Natalia Tylim interviews Cele Fierro following an electoral breakthrough for the revolutionary Left in Argentina. Comrade Fierro was a recent candidate for congress in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, on the ballot of the Frente de Izquierda y de Trabajadores - Unidad (United Workers’ and Left Front). The FIT-U is a coalition of four revolutionary socialist parties, which won almost 1.3 million votes (six percent of the national total) and elected four members to the National Congress of Deputies in the mid-term elections on November 14, 2021.
Natalia Tylim: What is your general assessment of the electoral results? A quick read shows a defeat of the Peronist government, a victory for the right-wing opposition of Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change), and the emergence of alternatives to the right and to the left.
Cele Fierro: Well, the first thing is that the election is a defeat for the national government. It left Peronism with 33 percent of the votes at the national level. This is down from 48 percent in 2019. We must also understand that the governing front, the Frente de Todos (Front for All), is a coalition, and the Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party), the major party within the Frente de Todos, is also made up of distinct factions. On each level, the electoral results heighten the tensions within these groupings. So it is an important blow. In the province of Buenos Aires—which is one of the strongholds of what we call the “barons” of greater Buenos Aires who have managed the different municipalities for years—the Left also won seats in the municipal councils.
The government sees the election as a win because it managed to recover ground from the primaries to the general elections, and did not lose by as large a margin as predicted in the province of Buenos Aires, which is the most important province in the country. It managed to maintain a very small margin in the Chamber of Deputies, but they have fallen short of the seats needed to meet a quorum on their own. Therefore, to move any legislation the Frente de Todos need support, and similarly, any legislative action is therefore subject to being stopped by joint action from other parties. In reality, these elections were a defeat for the Frente de Todos, and for us that is important.
The national government has called for the rest of the traditional parties to dialogue because they need to have an agreement with the other bourgeois parties. The first item of their agenda is reaching an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), for which they need this unity.
Juntos por el Cambio, the coalition that governed until 2019, won and maintained its result from the primaries. It ended up with 42 percent of the votes nationwide. It did not grow in relation to previous elections, but it consolidated its social base and won the main provinces, which is an important element of Juntos por el Cambio‘s triumph. But also, like Peronism, it has experienced an internal crisis. In fact, these elections have opened the discussion of who will lead the coalition: the more reactionary wings, such as Patricia Bullrich or Mauricio Macri himself, or the sector of Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, who today is the head of the government of the city of Buenos Aires.
The most outstanding fact of this election is polarization, outside of the traditional forces and coalitions that have governed and still govern the country. Two poles emerged more strongly, both to the left and to the right. Argentina is getting in tune with the world situation, and the situation of our continent itself, in terms of the social and political polarization. The economic crisis, the social crisis, the exhaustion with the traditional parties and their policies, is being channeled into two antagonistic poles. This represents a shift from what, at least in our country, had been a trend for a few years, which is what has been called the famous grieta (divide): the options were either the Frente de Todos or Juntos por el Cambio. This has been the case for years, first bipartisanship and then with these government coalitions, so I think this development is significant.
In this context, it seems to me that the important thing, in terms of dynamics, is the growth of the Left: having the best election since the formation of the FIT-U, winning four seats in the national Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Deputies from the province of Buenos Aires, and two in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, as well as the municipal councilors we mentioned earlier.
This is progress but now there are challenges ahead. How can this progress be consolidated? The key question is: how can we overcome the electoral stage to transfer these great advances of the class struggle and transform ourselves into a concrete and real alternative for the majorities? So if the Left now represents six percent at the national level, we have to keep moving forward to become a stronger alternative.
NT: Before we talk more about the Left, I have another question about the Right. You already talked a little bit about it, but in the United States, a lot of attention has been paid to a new generation of far-right figures, populists, and libertarians like Javier Milei. So how do you understand their appearance and what impact do they have?
CF: Their emergence is tied to the international situation of social and economic crisis. It is one of the options used by the regime itself, the bourgeoisie itself, to build an alternative for the defense of the system. It is a force that arises fundamentally from discontent. There is a large sector of the population, due to the exhaustion of the traditional parties, who vote for the far-right because of the anti-system discourse, to put an end to the political caste, and not because of the reactionary project that they ultimately defend.
Faced with the crisis and discontent, there are two options: either the Left grows or this more reactionary Right grows. The far-right presents itself as anti-system—they are the ones that want to come and transform everything—but they end up defending the system itself. And you notice that the media, and the regime’s own parties and others, give it much more airtime. On the one hand, they blow the reactionary right out of proportion and give it more space in terms of television time. But in reality, their greatest fear is that the Left will grow. In reality, these populist figures are debating whether they can end up in a future alliance with Juntos por el Cambio.
At the same time, we must take into account what the populist right taps into beyond the electoral question. We have to closely follow that. They are a sector that demands a “tougher hand.” So that is also reflected in what they awaken in the social base of a completely reactionary sector that exists in all countries. I mean, it is not that it is something new in Argentina, but they can wake it up. So I think it is also a time to pay attention to how it develops. In fact, there have been attacks on party offices of the Left. These are sectors that are speaking all the time in their speeches against the Left, so they can also arouse reaction.
Today, the phenomenon of this populist right has electoral weight in the city and province of Buenos Aires, and they have had some incipient success in other provinces. So we also have to take into account whether they have some kind of national projection. They don’t have it today. That is why the Left ended up being the third national force, where the populist right is the third force in the city and province of Buenos Aires. It is necessary to have an analysis of how they arise as an electoral phenomenon, and, more importantly, to follow how our electoral success can be translated to activity among the social base of the working class [to counteract the influence of the populist right].
NT: A different but connected question. From here it was clear that all the FIT-U candidates, but particularly the candidates of the Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (Workers’ Socialist Movement) (MST) [one of the four component parties of the FIT-U, in which Cele Fierro is a long-standing member. – Eds.], were traveling all over the country, talking to people, during the campaign. Can you talk about what it was like and what you learned through that experience?
CF: Although I was a candidate for congress in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, I campaigned in other districts. For example, the case of Salta, where our comrade Andrea Villegas came first within the primaries within the FIT-U, and where we had a good election result. Also in Neuquén, where the comrades won a new seat in the municipal council, having the best election of the FIT-U in that city. I traveled to Jujuy, as well, and I was in Córdoba the days before the election.
A large part of the population is looking for alternatives. Being within the FIT-U, being a more visible alternative for a section of the population, I think that is key. We managed to reach youth, workers and also became very strong within all the struggles around gender issues, including abortion rights and femicide.
Also today in the struggle to rebuild the strength of the unions, it has been a year in which national elections coincided with union elections. The pandemic had suspended elections that are only now being resumed. We managed to grow and consolidate ourselves in several unions as an alternative: in the teachers’ union, in the tire workers’ union, and here in the City of Buenos Aires in the private health care union, where the bureaucracy ultimately ended up winning, but we grew in representation in various workplaces. And that is important for us in relation to the electoral campaign, as well as the confidence of the comrades. It allowed us to make arguments about the need for unity between our political and trade union interventions, and how to continue building on that basis. I think that we become a more palpable alternative for a broader section of the mass movement.
NT: Reading what the MST is writing, I know that there were many debates within the FIT-U as well. I want to ask about these debates. Have the results of the elections changed the discussion internally?
CF: For us, the fundamental debate is how we make the Frente de Izquierda Unidad into an alternative that is not only electoral, that transcends the electoral, that manages to work together in the different arenas of the class struggle, from the unions, the student movement, the women’s movement, the socio-environmental movement that has taken a very important leap in our country. Also with the precarious youth. How do we manage to transform ourselves into an alternative that fights together in each of these places? For us, that means going beyond the electoral process and convening the rest of the sectors of the social Left, the independent Left, the political Left as well—those who are outside the Front—and insisting on the need to build a great political movement. That, which was a central part of the debate in the primaries, is still important because, to reiterate, we had a historic election, the most important since the formation of the FIT-U, winning not only the seats in congress, but also the councilors in the province of Buenos Aires. But we are still at six percent nationally. So the debate is about how we can continue to grow.
In my speeches, I always emphasized, “We are not satisfied with more deputies.” Of course, we believe that they are very important. It makes a difference to have those places of representation and that, as we always say, they will be at the service of each of the struggles. But we are still far from it being the workers who govern. So I think that the task, in the aftermath of the elections, is how we continue to advance in coordination within the FIT-U itself, to be able to make this argument. How do we achieve this goal of being open in terms of organization and also maintaining the program of the FIT-U? Which is the key.
One of the tasks now is how we confront the government’s agreement with the IMF. We are organizing a meeting open to all forces that want to mobilize against it. The FIT-U called a meeting for late November in which we hope all organizations can participate,—the social Left, the political Left, the independent Left, all those who are against an agreement with the IMF. I think these are the first steps you have to take to work together, always putting agreement above all else, in order to move forward and maintain a firm program such as the one of the FIT-U, an anti-capitalist, socialist program.
I believe that the open meeting against the agreement with the IMF is the first step. Just as it did in the rest of Latin America which went through comparable experiences, this agreement represents more austerity, applying structural reforms, both in labor and social security. It is cutting all public budgets, the health budget, the education budget.
So we must continue working to transform ourselves. I think that in these moments where a deeper crisis can be opened, there is a need to have a stronger alternative to present itself as the political force that, together with a strong social base, can carry out the tasks ahead, so we don’t have the same parties or people in office all the time.
NT: Did the internal dynamics of the FIT-U change in any way? It seems that the election itself gives some evidence that the strategy of focusing more on movements and struggles also had an impact on the electoral results.
CF: I think the result left us in a better position to advance with the politics that we have been arguing for, of strengthening and broadening the front, because of the sympathy that we saw in the elections, with many people approaching us during the campaign, showing support.
The issue is how the other forces in the FIT-U approach the organization of the front itself. We believe they are open to having these debates in order to include new forces, for example. I think that this call against the IMF is a first step, but that does not mean that progress will automatically be achieved.
When the different currents intervene in the different spaces of struggle, as well as in the unions, in the social movements, piquetero movements, they do not act in concrete or common unity as a front of the Left. They act as each organization, sometimes sharing political criteria and arguments, but not as the FIT-U as a whole.
NT: You talked a little bit about the agreement with the IMF, regarding the struggles that exist and the debates that exist around the payment of the foreign debt, particularly the debt contracted in the Macri administration. Did the elections change the negotiations? More specifically, is the government going to have to modify its strategy?
CF: I think the first thing is what the government is trying to do is to reach an agreement and a dialogue with the rest of the bourgeois opposition, because of its defeat in the elections. But unlike other measures, in this particular case, there is an agreement with the rest of the political forces of the regime. They all want to reach an agreement with the IMF. So in this regard, the government is trying to open a dialogue to build support for the measures that it has to carry out, and the fundamental one is the agreement with the IMF. It will end up structuring the budget for 2022 and the policies that are going to be carried out.
Today in Argentina the consequences of continuing to pay the debt to the IMF are clear for the majority. But it has been a profound debate because at one point it was taken up by those who denounced the debt contracted by Macri. Today the government’s own sectors take it up to say that it still has to be paid. And the government has said after the election that they are not going to pay the debt with the hunger of the people, that the economy must grow before Argentina can pay. The government says we will pay, we will reach an agreement with the IMF, but the issue is the conditions. And perhaps the more traditional right-wing bourgeois opposition, Juntos Por Cambio, will say that we have to negotiate the terms of the IMF, the measures of how to deal with the debt. There is no discussion between them as to whether or not we have to pay.
And in that, I believe that the struggles against the agreement with the IMF—and fundamentally against the policies that they want to implement due to the agreement with the IMF—will deepen. The central debate we are raising, in particular, is that the debt is a scam and that not a penny should be paid.
NT: What do you think will be the fundamental issues of Argentine politics that are going to be on the agenda on the way to the general elections of 2023? To what extent will the COVID-19 crisis continue to play a role in this situation?
CF: I think the center of the debate will be linked to the agreement with the IMF and the struggles that are going to take place if the government tries to apply the structural reforms that are on the agenda. Sectors of the right have been trying to push these reforms, but now the issue has been taken up by the other parties. In response to this, there are key aspects of the program of the FIT-U that we will have to raise, such as redistributing working hours.
There is a very big crisis in the sense of growing unemployment, growing poverty. In Argentina, 42 percent of the population is poor. A very high percentage of salaried workers with formal contracts is poor, earning wages below the poverty line. So, I think that this is one of the biggest problems and that it will be linked to the debate on the agreement and submission to the requirements of the IMF.
Of course, there are other debates. The debates around the environmental consequences of the mode of production have grown, alongside socio-environmental struggles against extractivism. I think that will continue because extrativist policies continue to be carried out by the different governments to increase revenue, and make inroads over territories, over the commons. Also, the struggles of the workers, in particular in defense of rights that have been won and that are now being violated, will be important.
Argentina is a country that is always in struggle. Things are happening all the time. In fact, this week, a new case of police violence is unfolding. A kid who played ball, the police shot him twice in the head, and there are large mobilizations in response.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a very big issue, particularly in how it affected the working conditions and the living conditions of the majority of the population. The inequalities that already existed became more acute due to the lack of public policies to assist workers, the popular sectors, compared to saving the companies and the banks. We will have to see how that unfolds. I think that if it continues, or at least if a new wave of the pandemic returns, I think it will continue to be very negative for the population as a whole.
NT: It seems like there is a pattern of mass upheavals and electoral breakthroughs across South America. How is Argentina part of that broader phenomenon?
CF: I think we are getting more in tune, so to speak. We see the electoral growth of the Left, which also has an expression in relation to transforming and strengthening the unions, forming stronger oppositions against the union bureaucracy, and the growth of social movements (for example with the Left being a point of reference within the women’s movement, the feminist movement). I think it is part of the growth that the organic left, the organic Trotskyist Left in Argentina has had, but fundamentally, an expression of this more global phenomenon of how the Left is growing from the crisis that is unfolding. That is why I was saying that it seems to me that Argentina must be seen, moving forward, in the context of the processes of rebellions in the rest of Latin America.
Here they want to implement austerity hand in hand with the IMF. Can rebellions develop? The role of the unions and the union bureaucracy always has an important weight in our country. But also in the last period, the self-organization of workers from opposition lists confronting the bureaucracy has also gained momentum. So in that, I think that Argentina is getting more in tune and that the key question is how to strengthen the Left in each of these places for what is coming, so that it does not end, as in other places, with expressions of the center-left and so the revolutionary Left has a greater weight in the country.
Luis Meiners assisted with translation and editing.
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Natalia Tylim is active in the NYC-DSA labor branch. She’s a restaurant worker and a founding member of DSA’s Restaurant Organizing Project.