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BARTER CLUB PARTICIPANTS IN ARGENTINA: IDEALOGUES OR
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I sincerely thank all of the Argentines that I interviewed while doing field research.
I deeply appreciate the time these individuals took out of their busy schedules to share
their experiences with me. They oftentimes invited me into their homes, spent two or
more hours with me, and were infinitely patient with my stumbling Spanish.
I also thank the several graduate students who had been down this road previously
and offered their valuable experience and insight. This project would have been
immeasurably harder without you. I thank Martin Maldonado for reviewing my
interview questionnaire and offering valuable suggestions on how to conduct interviews
in Argentina. I thank Karina Vasquez for helping me to write letters of introduction to
perspective interviewees. Her understanding of etiquette and protocol added a missing
degree of professionalism in my correspondence. I thank Bryan Williams for taking time
to simply talk with me about my project, helping me to brainstorm and to better
understand my project goals.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S .................................................................... ......... .............. iii
ABSTRACT ............... ................... ......... .............. vi
1 IN TR OD U CTION ............................................... .. ......................... ..
Literature Review .......................................................... 3
Classical Collective Behavior Theory ....................................... ............... 3
Resource M mobilization Theory ................................. .................. .................... 3
Social Constructionism......... ...... .......... .. .................4
N ew Social M ovem ents............................................................................. 6
T ow ards a Synthesis ..................... ........ ........ .............. .. ...... ............... .. .. ..
Cycles of Contention, Master Frames and Latin American Social
M ov em ents ............................................................... 11
O rg a n iz atio n ............................................................................................................... 12
2 BIRTH OF THE BARTER CLUBS................................................ ...... ......... 14
20th Century Political and Economic Context .................................... ............... 14
Argentina's Recurring Economic Cycle ............................ ... ............ 14
Menem and the Early 90s ................. ............ ... ................... 15
Structural Changes and the "New Poor" .....................................................18
Birth of the Trueques ............................................. .. ...... .................. 21
Tru eq u e V alu es....................................................... .................. 2 3
Structure and Organization of the RGT.............................................................25
Participants Demographics ..................................................... ............... 26
N odo D ynam ics ................................................................ ...........................28
Intersection w ith Governm ent .................................................. ........ ....... 29
Problem s w within the Trueques ......................................................... ...............
C chapter Sum m ary ........................ .................... .. .. .... ........ ......... 35
3 AFFECT OF NATIONAL ECONOMIC CRISIS ON THE BARTER CLUBS ........36
The Econom ic Crisis of 2001/2002 ..................................... .....................36
Effect of Economic Crisis on the Barter Clubs ...................................................40
T ruequ e R espon se........... ...... ............................................................ .......... ....... 4 5
Chapter Sum m ary ........................ .................... .. .. .... ........ ......... 47
4 TRUEQUES AS A SOCIAL MOVEMENT? ......................................................48
Collective Activity .... ... .. .... ................ ............ .... .............. 48
Contention ............... ............... ............ 49
Com m on Purpose/Com m on Identity ........................................ ...................... 54
M obilizing Structures ....................................... .... .... ................59
Su stained A activity ............ ................................................................ ......... ....... 60
Political O opportunities .................. ..................................... .. ........ .... 61
C chapter Sum m ary ........................ .................... .. .. ........... ......... 61
5 CYCLES OF CONTENTION ........................................................ ............. 63
O nset of the Cycle ............ .................................. ........ .............. .. 63
D decline of the cycle .................. ...................................... .......... ....66
C conclusion ............................................................... ..... ..... ........ 68
APPENDIX PRINCIPIOS DE LA RGT ........................................ ...... ............... 73
L IST O F R E FE R E N C E S ............................................................................. ............. 75
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ..................................................................... ..................81
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
BARTER CLUB PARTICIPANTS IN ARGENTINA: IDEALOGUES OR
Chair: Philip Williams
Major Department: Latin American Studies
This thesis examines the phenomenon of barter clubs in Argentina during the 1990s
and early years of 2000 through the lens of social movement literature. Originating in
1995, the barter clubs, or trueques, evolved into a nation-wide system of clubs called the
Red Global de Trueque (RGT) with more than a million participants. Although the barter
clubs were used by most participants as a way to deal with the worsening national
economy, particularly during the national crisis of late 2001 and early 2002, they were
not originally designed as a survival mechanism. The barter clubs were envisioned as an
alternative to the dictates of the market an antidote to consumerism, competition and
greed. The founder's strong ideological commitment and their effort to create a similar
consciousness among barter club members suggest that the trueques be considered as a
social movement. By examining the barter clubs in light of Sidney Tarrow's definition of
social movements I conclude that the RGT started out with all of the elements of a social
movement but failed to consolidate as such. The barter clubs failed to maintain their
trajectory as a social movement in part because of the entrance of the structurally poor
into a phenomenon originally designed and used by the "new poor." This sudden influx
of participants motivated by need significantly changed the orientation of the barter
Although the barter clubs did not consolidate as a social movement they are
significant for several reasons. On the one hand, the barter clubs were a survival
mechanism that supplied basic goods and services during a time when money was short
and unemployment was high. The trueques, however, made a deeper impact than just
simply providing basic needs during economic hardship. At a visible level, the barter
clubs influenced government by putting new issues on the political agenda, and gaining
political support of an alternative economic model. The barter clubs also influenced
society at a more implicit level. Barter club participants, whether or not they consciously
intended it, created new identities for themselves. The barter clubs are also significant as
a response to Argentina's evolving state-society relations. The economic crisis of 2001
symbolized for many the consequences of the state's move away from a paternalistic,
hands-on economic model to a liberal market model. The responses to the crisis and to
the underlying change varied from asambleas barriales andpiqueteros, tofabricas
recuperadas and barter clubs. This wave of contention demonstrates a broad based
search for new modes of both governance and livelihood.
In December of 2001 the economic crisis that had been slowly building in
Argentina for four years finally exploded. The government instituted a limit on the
amount individuals could withdraw from their bank accounts, precipitating
demonstrations known as cacerolazos, where people took to the streets banging pots and
pans in protest. President de la Rua declared a state of siege and then was forced out of
office after riots ended in the death of 27 citizens (Fue 2003). Four more presidents came
and went in the space of two weeks. Meanwhile the government defaulted on more than
$100 billion of debt, one of the largest defaults in history (Argentina 2001). The angry
cacerolazos, however, were not the only public manifestations of the crisis. Throughout
Buenos Aires and the country at large, hundreds of thousands of people were getting
together regularly to barter goods and services.
Although the barter clubs were touted by the Argentine media as a way to deal with
the economic meltdown (Leoni and Luzzi 2003), they had in fact begun six years earlier,
well before the dramatic crash, with a group of 20 people trading in a garage. The barter
clubs, or trueques, would eventually evolve into a nation-wide system of clubs called the
Red Global de Trueque (RGT) with more than a million participants.
While the barter clubs provided relief during the economic turmoil, they were
clearly not an overnight phenomenon. Rather, the trueque founders created the barter
clubs as a way to combat a growing exclusion from the benefits of the marketplace,
exclusion engendered by a combination of globalization and neoliberal policies. The
barter clubs were envisioned as an alternative to the dictates of the market an antidote
to consumerism, competition and greed.1 The RGT not only provided a venue in which
to exercise this alternative mode of consumption and production, but the RGT founders
also promoted these normative convictions among the club participants.
The founder's strong ideological commitment and their effort to create a similar
consciousness among barter club members suggest that the trueques be considered as a
social movement. Yet despite these obvious signs of social movement activity, no
previous research has examined the barter clubs in this framework. The most obvious
reason for not making this connection is that by 2002, most people in the barter system
were using it as survival strategy, with little regard for any deep-seated normative beliefs.
Previous research on the barter clubs recognizes the ideological claims made by the
founders (Leoni and Luzzi 2003, Bombal 2002, Powell 2002). It also recognizes a
divergence between the convictions of the founders and the rank-and-file participants.
This lack of affinity has been explained as a function of the structurally poor entering into
a phenomenon designed and used by the "new poor." This sudden influx of participants
motivated by need rather than theory surely changed the orientation of the barter clubs.
The unasked question, however, is why the founders were not able to build and maintain
a base of members "loyal" to the cause.
Two questions guide this thesis. First, keeping in mind the barter club's
philosophical foundations, but also recognizing the divergence between the founder's
intentions and the reality of participant motivation, can the barter clubs, in fact, be
considered a social movement? To answer this question, I will examine the barter clubs
1 See Los doce principios in the appendix.
in light of Sidney Tarrow's definition of social movements (1998). I conclude that the
RGT started out with all of the elements of a social movement but failed to consolidate as
such. Second, why did the everyday participant fail to assume the convictions of the
original project? To answer this question I will use Tarrow's definition as a point of
departure. I will draw on my research conducted in Argentina to examine the
formulation and dissemination of barter club values and its organizational methods.
Classical Collective Behavior Theory
The concept of social movement is relatively new, emerging out of classical
collective behavior theory. Collective behavior theory applied a "single explanatory
logic" for all collective behavior, including crazes, panics and demonstrations. The civil
rights movement in the 1950s and the subsequent movements of the 60s and 70s
catalyzed a new school of thought (Buechler 2000). These were structured movements
demonstrating overtly political and cultural agendas. Consequently, the concept of social
movement emerged as a distinct domain of collective action. One of the earliest
theoretical frameworks to gain wide currency in this developing realm of literature was
resource mobilization theory. It was subsequently challenged by social constructionism
and new social movement theory (Buechler 2000).
Resource Mobilization Theory
Resource Mobilization theorists concern themselves with explaining why people
agree to join in a social movement, specifically in light of the "free-rider" dilemma: a
rational individual would not join a social movement if other people were willing to do
the work to secure goods that will then be publicly shared. To solve this dilemma,
movements offer selective incentives to encourage and reward participation. Incentives
such as outside funding, professionalization and increased material resources (McCarthy
and Zald in Tarrow 1998).
Resource mobilization theory has been criticized for not paying adequate attention
to the role of ideas in motivating participation. Myra Marx Ferree points out that
resource mobilization theory does not allow that people may act hedonistically, may act
for short-term benefits, or may be morally driven to behaviors that conflict with self-
interest. As such, resource mobilization theory proffers a kind of "one dimensional
rationality": "The tautologies that arise from treating all forms of behavior as strategically
rational by definition exclude a realistic explanation of when behavior may be more or
less than an expression of self-interest" (Ferree 1992:32). Part of the problem in this one-
dimensional rationality is that preferences are a given, not up for debate or modification.
Such an assumption reduces participation motivation to incentives only. The result is to
ignore a movement's role in creating and shaping identity and preferences.
Social constructionism, like resource mobilization theory, also focuses on
explaining why people participate. Social constructionism, however, focuses principally
on the role of ideational factors rather than material rewards. The work of Snow,
Rochford, Worden and Benford (1986), offers key insight into the role of ideas in
catalyzing participation. Drawing on the concept of framing originally introduced by
Goffman (1974), these authors define framing as an interactional process that links an
individual's grievances to the work of the social movement (Snow et al. 1986: 467). "By
rendering events or occurrences meaningful, frames function to organize experience and
guide action, whether individual or collective" (Snow et al. 1986: 464).
Framing is a necessary activity because people often do not start by buying
wholesale into a social movement. "Seldom do individuals join a movement organization
per se, at least initially. Rather it is far more common for individuals to agree to
participate in some activity or campaign by devoting some measure of time, energy, or
money" (Snow et al. 1986: 467). Framing can be a slow process and it can slip out of
place over time since it is always subject to "reassessment and renegotiation" (Snow et
al. 1986: 476) but it is eventually a necessary condition for movement participation
(Snow et al. 1986: 464).
According to Snow, Rochford, Worden and Benford, there are four possible levels
of framing: bridging, amplification, extension and transformation. In the process of
frame bridging, individuals already have a particular grievance and the movement taps
into it, providing an "organizational base for expressing their discontents" (Snow et al.
1986: 467). Most resource mobilization theory has assumed that movements simply need
to do frame bridging because grievances are already "sufficiently generalized and salient"
(468). Frame amplification appeals to values and beliefs that people already hold, but
tries to move those values and beliefs higher up in the hierarchy. During frame
amplification, values and beliefs previously "shrouded by indifference, deception or
fabrication by others, and by ambiguity or uncertainty" (469) are clarified and
reinvigorated. Frame extension appeals to values that are ancillary to potential
participants. A common frame extension strategy is to incorporate values auxiliary to the
principal values of the movement and try to recruit people by appealing to these auxiliary
values. Frame transformation is the most radical of the frame processes. It requires a
redefinition of an individual's values, in which "new values may have to be planted and
nurtured, old meanings or understandings jettisoned" (473).
These framing processes are all done at the individual, micro level. Snow and
Benford (1992) also apply the framing concept to a macro understanding of social
movements, which accounts for periods of increased mobilization across different
organizations. Master frames refer to "general ideological trends at the macrolevel of
social order" (Buechler 2000: 42). Linked to cycles of protest, master frames allow
several and varied groups to adopt similar language and symbols. Pathfinders who create
the beginning of a cycle face the most difficulties and create an easier time for the
movements that follow, but the seminal movements in a cycle also set the stage and terms
of debate (Buechler 2000: 42).
New Social Movements
The literature on new social movements shares common ground with social
constructionism; both schools of thought focus on the role of ideas in movements. The
unique contribution of new social movement literature, however, is the expansion of our
understanding of what constitutes a social movement. This literature points to changes in
movement activity and structure and suggests the need for new understandings (Larafia,
Johnston et al. 1994). Alberto Melucci observes: "The production and reappropriation of
meaning seem to lie at the core of contemporary conflicts; this understanding requires a
careful redefinition of what a social movement is and what forms of action display its
presence" (1994: 110).
There are several ways in which new social movements amplify previous
conceptions of social movements. New social movements center on the role of identity-
creation rather than material or economic needs (Larafia 1994). As Melucci (1994) points
out, old movements were about the excluded trying to get into the system of benefits or
about the redistribution of goods. New social movements, on the other hand, challenge
the dominant discourse. They are no longer asking to be included in the system, they are
clamoring to redefine the system. New social movements also tend to be acted out by
individuals and are often life-style based, extending to the activities of daily life, for
instance in the choice of food, dress or pastime. Furthermore, new social movements
employ novel, often symbolic, modes of resistance and frequently operate in
decentralized organizational forms (Larafia 1994: 6-8).
Because new social movements do not challenge the allocation of values or goods
but rather challenge what those values or goods should be, their importance is not so
much in their material or policy gains, but in their ability to change thinking. It is the
activity of the movement that is important, not so much the specific results they achieve.
"Conflicts [of new social movements] do not chiefly express themselves through action
designed to achieve outcomes in the political system. Rather, they raise a challenge that
recasts the language and cultural codes that organize information" (Melucci 1994: 102).
This effort is an ongoing renegotiation and reestablishment of identity and
meaning. Because of their unique role of expression and identity-creation, new social
movements do not relate to the political system in a traditional way. Instead the
challenges they raise are often acted out in daily life in non-institutional ways that raise
questions about individual identity. The way new social movements do affect political
institutions is in their ability to influence the rise of new elites, to put new issues on the
agenda and to create new languages (Melucci 1994:102).
One of the biggest criticisms of new social movement theory is that the putatively
"new" movements in fact share quite a bit in common with the "old" movements. But
whether or not "new" social movements are in fact new, the theory contributes in an
important way to the dialogue: it moves away from a narrow political conception of
social movement by recognizing non-traditional actors and unique methods of contention.
Towards a Synthesis
In the literature review so far it is clear that there are various ways to understand
social movements. Each school of thought focuses on contrasting variables and different
levels of analysis. To properly understand social movements we need a synthesis of the
three perspectives.2 Sidney Tarrow's definition of social movements in his book, Power
in Movement, provides a starting point. As we will see, certain aspects of his definition
consciously draw from the resource mobilization theorists and the constructivists. And
although Tarrow does not explicitly address the new social movement perspective, its
influence is apparent.
For Tarrow, the defining aspect of a social movement is "contentious collective
action". The key ideas subsumed under this concept include collective activity,
contention, a common purpose and/or identity, mobilizing structures, and the ability to
sustain activity. All of these factors are necessarily present, but they are not sufficient to
form a movement. The last requirement is the appropriate political opportunities. Each
component deserves a bit of explanation.
2 Buechler argues that a "true" synthesis is unlikely because the differing theories subscribe to "different
metatheoretical orientations" (Buechler 200: 55). Yet he recognizes the coherency of the "emerging
synthesis in social movement theory around the concepts of political opportunities, mobilizing structures,
and framing process (54)," which we will see evident in Sidney Tarrow's work.
Collective activity. Social movements by definition are phenomena of collective
activity. Isolated, unrelated individuals acting in discrete ways, even if acting
contentiously, cannot be considered a social movement.
Contention. According to Tarrow, collectiveie action becomes contentious when
it is used by people who lack regular access to institutions, who act in the name of new or
unaccepted claims, and who behave in ways that fundamentally challenge others or
authorities" (3). Contention can be over discrete policies or abstract values; it can be
materially motivated or ideologically generated, or both (5). Contention can be in the
form of lobbying or legal channels, but the essential kernel of a social movement is the
acting out in non-traditional ways. This kind of activity separates movements from
groups like political parties or lobbyists.
Common purpose/Common identity. "It is participants' recognition of their
common interests that translates the potential for a movement into action" (Tarrow 1998:
6). In turn, part of the social movement's task is to help people identify grievances and
generate solidarity. "[R]ather than regarding ideology as either a superimposed
intellectual category or as the automatic result of grievances... scholars agree that
movements do passionate 'framing work': shaping grievances into broader and more
resonant claims" (21). Social movements can have heterogeneous make up (and often
do), but there is some common identity that binds the members together. This is what
leaders have to tap into and bring to the forefront.
Mobilizing structures. This refers to how social movements organize. Tarrow
argues that the "connective structures" that link participants with organizers need to strike
a balance between being sufficiently loose to allow flexibility and autonomy at the
bottom, but sufficiently centralized to implement effective collective strategies. These
kinds of structures are often in the form of social networks. During latent periods in a
movement these networks provide "abeyance structures" which can be mobilized when
needed (Tarrow 1998: 129).
Sustained activity. The temporal aspect of social movements also distinguishes
them from one-time, discreet protests. In order to be a social movement, collective action
has to be able to maintain a challenge over time.
Political opportunities. Tarrow notes that discontent and structural societal strain
are always present. It is only when the political system opens in a particular manner that
provides the crucible for all of the above-described dynamics to catalyze the formation of
a social movement.
Tarrow's definition is useful for three reasons. One, it provides a concrete, basic
definition of what constitutes a social movement. It is the conceptual tool by which we
will evaluate whether the barter clubs in fact were a social movement. Two, it
incorporates elements of the varying schools of social movement thought. The influence
of new social movement literature is apparent in the discussion of contention which
includes symbolic and ideological challenges as well as his discussion of mobilizing
structures which includes decentralized organization. Constructivist concepts are
explicit in his discussions on framing and collective identity. His definition also
consciously draws from the "rationalists" or resource mobilization theorists, by
discussing the opportunities and constraints that lead to action or inaction in a movement.
(Tarrow 1998: 198-199). Three, Tarrow's definition provides a platform on which to
discuss why the barter clubs failed to continue as a social movement.
Cycles of Contention, Master Frames and Latin American Social Movements
If we telescope out from the barter clubs we can see that they were not the only
form of collective action and protest in Argentina in the 1990s and during the apex of the
economic crisis. Other contentious phenomena included the piqueteros, fdbricas
recuperadas, asambleas bariales, and cacerolazos. One way we understand the trueques
in light of these other forms of activity is through Tarrow's ideas on "cycles of
contention" (1998). Tarrow points out that social movements and other forms of
contentious behavior do not happen in isolation from each other; successes and failures of
one set of actors provide cues to other actors. Furthermore, despite variance in the forms
of contentious activity and heterogeneity of actors, there is often a master frame around
which all protest occurs. The cycle begins when there is a marked increase in activity
carried out by a multiplicity of actors acting out in a variety of ways. Decline in a cycle
is brought about by exhaustion on part of the actors and polarization within the
movement. Decline is also prompted by the government, which selectively facilitates
some claims and ignores or represses others.
Looking to the literature specifically on Latin American social movements brings
specificity to Tarrow's perspective. Scholars recognize that Latin American social
movements have been influenced in turn by the forces of urbanization, authoritarian
governments, and now the new democratic context, one defined predominantly by
neoliberal economic policies (Foweraker, 2005; Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar, 1998).
These various forces set the axes around which cycles of contention have waxed and
waned in the region. Likewise, collective action in Argentina in the last twenty years has
centered first around the military dictatorship and the transition to democracy and now,
most recently, around the consolidation of democracy and the accompanying neoliberal
model (DiMarco and Palomino 2004: 8).
Applying the analyses of Foweraker (2005) and Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar
(1998) within the framework of an overall cycle of contention helps to explain
demobilization. Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar point to government plans attempting to
cushion the fall-out of neoliberal adjustments, suggesting that these "social adjustment"
plans reach out to the excluded. However, they admit adverse effects as well: not only do
these plans recreate clientelistic models, but they also dismantle the need for
mobilization. Foweraker (2005) also recognizes a move towards demobilization.
However, for Foweraker, the switch to neo-liberal economic policies means that the state
is less likely to hand out material benefits that movements ask for. Thus social
movements adapt by negotiating more, mobilizing less and increasing their interaction
with state agencies. "[T]here is a significant change in emphasis in social movement
activity that is epitomized in the change from social movement to non-governmental
The initial question guiding this thesis is whether the barter clubs can be considered
a social movement. Chapter two and chapter three provide the background to answer this
question, describing the chronology of the trueques. In the process I illuminate the
political opportunities giving way to the barter clubs. In these two chapters I draw on
interviews I conducted in October and November of 20043 as well as the findings of other
3 I conducted 22 formal open-ended interviews and 23 informal interviews. Using the Red Global de
Trueque website, which had a list of barter club locations and contact names, more than 100 emails were
sent. A handful of people responded and agreed to be interviewed. Futher interviews were conducted
based on referrals from the original group of interviewees. Also, more informal interviews were conducted
barter club research. More specifically, chapter two details the economic climate of
Argentina during Menem's presidency in the 1990s. This chapter goes on to recount the
birth of the barter clubs and their rapid growth up until the year before the economic
debacle, documenting the problems which began to plague the barter system. Chapter
three details the national economic collapse in late 2001 and discusses its effects on the
barter clubs. Chapter four is the analytical heart of this work, taking Tarrow's definition
of social movements and demonstrating in what ways the barter clubs fit and in what
ways they do not. I conclude that the RGT started out with all of the elements of a social
movement but failed to consolidate as such. In the course of this chapter, I also answer
the second question guiding this thesis: why the RGT failed to maintain its original
trajectory as a social movement. Chapter five places the barter clubs within a larger cycle
of protest occurring in Argentina in the 1990s and early years of 2000. By putting the
barter clubs in the context of a larger cycle of protest understanding the mobilization
phase, the use of a master frame and the demobilization phase we can understand the
barter clubs as one reaction among many to the changing state-society relations in
at several currently operating barter clubs. The founders of the three main barter club systems in the
country were also interviewed.
BIRTH OF THE BARTER CLUBS
This chapter begins by placing the trueques into Argentina's 20th century political
and economic context, discussing Menem's neoliberal policies of the 1990s as well as the
rise of the "new poor". The next section details the barter clubs from their inception in
1995 through to 2001- focusing on trueque values, club organization and participant
dynamics. The third section highlights some of the challenges faced by the trueques in
during this period.
20th Century Political and Economic Context
Argentina's Recurring Economic Cycle
"Argentina is a nostalgic country and why not? Its past is well worth remembering.
In 1914, it was one of the five or six wealthiest countries in the world, and its living
standard exceeded that of Western Europe until the late 1950s or early 1960s" (Falcoff
2003). The first half of the 20th century proved to be good times for Argentina, leading to
the creation of a strong middle class. Argentina, blessed with the pampas a tremendous
expanse of fertile land exploited its comparative advantage, supplying meat and grain to
the industrialized world (Skidmore 2001: 70). A significant immigration wave coupled
with modernizing agriculture, manufacturing and transportation sectors transformed
Argentine society, developing the middle and working classes (Banko 2000: 27).
Following the Depression, which it fared comparatively well, Argentina successfully
industrialized and began producing for domestic consumption while reestablishing its
meat and grain exports (Banko 2000: 28). Juan Peron's 1940s corporatist state spread the
benefits to the working class, increasing wages, and extending it new rights. In 1950,
Argentina stood out as more urban, modem and with a more educated work force than
surrounding Latin American countries (Tokman 1996: 49)
During the second half of the century, however, Argentina witnessed two trends: a
slow process of deindustrialization and the steady decline of the once-established middle-
class. During his first term Juan Peron's economic strategy of nationalizing foreign-
owned companies, maintaining artificially low agricultural prices and increasing real
hourly wages held up while global commodity prices remained high. The country grew
8.6, 12.6 and 5.1 percent in the first three years of his presidency (Skidmore 2001: 86).
The boom came to a halt in 1949, when world commodity prices dropped and inflation
increased. In response, Peron instituted an austerity plan, one of many to come
(Skidmore 2001: 87, 88). It was the beginning of what would be Argentina's pattern to
the present day: a cycle of trade deficits, inflation and low or negative growth, followed
by ultimately untenable stabilization programs, implemented in varying degrees of
orthodoxy and regard for foreign creditors.1 By the time Carlos Menem assumed the
presidency in 1989, the pattern had been established and the middle-class had lost
Menem and the Early 90s
Carlos Saul Menem assumed the presidency in 1989. He had inherited an economy
in the inflationary and low-growth part of the cycle. The economy had shrunk three
percent in 1988 and another six percent in 1989 (Skidmore 2001: 102). Inflation was
1 Argentina is not only known for its recurring economic cycle, but also for revolving military coups. This
pattern began in 1930 with the overthrow of Hip6lito Yrigoyen, followed by a series of alternating military
and civilian governments. The pattern seems to have ended with the return of civilian government in 1983.
increasing at a rate of 150% per month and the country was almost $4 billion in arrears
on its external debt (Skidmore 2001: 103). Menem, a Peronist, surprisingly instituted a
neoliberal reform package. His first moved to privatize state-owned companies including
telephone, airlines, electricity, coal, natural gas, subways and shipping (Skidmore 2001:
103). His next step was selecting a hard-nosed economics minister, Domingo Cavallo,
who dramatically limited government spending (Skidmore 2001: 103). Price controls
were eliminated. Tariffs were reduced, and sectors such as agriculture, wholesale and
retail were deregulated (Bluestein 2005: 24). Under Cavallo, the government also
instituted the Ley de Convertibilidad, which guaranteed the peso in a one-to-one
exchange with the dollar.
To fully understand the role of the convertibility law, one must look back to the
circumstances of the 80's, the so-called "lost decade". The 80s were characterized by
high inflation and a negative growth rate an average decrease of about half percent per
year (IMF 2003). The "lost decade" of the 80s resulted in a severe lack of confidence in
the government. In their 1998 article Palermo and Collins examine Menem's response to
this "credibility gap." Attempting to curb the hyperinflation endemic to the 80s,
Argentina adopted an orthodox monetary policy, i.e., it tightened the money supply.
This policy achieved the intended effect of halting inflation, yet it delivered the economy
into recession and decreased the amount of money in the public accounts. The
temptation at that point was to print more money to try to restart the economy. This
option, of course, threatened to resuscitate the specter of inflation. The government
needed to grow the economy yet keep inflation under wraps. Palermo and Collins argue
that the creation of the convertibility law (combined with the appointment of a highly
respected technocratic economic team led by Domingo Cavallo) allowed the Menem
government to not only accomplish these two goals, but also to increase public spending
at the same time. As the two authors put it, "the Menem government seemed to have
successfully converted a circle into a square" (Palermo and Collins 1998: 43).
The success of this new policy hinged on the adoption of a mechanism the authors
refer to as "self-restraint.2" By virtue of being a law, the Ley de Convertibilidad signaled
that the government was abrogating its option to influence the economy through
monetary policy manipulations or alterations in the exchange rate. By forgoing its
prerogative to moderate monetary policy and exchange rates, the government had to be
able to back up expansionary borrowing by having dollars on hand. Palermo and Collins
note that if the government "should require dollars to make payments on the foreign debt,
the treasury would need to buy them like any other private institution and this purchase
would have to be made with the operating surplus resulting from controlling costs and
improving the state's ability to collect taxes (or, as it also happened, by selling some of
its property)" (44).
The plan worked. Guarantees of the exchange rate created a stronger sense of
certainty, investment grew, inflation fell, and domestic consumption increased. The
subsequent increases in tax revenues combined with profits from government sale of
public sectors allowed the government to maintain reserve levels while simultaneously
increasing public spending (Palermo and Collins 1998). The early 1990s hailed
substantial growth rates, and Argentina was soon the darling of the developing world.
The economy grew 10% in 1991 and 1992 and another 5% in 1993 and 1994. Although
2 The concept of self-restraint is originally discussed by Elster (1998) and appropriated in a more general
form by Palermo and Collins.
the Mexican peso crisis reverberated strongly in 1995 with a negative growth of 4%, the
economy recovered quickly, growing 5% in 1996 and 8% in 1997 (IMF 2003).3
The reforms, however, introduced serious deficiencies. The first problem was
overvaluation of the currency. The convertibility law led to an overvalued peso, which in
turn made exports more expensive and created a national trade deficit (Skidmore 2001:
103). The burgeoning deficit did not matter so long as the economy was growing and
foreign investment continued to flow in, as it did throughout most of the 90s (Bluestein
2005). A second problem, not a result of the convertibility law, but one that confounded
it, was the increasing government debt. These two issues proved to be decisive factors in
the economy's debacle in 2001, but in the mid-90s the gravity of these problems was only
dimly perceived. Argentina continued to be the poster child for good development.
A third problem, however, was rearing its head: rising unemployment. Even
though domestic policies and international investment trends led to a reactivation of the
economy, it negatively affected the labor market. Unemployment increased from 6.5
percent in 1991 to 12.2 percent in 1994 and 14 percent in 1997 (Skidmore 2001: 103,
105) and the government payroll in 1994 decreased by half (Bluestein 2005: 24).
Structural Changes and the "New Poor"
Although unemployment became acute in the 1990s, the trend had begun earlier.
The average rate of unemployment before 1980 had hovered around 2-3%, while in the
1980s it averaged about 6%, and in the first five years of the 90s it averaged 11%
(Tokman 1996: 48). For many scholars, the 1990s was only a continuation of a
development that had started in the 1970s and 80s under the military dictatorship: the
3 In 1995 there were rumblings of discontent with Menem's economic policies. The opposition mounted a
challenge to Menem's hegemony in the presidential elections, but failed to capture the vote.
dismantling of the welfare state in favor of a neoliberal model (Bonetto and Pifiero 2000,
Beliz 1995). Argentina's post-war model centered around social rights. It was
characterized by state regulation and centralized union negotiations. The state resolved
social questions and led national development (Bonetto and Pifiero 2000: 52). In the
1970s, however, the welfare state began to unravel. "Lo que en tiempos de Estado de
bienestar se entendia con criterios de universalidad, generosidad fiscal y paternalismo del
sector public, troc6 abruptamente a partir de los sucesivos process de ajuste y de deuda
que vivi6 Argentina de 1975 en adelante" (Beliz 1995: 27).
The debt-ridden years of the 1980s deepened the neoliberal inclination as the
country became beholden to conditions imposed by its creditors. Between 1977 and 1982
the external debt increased by almost 500% (Banko 2000: 31). "Argentina... habia ido
perdiendo progesivamente el dinamismo econ6mico que habia sido caracteristico de su
economic hasta 1930...Las crisis ciclicas condujeron a la busqueda de financiamiento
externo para solventar los desequilibrios externos" (Banko 2000: 30-31).
The 1990s, under Menem, paved the final neoliberal inroads, particularly with
regard to the labor market. From the 1970s through the 1990s Argentina implemented
labor policies to make the work force more flexible and to reduce labor costs, allowing
industry to compete internationally (Tokman 1996: 62). State leaders made efforts to
decentralize collective negotiation and minimize government involvement in labor
conflicts. These policies precipitated dramatic structural changes in Argentine society.
Traditional institutions began to fragment, as seen in the breakdown in the traditional role
and power of unions. Furthermore, employment became more uncertain, the work force
became more informal and salaries decreased (Beliz 1995: 29-30).4 The end result was a
loss of social mobility and the advent of the "new poor" (Beliz 1995: 27).
Who are the new poor? The new poor are composed of two types: previously poor
people who were able to achieve a certain standard of living above the poverty line, but
then fell back below that line; and the middle class who had never been poor, but at some
point fell into poverty (Minujin and Kessler 1995: 40). The new poor, like the middle
class, typically have access to higher education (educaci6n media superior) and tend to
have less children per family. The new poor, however, are similar to the structurally poor
in terms of job insecurity and lack of health coverage (Minujin and Kessler 1995: 10).
Another distinguishing feature of the new poor involves their access to social capital
(47).5 Many of the new poor have a great deal of social capital to draw on, which allows
them to maintain access to certain lifestyle perks, but in turn leads to their relative
For some, the improving macroeconomic situation in Argentina of the early 1990s
translated into a better life. Yet a great many others joined the ranks of the new poor by
finding themselves unemployed, underemployed, without a permanent job contract, or
working in the informal sector. This context of increasing job precariousness provided
the crucible for much of the social upheaval of the 1990s, including the barter clubs.
4 For more information about the declining employment situation in Argentina in the 20t century see Un
trabajo para todos. 1997. Buenos Aires: Consejo Empresario Argentino. See also Metamorfosis del
empleo en i,,,i,,, 1,,,,. Driii. .... political y perspectives. 2002. Javier Lindenboim (compilador).
Cuaderno del CEPED, No. 7.
5 Minujin and Kessler define social capital as the network of friends and family who are better off and can
offer cheap services, do favors, offer jobs, etc. (44).
Birth of the Trueques
What became the Argentine barter clubs have their roots in an earlier program. In
1989 Anibal Ruben Ravera, Horacio Ruben Covas and Carlos Alberto de Sanzo created a
small publishing firm and NGO in the city of Bemal6 called El Programa de
Autosuficiencia Regional (PAR). The PAR critiqued the global economy for engendering
inequity, unemployment, social tension, degradation of the environment, and destruction
of community (Comenzarpor Casa). In response, the PAR promoted self-sufficiency,
based on the principals of environmentally sustainable, community-based, and "human
scale" production. Their website describes their initial beginnings:
Hacia 1988 la Argentina vivia una crisis nueva. Comenzaba a percibirse nuevos
fen6menos econ6micos...Fue alli cuando se nos ocurri6 componer un ideario que
velara por quienes se quedaban sin trabajo o eran excluidos por el sistema global.
Basandonos en ideas de autogesti6n y tecnologias socialmente apropriadas
intentamos plasmar una consigna que despertara sentimientos de supervivencia con
formulas simples pero efectivas. Naci6 entonces el 'Programa de Autosuficiencia
The main purpose of the PAR was to design, develop and administer projects for
ecological, self-reliant existence (Laporte 2003: 165). For instance it promoted organic
food production, permaculture, solar energy and recycling. It advocated for a local
development model in some ways similar to the idea of import substitution:
La propuesta de la Autosuficiencia Regional es afin a un cumulo de ideas
vanguardistas en el campo econ6mico-ecol6gico, entire los que se cuentan el
Bioregionalismo de Peter Berger, la Permacultura de Bill Mollison y la teoria de
Jane Jacobs acerca de la innovaci6n y transformaci6n de las economies nacionales
a partir de la sustituci6n local de importaciones en las regions urbanas. En nuestra
concepci6n, la Autosuficiencia Regional apunta a promover la identidad e
interdependencia de las regions urbanas y rurales, poniendo en valor, con
tecnologias a escala humana, sus recursos ambientales, econ6micos, tecnicos,
culturales e hist6ricos, sin perseguir una autosuficiencia total. De este modo, estas
regions no s6lo se encontraran en mejores condiciones para sobrevivir a la
6 In the partido of Quilmes in the Buenos Aires province
exclusion provocada por la globalizaci6n econ6mica y la sofisticaci6n tecnol6gica,
sino que podran mejorar la calidad de vida de sus habitantes, mediante el
intercambio con regions similares mas alli de las propias fronteras. (Primavera,
Covas and De Sanzo: Ch 5).
Out of the PAR initiatives came the first barter club. Luis Laporte describes the
goals of the first barter club: "Nuestra meta era crear un mercado protegido para aquellos
que no podian mantenerse a flote en medio del marco asfixiante de los efectos
econ6micos de la globalizaci6n unilateral frente el retroceso de Estado, desde una
perspective micro local" (165). The first barter club began with a group of 20 people in
1995 in Bernal. Participants got together every Saturday for a few hours to exchange
goods and services. They called it the Club de Trueque.7 A member would come with
items such as prepared food, clothes, or artisan products. Each time an item was "sold"
the seller would mark the corresponding "credit" on a personal tally card. Then the
seller would become a buyer. For every product "bought" that person would deduct the
corresponding amount from the running tally on the card. When a group of people
wanted to duplicate the system in the city of Buenos Aires paper credits were introduced
and the Red Global de Trueque (RGT) was born (Laporte 2003: 167). The credits
looked similar to money and acted much in the same way. Instead of marking credits and
debits on a card, people could "buy" or "sell" using the physical credits. For the ease of
pricing, it was decided that one credit should be the rough equivalent of one peso.8
Soon nodos, the name of the location where a barter club met, began popping up all
over the region and the country. Fostered by coverage in the national television show
STrocar in Spanish means to trade or exchange
8 The RGT credits have been called different names. At first referred to as "Ticketes Trueque," they also
became knows as "arbolitos, which refers to the image of a tree printed on the front. I use the term
creditt" throughout this paper, which is the generic term for any physical credit used within the barter
"Hora Clave" in 1996 and by other favorable media coverage, membership began to
grow (Primavera, Covas and De Sanzo 1998). In one accounting of the trueques, the
number ofnodos went from 17 in 1996 to 40 in 1997, more than doubling to 83 in 1998.
The years 1999 and 2000 saw an increase to 400 and 500 nodos respectively. By 2001
the number of nodos reached 1800 (Ovalles 2002).9 The rapid increase in participants
was not only due to media coverage. It spread by word of mouth and by virtue of need.
One participant who joined in 2001 remarked "Cuando el trueque sale del cono urban,
que se llama aca, de la parte de los suburbios, y se empieza a meter en la capital federal
fue como una explosion, cada dos o tres cuadras habia un nodo. Fue impresionante. Ibas
caminando por la calle y se encontrabas con un nodo".
Specifically the RGT seeks to provide alternative spaces for the unemployed.
These alternative spaces serve two functions. One is the practical fulfillment of basic
material needs. As one researcher summarizes:
Hay un reconocimiento de las capacidades que los miembros [del trueque] poseen,
pero que a la vez el Mercado y las political estatales decide excluir, dejando de
esta manera al margen del Mercado formal a un grupo important de la poblaci6n,
cuyas habilidades no estan acordes a las demandada del actual modelo econ6mico
(Arcidiacono, Nota 4, first column, 2nd page).
9 Accounting of participant numbers has not been an exact or scientific endeavor. The study by Ovalles is
referenced in the book, Trueque y Economia Solidaria (editor Susana Hintze), but the methodology of that
study is not revealed. Other estimations are cited in newspaper articles, but these generally reflect
estimates provided by club founders.
The other function is a psychological one of healing and self development.10 The
core value of the RGT is self-help, or autosuficiencia. The RGT encourages self-help as
a means to extricate oneself from the dependency on a global system that consistently
fails to provide. However, this self-help can only be carried out in solidarity with others.
The RGT enjoins members to learn to producerr por nosotros mismos aprendiendo de lo
demas integrantes, de sus experiencias y tecnicas a traves de la ayuda mutual" (Preample
to Los doce principios, see appendix).
Another pillar of the RGT rhetoric revolves around the evils of money. According
to the RGT, in today's world, the accumulation of money drives the individual. Yet very
few people are successful in this endeavor. The vast majorities who fail to successfully
play the game of money accumulation are left with few options for survival and personal
development. The result is that the individual becomes dependent on a system in which
they have little success. Thus the RGT refuses to deal in pesos and instead created a
separate currency, the credito. The cr&dito, however, should not be considered as
currency qua currency. It is simply a mechanism to facilitate trade. A key dictate of the
RGT is to never accumulate cr&ditos, but to keep them in circulation.
The RGT also insists that members be both producers and consumers, not just
consumers. Members of the club are referred to as "prosumidores," a combination of the
productor (producer) and consumidor (consumer).11 To be aprosumidor serves the
obvious logistical function of creating both supply and demand. But there is a
10 Preceding the creation of the RGT was a self-help group formed by PAR called Emprendedores
An6nimos, modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, that was aimed at "personas que experimentaran dudas en
la toma de decisions, vulnerabilidad en lo laboral, incertidumbre ante elfuturo y tuvieran la necesidad de
evaluar su desempeio personal para una mejor competencia" (Primavera, Covas and De Sanzo 1998: Ch
1 The idea of the prosumidor is taken from Alvin Toffler's work, The Third Wave (1980).
psychological benefit to being a producer as well. The act of creating a good -
combining locally available inputs, along with one's personal creativity and labor and
trading it in the nodo builds self-esteem. The RGT concomitantly puts a strong emphasis
on micro entrepreneurship again, as a way to create supply and also build self worth.
These values are described in several documents emanating from RGT
headquarters in Bemal. The first four principles in Los doce principios provide perhaps
the best crystallization:12
1. Nuestra realizaci6n como series humans no necesita estar condicionada por el
2. No buscamos promover articulos o servicios, sino ayudarnos mutuamente a
alcanzar un sentido de vida superior, mediante el trabajo, la comprensi6n y el
3. Sostenemos que es possible remplazar la competencia esteril, el lucro y la
especulaci6n por la reciprocidad entire las personas.
4. Creemos que nuestros actos, products y servicios pueden responder a normas
eticas y ecol6gicas antes que a los dictados del mercado, el consumismo y la
busqueda de beneficio a corto plazo.
Structure and Organization of the RGT
Nodos that used the money printed in Bemal by the PAR became loosely unified
into the Red Global de Trueque (RGT)13. By 1999 the RGT had established afranquicia
or franchise system. A nodo, to be properly part of the RGT, had to register with the
RGT and use their creditos. As a new member signed up he or she would pay two pesos
12 For the full 12 principles see appendix.
13 Two other main trueque organizations evolved out of the RGT, the Zona Oeste and Red del Trueque
Solidario (RTS), both with their own specific currency. In addition, there exist independent barter clubs
that print their own local currency, accepted only at their particular nodo.
and get a start-up amount of 50 creditos.14 The RGT nodos franchised in this way were
known as "i',,iIsfi qtll1ii iulh". Each nodo, although affiliated with the RGT, was
autonomous. The structure of the RGT, like the nodos, was supposed to be horizontal.
The RGT gave advice on how to start a barter club, but each nodo decided upon its own
particular rules of trade and entry into the club.
[E]l acceso a la informaci6n, capacitaci6n, bienes y servicios estan descentralizados
y la actuaci6n de los usuarious es libre y voluntaria, sin ninguna exclusion donde
todos se relacionan entire si de manera direct y horizontal, sin media intermediaries
ni representantes que puedan decidir por nosotros en asambleas o comisions. Es
una democracia direct (Las Tradiciones).
To join a nodo, a prospective member needed to attend a charla, or introductory
meeting. The purpose of the charla was to explain how the system worked, clarify about
pricing and answer any questions. Each nodo also had a coordinator. The coordinator
was supposed to be a member of the barter club who fostered participation. The
coordinator was the main organizer, taking care of administrative details like set-up and
break-down. In many cases the coordinator would also regulate prices or handle
complaints between club members.
Most researchers of the trueques make three observations about participant
demographics. One is that the majority of participants tend to be women. A second
observation is that most participants are middle aged or older (Leoni and Luzzi 2003,
Bombal 2002, Lecaro and Altschuler 2002, Powell 2002). These findings are consistent
with my observations during my visit to Argentina. The third observation is that early on
14 In interviews with participants and coordinators the amount paid for the starter creditors ranged from two
to five pesos. In some cases, individuals did not pay for their first credits, but simply "sold" their goods to
obtain their first creditors.
in their existence the barter clubs were comprised mostly of the "new poor," but
expanded to include the structurally poor. While this conclusion seems warranted, it has
not been rigorously demonstrated. Ines Gonzalez Bombal comes closest to offering
substantiation in her 2000 study.15 She found that the majority of participants (70%)
earned less than 500 pesos per month, 39% earned between 500 1,000 per month and
28% earned more than 1,000 per month. "Esto indica que la practice del trueque (aunque
no de un modo excluyente) se estaba focalizando en los "nuevos pobres" (Bombal 2002:
103). Furthermore as regards education, an indicator of class, Bombal found that most
participants had completed secundario, while a third had terciario or universitario
Several other researchers state that the participation base was comprised initially of
the new poor but grew to include the structurally poor. Interestingly, though, no one
offers a direct link between their demographic findings and support for the idea that the
new poor began the trueques. Leoni and Luzzi (2002), Powell (2002) and Aricidiacono
(2002) all cite Bombal's work, but do not offer any further analysis as to why they
conclude the new poor were the initial participants. None of these studies were done over
time to see if the participant composition actually changed.
Substantiating the claim that the new poor comprised the initial participant base is
difficult, particularly because measuring and identifying the new poor is complicated. As
Minujin and Kessler point out, the new poor is an extremely heterogeneous group.
Anecdotally, though, the claim seems valid. One indication is to simply look at the
founders. All three have higher education. Perhaps more to the point, the founders
15 Her study is based on 50 in-depth interviews conducted across five nodos.
themselves describe the first members of the trueque as coming from the middle-class
(interview). What is clear, however, is that the trueques did not remain solely comprised
of the new poor. Multiple people interviewed for this study mention that at one point
there were people from all walks of life and economic class participating in the trueque.
And as the founders note in their account of the trueque beginnings:
Segun la experiencia de los distintos "clubes", la concurrencia es la mas variada :
classes bajas en descenso, clase media en descenso, classes bajas en ascenso,
militants desorientados, inclasificables... Creemos que el proyecto atrae a las mas
diversas classes de personas (Primavera, Covas and De Sanzo 1998).
Furthermore, as the economy worsened and unemployment grew, the trueque
extended out from its original urban base to areas more densely inhabited by the
structurally poor (Powell 2002: 8).
By 2001 the barter clubs were catering to both the wealthy and the poor. The nodo
Galpon de Once in the city of Buenos Aires is illustrative. Galpon opened in March of
2001. It met three times a week and at its height roughly 3000 people would pass
through weekly. This nodo offered middle class services such as hair styling, manicures,
and even vacations, which could be paid for in part by creditos. There was also a
recycling center run by Galpon organizers. The recycling center was a way to generate
creditos for people who had nothing to bring to the trueque. If an individual had no
product to sell she or he could bring in glass bottles, cardboard boxes or cans to trade in
for creditos. In addition to the space provided for individuals to trade their goods, the
Galpon also provided free child care for the parents who came to trade. It also ran a
nodo-sponsored pizzeria and vegetable stand. To enter aprosumidor would have to pay
one peso. Part of the money from the entrance fee went towards paying rent and electric
bills. The other part of those pesos helped to purchase inputs for the pizzeria and
vegetable stand. This system worked well because food items were always in high
demand in the nodos. And while not all the ingredients were available through the
trueque, buying them in bulk in the formal market was a cheap solution.
On the one hand, the trueque was a way to maintain a certain life style. For
instance items for trade in a barter club in the wealthy neighborhood of Recoleta included
fur coats, art and books (Crivello 2002).16 On the other hand, the trueque also was a true
alternative market. As unemployment grew in the latter part of the 1990s the trueque
permitted people to obtain basic goods that were increasingly hard to come by, such as
food, cleaning supplies and clothes. The trueque also provided a venue for people to sell
goods they were unable to sell for pesos in the formal market. Oftentimes goods being
sold in the trueque came from left over inventory of failed businesses (personal
interviews, Bombal 2002: 119). Professionals also joined to provide legal services,
medical treatment and music lessons. In a June 2001 edition of El Trueque, an RGT
magazine, services and products advertised included event planning, catering, school
supplies, car parts, massage, taxi service, contact lens prescriptions and garden care.
Intersection with Government
In the first two years the RGT did not actively seek government support or
sanction. However, by 1997, the RGT began interfacing with the government, both as a
way to seek legitimacy and to encounter new forms of integration (Primavera 1999).
Government support came from the national, provincial and municipal level. The city of
16 This was an independent club, although it was similar to the RGT in its stated goals of creating solidarity
as well as promoting production and a continual circulation of creditors. They issued their own local
credito known as the "recoleto".
Buenos Aires, where the trueques flourished early on, created "El Programa de Trueque
Multirreciproco" in May 1997 (Megaferia: Tiempo de Trueque). It allowed the RGT to
use offices throughout the city to host the nodos and to train members.17 The City of
Buenos Aires also invited RGT founders Horacio Covas and Carlos de Sanzo, among
others, to attend a roundtable discussion as part of an event called Buenos Aires Sin
Fronteras. The city continued its collaboration in 2001, co-hosting a megaferia with the
RGT (Megaferia: Tiempo de Trueque). In the brochure advertising the megaferia, the
city of Buenos Aires describes how it wished to "[i]ncentivar a las personas a capacitarse
en tematica no tradicionales, asociadas a nuevos mercados y sectors dinamicos de la
producci6n y el empleo" and "fomentar y fortalecer la construcci6n de redes socials a
traves de proyectos autogestionados o cogestionados con el estado." The program
provided training to individuals who wished to form microbusinesses within the
In 2001 the RGT received national support when the Secretaria de la Pequenay
Mediana Empresa in the Ministerio de Economia (SEPyME) signed an agreement to
promote the trueques. The first section of the agreement states that the goal of the
agreement is to "promover en todo el pais el sistema de trueque o intercambio
multireciproco". The agreement was to also mutually foment the creation of jobs and
support individuals in their transition from the informal to the formal market.
(Convenio). I interviewed one woman who benefited from this government support of
1 The offices used were the 'Centros de gestion y participaci6n social' (CGP). There is one CGP in each
of Buenos Aires' fourteen neighborhoods.
18 In 1999 the program was still running, but had moved from the control of the Secretaria de Industria,
Comercio y Trabajo to the newly created office of Secretaria de Desarrollo Economico.
small business initiatives. As a member of the RGT she received a small subsidy of $200
pesos a month, which was to be used to buy materials for the aprons and purses that she
sewed to trade in the trueque. In practice, she used the pesos to pay her utility bills and
bought the inputs for her sewn items from the trueque. The subsidy lasted five months.
She was later approached and received a similar subsidy, but this time not tied to the
trueques; the subsidy instead was to support production of goods sold in the formal
market. SEPyME's relation to the trueques was similar to that of the city of Buenos
Aires: some material support in terms of co-sponsoring workshops, training and ferias,
but perhaps more significant was the "moral" support of allowing the SEPyME and City
of Buenos Aires names to go out on marketing materials. Also in February 2001, eight
diputados attempted without success to pass a bill declaring the trueques to be of national
At the municipal level, the trueques met with further support. The focus on the
trueques as a means of providing work and income also motivated more than 10
municipalities and 3 provinces to officially declare the trueques to be in their interest
(Leoni and Luzzi 2003). In addition to declaring the trueques to be of municipality
interest, the cities would often allow the nodos to use public buildings or space. The
municipalities also sought to regulate the trueques: some required all nodos to register
with the local government, and since popular trueque items included prepared foods and
homeopathic medicines, trueque members were often required to attend health
Problems within the Trueques
As the trueques grew so did challenges to the system. One issue that spawned
several interrelated problems had to do with the credito. At the outset the RGT declared
the value of one credito to be equivalent to one peso. This parity was established simply
as a means of convenience. It allowed prosumidores to easily set prices. For instance, if
an empanada in the formal market cost one peso, then it should cost one credito in the
trueque. However, as the RGT grew it appeared that it was printing too many creditos.
A woman I interviewed explained how she registered with one nodo, but was required to
re-register when she went to another nodo. Even though she already had creditos from
participating in the first nodo she was issued the starter 50 creditos from this second
nodo. While this woman did not purposely try to get extra creditos, many people did take
advantage of the system in this way. A lack of effective centralized record keeping led to
people registering at multiple nodos to get several disbursements of creditos.
After a while, the value of the credit became inflated. Inflation might have been
acceptable except that it was happening at different rates at different nodos, so that an
empanada might cost 2 pesos in one nodo, but cost 5 pesos in another. Price variation
from nodo to nodo led to speculation; individuals would buy products at one nodo for one
price and resell them at another nodo for a much higher price (Primavera 1999, La
Naci6n, Premat 2003).
There were also charges of corruption on part of the coordinators. Several people
that I interviewed pointed out the economics of running a nodo. It was common to
charge one or two pesos as entry fee into a nodo. This fee was supposed to cover costs
such as electricity, rent, and cleanup. A busy nodo might have 500 people enter in a day.
If the nodo charged one peso at the door and met three times a week it would produce
$1,500 pesos a week. That would total $6,000 pesos a month. A sizable quantity that
would more than cover basic costs of rent, utilities and clean-up. In some nodos it was
clear that the extra income was being used to buy in bulk to supply the nodo, but in other
cases, the accounting of the pesos was not so transparent.
In 1998 four zones Capital, North, West and South were created to try to
decentralize the RGT and prevent overprinting and speculation. Each zone printed its
own currency (Hintze 2003: 56) and established an equivalency with the creditos from
the other zones (Primavera 1999). However, differences of opinion over the transparency
of credit printing led the Zone Oeste to splinter off in 2000 and cut all ties to the RGT
(Sampayo 2003: 197). The Zona Oeste also cited "incompatible" development
trajectories as the reason for splitting (Sampayo 2003: 197). Another important split
came in 2001, when the Redde Trueque Solidaria (RTS) formed and officially separated
from the RGT (Cortesi 2003: 181).
The RTS is very specific about the ways it differs from the RGT. While both
organizations emphasize production on the "human scale," the use of"tecnologia
apropiada19" and work as a means of self-realization, the RTS differs over the issues of
creditos and participation. With regard to creditos, the RTS refuses to print a national
credito; each zone of the RTS prints its own cr&dito. The RTS believes that zonal credits
reinforce the identity, decision-making abilities and development of each zone. While
the RTS acknowledges the drawback in having to deal with multiple kinds of creditos, it
reasons that printing a national currency only replicates the formal economy and all the
problems therein (Cortesi 2003: 189). In contrast to the RGT, the RTS also does not
charge a "registration" fee or "franchise" fee for new members to get their first creditos.
19 The RTS defines "tecnologia apropriada" as working with what is available rather than what is not
(Cortesi in Hintze 190). This is a similar concept to the RGT emphasis on using local talent and inputs to
create goods, rather than importing them from other areas.
With regard to participation, the RTS has positioned itself as being a more democratic
and participatory organization than the RGT. The RTS mode of decision-making is
through assembly, which it believes facilitates transparent, democratic, and inclusive
participation. The RTS, in turn, criticizes the RGT as tending toward private, closed
decision-making processes (Cortesi 2003: 184).
Other problems began to plague the barter clubs. A serious issue was that of
supply. A main edict of being a trueque participant was to be aprosumidor, to be a
producer as well as a consumer. However, the production side of the equation came to
suffer. People would attend the nodos and buy goods, but either not bring goods to sell
or only bring used items, such as clothes. The end result was a scarcity of goods as well
as a declining quality of goods. Also, many people were bringing items that were not in
demand. Trinkets and arts and crafts abounded rather than food items (Lecaro and
Altschuler 2002). As the kind of goods that people actually had a demand for were
offered less and less, people ended up stuck with stacks of creditos and nothing to
purchase (Bombal 2002: 125).
Another issue confronting the trueques was the subutilization of skills (Bombal
2002, Lecaro and Altschuler 2002: 11). Bombal notes that the trueques are repositories
of social capital and skills as well as goods and services. Yet with all these resources,
and the RGT's particular emphasis on fostering small businesses, there was no real
efforts on part of the prosumidores to create microenterprises (Bombal 2002: 111). Only
20% of those interviewed by Bombal had plans to create a new project in conjunction
with other members (Bombal 2002: 110).
Argentina's economic successes of the first part of the 20th century slowly eroded
away in the second half the century. The strong middle class that had developed began to
fade as a recurring cycle of strong growth followed by wild inflation plagued the country.
The neoliberal policies of the 1990s pushed the country into the growth phase of the
cycle, but incurred dangerously high levels of unemployment. The middle class
consequently further declined and a new class was created: the "new poor". Out of this
context the barter clubs were born.
The creation of the barter clubs was a way to not only meet economic need, but it
was a vehicle that promoted local production, self-sufficiency, personal growth and
solidarity. People joined the barter system both out of need and also to maintain a
certain lifestyle, and by 2001 the barter clubs were catering to both the wealthy and the
poor. As the barter clubs grew so did the problems that plagued them, including
inflation, speculation and scarcity of goods. Tension also mounted over issues of
participation and issuance of creditos. As a result Zona Oeste and the Red de Trueque
Solidaria splintered off from the RGT.
AFFECT OF NATIONAL ECONOMIC CRISIS ON THE BARTER CLUBS
The economic crisis that exploded in December of 2001 dramatically affected the
barter clubs. While membership had been increasing at an accelerated rate the previous
two years in tandem with the worsening national economy the corralito of late 2001
and massive joblessness of 2002 led to a tidal wave of new trueque participation. The
first section of this chapter reviews the economic background leading up to Argentina's
2001 economic debacle. The second section explores how the ensuing rush of new barter
club participants exacerbated existing problems within the trueque. The last section
discusses the RGT's effort to confront these issues and the level of success achieved.
The Economic Crisis of 2001/2002
Serious structural weaknesses combined with cyclical recession to precipitate
Argentina's economic meltdown in late 2001. In the document entitled "Lessons from
the Crisis in Argentina" the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reviews Argentina's
economic development from the 90's through the 2001 crisis. The document highlights
what in hindsight were considerable "existing weaknesses and growing vulnerabilities"
(IMF 2003: 6) in the system:
Fiscal performance...was repeatedly undermined by off-budget expenditures and
was too weak throughout the 1990s to prevent a growing reliance on private capital
flows to meet the public sector's steadily rising borrowing needs. Exports, though
growing at a solid 8 percent per year between 1990-98, did not keep pace with
sharply rising import demand, which grew at an average rate of 25 percent per year
over the same period. The relatively small domestic financial sector fostered
dependence on foreign debt-creating flows to finance both private and public
spending. Finally, despite a good start on structural reforms, by mid-decade these
were petering out and were, in some cases, even reversed, leaving important
The IMF document further points out that the fiscal debt was exacerbated by borrowing
by the provinces, adding to the public-debt ration (6, 13). The overall debt was tenable as
long as the economy was growing at 5% or greater, but in the event of lesser growth,
such levels of debt were dangerous.
These structural weaknesses were compounded by the constraints of the
convertibility law. Palermo and Collins describe the negative current-accounts balance as
the convertibility plan's Achilles' heel. Part of the expected goal of the convertibility
law was that true exchange-rate parity would occur, i.e., that the peso would equal the
dollar without the government needing to prop it up drastically. However, while inflation
was kept comparatively under control, the heating up of the economy did maintain a
certain level of "residual" inflation, preventing parity from being reached (Palermo and
Collins 1998). Eventually, the economy started a cyclical recession in 1998 and the
policy of public spending and propping up the peso could not last. The currency board
thus became a "liability" as the government accrued burgeoning foreign-currency
denominated debt (IMF 2003: 4).
Palermo and Collins outline three possibilities open to the government at that
moment. One option was to devalue the currency, but the position of self-constraint
embodied by the convertibility law prevented this step.2 Furthermore, as the IMF
1 The rigidities the IMF refers to include rigidities of the labor market. In stark contrast to the views
presented by the authors cited in the second chapter, the IMF thought that the country should have a more
2 Recall from chapter two that self-constraint was the cornerstone of the convertibility plan; it entailed that
the government abrogated its prerogative to moderate monetary policy and exchange rates in order to build
confidence in the economy.
document also points out, the economic and political costs of exiting the currency board
regime were great: "By the late 1990s, with more than one-half of banks' assets and
liabilities and ninety percent of the public debt denominated in foreign currency (mainly
US dollars), abandoning the currency board arrangement would have been extremely
disruptive to the economy as indeed it turned out to be" (37). Furthermore, there was
strong political backing of the currency board; in 1998 the problems with the system were
still latent and the economy seemed to be doing just fine. Thus no politician was eager to
suggest painful preventative medicine. The irony of course was that the growth of the
economy masked the weakening government finances. The two other possibilities were
to restrict the inflow of foreign capital or to reduce public spending, but neither jibed with
Menem's political position (Palermo and Collins 1998).
Advent of the crisis. In 1998 the economy embarked on the fateful recession that
would trigger the economy's collapse. Several factors precipitated the recession. One
was a cyclical correction following the rapid growth of the previous two years. Another
was the political uncertainty surrounded Menem's attempt to run for the presidency for
an unconstitutional third term. Economic troubles in other parts of the world also
reverberated in Argentina. The Russian crisis in 1998 affected interest rates in emerging
markets and in turn reduced capital inflows into Argentina. Yet, while international
lending interest rates increased the Argentine currency board "muted" these effects,
keeping the spread on Argentine bonds artificially low. The result was to further mask
the true economic status of the country's debt. The following year Brazil, one of
Argentina's biggest importers, devalued its currency. Argentine products became even
more expensive resulting in a 28% decrease in Argentine exports to Brazil (Bluestein
2005: 59). Finally, exports to other countries dropped 10.5% (Bluestein 2005: 59).
These external shocks combined fatally with structural weaknesses: the country
was unable to generate enough exports to cover national spending, nor could it expand
monetary supply, nor could it institute an expansionary fiscal policy (IMF 2003).
Crisis. Argentina started off the year 2001 struggling to keep afloat. It turned to
the IMF for an injection of much-needed capital to maintain its debt financing. The IMF
pledged a total of $14 billion to be dispersed throughout the year, pending the attainment
of certain fiscal goals (IMF 2003). These attempts, however, failed "to break the cycle of
rising interest rates, falling growth, and fiscal underperformance" (IMF 2003: 59). The
situation demonstrated its fragility as the finance minister resigned and his successor was
forced out in two weeks. As the year continued, the spread between peso- and dollar-
denominated interest rates skyrocketed from one to sixteen percent and the central bank
modified its charter, reducing the required currency on hand required by law (IMF 2003:
59). The government then offered a voluntary debt swap. While this move bought the
government time on its debt service obligations, the interest rate on the new debt was
17%, an inordinately high rate, demonstrating the desperation of the government (IMF
2003: 59). Confidence in the system continued to erode and the run on bank deposits hit
a high in November 2001 (IMF 2003: 61).
The government responded by limiting withdrawals to $250 dollars a week from
individual accounts (IMF 2003: 61). The reason behind such a drastic measure was
simple. There were not enough dollars on hand to support the run on the banks.
Additionally, devaluation of the peso was imminent, but there was doubt as to what the
new value of the peso would be. With the implementation of the corralito the crisis had
hit the boiling point. There were riots in the street, culminating in the death of 27 people
(Fue 2003). President Fernando de La Rua subsequently resigned on December 20. In
January of 2002, Dualde the 5th president in three weeks declared default (IMF 2003:
2002. The economic and political landscape could look no worse. In 2002
unemployment was at a record 22% (Byrnes 2005), and there was a 11% decline in
output (Blustein 2004). Throughout the year the government struggled with a variety of
measures to attempt to shore up the peso and stabilize the banking system.
Effect of Economic Crisis on the Barter Clubs
The state of emergency in late 2001 not only sent people to the streets clanging pots
and pans in the famous cacerolazos, but it sent waves of people into the barter clubs. The
news media was integral in spreading the word. In January of 2001, before the national
catastrophe fully unfolded, the Argentine newspaper, La Naci6n, only mentioned the
trueques in passing in two articles. In February 2002, however, the trueque clubs were
not only mentioned in four articles, but they were the main subject of two articles. One
article, "El trueque salv6 a una fabrica en Mendoza" (Feb 27 2002), explained how the
RGT saved a Mendoza canning business by "loaning" 40,000 cr&ditos in return for
canned olives, pickles, tomatoes and dulces to supply a particular nodo. The other article,
"El trueque crece a la par de la crisis" (Feb 6 2002), tells of more than 500,000 families
using the trueque as a palliative for the crisis. This article ends by providing contact
information (phone, email, website) and instructions on how to join.
Clarin, Argentina's other main newspaper, also heavily covered the barter clubs.
An article entitled "El club del treuque que le cambi6 la cara a un barrio" reported that in
October of 2001 only 100 people were regularly attending a nodo in the city of Lomas de
Zamora,3 but in March of 2002, more than 2,000 people were going weekly (Torresi
2002). Another Clarin article from two months earlier proclaimed: "Con el trueque ya se
compran campos, autos y hasta casas." In this article Covas, one of the RGT founders,
stated that there were 50 million creditos in circulation, with 250,000 creditos issued
daily to new members which means 5,000 new individuals were joining daily (since
each new member received 50 creditos). The article continued to report that in the
previous six months 75 new nodos had opened in the city of Buenos Aires. By June of
2002 5,000 nodos were in operation, with a total of one and half million participants
During this period, it was clear that people were joining the trueque as a means of
survival. Access to money was limited, jobs were scarce and the value of the peso had
plummeted. People used the trueques strategically in their desperation to survive.
Grander values of self-sufficiency, solidarity and local production and consumption did
not factor in. Creditos were used to buy necessary items such as food, cleaning supplies,
clothes, and school supplies for their children, while precious pesos were set aside to pay
utilities and other bills (interviews). One woman that I interviewed stated that in 2001
and 2002 almost all of the prepared food items that she brought into the house came from
the trueque. Another interviewee described how people would form a line more than an
hour before the opening of a large nodo in order to get a chance at scarce goods such as
food, jostling and fighting to be able to secure bread, vegetables or cooking oil before it
3 Province of Buenos Aires
In some instances the trueque also turned into a form of protest. In May of 2002
the RGT set up a temporary nodo in downtown Buenos Aires. The protest, as one
participant commented was "un acto simb6lico en contra del mercado" (Un Club 2002).
In a similar action two weeks later in front of the national Congress, trueque participants
specifically set up a nodo to demonstrate support for a proposed law to regulate the
trueques. Luis Laporte, a spokesperson for the RGT, explained that a legal framework
was necessary to regulate the trueques because, among other things, it would provide a
means to punish people who counterfeited creditos. "Queremos un marco legal porque
no podemos controlar lo que pasa. Si alguien falsifica creditos, hoy no se lo puede
penar" (Trueque Frente 2002). The trueques used in this way as a form of protest is not
without its inconsistencies. On the one hand, the trueque members protest the market
that excludes them. On the other hand, they ask for legislation to bring the trueques
under the regulating arm of that same system.4 This paradoxical stance will be discussed
in the next chapter.
Regulating the trueques was particularly appealing since the explosion in growth in
early 2002 had only exacerbated existing problems. Inflation was perhaps the most
nefarious issue. Several factors played into it. First and foremost the RGT simply
overprinted creditos. There was an attempt to keep track of who registered to prevent
individuals from collecting several installations of start-up creditos. The registration
system, however, simply broke down under the avalanche of new members people were
able to register across several nodos, receiving 50 creditos each time. A woman I
interviewed who was close to the RGT founders commented on how the franquicia
4 Likewise, initiatives that would allow the payment of municipal debts with creditos were also supported
by the RGT (Clarin Feb 14 2002).
system broke down. She described thefranquicia system as the replication of the trueque
model, but as she noted, once the nodos began growing rapidly, "no tenia muy claro cual
era el modelo para repetir. Lo unico que se repeti6 era que a cambio de dos pesos te
daban 50 creditos. Y eso genero la corrupci6n."
Speculation also ran rampant. Some people spent their whole week going from
nodo to nodo, buying goods at one price and selling them at another. Counterfeit creditos
compounded the problem. In August of 2002 three different groups were arrested for
counterfeiting the RGT creditos. In one arrest alone, 2,250,000 fake creditos were
confiscated. Considering that 50 million in true creditos were in circulation, that many
false creditos constituted almost five percent of the total in circulation.
The kind and quality of goods being produced in the trueque also became
problematic. The August 17, 2003 edition of La Naci6n One reported how for one
woman making cakes for the trueque became a losing proposition: "El precio de las
materials primas se fue por las nubes y me llegaron a pedir 2000 creditos por un kilo de
azucar. Al final para preparar las tortas tenia que invertir en pesos y a mi casa me llevaba
papelitos". Declining terms of trade resulted in a severe decrease in production. People
were coming to the nodos to buy, but production was falling off. Furthermore, what
remained in the trueques were items ancillary to daily needs such as arts and crafts and
also things of generally lower quality, like used clothes. In turn, many people ended up
with stacks of creditos but nothing worthwhile to buy. Inflation, speculation, declining
terms of trade and depletion of supply led to massive closing of nodos. Towards the end
of 2002 the nodos were closing down with the same rapidity with which they opened
Many trueque participants place the blame squarely on the RGT founders. They
believed that the founders had purposely sold creditos to make a profit, and in the process
wrecked the system. The woman who ran a large nodo in the city of Buenos Aires
expressed this view:
Esta personas [the 3 founders] empezaron a ver el movimiento que habia detras de
ellos, empezaron a pensar en pesos, en dinero, en dinero, en dinero y terminaron en
hacer una gran estafa...Y gente que nosotros conocimos en su principio que no
tenian ni siquiera una casa para vivir se construyeron casas en San Isidrio San
Isidrio una de las localidades mas caras que existe en Argentina...Y cuando me
empeze a dar cuenta de como esto, como se estaba manejando y, y las cosas que
habia detras, llore muchisimo, yo sufri muchisimo porque realmente aca habia
gente muy valiosa, gente que, yo conoci, gente que actualmente hoy la trato, gente
que yo quiero much. Yo me sentia parte de la estafa porque yo manjeaba uno de
los trueques mas grandes que habia en Argentina.5
The RGT founders, for their part, believed that the government had purposely
undermined the barter clubs. According to the founders, the government, which
originally supported the trueques, turned on the barter clubs when it began to see them as
a threat to the clientelistic model. As the RGT founders explained, since people were
suddenly able to provide for themselves the politicians were not able to buy votes by
giving handouts. The founders particularly blamed Plan Jefesy Jefas, a federal program
that gave cash money to heads of households, for driving people away from the trueque
and the principles of self-sufficiency. The founders even allude to more direct sabotage;
they believe that politicians in the government were responsible for the falsification of
creditos (Sainz 2003).
5 This interviewee not only believed the founders had purposely overprinted creditos, but she also insisted
that they made up the story of counterfeit creditos to try to get away with their misconduct. When asked
about the newspaper articles describing the capture of counterfeit creditos she said that later it was
As early as May 2002 the RGT attempted to address the failing system. In an RGT
pamphlet they asked the prosumidores: "Tenga paciencia. En estos moments estamos
abocados a la reform total del sistema de franquicia y entrega de creditos"
(NotiTrueque). By December of 2002 the RGT began printing new creditos on special
paper from Brazil and with multiple security measures, including a watermark. They also
established an oxidation rate, so that the credit lost value over time, forcing people to
spend the creditos instead of amassing them (Rocha 2002). By November of 2004, when
I visited Argentina, there were a handful of independent and RTS nodos still active in the
city of Buenos Aires. There were no RGT nodos left in the capital city.
During my visit, however, I attended a large RGT nodo outside the capital city in
Quilmes. It still meets three times a week with more than a 1,500 passing through. El
Comedero, as it is called, is hosted in a large industrial space that previously housed a
factory. Upon entering the prosumidore pays five creditos and two pesos and receives a
leaflet containing PAR news and editorials. One peso goes to the PAR to help pay for the
printing creditos and the leaflet. The other peso goes toward paying security, the
cleaning person and the nodo administrator, who works in the nodo office and does the
bookkeeping. The creditos gathered from the entry fee go to paying the coordinator,
whose job is to mediate between prosumidores, be available to listen to people, and to
promote creativity and production. El Comedero houses a big kitchen in the back with an
industrial stove and oven, which is available for anyone's use. For instance, one woman
with whom I spoke choses to bake her goods in the kitchen rather than transport them to
the nodo. The most typical item for sale is used clothing. Food is another big item.
There are fresh vegetables and lots of prepared foods like tortas, tartas, galletitas. There
are also a quantity of prepackaged food items like spices, cookies and noodles, but never
in huge quantities. Some of the services offered include hair cutting, tarot card reading
and watch repair.
Although the interviews I conducted at this nodo were mostly informal, three
themes became apparent. First, people come to the trueque for the social interaction.
Several people describe the trueque as "therapy," a place to come to talk to people,
interact and forget their worries for a short time. While many of the people come to the
nodo in order to ameliorate a difficult economic situation, several people come merely to
see friends and distract themselves.
Second, people often move between the trueque and the formal market as an
economic strategy. As several people mentioned to me, some things are cheaper in the
trueque and some are cheaper in the market. People are constantly moving between the
two to extract advantage. For instance, one woman buys spices at the supermarket and
repackages them in small bags to sell individually in the trueque. Another woman uses
pesos to buy ingredients in the formal market to make prepizzas and pasta to sell in the
trueque. She says she recuperates the pesos she spends by buying things in the trueque
instead of the formal market. Many people believe they reap economic benefits from the
trueque, but how they derive the benefit is not a consciously understood or planned
process. A 70-year old man I spoke to buys new things in the formal market (the day I
spoke to him he had purchased shoe inserts) to sell along with the used items that he
brings in. When asked whether it worked to his benefit to buy things with pesos and then
sell them in creditos he answered that he really did not know. Third, although some
participants were not there for economic reasons only their participation did not appear to
be motivated by the values of self-help, local production, or a philosophical aversion to
pesos. For instance, I asked people whether they read the leaflet that was handed out to
every prosumidor upon entering the nodo. On the whole the answer was no.
Summary. The story of the trueques involves a direct relationship between a
worsening economy and increasing trueque membership. A corollary relationship also
obtained: as the economy worsened the reasons for joining the barter clubs had more to
do with necessity and survival rather than thoughts of creating an alternative economic
system. And as the trueques grew in number so did the problems plaguing them. The
national explosion in late 2001 caused a huge influx of trueque participants, shaking the
already fragile system to its core, exacerbating earlier problems of inflation and
speculation and leading to the massive shutdown ofnodos in late 2002. In response,
RGT founders instituted a "reactivation" of nodos on a smaller and more controlled scale
starting in 2002. However it did not appear that ideology motivated participants even at
the "reactivated" nodos, but rather desires to engage in social activity coupled with
attempts to derive economic benefit.
TRUEQUES AS A SOCIAL MOVEMENT?
Keeping in mind the lofty goals of their early beginnings, but taking into account
the changes wrought by unexpected and significant growth, to what extent can the barter
clubs be considered a social movement? To consider the trueques as a social movement
might be a big leap particularly since trueque participation grew in direct relation to a
worsening economy and participation at the height of the trueques stemmed from
pragmatic considerations rather than ideological conviction. Yet the original project was
not designed as merely a survival mechanism. The barter clubs were designed as an
enlightened alternative to the market; they were based on principles of autosuficiencia,
solidarity and the repudiation of dependency on the formal currency. To answer whether
the barter clubs can be considered a social movement, we will return to Sidney Tarrow's
definition of a social movement and analyze how the trueques match up with its several
components. As mentioned in Chapter two the barter clubs began with the RGT and
eventually two other smaller groups splintered off. For the purposes of this chapter I will
apply Tarrow's definition only to the RGT.
The first prerequisite of a social movement is that it be a collective activity. At first
glance, it appears that this criterion was met from the beginning. By its very nature a
barter system requires more than one person in order to exist. Although the first nodo
was not huge (it started with 20 people), the barter system only grew. Despite the lack of
hard and fast numbers, it is indisputable that up until 2002 the trueques were multiplying
rapidly throughout the country. Even after the nodos began closing en masse in late 2002,
several nodos still remain in operation to the present day.
However, while the barter clubs do involve collective action by nature, there is a
certain level of individualism that underlies the activity. As one researcher observes, the
barter clubs in fact present an individualistic solution to a collective problem:
Si bien...la caida [en la nueva pobreza] ya no podia ser percibida como un hecho
individual sino que las causes de la crisis que padecian eran globales,
generabilizables y casi inevitable, la salida de esta exclusion se presentaba como
puramente individual. Paradoja que se sostiene a partir de la persistencia de la idea
de un progress possible pero donde "escapar" de dicha situaci6n dependia
unicamente de las capacidades personales. En este sentido, la altemativa del
trueque se presentaba con claros tintes individualistas -egoista, imposibilitando las
creencias en acciones colectivas o de demands al sistema politico...(Barbetta).
The individualistic nature of the barter clubs, i.e., the emphasis on self sufficiency
and personal ingenuity to overcome exclusion from the established market system is not
necessarily problematic when considering the barter clubs as a social movement. First,
we know from the literature on new social movements that movements can be carried out
on an individual level, especially when based around life-style choices (Larafia 1994).
The paradox of individual action constituting a collective activity is resolved when we
acknowledge that the individual basis of action is part of a group of like-minded people
do like-minded activities, even if separate. Second, as discussed in Chapter two, the
RGT's emphasis on self-sufficiency requires learning from others and sharing
knowledge, thus creating a market of solidarity.
Contention is the second element of social movements. As defined by Tarrow
contention involves two aspects: people who do not have access to institutions who
fundamentally challenge the system. The trueques clearly comport with the first part of
this definition. The RGT specifically prides itself in creating a space those who do not
have access to institutions, i.e., the excluded. In fact many researchers describe the
trueques' positive impact on women, a traditionally marginalized sector of society
(Primavera 2003, Powell 2002). Furthermore, the everyday participant does not appear
to be a seasoned politician, lobbyist or other traditional actor with institutional access.
The exception perhaps is the individuals who take on the role of coordinator. Some
coordinators do have political experience. For instance, the woman I interviewed who
ran Galpon de Once, one of the largest nodos in the city of Buenos Aires, was a member
of the Confederaci6n General de Trabajo (CGT), a national trade union.1 Even so, not
all coordinators have political roots. Also worth noting is that in some cases people
worked to initiate a nodo, even if they were not planning to participate in it. For instance,
one gentleman that I interviewed worked with an advocacy group for retired people. He
began helping to set up nodos as a community service. While politically active
coordinators and nodo initiators played an important role in the barter clubs they were not
The second part of Tarrow's definition of contention is the making of new or
unaccepted claims thatfundamentally challenge the system. A starting point of analysis
on this point is a quotation by Jeff Powell, which highlights the inherent social and
political challenge of what he refers to as community currency systems (CCS):
Lying at the juncture of economics, political science, sociology, geography,
anthropology, cultural, environmental and gender studies, CCS are a concrete
embodiment of key abstract debates. First amongst these is over the nature of
markets. CCS pose serious challenges to the standard assumptions of homo
I also interviewed a coordinator from an independent nodo who, during the dictatorship was a member of
a leftist group and as a result was an exiliado interno. While she obviously has experience organizing this
experience is as a subaltern rather than someone with traditional access to institutions.
oeconomicus and the way we value, exchange and consume. By recognizing unpaid
women's work, for example, CCS have the potential to restructure gender relations.
Secondly, CCS force new discussions over the role of the state. They are only one
of several new contenders in the global marketplace competing with the state's
crumbling monopoly over both the provision of social services and the money
Powell makes two points. First, that the trueques challenge ingrained ideas about
consumption and production. The edict of the trueques is to consume no more than is
needed and to eschew accumulation of creditos. Even though Argentina's middle class is
eroding away, it still knows how to consume. One Argentine history professor
characterized the Argentines of the 90s as a "dame dos" culture; with money burning in
their pockets the Argentines wanted two of everything (interview). The trueques
counteract this tendency, trying to create a new wave of people who are willing to buck
the dominant patterns of materialist consumption. This new mode of consumption
compels a new mode of production. The trueques enjoin participants to use socially
appropriate technology to produce just enough to provide for reasonable needs. As
Powell points out, the Twelve Principles of the RGT attempt to create "alternative
behavioral norms" (9).
One might argue that ideas of sustainable development, locally centered growth
and self-sufficiency are not new or radical ideas. While these ideas may not be new, they
are far from mainstream. In particular, the idea of self-sufficiency of being personally
resourceful in providing for one's material needs is unconventional in Argentina, with
its history of paternalistic governance. More to the point, how those ideas are
operationalized by rejecting pesos and turning to social money instead is conceptually
quite radical. As Melucci might argue, these values "engage the constitutive logic of [the]
system" (1994: 103). A fundamental purpose of creating the trueques was to demonstrate
that money is neither the starting point for one's survival nor one's sense of self. To use
social money encourages creativity and allows a person to create value in terms of time
and effort expended rather than in pesos. Furthermore, the credito is not legal tender. No
government backs it. Instead the good will and trust of the barter club members
underwrites the value of the credito. The personal relationships of the barter club
members guarantee its value.
To the extent that participants adopted this theoretical understanding of the credito,
the barter clubs indeed embodied an unorthodox approach to collective action. Yet, to
the degree that the credito was treated as a peso commodified, bought, sold,
counterfeited the barter clubs lost the original meaning and impact of their approach.
An essential element of most social money or community currency systems, like the
Ithaca Hours in New York or the LETS system in Europe, is the focus on local
production and consumption.2 As the RGT expanded to a national scope, the importance
of locally-based development and along with it the philosophical underpinnings of the
credito was subverted over time. The bigger the RGT grew and the more national
coverage the cr&ditos got, the more the RGT moved away from this fundamental ideal.
This tendency to grow should come as no surprise. A small nodo is hard pressed to
provide variety of products. The ability to use the credito in more than one setting makes
the credito more useful. Yet the more widely circulated the credito the more it was used
as if it were a peso rather than "social money".
2 The Ithaca HOURS system has very similar ideals as the original RGT: promotion of local commerce,
sustainable development and a rejection of materialism (see Ihp "\ %\ \ .ithacahours.com/ and
http://www.ithacahours.org/). The LETS system also supports local development. See
hup \ \l\ \\ .letslinkuk.org/.
Powell's second point deals with the trueques' challenge to state hegemony.
Powell sees the trueques as potentially challenging the role of the state, for instance in
competing with the state's monopoly over money supply. By extension, the barter clubs
could also plausibly erode the productivity of the national economy. The activity of the
formal market has the potential to decline to the degree that people satisfy their needs
through the trueque and not through the formal market. In other words, it could be a
zero-sum relationship. This loss of activity in the formal market would have potentially
devastating consequences for the tax base (although Argentina is notorious for poor
collections of taxes), the GDP, and international investment, which in part is based on
Despite the potential of this scenario, it is not a reality. A significant problem
continually plagued the trueque: in order to create goods for the trueque market, primary
materials almost always had to come from the formal market. The trueques specifically
focused on promoting primary material-producing trueque businesses, but these micro-
businesses never materialized in larger enough numbers or variety of products to create a
true alternative trueque market. It is important here to make a distinction between
different conceptions of the word "alternative". The trueques were created as an
alternative to the formal market. On the one hand, alternative could mean a complete
replacement of the formal system. In this connotation the trueques have a zero-sum
relationship to the formal market as described above. Alternative on the other hand,
could also connote a part-time or complementary relationship to the formal market. It is
this understanding that the RGT founders embrace. In interviews the barter club founders
describe the role of the barter clubs as "interstitial," that is, extracting value where the
formal market fails to.
Powell's quote highlights two levels of contention inherent in the barter system.
The first is at the level of ideas; the barter clubs challenge accepted ideas of production
and consumption. But as the national economy worsened the new members failed to
engage the barter club at this conceptual level. The following section addresses why
members failed to adopt the philosophical stance of the trueques. Suffice to say at this
point, however, that by late 2001 the majority of participants did not reflect the RGT
ideas of consumption and production. The second level of contention is the practical; the
barter clubs potentially undermined the very engine of the formal economic market. Yet,
in the final analysis this is a moot point: the relationship between the trueques and the
formal market was not zero sum, nor was the intention of the RGT founders to usurp
formal market share.
Common Purpose/Common Identity
The third element of Tarrow's social movement definition is that of common
purpose and/or common identity. My interviews revealed a variety of motivations for
initially joining the barter clubs: ideology, pragmatism, altruism, curiosity and social
interaction. This multiplicity of initial factors does not immediately disqualify the
trueques as a social movement, however. Two important questions need further
consideration. First, did the RGT attempt to "organize experience" and "guide action"
(Snow et al. 1986: 464) in order to bring these three disparate groups together? In other
words, did the RGT frame its key issues? Second, was the RGT successful? That is, did
participant motivations change over time to eventually coalesce around a more or less
Turning to the first question: did the RGT frame key issues and if so, how? There
is no question that the RGT attempted to frame central ideas. This was done at both a
conceptual and practical level. At the conceptual level, the RGT tapped into an existing
disenchantment with neoliberalism. Inez Gonzalez Bombal asks an interesting question
in her work: why it is that the new poor are willing to be in the trueques when a few years
ago they wouldn't have dreamed of doing it (104)? Bombal notes that there has been a
change from the new poor viewing their status a result of poor microeconomic
decisions (Minujin and Kessler 1993) to viewing themselves as victims of
macroeconomic problems over which they had no control (Bombal 2002: 104). She
concludes that the change in subjectivity (subjetividad), from the rational, autonomous
self, making microeconomic decisions to the self as victim of bad macroeconomics is
what allowed the new poor to participate in the trueques. This change in subjectivity is
precisely what the RGT builds on. Appealing to the discontent of the increased numbers
of unemployed, the RGT attempted a method of both frame bridging and amplifying,
depending on whether a person already held anti-neoliberalism as a high value (frame
bridging) or whether a person moved that value up in their hierarchy as a result of coming
into contact with the RGT (frame amplifying). An example of this kind of framing is
demonstrated in the RGT document entitled "Comenzarpor Casa":
La economic global no ha hecho mas que acrecentar la inequidad, el desempleo, la
tension social y la degradaci6n del medioambiente. Crece el numero de personas
disconformes que perciben que el confort no es sin6nimo de calidad de vida y por
todas parties surgeon alternatives al mercado cuyo comun denominador es la
descentralizaci6n, la autogesti6n y la producci6n a escala humana.
Here the RGT draws a causal connection between the globalized economy and the
commonly perceived societal ills of unemployment, social tension and environmental
degradation. In addition to drawing this connection, it goes on to suggest action and
response: self sufficiency and new modes of production.
Part of the RGT conceptual framing strategy involved creating a new vocabulary to
describe the trueque experience. While the word prosumidor originated in the works of
Alvin Toffler, the RGT adopted it as its own. The RGT also adopted common words and
associated them very specifically with the trueque system. For instance the words nodo
(node) and trueque (which comes from the verb trocar) have in Argentina become
synonymous with the barter clubs. This new vocabulary was disseminated along with the
larger trueque values during the charlas and coordinator training sessions. The barter
clubs, in creating a world ofprosumidores who trade in an economy of solidarity using
creditos, not only creates a community of like-minded barter club participants, but it also
clearly challenges the dominant discourse. As Melucci observes:
[A]ntagonism lies in the ability to resist and, even more so, to overturn dominant
codes. Antagonism lies in the ability to give a different name to space and time by
developing new languages that change or replace the words used by the social order to
organize our daily experience (Melucci 1994: 123).
At the practical level, the RGT attempted to mold participants and create an affinity
of ideals through the required charlas. For instance, in certain areas a prospective
member would have to attend eight charlas in order to become a member. These
meetings involved rigorous training, replete with workbooks and lesson plans (interview).
The RGT also used its online and publishing capabilities to disseminate a large array of
articles on trueque consciousness. A main distribution point for documents was the
autosuficiencia website.3 In addition to more formal documents such as the "Los Doce
Principios" there was a constant posting of articles and interviews reiterating the RGT
values as well as cautioning against unethical trueque conduct.
Turning to the second question: how successful were these various attempts at
framing? Obviously, the RGT was not successful enough to prevent misuse of the barter
system by those who were willing to speculate and counterfeit creditos. And clearly, the
RGT failed to convince a large number of people to stay in the barter system once the
formal market got back on its feet. In fact, nodos were forced to close down due to lack
of the ills of inflation, speculation and corruption.
In spite of these apparent failures, strong examples exist among a variety of
participants that demonstrate the success of the framing. Although not specifically
referencing the framing categories of Snow et al., Bombal's research offers several
examples of framing taking place. One artist she interviewed supplies a clear example of
frame bridging. This artist explains how participating in the trueques was simply a
continuation of the practice of values that he already held: "Yo soy artesana de oficio,
hace mas de treinta afios que soy artesana. Nosotros nos iniciamos en la artesania
haciendo treuques. Para mi fue descubrir algo dentro de la sociedad para rescatar..."
(Bombal 2002: 114). Another interviewee's comment demonstrates an example of frame
transformation, i.e., the redefining of beliefs:
Yo creia que estaba todo terminado, que no habia mas alternative, porque uno se
engancha en que no hay trabajo, no hay posibilides de insertarse en la sociedad y
yo veia todo como una pared adelante. Esto [el trueque] hizo una apertura...se me
3 Autosuficienica.com.ar is the home of the home of the Programa de Autosuficiencia Regional (PAR). It
is this website that contains the documents such as the "Los Doce Principios" and "Comenzar por Casa" of
the RGT. The RGT has its own website, www.trueque.org.ar, in which several of the links lead to the
abri6 la mente, se me despert6 algo aca adentro. Me di cuenta de que existe otro
mundo qu yo no lo conocia y que aca adentro lo descubri (Bombal 2002: 113).
In my interviews I also came across examples of successful framing. One woman
presented a clear case of frame transformation. She transformed her ideas on the role of
Dinero a veces no es lo mas important vos sabes. No es lo mas important. Hay
muchas cosas que se pueden resolver sin diner. Con voluntad, con intercambio.
Esto yo aprendi aca. O sea, antes yo pensaba el reves, que sin dinero no se podia
hacer nada. Y aca me di cuenta que no era lo mas important. De verdad te digo.
Another woman's experience exemplified frame amplification, that is, the "clarification"
or invigorationn" of life events (Snow et al. 1986: 469):
Lo que se estaba dando [el trueque] era recuperar la identidad de las personas,
recuperar la dignidad del trabajo y recuperar el sentido de que lo que es el
solidaridad, porque esto fue lo que yo descubri en el trueque. Por eso, en mi caso,
me quede en el trueque. No entree para comer. Yo no tenia problems. Yo soy
professional, soy medical. No necestaba ir al trueque al comprarme un plato de
comida...yo recupere mi propio identidad como persona y la dignidad del trabajo,
no? la dignidad de decir lo que yo hago no es que lo regalo, no hago beneficencia y
el otro lo compra con su trabajo tambien. Y fue muy fuerte para mi.
This particular woman felt that the trueques had reconnected her to ideas of
solidarity and dignity. She had been hearing of the trueques from friends, in the news,
and had seen them in the streets. But before she actually began participating in the barter
system she described herself as being a "snob". Upon becoming a member she realized
the trueques were quite different from what she anticipated. "Realmente cuando yo tome
contact y lo vivi desde adentro me di cuenta que era totalmente diferente a la idea que
yo tenia." She realized that the trueques were really a way to reconnect with one's
The ability of the RGT to adequately frame key issues is not the single lynchpin in
the success or failure of creating a social movement. Social movements must combine
their ideas with action, which leads to the fourth element of Tarrow's definition:
mobilizing structures. Tarrow observes that social movement organizations need to be
sufficiently structured to permit effective action, but must also be flexible enough to
encourage autonomy and creativity at the participant level (Tarrow 1998: 124).
The RGT tried to strike this balance by creating a horizontal system, one where
each club was autonomous and created its own best practices. Yet, in some aspects the
RGT was too decentralized. Nodos were supposed to be organically formed; it was
expected that each would create its own norms and methods, all the while maintaining the
core values of the RGT. However, once the number of nodos began growing rapidly, the
RGT could not guarantee adherence to basic requirements. The RGT could not ensure
that charlas were being attended or prevent coordinators from selling creditos. As one
interviewee observed, the trueque in the beginning "Era much mas cuidado...se invitaba
a la persona parecida a voz, era mas de boca a boca la invitaci6n." A more moderated
growth rate might have allowed for the RGT to instill the core values on the front end and
allowed variety and creativity in the execution of each individual nodo. Uncontrolled
growth, however, led to a great degree of decentralization and little oversight.
Interestingly, the RGT has also been criticized for being too centralized. As
discussed in Chapter 2, the Red de Trueque Solidaria (RTS) particularly denounced the
RGT for tightly holding power in the small group of RGT founders, with little regard for
transparency in the decision-making process. This lack of democratic participation also
replicated itself at the nodo level. As Leoni and Luzzi's research reveal, there almost
always came to be a permanent coordinator, rather than a rotation of the post as originally
intended by the RGT. In all fairness, however, the position of coordinator, especially for
the larger nodos, required a dedication of time; the lack of rotation often was due to a
lack of volunteers willing to take on the role, rather than any malicious greed for power
and control on the part of the coordinators.
It would be difficult to determine what steps the RGT could have taken to strike a
more effective balance between structure and flexibility. To insure that each new
member was thoroughly trained and educated would have required a strictly monitored
growth pattern. The risk of course, would be to repudiate the RGT's goal to foment a
variety of experiences. Furthermore, the RGT would not have served as a refuge during
economic crisis, a fact the RGT founders were proud of. This tension between structure
and flexibility ultimately was untenable and the barter clubs failed to create a mobilizing
structure to maintain the barter clubs as a social movement.
The fourth element of Tarrow's social movement definition is sustained activity.
Tarrow does not specify what exact length of time qualifies as 'sustained' activity, but
meeting an exact temporal criterion is not necessary in the case of the barter clubs. In
terms of overall lifespan, the trueques activity is unquestionably a lasting activity. The
barter clubs have existed since 1995 and continue to operate, albeit in significantly
smaller numbers. And new people continue to join. While I was in the nodo El
Comedero in the province of Buenos Aires, I happened to speak with a woman who was
there for the first time. More interesting, though, is the duration of participation of each
individual. The people I interviewed, even if no longer active, tended to have
participated for at least a year.
Tarrow notes that discontent and structural societal strain are always present. It is
only when the political system opens in a particular manner that provides the crucible for
all of the above-described elements to catalyze the formation of a social movement. The
first parts of chapter two and chapter three outlined the specific political opportunities
that the stage for the formation of the barter clubs. Creating the backdrop for the barter
clubs was the rise of the new poor, disenchanted with the economic model that excluded
them from its benefits. The discontent deepened with the implementation of Menem's
neoliberal model and the accompanying spike in unemployment, underemployment and
increasing job precariousness. Finally, the dramatic national economic crash created a
major impetus for participation in the barter clubs.
In reviewing each of Tarrow's categories a common theme emerges: the barter
clubs began with all the elements of a social movement, but rapid participant growth,
fueled by a worsening economy and eventually a national economic crash, severely
strained the original project. This fact is particularly evident in examining the elements
of contention, common purpose and mobilizing structures. The barter clubs began by
challenging received notions of production and consumption. But as the trueques
reached national proportions, the elements of local production and solidarity were
subverted. Participation was about survival, not about challenging the dominant
discourse. Consequently the common purpose uniting the pioneering members quickly
diluted. While some participants demonstrated a change in attitude, the RGT was largely
unsuccessful in aligning the various motivation members with the values of the RGT.
One difficulty in classifying the trueques as a social movement comes into sharper
focus when we consider the following question. Could the trueque be a social movement
if they were designed simply to meet practical needs and did not involve any theories of
self-sufficiency, local development, social money or solidarity? Or do people have to
subscribe to lofty ideals for the barter clubs to qualify as a social movement? The answer
lies in a certain synergy between contention and common purpose distinct to the barter
clubs. If the common purpose is solely to derive economic benefit then the element of
contention disappears: simply trying to derive economic value alone is hardly
contentious. Alberto Melucci states: "What is at issue in a conflict is not the terms of the
exchange, or the best way to conduct it, but the actual meaning of the exchange itself'
(Melucci 1994: 125). If the meaning of the barter clubs is reduced to a simple economic
strategy then the meaning of that economic activity is no longer in conflict it is simply
part of the universal effort to survive.
Finally, the barter club's mobilizing structures also failed to hold in the face of
chaotic growth. Charlas were no longer rigorously required and participation at the
organizing level failed to rotate as originally expected. By the end of 2002 the barter
clubs had lost the elements necessary to be considered a social movement.
CYCLES OF CONTENTION
The barter clubs were not the only forms of contention in Argentina in the 1990s
and early years of 2000. Shortly after the barter clubs began, other forms of collective
action came onto the scene, including the piqueteros, fdbricas recuperadas, asambleas
bariales, and cacerolazos. This chapter briefly examines each of these phenomena,
demonstrating how they and the trueques formed a larger cycle of contention. The
discussion will illuminate the master frame common to all of these disparate groups:
discontent with the neoliberal economic model. The chapter next highlights the decline
of the cycle and the factors specifically affecting the barter clubs. The chapter concludes
with a summary of the findings of this thesis with observations on the significance of the
barter clubs in the Argentine society.
Onset of the Cycle
The rise of various forms of contention in the 1990s and early years of 2000 fit well
into what Tarrow characterizes as the onset of a cycle of contention: a marked increase in
conflict, heterogeneity of actors, diverse forms of contention and increased political
attention (Tarrow 1998: 144-146). Furthermore, as Tarrow also points out, despite
variance in the forms of contentious activity and heterogeneity of actors, these
phenomena share a master frame around which protest occurred.
Piqueteros (1996 present). The piquetero movement started in two separate
locations, in 1996 with riots in Cutral-Co and Plaz Huincul in Neuquen and in 1997 with
the roadblocks of General Mosconi and Tartagal in Salta (Svampa 2003: 14). In these
two instances the riots and roadblocks were in response to joblessness created by the
privatization of YPF and subsequent closing of YPF plants, the main source of
employment in those towns. These uprisings set off a wave of similar roadblocks and
protests among the jobless and poverty-stricken throughout the country. Piqueteros have
variously demand jobs, social plans and cash subsidies (Svampa 2003: 41). The
government response has been both conciliatory and violent. It has responded by
granting plans such as Planes Jefes y Jefas de Hogar to thepiqueteros, but has also
responded with police force (Once 2006). In some cases the government has also
cooptedpiquetero leaders by appointing them to public position (De Piquetero 2006).
Thepiqueteros exhibit a variety of organizational styles and a varied demographic base
(Germano 2005, Svampa 2003). A common understanding, however, is that the failed
neoliberal model brought the country a state of disarray and joblessness (Germano 2005).
Fabricas recuperadas (2000 present). As factories began to fail in the 1990s
workers began barricading the factories to prevent owners from removing the equipment
and selling it. The workers claimed the machinery as payment for salaries in arrears.
Forming legal cooperatives, the workers took their case to court and often won. A slew
of provincial laws were passed allowing the expropriation of factory buildings and
equipment by the cooperatives, declaring the expropriation to be of public utility. An
official organization has formed, Movimiento Nacional de Fabricas Recuperadas which
became an NGO in 2003.1 Presently there are more than 100lfbricas recuperadas in
1 For more information see their website at Ihip \ "\ \ .fabricasrecuperadas.org.ar/.
Asambleas barriales (2001 2003). The asambleas began right after the
cacerolazos of December 19th and 20th, 2001 (Calello). In the beginning, anywhere
from 150-300 people would meet in a public space plazas, parks, local bars. Not only
did people of all ages, political and cultural backgrounds participate, but the topics
addressed covered a multitude of questions, from national politics to local issues. The
activities of the asambleas were diverse, from providing assistance to the unemployed,
creating collection sites for the cartoneros, and buying in bulk (compras comunitarias),
to distributing medicines, creating libraries, hosting theatres and festivals (DiMarco and
Palomino 2004: 40). The asambleas also frequently formed ties with the piqueteros and
fdbricas recuperadas. Despite this wide range of projects and goals, the common
denominator in all asamblea discussions was the failed neoliberal economic model:
"[L]o que se plantea dentro de las asambleas y cada vez con mas fuerza, es una discusi6n
sobre el modelo econ6mico de la sociedad, sobre el modelo econ6mico social; una
discusi6n sobre la economic del mercado" (DiMarco and Palomino 2004: 38). In March
2002 there were 272 in the whole country (Calello), but at present the fate of the various
asambleas is hard to gauge. Most reports of the asambleas in the press are those
particularly associated with thepiqueteros. In searching on the internet, most of the
neighborhood asamblea websites have not been active since 2003.
Cacerolazos (December 19th and 20th, 2001). In a spontaneous protest against
the unraveling economic and political situation, thousands of Argentines took to the
streets clanging pots and pans, culminating in the resignation of President de la Rua from
office. For many the protest was about the economic crisis and for others it was about
the political crisis: "A mi me llam6 la atenci6n la existencia de dos sectors en el
cacerolazo, aparte de los vandalos y provocadores: un sector que pedia la renuncia de
Cavallo y el fin del modelo economic, y otro que iba mas lejos, que queria el fin de las
prebendas political, queria la renuncia de la Corte Suprema, un Parlamento que funcione,
se avanzaba mas en el piano de la reivindicaci6n institutional" (Jose Nun quoted in El
Contentious action and social protest has always been present in Argentina. But if
we look at a timeline of these activities we can see in retrospect that a cycle of contention
had started in the mid 1990s with the barter clubs andpiqueteros and peaked during the
national political and economic crisis of late 2001 and early 2002 when the asambleas
and cacerolazos came into being. Each of these phenomenon carried out very different
agendas demanding jobs in the case of the piqueteros, creating spaces for direct
democracy in the case of the asambleas, venting a visceral frustration with the economic
and political chaos in the case of the cacerolazos, and creating an alternative economic
model in the case of the trueques. Yet these various forms of protest constituted by a
variety of actors shared a master frame: discontent with the neoliberal economic model.
Decline of the cycle
This cycle of contention does seem to be slowing. Some of the contentious
behavior died out soon after it started. The momentary ascendance of the cacerolazos
marked the peak of the cycle, a spontaneous outpouring of the masses into the street. The
asambleas also coincided with the pinnacle of the cycle, and while slightly longer lasting,
eventually lost steam. On the other hand, other forms of contention continue: many of
thefabricas recuperadas still operate and the piqueteros continue to frequently set
roadblocks and made demands on the government. The barter clubs fit in somewhere in
the middle of this cycle, outlasting the transient spark of the cacerolazos and asambleas
but struggling to maintain an existence that the piqueteros and fdbricas recuperadas have
By examining each conceptual element of a social movement collective activity,
sustained activity, common purpose/identity, mobilizing structures and political
opportunities I have illuminated reasons for why the barter clubs failed to maintain
themselves as a social movement. But there are additional factors which influenced the
course of the barter clubs. These factors relate directly to the dynamics of contentious
cycles. According to Tarrow, the decline of a cycle is brought on by exhaustion,
polarization within the movement, and government selective facilitation of claims
(Tarrow 1998: 147-150). All of these factors are at play to some degree within the barter
The first element, exhaustion applies in an indirect way the barter clubs started
closing shop because of inflation, counterfeiting, and speculation, not because the
members grew tired of participating. However, lack of time, energy and resources
prevented the RGT from assimilating the flood of new members and adequately framing
key issues. The second element, polarization, also factored into the breakdown of the
barter clubs. The RGT generated two competing barter clubs, the Zona Oeste and RTS.
The RTS in particular ardently and publicly criticized the RGT for irresponsible
management of cr&dito printing as well as for autocratic control.
The government's role affected the trajectory of the barter clubs. Alvarez et al.
suggest that government plans cushioning the adverse effects of neoliberal policies
undercut the need for mobilization and reinforce clientelism. This process is exactly
what the RGT founders believed to be happening. The RGT founders suggest that plans
such as Plan Jefesy Jefas de Hogares attracted people away from the barter clubs and
toward easy money from the government. Foweraker explains demobilization in the
tendency of social movements to negotiate more and protest less. This dynamic may
have also been at play with the barter clubs. The umbrella organization of the RGT, the
PAR (El Programa de Autosuficiencia Regional), in fact became a non-governmental
organization. Part of the reason for forming an NGO was to gain credibility and legal
recognition. As we have seen, the RGT specifically worked to get government support of
the barter clubs and with some degree of success. But as both Tarrow and Melucci note,
the greater the degree of institutionalization the less the degree of contention.
In the early years, when the barter clubs were small, they met all the criteria of a
social movement. They were a collective, sustained activity. They behaved
contentiously challenging fundamental beliefs about the nature of production and
consumption and providing an alternative to the neoliberal, market-based economy. The
barter club members mobilized behind this common purpose not only in the act of
bartering, but also through regular charlas and rotation of responsibilities in the nodo.
Even so, the barter clubs were unable to maintain their trajectory as a social
movement, partly because they grew so quickly. The huge influx of participants in the
years leading up to the economic crisis of 2001 severely taxed the trueques. As people
fled to into the barter system to satisfy basic material needs, their original common
purpose changed, from challenging the dominant economic model to being simply
another way to survive hard times. This change in motivation undermined the
contentious aspect of the trueques: to barter on principle is contentious; to barter out of
need is not.
The mobilizing structure also broke down as the trueques grew, affecting the
RGT's ability to raise consciousness among its members. Because the clubs were
organized horizontally, the RGT could not monitor the practices of each nodo. Not only
did illicit practices run rampant, but the RGT was unable to sufficiently imbue each new
member with the core values of the trueque. Despite efforts to frame the issues of self-
reliance, local production and the ills of money, the RGT was unable to successfully
inculcate these ideals and transform them into everyday practices.
Creating a national system of parallel currency exacerbated the RGT's failure to
frame key issues. As the RGT grew it had to decide between divergent models: preserve a
small, local system adept at maintaining solidarity, or build a larger multi-regional or
national system that could more efficiently in allocate goods and services. Ultimately, by
choosing a national system based on a national credito, the RGT replicated the very ills
of the market economy that the RGT had rejected in the first place: inflation, greed and
speculation. By going national, the RGT lost the community focus and personal ties that
legitimize a local currency. In turn, the sense of solidarity between like-minded
neighbors largely disappeared.
Yet, the barter clubs played an important role in Argentine society. On the one
hand, the barter clubs were a survival mechanism that supplied basic goods and services
during a time when money was short and unemployment was high. The trueques,
however, made a deeper impact than just simply providing basic needs during economic
hardship. At a visible level, the barter clubs influenced government by putting new
issues on the political agenda, and gaining political support of an alternative economic
model. The barter clubs also influenced society at a more implicit level. As Feijoo
observes in her examination of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, groups can create change
without intending to do so. The Madres acted out their traditional role of protectors and
in the process unwittingly challenged the system. "In practice, the Madres became
another movement of women who, without trying to change patriarchal ideology or
abandon their femininity, produced a transformation of the traditional feminine
conscience and its political role. As a result, a practical redefinition of the content of the
private and public realms emerged" (Feijoo 1994: 113).
Similarly, the barter club participants, whether or not they consciously intended it,
created new identities for themselves. As Bombal points out, despite failure to fully
extend and transform the ideas of the pragmatic barter club participant, the trueques
changed participants' self-perception: "En estas personas no se encuentran convicciones
ideol6gicas tan claras respect del trueque como ordenador de un estilo de vida
alternative, pero sin duda la practice misma les permit resignificar su existencia y
alcanzar un nuevo posicionamiento" (Bombal 2002: 117). The quintessential example of
this transformation is the woman I interviewed who at first looked at the barter clubs
through the eyes of a snob. After she began participating, however, she realized that the
trueques provided a means to rebuild broken identities: "Lo que se estaba dando [el
trueque] era recuperar la identidad de las personas, recuperar la dignidad del trabajo y
recuperar el sentido de que lo que es el solidaridad, porque esto fue lo que yo descubri en
More generally, the barter clubs are significant as an indication of Argentina's
evolving state-society relations. Understanding the barter clubs as a nascent social
movement that eventually failed to consolidate as such serves to highlight this changing
relationship. To view the barter clubs as a social movement reminds observers to
recognize the underlying values and convictions present at their creation. Bringing the
trueques' normative message to the forefront brings to bear the full significance of the
barter clubs as an innovative and conscious reaction, one among many, to a changing
The 1970s marked a dividing line in the history of Argentine state-society relations.
In the 1940s and 50s, Peron had set the standard for an active state, one that heavily
directed economic growth and incorporated and provided for the working class by
organizing and empowering strong unions. The military government that took power
from Peron in 1973 attempted to liberalize state hold on economic activity and limit the
power that unions had acquired. The advent of democracy in 1983 marked the return to
an active civil society. The trend toward liberalization that started in the 1970's,
however, continued forward. Carlos Menem carried out the liberalization agenda with
particular enthusiasm in the 1990s. Under Menem, several factors coalesced to create a
crisis in the new model: mass privatizations of state-owned businesses and the opening of
markets to outside competition exacerbated the process of de-industrialization that started
in the 1970s and the concomitant decline in the middle class. The result was massive
unemployment in the mid 1990s and the exposure of the "new poor" as an established
class in Argentina.
The economic crisis of 2001 symbolized for many the consequences of the state's
move away from a paternalistic, hands-on economic model to a liberal market model.
The responses to the crisis and to the underlying change varied from asambleas
barriales and piqueteros, tofabricas recuperadas and barter clubs. This wave of
contention demonstrates a broad based search for new modes of both governance and
livelihood. At one end of the spectrum there are the piqueteros who continue to make
claims on the government, but through novel forms of contention. Alternatively, the
asambleas barriales place governance directly into the hands of the citizens, while the
fabrics recuperadas invest factory ownership and operation directly into the hands of
the workers. At the far end of the spectrum are the trueques, representing an even more
radical response, enjoining their members not to look to the government for assistance
but to look to themselves for solutions.
Out of all these forms of contention the piqueteros demonstrate the greatest
longevity. While the asambleas have died out almost entirely and the barter clubs are a
mere shadow of what they once were, the piqueteros remain active and continue to grow.
An avenue for future research would be to compare the trajectory of the piqueteros with
that of the barter clubs. Do the piqueteros' goals and modes of contention resonate more
naturally in Argentine society? Were the piqueteros able to consolidate as a movement
because of better framing practices?
The future of the barter clubs, however, should not be ignored. Despite their fall
from headline news, research should stay abreast of the trueques. Will their efforts to
regroup generate a more effective barter organization? If not, what will be the path of
former participants? Will they go on to participate in other forms of contentious
PRINCIPIOS DE LA RGT
1. Nuestra realizaci6n como series humans no necesita estar condicionada por el
2. No buscamos promover articulos o servicios, sino ayudarnos mutuamente a
alcanzar un sentido de vida superior, mediante el trabajo, la comprensi6n y el
3. Sostenemos que es possible remplazar la competencia esteril, el lucro y la
especulaci6n por la reciprocidad entire las personas.
4. Creemos que nuestros actos, products y servicios pueden responder a normas
eticas y ecol6gicas antes que a los dictados del mercado, el consumismo y la
busqueda de beneficio a corto plazo.
5. Los unicos requisitos para ser miembro de la Red Global de Trueque son: asistir a
las reuniones grupales, capacitarse y ser productor y consumidor de bienes,
servicios y saberes, en el marco de las recomendaciones de los circulos de calidad y
6. Sostenemos que cada miembro es el unico responsible de sus actos, products y
7. Consideramos que pertenecer a un grupo no implica ningun vinculo de
dependencia, puesto que la participaci6n individual es libre y extendida a todos los
grupos de la Red.
8. Sostenemos que no es necesario que los grupos se organicen formalmente, de modo
stable, puesto que el character de Red implica la rotaci6n permanent de roles y
9. Creemos que es possible combinar la autonomia de los grupos en la gesti6n de sus
asuntos interns con la vigencia de los principios fundamentals que dan
pertenencia a la Red.
10. Consideramos recomendable que los integrantes no respaldemos, patrocinemos o
apoyemos financieramente como miembros de la Red a una causa ajena a ella,
para no desviamos de los objetivos fundamentals que nos unen.
11. Sostenemos que el mejor ejemplo es nuestra conduct en el ambito de la Red y en
nuestra vida fuera de ella. guardamos confidencialidad sobre los asuntos privados y
prudencia en el tratamiento public de los temas de la Red que afecten a su
12. Creemos profundamente en una idea de progress como consecuencia del bienestar
sustentable del mayor nimero de personas del conjunto de las sociedades.
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Wendy Pond received her Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University
of Florida in May of 2000. She returned to UF in 2003 to do a Master of Arts in Latin
American Studies with a specialization in political science. While school was in session
Wendy worked as a graduate assistant at the Center for Latin American Studies, assisting
on various projects including the Center's annual conferences. During her first summer,
Wendy participated in the Coca-Cola World Citizenship Program, working as an intern
for Save the Children in Nicaragua. The following summer she had the opportunity to
intern at the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States through the U.S. State
Department Summer Intern Program. She graduates in May 2006 with her MA in Latin