showing them that we are closer than ever. They could not conquer us. Comrade Evo Morales shows us the strength that lies in us. We follow his example”.
The Tupac Amaru position is not based in a strategy of political or social isolation. Milagro Sala is part of one of the two trade unions federations of Argentina, the left-leaning Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA). She has an extremely fluent relationship with the most prominent political and social leaders in the country. Recently she appeared at the National Congress in support of the heterodox economist Mercedes Marcó del Pont as president of the Central Bank of Argentina.
This woman, who was abandoned as a baby in a cardboard box by her parents, has become a true leader by empowering her own people. For her power isn’t a matter of command and control but of serving people’s needs and of going the extra mile. For example, a few weeks ago she had a meeting with Science and Technology Minister, Lino Barañao, to talk about funding a Center of Innovative Technologies in new form of government–Tupac partnership.
Yet all the work of Milagro Sala and the Tupac Amaru, as spectacular and impressive as it might be, unfolds against the backdrop of a series of deep endemic fissures in Argentinean society. First and foremost there is the pattern of growing inequality which reached record levels after more than 25 years of democratic governance. In the wake of the state terrorism of the last dictatorship and following the break-up of the pseudo welfare state model which had prevailed since the 1940s, politicians did extremely badly in some fields, especially when it came to income distribution policies. Criticized for adherence to IMF policies, Radical and Peronist governments were not able to strengthen sovereign policies for the majority of the people. Only after the 2001 crash and the boom in commodity exports did governments start to think about acting in an autonomous way and introduce specific policies to combat poverty, like the 50 dollar per child monthly benefit for all unemployed families.
Tupac Amaru acts against a further deficiency in Argentina which is particularly notable in its northern region – the lack of state investment in infrastructure and basic services. “If we exist as a social organization is because the politicians got it wrong”, says Milagro Sala. Although the organization flaunts “revolutionary” icons – Tupac Amaru II, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and Eva Perón – at all its public demonstrations, causing fear and distrust among conservative political leaders, its slogans are far from subversive. Who are we?” shouts Milagro Sala. “Tupac Amaru”, members of the organization roar in answer. “What do we want?” “Work, Edu- cation and Health!”. They chant. In Argentina these a“re constitutional rights for every citizen. Even so, many poor families have not been able to live decent lives for generations now.
What could the right path into the future be for an organization like Tupac Amaru? Should it replace state policy-making in certain regions? Will it be possible to maintain coordinated activities (state funding and control and Tupac work)? Should Milagro Sala step into politics and open up her proposals for the whole of Jujuy society? Is it a right move when “social” organizations become “political”?
This kind of strategy has been successfully pursued in Bolivia by Evo Morales. As has Brazilian president Lula Da Silva, once a local trade union leader but now the most important politician of one of the biggest countries in the world. The dilemma is clear: how can an organization like Tupac Amaru strengthen its capacities and extend its activities beyond the northern provinces of Argentina without becoming “just one of the others”, just another political party competing among the rest? As Milagro Sala explains, Tupac “does not compete with the state, it pitches in where the state has failed”. But what will happen if its own members start to act politically, and canvas for votes and support far beyond Tupac’s present neighborhoods? These are issues that have already affected president Evo Morales in Bolivia. The situation is complicated because these are not simple “non government organizations”; their strength is based upon the participation of people who have been neglected by governments for generations, on the participation of poor people, Native Americans who only recently – after the crisis of neo-liberal policies in the 1990s and with the help of highly talented and original leaders – have started to feel that their rights are real. It was with their support that Evo Morales could take a crucial step and become a political leader for the majority of Bolivia, leaving representation of coca-growing farmers behind him.
Milagro Sala remains a Native American from Argentina’s northern region, only now she is a well-known figure in Buenos Aires. While only traditional and right-wing political leaders feared her, she could work patiently to counter the “violent” image in which the big media groups portrayed her. But can she get her message across to the broad majority? The next few years may give us an answer. Until then, Milagro Sala will continue telling everyone who asks her that she is just “the expression of the many who dreamt they could live a better life by organizing themselves”.