Argentina’s Left at the Presidential Debates
Argentina's Left had a rare opportunity to openly challenge the bourgeois presidential candidates in a nationally televised debate. How did they choose to intervene and what does this say about the prospects for the Left?
As social unrest has exploded in nearby Ecuador and Chile, Argentina has seen an overwhelming electoral defeat for the right wing Mauricio Macri. The center-left opposition of Alberto Fernandez and (former President) Cristina Kirchner gained an overwhelming majority in the primaries in August which they repeated this weekend, ensuring they will govern Argentina for the next four years.
Uniquely in the region and the world, the electoral debates leading up this election also featured a coalition of left parties which define themselves as part of the Trotskyist tradition. Nicolas Del Caño, representing the United Workers and Left Front (FIT-U) and a member of the PTS (FT - Left Voice in the US), had a chance to lay out the party’s perspective and face off against the representatives of Argentina’s capitalist parties in front of the entire nation.
The opportunity to intervene on this public scale is a rare opportunity made possible by the proportional strength of the left in Argentina, by the democratic guarantees of Argentine electoral law, and by the particular political conditions of Argentina which create an opening to the left of Peronism which has been monopolized by the Argentine FIT.
Support for the FIT doesn’t come simply from class conscious workers or socialist sympathizers but has also historically been driven by them being the only party 100% committed around democratic issues like the right to abortion, separation of the church and state, sexual education and drug legalization. In a country with 2-3 rounds of elections it also is not unusual for voters to choose the more principled option in the first rounds (the FIT) and then vote for the lesser evil in the second (The Peronist or Kirchnerist center-left).
For the parties of the FIT this arrangement creates a significant pressure towards adaptation towards this much broader voting milieu. As well as the key opportunities presented by electoral participation itself (the chance to have leaders face off in debate, to have political ads carried on TV, to have their leaders invited to debate across the bourgeois media) the political and organizational activity of the component parties depends not insignificantly on financing provided by the state for the “institutional development” of political parties. In the case of the larger parties they also depend in part on the salaries of the elected legislatures themselves (in regions where the FIT has won local or national representation).
Adaptation to these pressures has been at the core of one of the most significant crisis in the Argentine left and within the FIT itself: one of it’s largest members, the Workers Party (PO), has expelled its own founder Jorge Altamira and nearly a thousand of his supporters who criticized the opportunist adaptation of the FIT in its recent campaigns. This comes as the FIT itself has been seeing staggeringly lower vote totals in areas where it once had significant force and representation.
While we cannot cover this deeper crisis in this article (we are preparing separate material around this); the intervention of the FIT’s most high profile candidate in a national presidential debate presents an opportunity to highlight the real content and some of the key contradictions of the FIT’s campaigns. We have attempted to summarize the interventions of the FIT as accurately and succinctly as possible and use this as a launching point for political discussion.
That the FIT has been promoted as a world-wide example for the revolutionary left by many of its component parties means an understanding of the actual content, the political compromises and the weaknesses of its intervention is vital for a left attempting to recompose a genuinely revolutionary alternative to the reformist betrayals of broad parties like Syriza and Podemos. Its formal program, often cited internationally, often hides in the background during its actual political campaigns. This makes the most public, widely seen political intervention of the FIT an ideal opportunity to examine its real politics and impact.
The debate was carried out over the course of two consecutive Sundays with the same format for each debate. The rules had been agreed to by the principle candidates (with the opposition of the FIT) and were laid out in a format which made actual debate difficult. There would be an initial 2 minute presentation by each candidate, followed by a series of themes. Within these themes each candidate would be given a longer period of time to present their positions, with two short 30 second follow up interventions to either elaborate on their positions or to question those of their opponents.
The format effectively guaranteed that there would be no active cross debate between the candidates; criticisms could be easily ignored especially from less popular candidates. However it remained an important opportunity to elaborate a program and perspective for a national audience, as well as to attempt to unmask the representatives of the bourgeois.
There were six candidates including the FIT’s Nicolas Del Caño who passed the required vote totals in the primaries to participate in the first round of elections and in the debate. Besides the FIT there was of course Macri as the incumbent, Fernandez the center-left contender, Lavagna a former Minister of the Economy under a previous center-left government, as well as two far right candidates: Jose Espert and Juan Centurion. Each candidate regardless of their vote totals had an equal amount of time to speak in the debate.
The First Debate
In his opening statement Del Caño referred to the previous crisis under Menem and De la Rua. Notably absent from this analysis were the years of the Kirchnerist governments the legacy of which Fernandez openly defends. He also focused on the supposed “illegality” of the debt, and that the current crisis should be paid for by those who caused it.
The first formal section was on international relations. Here Del Caño’s intervention focused on saluting the example of the mobilizations in Ecuador as well as denouncing the growing militarism and inequality around the world. He expressed solidarity with youth mobilizing around climate change. He also cited the growing sympathy of people in the United States for Socialism as an example demonstrating that capitalism has no future. He used his first intervention to impose a moment of silence for those murdered by state forces in Ecuador. His second intervention responded to attacks by the right on Venezuela by denouncing the “authoritarianism” of Maduro while also denouncing efforts by Macri and the right wing of the Kirchnerists to support intervention in Venezuela.
The moment of silence was the most roundly critiqued in the aftermath of the debate; however this is a secondary tactical issue. A moment of silence in this context gives up a vital opportunity to expand on the left’s program and denounce the bosses representatives in a debate where every word and second counts.
More importantly however is wasting precious seconds denouncing “authoritarianism” in Venezuela; if a distinction needs to be drawn in the precious little time available, it should be on the basis of the left’s advocacy for workers power in Venezuela rather than tailing liberal claims of authoritarianism.
While Del Caño felt the need to draw a clear line of demarcation between himself and Venezuela; there was no such demarcation with the socialist sentiments he cited in the United States. These certainly are overall an encouraging sign but they are obviously tied to a distorted view of capitalist reforms being socialist and of Bernie Sanders being a socialist candidate.
The Economy and Finance
The intervention around the economy focused on attacking the results of Macri’s Government. Big banks and privatized companies grew rich through this period of government and working people should not pay for the crisis they profited from. There should be a single state bank and strategic resources need to be nationalized.
He then asked how the center left opposition plans to stop capital flight and if they will rollback or not the price hikes for utilities and the cuts to retirement plans. He finished focusing on the foreign debt itself being “illegal” and that the rich should pay the costs. In his follow-up he emphasized that Macri had accomplices in the current center-left opposition, that many of those within the Frente de Todos voted for and approved Macri’s laws. He also attempted to ask Fernandez if the businessmen Fernandez mentioned sitting down with to discuss the future were the same ones that robbed the country together with Macri.
The focus on the supposed “illegality” of the debt is questionable, but far more important is the approach taken towards the center-left. The FIT’s electoral success has depended to a considerable extent on supporters who vote for it in the first round and who will then vote the center-left in the second. The approach taken here of attempting to ask the center left if they will rollback attacks (and being ignored) rather than denouncing the obvious fact that they will not is a clear sign of adaptation to this milieu. Truthfully elaborating the left’s own analysis of the coming bourgeois government might scare away voters.
Human Rights, Diversity and Gender
Del Caño’s intervention around this section was entirely within the confines of bourgeois democratic demands. He saluted the National Women’s Encounter which was ongoing at the moment and declared solidarity with Ni Una Menos. He argued that the “real debt” of Argentina was with women, not with the IMF. He focused on support for the right to abortion and raised his fist with a green handkerchief (a popular symbol of the movement for abortion). He criticized the components of the center-left coalition which were against abortion and also declared for the complete separation of church and state.
The wind was partly taken out of the intervention however when the center-left candidate simply responded that everyone knows his own position, which is in favor of legalizing abortion. While the left remains the only 100% pro-abortion force; the adoption of the demand for abortion by significant sectors of the bourgeois parties means this no long distinguishes the FIT significantly from the other parties.
Worse for the left, the moderate bourgeois candidacy of Lavagna took on the issue of hunger within the context of rights and in this way came off in some ways to the left of the FIT’s intervention. The representative of the far left had limited their discussion almost purely to the confines of bourgeois democratic rights, while the center-left expanded the discussion to economic rights.
Education and Health
Del Caño’s intervention focused on Macri being an enemy of public education and that all the governments have attempted to blame teachers for the crisis. Schools have no resources, no heating, no decent food for the students. All the right wing reforms of Menem in the 90’s need to be undone. Education must be entirely public, with guaranteed salaries and resources. This cannot be done if Argentina is going to pay the debt to the IMF.
In his followups he focused on the unpaid salaries for teachers in Chubut where an ally of the center-left governs. He also raised the issue of healthcare and the need to eliminate private business there, making the whole system public.
Again the focus on specific past neoliberal governments like Menem’s is done to the exclusion of criticizing the more recent governments of the center-left. Cristina Kirchner, the VP of Fernandez and former President of Argentina, herself led attacks on teachers and attempted to denounce them as privileged. The unwillingness to highlight the real record of the incoming bourgeois government is a serious disservice to the workers movement, it refuses to combat illusions within the class in favor of opportunistically chasing votes.
Finishing Remarks and Balance
In the final remarks of the first debate Del Caño focused on addressing youth with precarious jobs and young professionals who are upset with what’s going on in the country. He advocated reducing work hours across jobs and having jobs which allow time for study. He finished with the call to “strengthen the left in the country and in the congress.” In a short post-debate interview, he further emphasized his critique of the right wing of the center-left coalition, again cited the popularity of socialism in the United States and called for support from those who don’t agree with everything the FIT stands for but who want to support it as the most principled opposition.
Subjectively, Del Caño didn’t have a great performance in the first debate. While the PTS celebrated him being the most widely talked about candidate on social media afterwards, the reality was that this was mostly due to memes making fun of his attempt to impose a moment of silence in solidarity with Ecuador. In the second he was more energetic and eloquent, as well as pitching further to the left, yet the intervention was still limited by the political limits of the FIT’s strategy and campaign.
The second presidential debate provided the opportunity to expand on the international example of Ecuador with that of the mass protests and repression in Chile, which Del Cano referenced alongside Ecuador in his opening statement. The impact of the Chilean events clearly had the effect of making the PTS realize that it was possible and necessary to tack more to the left in their rhetoric; in this second debate they would actually mention socialism and the idea of a workers government - two ideas that had up until this point been almost entirely absent from the campaign.
The first theme was security. Del Caño denounced the Police and National Guard as participants in the mass murders of Argentina’s previous dictatorship. He also denounced “Gatillo Facil”, the frequent murder of poor and working class youth by the police, as well as the disappearance of Santiago Maldonaldo. He further denounced the involvement of police and politicians in drug and sex trafficking. He called for an “independent investigation committee” composed of victims and human rights activists to investigate the police and politicians for these crimes.
His followup focused on raising the demand for decriminalization of drugs; with illegality being something which serves the business interests of the Narcos and their political allies. He also attacked attempts to lower the age of criminal responsibility, citing Unicef for support, and denounced again the right wing component of the center-left coalition which supports reducing the age of criminal accountability.
Appealing to the authority of a UN agency is at best an odd tactic for a Marxist to adopt. There is also no real elaboration in any easily accessible PTS publication of what is meant by the “independent investigation committee” they call for; the history of the movement against police violence in the US demonstrates a long list of “independent” oversight and investigation committees which served as nothing more than tools to relegitimize the police. None of Del Caño’s criticisms within the debate went beyond the range of liberal critiques of police brutality or excesses.
Del Caño’s focus in this section on the right-wing of the center-left coalition continues a running theme through both debates in which rather than attacking the actually present, bourgeois leadership of the center-left, the FIT chooses to focus their attack on those elements which are already discredited for the support they gave Macri. It is a transparent effort to avoid alienating those who support Fernandez and it is a criminal abdication of responsibility on the part of the left. In pursuit of sympathy votes, the FIT and its candidates have held back from criticizing precisely the sector of bourgeois politicians which now has the greatest prestige.
Employment, Production, Infrastructure
Del Caño critiqued Macri around the growth of unemployment and stated that this was tied fundamentally to the agenda of the IMF. He argued that the union bureaucracy has served as Macri’s ally in this process. The center-left will continue this same IMF driven agenda and it is what businessmen are asking from Fernandez in all of his meetings with them. Del Caño laid out the FIT”s proposal to share hours of work between the unemployed and employed with equal pay. He also raised the proposal for a single national bank to plan infrastructure, and ended defending (minimum) quotas of employment for Trans people.
He followed up with a homage to Mariano Ferreyra, a young labor activist from the PO who was murdered by the union bureaucracy exactly 9 years ago from the day of the debate. He called for the unions to be reclaimed from the bureaucracy. He also focused on how youth are suffering the most, trapped in under the table jobs when they need stable ones that allow them to study.
This was overall one of the better and more left-wing interventions of the debate and the homage to Mariano Ferreyra was important. The call to unseat the treacherous union bureaucracy was the closest to a practical call to action present in the debates, even if it was left hanging abstractly and unconnected to any firm call for mobilization or workers action.
Federalism, “Institutional Quality” and the Role of State
In a section dedicated to the institutions of the Argentinian state, Del Caño continued his criticism of Macri’s corruption as well as denounced the attacks on the pensions of retirees. He further denounced the pact with the IMF.
Than in something that stood out significantly from most FIT electoral propaganda and interventions so far, he actually mentioned being a socialist and advocated a workers government, one which would be “more democratic” than anything under discussion with the institutions being debated. He also raised the demand for a constituent assembly in which workers and the “popular masses” would have power.
Here at least the FIT has finally proposed at least abstractly the idea of socialism, something which is unfortunately absent from the vast majority of their campaign ads, electoral material and public interventions. The impact of the uprising in Chile clearly pushed the PTS to reconsider their previous conservative balance of the historic moment (see: http://www.laizquierdadiario.com/A-proposito-de-la-crisis-del-PO-cual-es-el-camino-para-la-izquierda-trotskista) something in which they find themselves playing catchup to Altamira’s forces on their left.
The PTS internationally has consistently raised the Constituent Assembly as their key demand to bridge the gap between the “democratic illusions” of the masses and goal of a workers government. In a region which has seen Constituent Assemblies frequently convoked in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, where it has served to refound and relegitimize bourgeois democratic regimes, this strategy is extraordinarily risky at best. The best historical critique of this tactic which in particular takes on some of the arguments by the PTS from a Trotskyist viewpoint is published by the Internationalist Group.
Del Caño’s followup intervention focused on the need for judges to be directly elected and for all political functionaries to earn the same as teachers; highlighting the practice of the FIT where the legislators earn that (and donate the rest to the party or other causes).
Anyone familiar with criminal justice in the United States knows that there is absolutely nothing revolutionary about holding elections for and voting for judges; advocating it as a solution isolated from destroying the old state does little more than seed illusions in the potential neutrality of a bourgeois state.
Social Development, Housing and the Environment
Del Caño focused on how the IMF pact would ensure the contamination of resources and lives. The mining companies take huge profits while contaminating the rivers. He emphasized how the past center-left government approved protection for glaciers, which Macri removed. He emphasized how none of the other candidates confront fracking or defending the rights of the indigenous peoples. He also denounced the secret pact with Chevron that the last government negotiated which Macri maintained. Every government has been in the service of the agricultural sector.
He called for an energy transition which ends the role of private business across energy. He defended energy as a right for all and not a business and stated that our lives and planet are worth more than their profits.
In his follow-up interventions he focused on failures of social housing programs to adequately provide homes and declared solidarity with social movements demands for genuine employment, so no worker has to live on welfare plans.
Overall there was little which separated his intervention from that possible by liberal environmentalists. Going out of his way to defend a small measure taken by previous government comes across as another effort to pander to the center-left's base, even if he steps out to criticize their pursuit of fracking and other environmentally harmful industries.
Given the catastrophic impact which global warming and rising sea levels will have on Argentina his intervention was also a missed opportunity to insist on one of the most obvious arguments in favor of socialism: only a planned economy can even begin to prepare for and take on the challenge of devastating environmental change.
The closing remarks of Del Caño we have directly translated in full below, as they underline some of the key contradictions of the FIT’s electoral intervention.
“Macri will be gone shortly, but what will stay is the crisis, the IMF and the governors of the Frente de Todos (Center-left coalition) who were accomplices of Macri’s government. In the past debate I brought the example of Ecuador, now we see the rebellion in Chile. These have a lot to do with what happens in Argentina. They show that when governments try to implement brutal austerity plans, the people go the streets and say enough is enough. You cannot pay a debt (which is also illegal) and benefit workers and retirees. You know that we are in every struggle, with the workers, the retirees, the women who march in the streets, with the youth who don’t give up. For this it is very important that you accompany us next Sunday so that the Left is stronger and has more deputies in the Congress.”
He again picks a fight with the right-wing of the Frente de Todos (the center-left) without drawing clear criticisms or lines of attack against the majority; a common theme throughout both debates. This is the equivalent of if a leftist party in the United States shied away from critiquing Sanders, Warren or even Biden and instead focused on attacking “bluedog” and “Reagan Democrats”. This would be understood as an almost criminal abdication of the political responsibility of the left to unmask the bosses parties. It is plain electoral opportunism with the objective of not scaring away votes at the local and legislative level from those who want to see Fernandez and the center-left Frente de Todos triumph in this coming election.
Ecuador and then Chile are cited as examples; but what is missing is any call for Argentinian workers or the Argentinean “people” to take up these examples or prepare to resist in the same way. It hangs as a warning without any call to action.
The call to action which Del Caño does make and with which he closes the most important publicly televised moment of the FIT’s campaign... is calling on viewers to go to the polls Sunday and vote so that the Left will have “more deputies in the Congress”. Whatever superficial references were made to socialism and a workers government, this is the final line which summarizes the campaign and strategy behind the FIT. Del Caño doesn’t even finish off advocating for viewers to vote for himself, but rather to vote for members of the FIT down the ballet who have a chance of winning one or another electoral post.
A “revolutionary socialist campaign”?
Several of the parties within the FIT have an English language press, most prominently Del Caño’s party runs Left Voice. The largest critics of the FIT’s strategy within Argentina, in particular Altamira’s Tendency and a number of smaller trotskyist groups do not. This has led to a significantly distorted view of the achievements and positioning of the FIT among the world left. Outside of Argentina it is presented as a principled pole of revolutionary politics. In an interview tailored to this international leftist audience Del Cano tacked far left of anything he’s said on the campaign trail here (https://www.leftvoice.org/revolutionary-socialist-for-president-interview-with-nicolas-del-cano).
In this interview Del Caño (likely a militant ghostwriting as Del Cano) claims an “anti-capitalist and revolutionary character” and talks of them having “fought consistently against Macrism while maintaining an uncompromising position toward Kirchnerism.” Compare this to a now infamous interview of his for an Argentinian publication in which when asked what stance the FIT would have in a run-off between Fernandez and Macri, he simply stated that “today we don’t have a position”.
In the same Left Voice interview Del Caño declares that “For us in the PTS, the campaign is not just about winning seats in parliaments at the national and provincial levels.” Someone should tell him that he just finished off his most public intervention of the campaign not with a call for militancy, revolutionary organization or independent class mobilization, but with a call for people to help the left win... seats in parliaments at the national and provincial levels.
This is not a matter of one campaign, one candidate or a few interventions in a debate. That tagline for “a strong left in the country and in the congress” has been the central tagline of the whole campaign. Given the opportunity and financial resources to produce professional electoral ads; the PTS chose to focus on personalistic campaigns that went so far as to basically copy the campaign ads of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In their most high profile electoral campaign for Congress, that of Myriam Bregman, they have all but openly abandoned any socialist or class component to the campaign. They try to win out the remaining votes by focusing on how if she doesn’t win, due to the peculiarities of the electoral system it would be a pro-life candidate that takes her place. They are waging an opportunist campaign for her based on trying to get those who will vote for the center-left to “Cortar la Boleta”, put Bregman in their otherwise center-left votes.
The PTS claims superficial adherence to the line of the first congresses of the comintern on election campaigns and has defended the FIT as an example of its implementation. The actual revolutionary content of these politics however differs starkly from the increasingly opportunist vote-chasing of the FIT. As the Comintern thesis on parliamentarianism declares, "Election campaigns should not be carried out in the spirit of the hunt for the maximum number of parliamentary seats, but in the spirit of the revolutionary mobilization of the masses for the slogans of the proletarian revolution." A far cry from chasing unprincipled votes.
The international profile of the FIT has been raised substantially among the left in the aftermath of the catastrophic failure and betrayal of broad left projects like Syriza and Podemos. In an era when most currents have openly dissolved themselves into cross-class coalitions it appears to be a radical alternative with comparatively impressive electoral results. The international of the PTS, the Trotskyist Fraction, has in no small part been constructed as a fan club of the mother party of the PTS and the success of the FIT.
Unfortunately those who don’t speak fluent Spanish and aren’t embedded in Argentina’s political environment only get a heavily filtered vision of the FIT’s success. Unlike Syriza, Podemos, PSOL, Die Linke and other broad left projects the FIT has never crossed a class line; it has remained an independent, working class electoral coalition. However while its component parties claim adherence to Trotskyism, the content of its electoral activity is increasingly distant from any revolutionary politics. It wages a fundamentally reformist, social democratic political campaign which is willing to opportunistically hide its own program chasing after votes.
As has become painfully apparent in this latest electoral cycle, it often refuses to even directly take on and confront the bourgeois party which is going to govern Argentina. In the interests of protecting vote totals and gathering parliamentary posts, it refuses to openly state the truth before working class. As social crisis and uprisings have engulfed neighboring Ecuador and Chile, the size of the ostensibly Trotskyist left in Argentina creates a tremendous opportunity and responsibility for the left. A left terrified of losing votes and which is financially dependent on its legislative niche, will be incapable of providing revolutionary leadership through a genuine crisis and revolutionary opportunity.