Argentina’s economic crisis reached fever pitch this week, with poverty and protest coming to the fore. In violent scenes seen Wednesday, clashes between police and protesters camping out in front of the Social Development Ministry on Avenida 9 de Julio left a handful of people wounded.
A day later, Congress took a huge step towards approving a “food emergency” law to tackle nutritional insecurity.
On Thursday, lower house lawmakers offered a fig leaf to social movements and labour groups by unanimously passing a draft “food emergency” law.
The legislation would free up resources for social programmes amid a worsening economic landscape and, despite initially expressing its opposition, the government eventually moved to support the bill.
Hours before the bill went to the floor, Cambiemos lawmaker Daniel Lipovetzky announced that his caucus had decided “as a block to accompany the Food Emergency project.”
“We are facing a problem of hunger, malnutrition and a sharp drop in income,” opposition Red x Argentina lawmaker Daniel Arroyo, a co-author of the bill, told the Chamber of Deputies as the legislation was debated.
The bill, yet to be approved by the Senate, would provide a 50 percent increase in food assistance programmes to growing numbers of poor.
“We all have to help in a complicated context in which there are many people who are having a hard time,” declared Arroyo, a member of the Frente de Todos coalition of opposition leader Alberto Fernández, who is strongly favoured to win October’s presidential election.
Tensions spiked on Wednesday in scenes captured by photographers and TV cameras, as clashes erupted between demonstrators and police officers.
The protesters set up an encampment on Avenida 9 de Julio, a critical transport artery for the City on Wednesday, the second such demonstration in a week. Social movements have led a sustained disruption of daily life in the City to pressure the government to support the poorest members of society and declare a nutritional emergency.
Police attempted to disperse the protest with tear gas and baton attacks, which didn’t halt activists from continuing their 48-hour encampment.
Protesters claimed they were attacked by the security forces without provocation. “They beat me savagely along with other comrades,” said Eduardo Belliboni, leader of piquetero group Polo Obrero. “They’ve launched [tear] gas and batons against unarmed people who didn’t have their faces covered.”
Social organisations and labour groups ultimately took to the streets after a “failed” meeting with Social Development Minister Carolina Stanley, who along with the government reportedly refused to concede to the demands of increased spending for welfare programmes and soup kitchens.
Yet despite that, the word from the Casa Rosada was more conciliatory. President Mauricio Macri – who has yet to explicitly endorse the legislation before Congress – struck a different tone on Thursday, admitting that many Argentine families “are finding it harder to make ends meet.”
“Where this situation strikes most clearly is at the table of Argentines, which is the most important thing for the family,” Macri said.
In a column released through the Télam state news agency, the president promised he would “continue taking the necessary decisions” to stabilise the economy.
Should the food emergency bill pass the Senate, increases in funding for social programmes would increase by between 8 and 10 billion pesos by 2022.
Amid references to Macri’s budget-slashing austerity measures, Consenso Federal deputy Graciela Camaño pleaded with fellow lawmakers not to preoccupy themselves “debating budgetary questions.”
“I don’t care about the electoral context,” Camaño told the Chamber of Deputies. “To have 45 percent of people in poverty and 11 percent in extreme poverty is a scandal.”
The Senate will consider the legislation next Wednesday, yet Cambiemos lawmakers were already hinting Friday that the law will be approved in the upper house.
Esteban Bullrich, a Cambiemos senator for Buenos Aires Province, said Friday the government had supported the measure because it will not generate a “change in total [budgetary] goals” and that government accounts would remain balanced.
“There is agreement and the idea is to try to put on the table on Wednesday and put it forward,” Bullrich told CNN Radio. “I don’t see major difficulties from it passing the same as in the Chamber of Deputies.”