We All Like to Party: Student Politics in Argentina

by Rasesh Mohan:

A myriad of posters and notices covered every inch of the wall at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) department of Philosophy and Literature building early last summer. Each poster advocated a different political party and candidate competing in the June 28 legislative elections. However, this scene was not representative of the large majority of Argentinean youth. This increased political activity was largely due to the surge of political involvement caused by the upcoming elections. In addition, the philosophy department at UBA is known to be an oasis of political activity in the otherwise dry desert of political apathy among Argentinean youth. With the political scene in Argentina the way it is, one wouldn’t completely blame them.

The 20th century political history of Argentina is a saga of failed governments and military coups. Since democracy was restored after the last military dictatorship in 1985, a large number of political parties have emerged, with the more traditional parties splitting to form offshoots. In the legislative elections this June, 27 different parties contested in Buenos Aires, with almost as many fighting for other provinces. “Politics here is not like in the U.S., where you have two parties with established views,” said Lucas de la Torre, a 22-year-old student at CEMA, a prestigious economics university. “Most of the time here, you don’t know what exactly a party stands for.”

The Che Guevara auditorium at the University of Buenos Aires, with the walls covered with political campaign posters (Mohan/TYG)

The movement of politicians from one party to another adds to the confusion. A perfect example is Elisa Carrió, who started with the moderate Radical Civic Union, later affiliated with the Democratic Socialist party, and then created a new party called Support for an Egalitarian Republic. The lack of institutionalism within parties leads to these shifts in political affiliations.

Darío Steimberg, a doctoral candidate at UBA, agreed with this view, saying that “In Argentina, parties are seen as representing individual leaders rather than beliefs.” Supporters of President Cristina Kirchner and her left-leaning government are called “Kirchneristas,” whereas supporters of more conservative leadership of the city of Buenos Aires are called “Macristas,” after the Mayor Mauricio Macri.

“If this continues, parties will disappear the moment their candidates do, as has been seen on numerous occasions in the past,” said de la Torre.

Pablo Vammoro, a history professor at UBA, said students have lost their confidence in politics, as they no longer see government as an instrument of change, but rather as a “terrain of falsehood.” One of the reasons for the general lack of trust in politicians is their record of breaking campaign promises and ignoring the constituents who put them in power. In 1989, Carlos Menem, a bit of a maverick in the Peronist party, came to power thanks to leftist support. He promised to raise the salaries of the working class only to institute a huge privatization drive during his ten years in power.

Ernesto Gutierrrez, a student activist and member of Juventad Peronista, the youth chapter of the current ruling party, believes that the instability pervading Argentinean politics has a much deeper cause. The brutal military dictatorship during the ‘70s and ‘80s, replete with political kidnappings and killings, created a leadership vacuum and atmosphere of fear. The most damaging legacy of the military regime, Gutiérrez said, was the large schism it left between public institutions and mass participation. He particularly singles out the presidency of Carlos Menem, from 1989 to 1999, which he said ‘undermined the place of politics in society by indulging in frivolous activities to further personal business ties, and making a mockery of the office’.

A parallel platform for young people to engage in politics is participation in the student governments at the university level. At UBA, like most other public universities, the student government is divided into a hierarchy of three levels. The lowest rung is that of the subject department. The next rung is the faculty level (such as social sciences, humanities etc), which is a group of departments, and the topmost rung is the university government. Each level is made up of a combination of students, professors and alumni, and has considerable power. In addition to formulating policy, they select the heads of academic departments and of the university itself.

Vammoro told the Globalist that a lot of student activists prefer to engage in politics at the university level, rather than the national level, as, “it is here that they can create effective changes that affect their lives and achieve tangible results.” To be elected to the student government, one must be part of an agrupación, which serves the function of a political party within the university. Professor Vammoro is the founder of the Mariátegui agrupación, named after the early 20th century Peruvian socialist politician and intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui. It is notable that members of an agrupación do not necessarily have to be supporters of the same national political party, and so Mariátegui’s membership includes students from the far left to the centre left.

Gutiérrez, a member of Mariátegui at the student level, and Juventud Peronista, the youth chapter of the ruling party, at the national level, described the similarities and differences between the two groups to the Globalist. “Agrupaciónes do much more than just stand for elections in the university,” he said. He added that members of the group engage in a lot of social work, such as working with underprivileged communities to help build their self-reliance. Last year, Mariátegui ran a café with a union of unemployed workers called MTD Solano (Unemployed Labourers Movement of Solano), creating employment and, in Gutiérrez’s words, “helping internalize an external group that doesn’t have a voice.” Other common activities for members of agrupaciónes include holding workshops on different socio-economic themes and teaching classes in poor communities. Though work in a national party does have a social aspect, there is more of an emphasis for the youth members to spend time promoting the party and its candidates. This involves helping organize events for candidates, as well as putting up posters and running other errands during campaigning.

Why should more students get more involved in the national political process in Argentina if the national arena seems hopeless and university politics provide a substitute? De la Torre’s answer is that the only way Argentinean politics can mature is if more people get involved at an earlier age. “If you put things in historical perspective,” he added, “The generation before us were almost 30 when they first voted. In my own case, I have already voted three times, and [have] been an overseer of voting polls twice.” Gutierrez added, “Our problems aren’t with tanks any more, but with things like media and communication.”

The Argentinean political landscape may be miles ahead of its dark dictatorial past, but there is still much to be achieved in the areas of transparency, leadership, long term vision and party building in this young democracy. The hope of a better tomorrow lies with the youth of today, who need to ensure that youthful persistence will triumph over systemic disillusionment.

Rasesh Mohan is a junior political science major in Berkeley College. He spent his summer taking classes at the University of Buenos Aires.