The neighborhood assemblies that have mushroomed in Buenos Aires, Argentina since the protests and rioting that toppled two presidents within the space of two weeks have achieved some concrete results. But they have also become the target of violence at the hands of thugs at the service of certain political forces.
The new neighborhood associations have organized community purchases of food at reduced prices, as well as volunteer brigades of skilled workers who reconnect homes to the public service grids when their electricity, household gas or water supplies are cut off for failure to pay their bills.
The assemblies' projects range from a community vegetable garden to a neighborhood bank in which people can put their savings in order to keep them out of the financial system, where strict limits on cash withdrawals were imposed by the government in early December.
Neighborhood associations successfully pressured the Edesur power company to consider the possibility of a 180-day suspension of cut-offs due to delay in paying bills. Assemblies in other neighborhoods are demanding discount electricity rates for the unemployed.
Residents in another Buenos Aires neighborhood have organized a first aid clinic while they continue discussing the problems plaguing the local hospital. In Ramos MejÃa, on the outskirts of the capital, even the director of the local medical center has taken part in the neighborhood assembly.
The phenomenon of neighborhood assemblies has boomed since the mass demonstrations that led to the resignation of president Fernando de la Rua on Dec 20, 2001.
At the assembly meetings, which are generally held in plazas or other public spaces, political and economic issues of national interest and pressing local problems are discussed. The main focus is usually on the crisis faced by the public hospitals, unemployment (which has soared to 23 percent), and the widespread hunger and inability of families to buy food - questions that the neighborhood assemblies complain have received less than adequate attention from the country's political leaders.
Local residents who have been organizing in lower-income suburbs have become the targets of violence. Municipal employees and sympathizers of the traditional parties - the Justice (Peronist) Party and the Radical Civic Union - have attempted to intimidate the more active members of the associations, some of whom have even been beaten up.
When one neighborhood association began to grow in size and strength, around 200 men wearing no shirts broke into one of the meetings and beat local residents with ax handles, a teacher who has become a local activist told IPS. After that incident, one of the rooms in the activist's home mysteriously caught fire.
Telephone threats and different forms of repression - in which the police have generally not been involved - have become routine for members of the neighborhood assemblies. Local merchants even complain that tax inspectors show up to carry out audits as soon as they put up signs in their shop windows calling local residents together for an assembly.
President Eduardo Duhalde, who was designated by Congress on Jan 1 to govern until September 2003, has criticized the neighborhood assembly movement. "It is impossible to govern with assemblies. The democratic way to organize and participate is through voting," he said.
But the neighborhood assemblies complain of a vacuum of power, which has led them to take their problems into their own hands. "The question of hunger is an urgent one," said one person.
Although the activity of the assemblies has not slowed down, attendance has waned in recent weeks. Cristina Guerra, a 54-year-old nurse, noted: "That always happens - after the crisis comes to a head, participation falls off. But the important thing is that the assemblies continue to meet. We are living in a society for the few, and the way to change that is by participating in these new spaces created by the people."
Guerra predicted that local political leaders would attempt to obstruct the phenomenon of the assemblies. "If we are able to solve some of our problems, we will create a parallel power. And if we make gains, we will take a leap forward in quality, and will have many more people participating," said Guerra.
Assemblies are held once a week throughout the entire metropolitan region. They then send delegates to periodic "inter- neighborhood meetings to share their experiences and discuss their common concerns.
The participants want to make sure the organizations maintain a "horizontal" power structure, with rotating moderators and the creation of commissions to study the proposals that are formulated.
Since Argentina's four-year recession peaked in December's crisis, at least one out of three people have taken part in a neighborhood assembly or in a "caceroleo" (pot-and-pan-banging protest) at least once.
The assemblies are gaining a growing space in the media, while they have begun to create their own alternative channels. A Moron radio station broadcasts the program "Assembly Hour", and the associations produce their own newspaper, "Argentina is Burning".
"Some people believe our numbers have shrunk. But those of us who are left are the ones who really want to do things, the ones who want to stop complaining in our homes and do what the politicians are not doing: work out our day-to-day problems, without political-party machines, just us and our organizations," said Guerra.