BUENOS AIRES — The Hotel Bauen looks like any other mid-range hotel in downtown Buenos Aires: 20 floors of glass and steel skirted by flags of the world that welcome tourists into a chic lobby. There's the grand piano here. An art deco chandelier there.
It's hard to imagine that six years ago, this place was a gutted mess. And it's even harder to believe that the Bauen Hotel today remains illegally occupied territory, taken over by a group of former employees.
In Buenos Aires, this isn't unusual. There are more than 200 other so-called "recovered businesses" in Argentina that involve 12,000 employees who took control of their companies after owners threatened to close shop.
The proprietors accuse them of theft on a grand scale; the workers say they're just exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to work. Politicians and the justice system go back and forth, and almost no one knows what to make of the situation.
After a few factory takeovers in the 1980s and 1990s, the first major wave of occupations came with the flood of bankruptcies during Argentina's last economic crisis, which started in 2001. By 2004, there were 150 recovered businesses operating in the country.
Now, with the current economic crisis seeping into Argentina, a new wave of takeovers has begun. No one knows exactly how many there are. But networks of cooperatives have grown up as the movement has gained strength, and representatives from these organizations say that they have seen as many takeovers in the last four months as they had in the previous four years.
Those involved in the new takeovers have learned from their predecessors.
Five years ago, few believed that businesses taken over by employees would still be viable. But most of the employee groups that took over their workplaces in the early part of the decade remain in business today. And while it used to take workers more than a year to take control of their companies and become productive, many newcomers are doing so within three months.
"We didn't know how much we'd be able to do without an owner, but we've managed to start producing in very little time, so we fully believe that we'll be able to take this forward," said Adrian Serrano, who worked at the Arrufat chocolate factory for 25 years before its owner absconded in January. The 30 employees who remained — half the staff left — have been busy manufacturing 10,000 chocolate eggs in time for Easter, their most important season.
Since the owner cut the lights and they only have the electricity that a neighbor gives them, the workers have to work mostly by hand. Now, Arrufat's production volume is down to a sliver of what it was in previous years. But they're making enough money to feed themselves, and, most importantly, they're working.
"We're not usurpers," Serrano said. "All we want is to work."
Of course, they look very much like usurpers, which is exactly what most former owners and judicial authorities accuse them of being. It's not always so clear who stole from whom, though, since most usurping workers, like those at Arrufat, are owed back pay from the months leading up to a bankruptcy declaration. Owners also often owe the government unpaid taxes.
A takeover generally begins with the workers taking shifts, so there are employees in the building around the clock to prevent former owners and the police from entering and removing any capital assets. "As long as the machines are here, we know we will have work," explained Veronica Cuervo as she worked the night guard shift at Indugraf, a textbook printing press where she worked for 14 years until the owner closed shop and fired all of the company's 88 workers in November.
It sounds like a page out of Karl Marx, and this political significance is not lost on any of the academics or activists observing the takeovers. Many political groups with socialist agendas have gotten involved over the years. But most of the takeovers are rooted in self-preservation, not politics.
It's politics, though, that keeps the workers safe.
Very few cooperatives have actually managed to get through the legal expropriation process, and many of them, like Hotel Bauen, are facing eviction notices. But they tend to have a lot of public support — many have invested in local community centers and schools — and so the political cost to the authorities of forcibly removing them can be too high.
Maria del Valle, a security guard at the Hotel Bauen, remembers when she and 500 other employees and supporters barricaded the hotel's doors and gathered in one of the ballrooms while the police were outside threatening to remove them. There were also 70 guests in the hotel who were given the option to leave, but del Valle says most decided to stay with the workers, making a police invasion virtually unthinkable.
"Legality and legitimacy in Argentina are not necessarily the same," notes journalist and activist Esteban Magnani, who has written a book about cooperative takeovers. The recuperated businesses have built so much social legitimacy that Veronica Cuervo of Indugraf says that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's administration recently gave them subsidies as they sat in their occupied factory waiting for a license to begin producing.
But Cuervo says the subsidies are not a sustainable solution. What they want is to get back to work, and she thinks government officials will allow them to do that soon — if only to legitimize themselves in advance of the upcoming elections.