In December 2018 thousands of people marched against neoliberal policies in Argentina, where the Summit of the G20 Heads of State was being held in the capital, Buenos Aires. Both during the summit and in the process leading up to it, Argentine, Latin American and global civil society worked in institutional participation spaces while organising autonomous actions and holding street protests to make their discontent heard. CIVICUS speaks about action around the G20 with Corina Rodríguez Enríquez, an Argentinian economist, researcher and member of the Executive Committee of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), a network of feminists from the global south working for gender, economic and ecological justice, and for democratic and sustainable development.
Who came out to protest against the G20 summit in Argentina? What tactics did they use?
Street protest during the G20 summit was not an isolated event. It has to be viewed in continuity with the reactions provoked by the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that was also held in Argentina the previous year. It was not organised specifically before the G20 but was part of a broader resistance led by coordinated social organisations that raise their voices against the process of financial globalisation. I belong to a feminist organisation of the global south, DAWN, and therefore I was involved in particular in the work done by what we call the Feminist Forum, a subgroup within this network of organisations. What we organised on the occasion of the G20 was very similar to what had been done before the WTO - a week of action that was initially thought of as action vis-a-vis the G20 but ended up being action against the G20. Various kinds of actions and interventions were staged. We at the Feminist Forum took advantage of the context to hold a specific day of training in feminist economics, so among other things DAWN led the School of Feminist Economics. There were a couple of days in which more academic debates were held, which took place at the School of Social Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires. Roundtables were organised dealing with the various topics that are discussed in these multilateral forums, from extractivism to the digital economy. And then there were a couple of days of street action: on the first full day, debates and panel discussions were held in tents pitched on the street, one of which was the Feminist Forum’s. In there we held a discussion, staged a tribunal where cases were presented of human rights violations perpetrated by transnational companies, and held a Feminist Forum meeting to discuss strategy and perspectives. Tribunals are forms of public actions similar to the ones staged by the Global Alliance for a Binding Treaty on Transnational Corporations and Human Rights: a forum where complaints are presented and it is made clear how justice should be done about it.
On the last day of the week, when the G20 summit was already underway, we marched in protest, and we did so in a rather restrictive context, since the Argentine government, which presided over the summit, had militarised the city of Buenos Aires and established an exclusion zone, forcing the protest to remain quite far away from the summit site.
In very general terms, the mottoes of the week of action focused on denouncing the implications for human rights of the type of policies promoted by the governments of the countries that make up the G20, and fundamentally the impacts of the decisions made by concentrated capital and the actions of multinational companies on the ground. We affirmed that current global dynamics are leading to a scandalous increase in inequalities and to the systematic violation of human rights, and provided clear evidence, mostly from cases related to the actions of extractive companies. The other overall message is one of resistance: we need collectively to resist the policies driven by G20 countries and collectively build an alternative economy and a different society.
Were these protests by local organisations and social movements, or were they global protests?
Resistance is global. Although in the case of Argentina there was greater participation by foreign organisations and activists during the WTO meeting than the G20 summit, I attribute this to the fact that the G20 involves fewer countries. In addition, the G20 is not on the radar, and therefore on the agenda, of that many organisations, not only in Argentina but also in the region and around the world. But the global coalition that mobilised on this occasion was the same coalition that takes to the streets during meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among other global finance governing bodies.
Both during the WTO and G20 summits, both of which I was able to participate in because they were held in Argentina, there was a strong Argentine and Latin American presence. I think this can be explained by two factors: the physical distance that separates us from the rest of the world and the strength that activism around these issues has in Latin America.
Regardless of which activists were for whatever reason able or willing to attend, what makes protest against the G20 global is precisely the nature of its target. The G20 includes the largest and most concentrated economies in the world. Including the countries that form the European Union, which are collectively a member of the G20, it accounts for 85 per cent of the world’s gross product. The decisions made and agreements reached by the governments of its member countries affect the entire world. It is therefore only natural for resistance against the G20 to have a global character, even though it takes its local colour and its composition varies according to where the annual summits are held.
In that sense, even though obviously not all of us are always everywhere, we become part of the resistance when the G20 meets in our country, and we hope that the organisations and social movements of other countries will do the same when their turn comes. DAWN is an organisation of the global south and has members in Argentina, so it was only natural for us to get involved when the G20 meetings were held in Argentina. But we are not in the least contemplating mobilising next year as the G20 gathers in Japan. This time around it was easy for us to participate, and not doing so would have been a wasted opportunity to be an active part of this resistance coalition in which we had already been taking part in other ways and on other occasions. We thought we needed to take advantage of the fact that this was happening in Buenos Aires so that our public resistance would serve to inform citizens about what the G20 is and what its implications and impacts are, as well as countering the narrative of success disseminated by the Argentine government. But action against the G20 is not among our strategic priorities: we will not be following the G20 around the world. In fact, this year's summit was a relative anomaly, because few countries of the global south are members of the G20. We hope that next year Japanese civil society will take over; it would only be natural for resistance against the G20 to be led by Asian organisations and activists. While some larger organisations are based in the global north and have the means to go everywhere, logic indicates that in each case mobilisation will be primarily local and regional.
In addition to resorting to street action, how did you take advantage of institutional spaces for civil society participation within the G20?
Members of the resistance movement against the G20 don’t have a unified position regarding those spaces. DAWN's decision is to take advantage of them, and as a representative of DAWN I participated in the Observatory of Women’s Rights Human Rights Defenders, which was led by Mabel Bianco, president of the feminist organisation Foundation for Studies and Research on Women (FEIM). Throughout the year when the government of Argentina presided over the G20, the aim of the Observatory was to monitor compliance with the implementation plan for the basic agreement points approved the previous year by the W20 (Women20) group in Berlin, Germany. We held some local and national-level activities and produced policy briefs and other written materials to influence those who would participate in the meetings and negotiate the G20 statements. We mainly worked with the G20 affinity groups, and in particular we deployed a lot of activity around the meetings of the working groups and summits of the C20 (the civil society meeting) and W20. There was also feminist participation in a third affinity group, the T20 (of think tanks), which included a gender taskforce.
Participation in the W20 in particular was very controversial within the feminist movement, and it was hard. We did not attend as delegates, although we did participate from within to set our positions in the W20. This provoked many discussions with colleagues who believed that inside participation has a legitimising and validating effect. These are worthy arguments, but my conclusion after having been both inside and outside these spaces is that it was a good idea for us to stay within and for some colleagues of other organisations to accept the role of delegates, because otherwise the W20 statement would have been much worse than it actually was. It was very important that there were feminist voices in there, and that those voices were ours, because the person that the Argentine government appointed to lead the W20 was a businesswoman with a perspective that was not only not in the least feminist, but also quite paternalistic and completely divorced from the reality in which most people live.
In sum, the result of the work of these affinity groups depends largely on who leads them, and it was not surprising that work was much more productive within the C20, which eventually issued a much better statement regarding women’s rights than the W20 itself.
At a time of rising economic nationalism and right-wing populism, how can civil society offer a progressive critique of globalised neoliberalism that resonates with the angry citizens currently embracing populism?
I wish I had an answer to that. I think global activism, and particularly the kind that unfolds in these multilateral spaces, is strongly disconnected from people’s experiences on the ground. Generally speaking, progressives have great difficulties in understanding people's experiences and choices, such as why people in Brazil voted for Jair Bolsonaro, or why people in the Philippines continue to support Rodrigo Duterte. People who live in a position of relative privilege are usually unable to imagine how people live in the slums of our metropolis. We should make an effort to understand the mentality of a woman whose son is being killed by drugs and wants the military to come in and take drug traffickers out. In short, global activism must reconnect with the real experiences of people on the ground.
Generally speaking, the current environment is hostile and resistance is the priority. I do not think we are yet at a proactive stage in which alternatives are built; our number one imperative is to resist and protect the small achievements that we secured through so much effort over decades and that have strengthened rights and institutionalised equality policies. Although in the final analysis the preservation of these achievements will depend on whether an alternative narrative is built that allows us to bring regressive forces to a halt, unfortunately we have not yet reached that point. As we are now, any effort to build an alternative narrative would be extremely superficial. Progressive movements, at least in Latin America, and possibly elsewhere where the extreme right is on the rise, urgently need to do a critical self-assessment, without which they will hardly be able to move in any direction. Given experiences like those of the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which initially inspired so much hope but ended up creating fertile ground for people to turn to someone like Jair Bolsonaro, progressives should at least wonder what was done wrong, as a prerequisite for putting together a new progressive narrative.
As a feminist and a Latin American woman, I have my hopes set on the fact that in our region feminism has been working on the ground for years and, as a result, today more than ever it is nourished by the diverse life experiences of real women, and of people more generally. That is why it is much more plural and less class-biased than ever before. If there is one social movement that still has a vitality that is practically incomprehensible in this bleak context, it is feminism. That is turning it into one of the most relevant social actors both to sustain resistance and to build an alternative.