The earthly power of the Pope, a religious north star for 1.5 billion people, has allowed the influence of Grabois to spread throughout Latin America and even the United States. He is part of a new Latin American left activism that simultaneously breaks with the organizing tactics of the past and then resurfaces them.
In Grabois' looks, politics, and style, it’s easy to be reminded of another Argentine: the 1960s guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara. They share a charisma and the grandest of ideals: a grand Latin American homeland (the unification of the continent into a single block). And the two are similarly belligerent, although Grabois is against armed insurgency.
Grabois' influence is difficult to classify with traditional metrics. He is 38 years old and does not change his disheveled appearance, whether it’s for a street demonstration or a formal meeting with officials. He holds no public office and does not even appear as an authority in the organizations he’s founded, such as the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE, in Spanish).
In an interview with palabra, he gently boasts that he is sure of what he does because he knows who he represents: “The poor. My role is to give them visibility. Not for me, just another white lawyer with social sensitivity.”
In addition to being a lawyer, Grabois is a university professor and a writer.
Grabois has needed just a decade to build a strategic network with other movements in Latin America and the United States, groups that work for change similar to what he seeks in Argentina: "Land, Lodging (housing), Labor," the same slogans promoted by the Pope. Grabois’ activism has a kinship with leftist social movements in the United States, such as that of Bernie Sanders, with which Grabois has started a conversation.
"I don't know of another leader like Grabois," said Larry Cohen, president of Our Revolution, a lobbying group that introduced him to Sanders. Cohen was impressed from the moment he met him. They had agreed to meet for an hour in a hotel lobby in Washington, and the conversation lasted four, Cohen said. "I never do that."
In fact, he traveled to Argentina in 2018 to see the MTE up close. “Any of the activists I saw there would be great leaders in the United States. There is a sense of society, as well as the community that they belong to,” he said.
Through the Vatican, Grabois had already established a close relationship with the economist and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, Jeffrey Sachs and his wife, Sonia, and had spoken to students at Georgetown University, Harvard, and Columbia. Through the Catholic organization Faith in Action (formerly the Pico Network) he found a way to exchange information across the Americas. “Pico Network has opened doors for us not only with Catholic organizations,” Grabois said.
In Latin America, Grabois is part of a network that trades experiences on issues of migration, human trafficking, slave labor, protection of the unhoused, and the need to better integrate marginalized communities in cities with their other social and economic interests. This is not a minor agenda in Latin America because taking action on behalf of the poor involves a third of the region’s population, that is, at least 200 million people.
There is evidence that this movement is gaining political ground: The region is experiencing what Latin Americans are calling a “Pink Tide” – a shift toward a new generation of leftist leaders. That was evident in the election of 35-year-old Gabriel Boric as Chile’s president. Grabois views Boric’s politics with sympathetic criticism.
Another thing these movements have in common is a mistrust of representatives of poor peoples getting rich. “The ethical principles of the leaders cannot be dissociated from those they represent,” said Grabois. They also oppose extractivism of natural resources in the region, such as mining.
But Grabois also recognizes that the state is the main source of revenue needed to bring the motto “Tierra, Techo y Trabajo” (Land, Housing and Labor) to fruition. That’s why many of the movements in Grabois’ universe, such as the MTE, promote laws that question concepts of private property in order to distribute land equitably. Grabois has also proposed a single universal salary, similar to what some progressives, such as former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang, have proposed in the United States, where the government would set a minimum income for those who do not have steady employment.
Grabois calls his standing, between the left and the right, a revolutionary humanism “where we are humanly diverse but socially equal” as a substitute for the current world order, “which is in a terminal crisis, and thus prevents it from leading to neo-fascism.”
Ties to the Pope
This network among social movements in Latin America began to come together from four world meetings that the Vatican has organized since 2014, since Francis has held the papacy and Grabois the general coordination. The tie was not new. Grabois and the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires met in 2001, when Grabois led the fight for better conditions for the city's garbage recyclers.
With this support, the social organization that the activist had formed, the Movement of Excluded Workers, forged ties with the region’s main community groups, some of which had long histories, such as the Brazilian Movement of Landless Rural Workers. Also on the list of this network, which swaps experiences and proposals, are the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center in Mexico, the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the New Peru Movement, the Bogotá Waste Pickers Association, as well as Vía Campesina, which works all over the world.
“There is no longer a relationship between these movements and the armed struggle, as it was in the ‘60s” explains Grabois, “even though they make violent speeches. Except for the seizure of land in Brazil or our defending occupied areas, which can be seen as hostile actions, there is no longer any intention of harming people or public property,” as was the case with leftist groups in Latin America.
Grabois' demonstrations are not just pronouncements. They’re his currency, and allow him access to the region’s progressive leaders. Even if he holds no position or title, that does not prevent him from speaking directly with important people in the region. That’s how he’s held court with the likes of former presidents Evo Morales (Bolivia), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil), José Mujíca (Uruguay), and Mexico’s current leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
But such notoriety also brings inconveniences. For example, when he traveled to Bogotá to watch the street riots last October, he made it only as far as the airport. His deportation by the Colombian government caused a diplomatic incident with Argentina. Former Colombian President Ernesto Samper came to Grabois’ defense.
Land, Housing, and Labor
In Argentina, Grabois provokes love and hate, but never indifference, and is an unavoidable reference of the social issue in a country with 43.8% of its population - about 20 million people - living in poverty. Half of the labor force, eight million people, works in the informal sector without paid holidays or a social safety net.
Grabois' core of direct supporters is about 100,000-strong, according to his own estimates, and his way of demonstrating power when he pushes a claim against the state is mobilizing people to the streets. Hence, his legions are called “piqueteros,” (picketers), like the 300,000 who filled the Plaza de Mayo in front of the government palace in Buenos Aires demanding the universal salary.
Although social tension is more serious in Latin American nations such as Venezuela and Mexico, concern grows daily in Argentina. Poverty has doubled in the last 40 years.
Even his political enemies, who oppose the excessive dependence of social movements on state money, recognize in Grabois a different kind of leader. It’s his austerity, unlimited commitment to his cause and disdain for any title of honor or position.
“He is intelligent, brilliant,” said one former Argentine government leader who requested anonymity. “But he is extremely arrogant. He puts on a moral superiority on the rest that is difficult to tolerate. It works: Dealing with him implicitly carries the message, ‘I'm the last good guy you're going to negotiate with. If you don't agree with me, the bad guys come.’”
His public discourse is difficult to classify: he speaks out against Marcos Galperín, founder of Argentina’s most valuable company, Mercado Libre. (His kindest description of Galperín is as a “profiteer.”) But he did meet, in a poor neighborhood, with Vitálik Buterin, creator of Ethereum. Grabois was anxious to learn about the social utility of cryptocurrencies, and the Russian-Canadian programmer was on a quick trip to Buenos Aires, where he only sat down with the most important political authorities.
He meets with businessmen and admires the judicial system of the United States, but is critical of capitalism and uses U.S. companies as examples when he explains the damage caused by free markets. He went after Nike with accusations of slave labor. And he recently opposed the government of Alberto Fernández renegotiating Argentina's debt with the International Monetary Fund.
Grabois' life could be a metaphor for the stages and contradictions of Argentina: He was born in 1983, just when the nation returned to democratic government after years of military dictatorship. He comes from a wealthy family, but in 2001 he left everything to dedicate himself to social movements. And, while he’s the son of a conservative political leader, and of Jewish origin, Grabois is a committed leftist and a practicing Catholic.
Grabois lives in a framework of paradoxes: he has a solid education, but the group he represents is comprised of informal workers who largely don’t finish elementary school. And, while he appears in the media almost every day, he is adamant about protecting his privacy and works hard to keep his wife and three children out of the media limelight.
Daniel Arroyo, a former Minister of Social Development in the current Argentine government, believes that political leaders such as Grabois are a natural result of the series of economic crises in the country. “The informal workers movements are part of any solution to the problem of lack of work,” says Arroyo, “as an intermediate step towards making it formal, which is the objective of the state.”
Grabois is sure that the social movements “are the last defense before giving way to drug traffickers or that there is a social explosion.” His movement includes blacksmiths and textile workshops throughout the country, horticultural cooperatives, recovery centers for people with addictions and the formerly imprisoned, garbage recycling plants, and thousands of waste collectors in the main cities. “But it's not enough,” Grabois cautioned, which justifies what he says is a necessary immersion in politics.
Grabois is constantly asked if he will be a candidate for president of Argentina. He denies it. “Today being president is a minor position, because the power to transform things is not there,” he says. “Institutional politics has less and less legitimacy. It is in the actual powers: the media, companies, social and economic pressure groups.”
During one of his interviews with palabra last year, he walked through the low-income neighborhood of La Matanza, one of the poorest districts in Buenos Aires and with the highest crime rate in Argentina. Around that time, a man was killed in the neighborhood, hit by 14 bullets after calling out the drug mafias, and there were 16 other murders, most as revenge by drug gangs. “Between social and political leaders there is always a schizophrenia. But clearly I'm not a politician because a politician couldn't walk around this area without protection,” Grabois said, walking away, all alone.
Crossposted from palabra