GUSTAVO CARLOS, an Argentine youth, "disappeared" on May 15, 1977 when Argentina was under the iron grip of a brutal military regime, which snuffed out the lives of more than 30,000 youth. Twenty-five years later, his mother, Nora Cortinas, remains in the fight for the ideals for which her son sacrificed his life. Seventy years old, she is a popular icon of resistance in not only her country but across the world, at various protest gatherings that mark the globalisation of resistance to neo-liberalism. Wearing her trademark white scarf with her son's name embroidered on it, she is a regular participant at not only the World Social Forum (WSF), but also the regional and national social fora across the world. She spoke at several sessions of the Asian Social Forum (ASF) and in each of them she said that she "saw her son in each of the persons gathered there, as a reminder of her lost son".
On April 30, 1977, some of the mothers of the missing youth decided to gather at the Plaza de Mayo (May Plaza), opposite the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. This gave shape to the Madres de la Plaza Mayo (Mothers of May Plaza) movement, as an expression of solidarity among those who had lost their beloved ones. The idea of going to the Plaza de Mayo came from one of the mothers who went knocking on the doors of the powerful, in search of their missing children, during the years of military dictatorship in Argentina. Exasperated at getting no information from the corridors of power about the whereabouts of their children, the mothers decided to meet at the Plaza: hence the name of the organisation.
Although most of the mothers never saw their children again, the movement has continued. Even today members gather at the Plaza every Thursday evening. It is not only an expression of solidarity among the mothers, but also an expression of protest against repression anywhere in the world.
Being together helped the mothers to face the repressive military rulers. Nora Cortinas said: "Protesting on the streets made us politically aware. The first step was to come to grips with the reality of why our children were taken away. But gradually we began to understand the neo-liberal agenda, which were dictated by the countries of the North." She said that though the economically powerful countries dictated these policies, the levers of power in the country were operated by the local elites, including the top layer of the clergy. "We mothers understood our own children better - after their death. Our everyday struggle, in search of our children, made us understand the struggles of our own children and what they sacrificed their lives for." She said that this realisation widened their understanding of oppression - in all its dimensions - from the economic to the political and social.
Although popular upsurge forced the ouster of the military regime, the successive governments in Argentina did not punish the military rulers who perpetrated the atrocities against the people. In fact, Nora Cortinas says that the neo-liberal policies initiated by the military regime continue to be pursued by successive civilian governments. A substantial part of the debt incurred by Argentina during the years of military rule was "polished off" by the rulers. But the civilian governments continue the same World Bank-International Monetary Fund policies and the conditionalities that were a part of the package that came with such debts. "The military dictatorship," said Nora Cortinas, "has been replaced by an economic dictatorship."
The balance sheet of the Argentine version of neo-liberalism presents a stark picture. Seventy per cent of the urban population in Argentina - which has a high degree of urbanisation - lives in poverty. The economy contracted dramatically in 2002, by as much as 16 per cent in the first quarter. Unemployment is at about 30 per cent and wages in real terms fell by 20 per cent in 2002. Virtually all industries and services - the railways, the airlines, the oil industry, telecom and even water supply - have been privatised. Nora Cortinas said that the absence of even a rudimentary form of social security in the country had led to widespread hunger and homelessness. She said that the state had "given up any role for itself in the realms of public health and education". "Everything except the air we breathe in Argentina has been gifted away to private interests," Nora Cortinas said.
Nora Cortinas is a social psychologist. She holds a chair in the Economics Department at the University of Buenos Aires. The subject she teaches is the relationship between economic power and human rights.