Ciudad Futura: Reimagining the Left in Argentina

How a rising grassroots movement in Argentina’s third most populous city could reshape the country’s political landscape

March 9, 2018

Distrito Sie7e, a nightclub in Rosario, Argentina, is at the heart of a rising leftist movement in northeastern Argentina. (Photo by Michelle B. Switzer)

Situated in the heart of Rosario in the province of Santa Fe in northeastern Argentina, Distrito Sie7e (District Seven) appears to be just another dark windowless nightclub among many in the city. Like other joints in the area, a continuous flow of hip rosarinos—residents of Rosario—can be seen drifting in and out of the club into the early hours of the morning. But inside, larger-than-life portraits of Latin America’s most famous socialists and revolutionaries hint at the club’s unique political significance.

In fact, Distrito Sie7e is the center of a growing social movement and political party in Rosario called Ciudad Futura. Founded in 2005, Ciudad Futura formed in response to increased land speculation by developers on the impoverished outskirts of the city of Rosario. In recent years, it has grown into a province-wide movement in Santa Fe characterized by its local community initiatives in the areas of agriculture and land reclamation, education, health, art and culture, and urban development, and leftist political ambitions of creating a politics of transparency, where “politicians don’t just say what needs to be done, but do it.” While Distrito Sie7e hosts dance parties and live music on the weekends, during the week activists gather for assembly-style meetings to discuss and plan the work of the organization.

The walls of the bar are covered with quotes and photos of legendary Latin American leaders such as Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez, Che Guevara, and Evita Perón, but Ciudad Futura represents a different approach to leftist politics. Unlike the revolutionaries of the mid-20th century, Ciudad Futura criticizes the statist model of development practiced by Pink Tide governments in Latin America. They use a combination of existing political structures and innovative local organizing strategies to meet their desired aims of building a more just and equitable society for all through a politics of total transparency.

The wave of social democracies, known as the Pink Tide, that swept across the region starting in the early 2000s based their politics on a project of social and economic development through increased state intervention. In Argentina, the administrations of both Néstor Kirchner, who governed from 2003 to 2007, and his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who served from 2007 to 2015, ran on platforms that led to increased social spending, an expansion of public programming, and the nationalization of industries to support these policies.

The Pink Tide also increased local political participation and action. Throughout Latin America, neighborhood councils arose in one form or another, for example, under the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) in Uruguay and the Chavista government in Venezuela. These decentralized bodies served to counteract the traditional concentration of power in the federal government to guarantee that the decisions being made represented the needs of local communities. However, many of these local councils have faced criticism for remaining under the control of the centralized government. While an important goal of socialist democratic governments in Latin America has been to engage “the masses” in political decision-making, in reality, a top-down approach has often worked to reinforce, rather than eliminate, a separation between the state and grassroots politics.

Ciudad Futura activists want to avoid this contradiction by creating a third way forward, simultaneously working both within and outside of the political system. While its members view participation in formal politics as an important tool for bringing about change, it is not the first or most important. Ciudad Futura works to support and grow their community initiatives while simultaneously developing strategies and platforms that bring their collective values into the sphere of formal politics.

Alejandro Gelfuso, one of the founding members of Ciudad Futura, explained that local realities drive the organization’s work. “If you don’t build something from the outside, you’ll never be able to transform anything from within the institutions,” he said.

This approach is apparent in the roots of Ciudad Futura, whose community work began in 2005, seven years before it ever formed a political party. Under the name Movimiento Giros, its members started out by connecting with families in the marginalized neighborhood of Nuevo Olberdi Oeste on the outskirts of Rosario to discuss plans for addressing the community’s needs, including protecting settlements from displacement by real estate developers and generating new jobs. Today, grassroots organizing continues to be at the heart of Ciudad Futura’s approach to social and economic development, with assembly-style meetings that open up spaces for community members to voice their vision for their neighborhoods. It is an approach that seems to be gaining momentum. Acting as a movement first, and political party second, Ciudad Futura has shown that it is possible to generate change through political engagement without relying on traditional establishment politics.

A Local Movement at Heart?

Rosario, Argentina’s third most populous city, sits along the Paraná River in the province of Santa Fe, less than 200 miles north of Buenos Aires. The city has a vibrant university culture and art scene, and a rich history of political activism and protest. The birthplace of the revolutionary Che Guevara, Rosario was also key to Juan Domingo Perón’s rise to power in the 1950s and the anti-dictatorship protests both in 1969 and again in the 1970s. As a result, citizens of Rosario were hard hit by the military’s crackdown in the ‘70s and ‘80s: hundreds were murdered, detained, and disappeared

Rosario also has a long history of voting center-left: The Partido Socialista (Socialist Party, PS) has held power in Santa Fe since 1989, leading some young leftists, to seek out a new approach to politics. However, a “crisis in terms of representative political parties,” has dominated since the 2001 economic depression in Argentina, explained Gelfuso. “At that time, we didn’t want to be part of any traditional structure.”

Ciudad Futura’s organizing began as a set of neighborhood initiatives in Rosario’s Nuevo Alberdi Oeste in 2005. At the time, the group worked directly with families in the community to develop opportunities for secondary education, artistic expression and job growth. However, soon after arriving, Gelfuso and his peers became increasingly aware that the issues the community faced were not isolated from broader structures of inequality within the city. The city-owned land in Rosario’s impoverished periphery, long forgotten by those with political and economic clout, had begun to garner the interest of private developers, as real estate became ever more important in Argentina for those looking to save and invest money following the 2001 crisis.  The area thus became seen as an untapped resource for many private entrepreneurs wanting to develop gated communities and exclusive clubs. The conflict over the use of this land and development models led the activists to engage in a project of land recuperation in 2010 through the establishment of a small dairy farm cooperative. The success of their work in bringing educational, cultural, and job opportunities to the community, also led the group to expand its projects beyond a single neighborhood and into five additional districts in Rosario, and laid the groundwork birth of the political entity Ciudad Futura.

Ciudad Futura was founded in 2005 as a response to real estate speculation in Rosario's impoverished outskirts. (Photo by Michelle B. Switzer)

Today, Ciudad Futura has a number of successful initiatives that support community development while also providing the funding needed to support their social and political work. For example, not only did Ciudad Futura’s dairy farm, named Tambo La Resistencia, prevent the eviction of 250 families that the city’s sale of the land would bring, but it also provides affordable food to community members and anyone else in the city who forms a “consumer circle” of three to five households. All that is required is a small monthly fee of $200 pesos per month for a consumer circle, or 50 pesos per month for an individual household and a coordinator who picks up the food order. In addition, the organization runs two secondary schools in marginalized neighborhoods of the city and a social health initiative that aims to address substance abuse by destigmatizing the problem and focusing instead on prevention and health promotion. A food share program, known as the Misión Anti-Inflación, combats the costs associated with Argentina’s rapid inflation.

The decision to enter institutional politics in 2013 arose out of Ciudad Futura’s local organizing. “After doing this local work for a number of years,” Gelfuso recalled, “we began to think that we didn’t want to just fight for one off victories, but instead begin to construct a concrete territorial politics, that is to say, looking at much broader issues, like education and culture,” he said. “This led us to consider that we were already building a model that could be replicated in public policies, which could be scaled-up.” Before officially throwing their hat in the electoral ring, Ciudad Futura leadership leaned on their long-standing horizontal approach to decision-making, holding an assembly in September 2012. “We selected 100 families that had been accompanying the Movimiento Giros all those years,” said Gelfuso. “Because of our own prejudices, [we assumed] that our neighborhood comrades would tell us ‘no,’ that we shouldn’t ‘go into politics’ and become an official party, but the response was the complete opposite.”

Without any ties to big business or national-level recognition, Ciudad Futura—the name given to the party when Movimiento Giros joined with another local movement, M26 in 2013—had to sustain itself through profit generated by its own initiatives and rebuild itself in a way that meshed with the bureaucratic practices of governmental politics. It also had to get word out to people about the their mission and vision, since it needed 2,900 members in order to participate in the elections as a political party. They did this by selling one-liter jugs of milk from their farm outside of a grocery store at a reduced price.

This experience helped the movement to find a structure suitable to the political arena while still retaining the praxis of a social movement. Since 2012, Ciudad Futura’s membership has grown by three or four times. Nonetheless, Ciudad Futura has managed to retain its unique approach, even within the institutionalized and bureaucratic structures of Argentinian politics. For example, because the organization still retains its position as a movement first and foremost, Ciudad Futura has been able to avoid much of the partisanship that characterizes Argentinian politics. Peronists, Socialists, and others who identify with the Left actively support the movement’s work and show up to events. They have also been able to build solidarity with leftist movements and parties across the globe, such as Podemos, a leftist national party in Spain, as well as with the municipal-level Barcelona en Común, whose party leader has been mayor of the Catalonian city since 2015. The strategy of cutting across both party lines and international borders is to understand how the local movement fits within a broader global struggle, as well as to gain insight into best practices developed by other like-minded organizations.

The party’s overarching mission is simple: To show that the kind of alternatives people hope for can, as Gelfuso emphasized, “be seen and touched,” and not just lost in the bureaucracy of the political establishment. The success of their message can be seen in both their steadily increasing membership as well as election results. Ciudad Futura holds four seats in Rosario’s municipal government, and in 2017 they expanded beyond Rosario, with nine candidates running to represent Santa Fe during the national general elections for deputies in October of that year. While others struggled to retain power this past election, such as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner whose newly formed party, Unidad Ciudadana (Citizen’s United), saw a drop in support for the former president, Ciudad Futura made important gains.

The Challenges Ahead

Recent success at the institutional level doesn’t mean that the entire process of building a political movement has been smooth. As with any transition, there have been moments of internal tension. In 2014, La Unión de Pueblo de Rosario (The Union of the People of Rosario) publicly split from Ciudad Futura, citing disagreement around how decisions were made and what issues were being brought to the table. The union felt that only practical decisions, such as how to distribute flyers were being discussed at the assemblies, with the political decisions being made beforehand. In an open letter, they explained, “Inviting someone to share something that belongs to you (“convidar”) and sharing (“compartir”) are not synonymous… We began to notice that all decisions of a political nature were digested beforehand.” Additionally, the close alliance between Ciudad Futura and Podemos has also led to some apprehensions among the movement’s members, who fear that the alliance will dilute the local concerns of the party. Gelfuso and his compañeros have acknowledged this concern, noting that the process of incorporating the lessons learned from other movements into a local context will require more planning.

As expected, Ciudad Futura has received institutional pushback for challenging the status quo. Most notably, its roster of political candidates for the 2017 election of Argentina’s national deputies, who are the provincial representatives of the lower house of Congress, made national headlines and stimulated discussion of women’s representation in politics. The party’s all-female candidate list—the first in the history of Argentinian politics—was challenged in the courts for excluding men. In a surprise decision, federal judge Reinaldo Rubén Rodriguez gave a controversial interpretation of a The Female Quota Law, established in 1991 to rectify the gender inequity in Argentinian politics. The law requires that at least 30% of candidates put forward by a party be women. In his ruling, Judge Rodriguez argued that the law applied to both sexes and, therefore, an all-female candidate list was illegal. Ciudad Futura had no choice but to make concessions and added five male candidates to the ticket, although these men promised to step down and offer their seat to the removed candidate in case of election. The publicity from the controversy also had an unintended consequence: it suddenly gave Ciudad Futura national recognition.

Perhaps, however, the biggest challenge facing Ciudad Futura is Argentina’s current political landscape. Argentina’s ruling center-right coalition government led by Mauricio Macri, which has been slashing away at social expenditures, had a strong showing in the recent congressional elections, winning victories in the five largest metropolitan areas. The opposition, meanwhile, lost the number of seats that it needed to block presidential vetoes.

Yet, it is perhaps this precarious political landscape that also offers the movement its greatest opportunities for expansion. The growing outrage over pension cuts for retirees in conjunction with public pressure placed on the government to answer questions about the 2017 murder of indigenous rights activist, Santiago Maldonado, suggest Argentinians are looking for another path forward. In Buenos Aires, the rise of community-driven party, De La Red, marks another reason for hope. While Ciudad Futura’s contribution to building this new politics remains unknown, recent midterm elections suggest that they will have an important role to play.

Michelle B. Switzer holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from York University. She currently works as an applied anthropologist for an innovation and design consultancy in Toronto and is a Senior Research Fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

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