This week’s main issue is again a non-starter for this column because there are no readymade comparisons with past experience – while teacher strikes from pay gripes have been chronic enough, there is no real precedent for the current classroom closures with schools evoking battlegrounds rather than playgrounds. If last week’s column skipped the tussles in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (a legal fiction even if the border dividing it is also artificial) to travel almost 4,000 kilometres to Peru, today’s column will switch the scene of action by a shorter but still appreciable distance – by some 1,140 kilometres to the Patagonian province of Neuquén.
This palindrome province features the paradox of supreme political stability (ruled continuously by the electorally invincible Neuquén Popular Movement ever since 1962, apart from the years of military dictatorship) with spasmodic social upheavals such as the health worker blockades crippling much of northern Patagonia for most of this month. Most newspapers are datelining this crisis as “Vaca Muerta” rather than “Neuquén” in reference to the vast shale deposits in the former – inaccurate, strictly speaking, since this conflict did not originate in the energy sector but also understandable given that the resultant gas shortfalls will be felt nationwide alongside the vaccine shortages this winter, especially if a cold snap compounds the second wave of coronavirus.
The full fallout from the current upheavals still remains to be seen but at least one of its predecessors carried a more permanent impact by marking a milestone in Argentine social history – Neuquén was the birthplace of the picket movement which will be marking its silver anniversary in around eight weeks, dating back to the virtual insurrection in Cutral Có in mid-1996. In those times before anybody had heard of shale and far less Vaca Muerta, Cutral Có (which might sound like “cultural cow” to an Anglo-Saxon ear but is Mapuche for “firewater”) was something of a hub for the traditional oil industry, active in those parts since over a century ago. But the 1992 privatisation of YPF under the late Carlos Menem started leading to hundreds of lay-offs as the oil giant’s productivity criteria changed drastically and when the plans for a petrochemical and fertiliser plant to reemploy the victims of streamlining were finally ditched in mid-1996, the whole town went ballistic. Nothing especially new about such mass outbursts of popular indignation (Catamarca’s 1990 marches over the slaying of schoolgirl María Soledad Morales and the 1993 “Santiagazo'' in Santiago del Estero were but two recent examples at that time among several) but the Neuquén oil town pioneered road blockades to push their case. Cutral Có thus gave the picket movement its modus operandi – and also its first martyr the following year when renewed unrest in that town claimed the life of Teresa Rodríguez, victim of a police bullet.
The picket movement has gone from strength to strength since then even if the most extreme months of quarantine last year gave it some pause (not much point in blocking an empty road) but the chaos now unfolding in Neuquén does not stem from either pickets or disgruntled oil workers. It’s complicated. The root of the problem lies in the health workers (perhaps even more inhumanly overworked than elsewhere in this pandemic, with Neuquén one of the few places outside the Buenos Aires epicentre to be already reporting dozens of cases of coronavirus over a year ago while its Covid-19 data rivalled the Federal Capital at times) belonging to the same ATE trade union as all other provincial employees and thus receiving the same pay increase negotiated earlier this year – 12 percent for the first half of 2021, which looks pretty meagre for anybody in the light of recent inflation figures. The health workers naturally see this as a poor reward for their valiant battle against the virus and have vowed to bring the province to a halt until properly remunerated. But the provincial government can see no easy solution to this conflict because any extra pay for the health workers would have to be across the board for all employees within the collective bargaining contract and even that might not placate hospital staff who would feel insulted at being placed on the same pay level as some ministerial paper-pusher.
Meanwhile Vaca Muerta (Spanish for “dead cow”) looks like living up to its name more than ever. The advent of coronavirus sent oil prices crashing to all-time lows (incredibly enough, they were actually below zero around this time last year), thus nipping Vaca Muerta in the bud. Oil prices have largely recovered to pre-pandemic levels this year amid encouraging noises from a Frente de Todos government which sees Vaca Muerta as a cash rather than dead cow, a magic solution to all the many economic woes on which altar they even recently sacrificed biofuels. Yet it will take a while to develop Vaca Muerta shale and its days could be numbered by the time it is finally up and running – thus various countries have made it their objective to complete the transition to electric cars by as early as 2030 while Volvo and Ford have just announced that they will cease the manufacture of cars running on traditional fuels by that year.
Perhaps a fuller appraisal of the picket movement born in the Neuquén cradle of the current upheavals will have to await a future column since space is running short. It has certainly come a long way in the last quarter-century – so much so that it now seems anachronistic to call it a picket movement. Instead of sometimes absurdly tiny handfuls of people cutting roads, there is a “popular economy” variously estimated at between 4.5 and 6 million people enlisted in various social organisations and fuelled by at least five million welfare benefits. These numbers double a depleted CGT grouping organised labour – the traditional spine of the Peronist movement – and now down to around 2.5 million workers, a relic of the last century along with many dinosaur union leaders. A seismic social shift which is changing the face of Peronism in particular and Argentina in general.