The Cinderella of expropriation
At the corner of the National Congress that leads to the Senate Chamber, at the intersection of Entre Ríos and Hipólito Yrigoyen streets, a group of around two hundred people blocked two lanes of traffic, holding a long sign.
Some of the protesters wore a black t-shirt with white lettering, the back of which read: “Put on the BAUEN t-shirt.” Off to the side, dangling from the bars that protected the Parliament from the crisis of 2001, a big flag with the Argentine colors called for the expropriation of the hotel BAUEN,[^1] one of the largest and best-known recovered businesses in the country.
The BAUEN is a twenty-story hotel with 220 rooms, located only four blocks from Congress, at the intersection of Callao and Corrientes street. It has been occupied by its former workers since March 21, 2003, and put back in operation with enormous efforts by the cooperative they formed, but they never managed to normalize its legal situation, due to a complex web of interests and concealments built by the same business group that built it with public money during the period of the civilian-military dictatorship.
[^1]: Note from the authors: Throughout the book, we’re going to use the name of the hotel in two ways: Bauen to refer to the employer business that managed it until December 2001 and the residual company that continues to use the name; and BAUEN (with capital letters) for the worker cooperative that recovered it.
The BAUEN cooperative is an acronym for Buenos Aires, Una Empresa Nacional [Buenos Aires, A National Business], which we use without periods for ease of reading.
It was close to 3:00 PM on November 30, 2016, and a blazing summer sun shone down on the group. They had gathered there because there was a serious possibility that the law expropriating the hotel in favor of the cooperative would be approved during that workday, the last of the ordinary annual sessions of Congress. It was that day or never, because if it was not voted on, the bill would lose parliamentary status, which is to say, it could not be brought up, but rather, would be dismissed. For the BAUEN workers, that possibility would be a political tragedy. It had taken a great deal of work, after thirteen years of self-management and resistance, to reach the approval of the expropriation law in the Chamber of Deputies almost a year before. [Translator’s note: the Argentine legislative system is very similar to the US legislative system: the upper house of Congress, the Senate, and lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, must pass identical versions of a bill, and then it can be signed or vetoed by the President.] The legislators had voted on the bill as part of a package of 90 others, of widely varying kinds, at the last moment, on the last day possible before the change of government. Since had been presented, the bill had barely advanced at all, languishing in the Senate, where it had been sent December 1, 2015. Since that day, it had not been moved.
Protesters flowed in and out. Workers from the hotel or from other cooperatives and recovered businesses, members of the Argentine Federation of Self-Managed Worker Cooperatives (FACTA), supporters, and activists in solidarity with the BAUEN rotated to assure a permanent presence throughout the whole day, as news and rumors circulated among them. Police watched over the scene and rerouted traffic on Entre Ríos. Congress was blockaded, and there was little possibility of getting much closer to the place where part of the cooperative’s fate was being decided. Expectation was growing, and there was no real news about what was happening inside, where no less than the national budget was being debated. Also, the Senate did not even allow observers, which is why no representative of the cooperative had had a chance to enter so far.
The bill had been presented that morning to the plenary of committees to be taken up, as required, but quorum had not been reached. It then had to be proposed on the floor, which meant it had to be voted on and passed in a sort of first round to reach the possibility of a definitive vote. It was a needle that needed to be threaded before midnight, when the session expired. A nervous joke started to circulate among the protesters, comparing it to Cinderella’s carriage, which turned into a pumpkin at midnight. If the hour passed and it was not approved, the law would turn into a pumpkin, too.