The police killing of a public school teacher on April 4 in the southern province of Neuquén has sparked massive protests in Argentina and reawakened the slogan: "Que Se Vayan Todos" (Throw them all out!). Argentina's teachers and trade unions participated in a nationwide strike Monday, April 9, to protest police violence against teachers in Neuquén. Some say the province is at the brink of a wider rebellion, with a deep political crisis shaking up Patagonia.
Teachers led massive marches throughout Argentina to demand justice for Carlos Fuentealba, a 42-year-old public school teacher who died April 6 after a provincial policeman shot him at close range in the head with a tear gas canister while Fuentealba was seated in the back seat of a car at a protest. Police clashed with demonstrators on Wednesday, April 4 during a road blockade organized by the provincial teachers union after a month-long strike to demand a pay raise and public education grants.
In the province of Neuquén, unionized teachers continue to block the major highway leading to the local capital, where tensions remain high. Teachers and public workers have built a protest camp outside the provincial government house, with demonstrators camped out 24-hours a day. Unionists, human rights groups and local organizations are demanding the resignation of Governor Jorge Sobisch and they want members of his ruling right-wing party, the Popular Movement of Neuquén (MPN), to leave with him.
The Social Context
The teacher's death has fueled opposition to the local government and coalition efforts among workers' organizations. Social movements in the region have grown in the past years since Argentina's 2001 economic crisis. Protesting students, teachers, public workers, unemployed workers and indigenous communities have faced increasing hostility from the ruling right-wing MPN.
Up until the teacher's death, Sobisch had been campaigning for the presidency along with business tycoon Mauricio Macri. His campaign quickly fell apart, receiving criticisms from Argentina's President Néstor Kirchner.
The MPN has governed Neuquén for 40 years, consolidating local power through petro-dollars and the 1976-83 military dictatorship. The province is rich in petroleum. The oil boom has brought billions to Repsol-YPF (the Spanish multinational that bought the former state oil company), while the multinational has fired thousands of oil workers and polluted Mapuche Indigenous land. Despite its richness in natural resources, the province suffers from endemic poverty: a 2006 survey reported that 32% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Provincial health and education workers have led protests for salary increases. Salaries for teachers are less than 300 dollars a month, while the cost of living is twice that. Public workers have been punished not only with low salaries, but also with a wave of attacks against unionists speaking out against the local government. The provincial teachers union, the Association of Education Workers of Neuquén (ATEN), had been protesting for months, but Governor Sobisch and his ministers had been unwilling to negotiate. On April 4, ATEN blocked a major highway during the week of Easter, when locals travel for the holiday.
Leopoldo Reyes, a worker from FASINPAT (the acronym for Factory Without a Boss, formerly Zanon) ceramics factory in Neuquén participated in a massive march organized in Buenos Aires. He said the government executed Fuentealba to warn off other protestors. "Evicting the teachers from the road blockade wasn't the only objective," says Reyes. "They sought out to hurt and arrest protestors. Fuentealba was practically executed. This isn't the first time a death of a worker protesting has occurred."
Reyes added that workers in the region are organizing a massive campaign against MPN's violent tactics. "Jorge Sobisch gave the order to brutally clash with protestors because they wanted to clear the highway for tourists. We are demanding that Jorge Sobisch resign and that the politicians guilty for Fuentealba's death be punished," said Reyes.
History of Repression
The MPN government has a long legacy of repressive tactics dating back to the last military dictatorship, which disappeared 30,000 people. "The death of the teacher Fuentealba reminds us of the dictatorship era," said Nora Cortinas from the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. "We can't forget and repression will continue if we don't fight to stop it."
In the past year, Sobisch has pushed for an Integral Security Plan, investing 20 million dollars in the direct purchasing of security equipment to crack down on protests, including two helicopters with night vision, a surveillance camera network for the entire city, especially in areas where protestors hold actions, and equipment for special police groups. All of this equipment violates the provincial Constitution.
Neuquén's current education minister, Mario Morán, served under the military dictatorship until 1983. Since then, public education has deteriorated. High-school students protesting against cutbacks in school budgets and deteriorating conditions reported illegal arrests and tortures inside provincial police precincts in 2006, and two students were arrested and burnt with cigarettes inside a police precinct the same year.
Police officer, Daniel Poblete, has been arrested for shooting the tear gas canister that killed Fuentealba. Tear gas canisters are supposed to be shot at a minimum distance of 30 yards from the target, and manufacturers recommend shooting at an upward angle to prevent direct impacts. Witnesses say Poblete who shot Fuentealba was only seven feet away from the victim.
Carlos Fuentealba is not the first worker to be killed for protesting in Neuquén. His death coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the killing of Teresa Rodríguez, a janitor and innocent bystander shot by a police officer during a protest on April 12, 1997. Police shot her as she crossed a bridge that unemployed workers had been blocking in the oil town of Cutral-Có. It was one of the first piquetes (or road blockades, which later became the method adapted by piqueteros nationwide.) Teresa Rodríguez has become a symbol for the piquetero movement, but her murder has gone unpunished; the four police officers charged with the murder have been released and pardoned.
Neuquén: Mecca of Resistance and Solidarity
Rodríguez's parents participated in the march to demand justice for Fuentealba's death, and the resignation of Governor Sobisch, reminding teachers of the government's history of repression. More than 30,000 people marched in Neuquén on April 9.
Argentina's main teachers union held a 24-hour strike, while the state-workers' umbrella union held a 2-hour work stoppage. In Buenos Aires, public transportation workers on strike virtually brought the city to a stand-sill. Buenos Aires subway union delegate Carlos Taborda said that workers were outraged when they heard news of Fuentealba's death. "Every worker is affected by the death of the teacher. It doesn't surprise me that so many people protested today because when workers' human rights are violated, the working class here in Argentina mobilizes."
Teachers in white work smocks led 50,000 marchers in Buenos Aires, carrying letters that spelled out "Nunca Más" (Never Again). Tens of thousands throughout the country took to the streets to send the message: no more violence against workers.
Sobisch has said publicly that the repression was justified and legal. During a press conference, he told media the teachers had provoked a violent response. President Kirchner has avoided the issue of the teacher's death, but has attacked Governor Sobisch for ordering the repression.
Alejandra Bonatto, a Buenos Aires public school teacher from the Union of Education Workers, said, "This protest is against Governor Sobisch. I think us teachers deserve to be at the forefront of this struggle because we are the future of this country. The death of a compañero is the death of us all—the students, education, teachers and the future of the nation."
Since 1995, more than 60 people have been killed during protests in Argentina. According to Julio Talabera, an activist from H.I.J.O.S.—an organization of Children of the Disappeared—says that governments support police brutality to instill fear and criminalize protest. "The national government that says it defends human rights has been reported to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights because every 72 hours a young kid is killed by police in the streets of the Buenos Aires province." Only a handful of police have been tried for violence and police brutality.
Huberto Iraola, a public school teacher from the northern province of Jujuy said that teachers nationwide are united in the fight for justice and better salaries. "We don't want any more work smocks or chalkboards stained with blood. We are here not only to repudiate the death of Carlos Fuentealba, but to prevent these violent acts similar to what occurred 30 years ago (referring to the dictatorship) from happening again."
Marie Trigona is an independent journalist and radio producer based in Argentina. She can be reached at mtrigona(AT)msn.com To watch videos about the protests visit www.agoratv.org. A version of this article first appeared on ZNet.