President Alberto Fernández has responded to the continued unrest in Jujuy by announcing he will seek to have the recent reforms to the provincial constitution struck down as unconstitutional.
Demonstrations erupted in the northern province last weekend and continued throughout the week as protests escalated into violent clashes with security forces. At one point, a group of violent vigilantes attempted to enter the provincial legislature and set it alight, while security forces were accused of “brutal repression” by a number of national government officials, indigenous community leaders, left-wing activists and international human rights groups.
The most violent episodes took place on Tuesday when a large mobilisation led by indigenous and social organisations in front of the provincial legislature erupted into riots. Activists threw stones at security forces who fought back aggressively with rubber bullets and tear gas, televised images showed.
Among those demonstrating were supporters of local indigenous activist Milagro Sala, picketers from the Polo Obrero organisation and other social groups, media outlets reported.
Human rights groups strongly criticised the response of the security forces and provincial Governor Gerardo Morales.
Local and national news channels ran footage showing a protester lying prostrate in the street in a pool of blood near his head and at press time there was no official statement with regard to injuries, deaths or arrests.
Minutes before the declaration of the new constitution, some demonstrators managed to get past security barriers and attempted to enter the provincial legislature by force and set it alight. Others vandalised the windows of nearby shops and threw rocks at police officers.
Alejandro Nieva, the president of the constitutional drafting commission, alleged before local media that the attackers were “Kirchnerite groups.”
"They even came from other provinces, to create this chaos that is happening here," he said.
National politicians quickly began trading blows on social media over the clashes, with Jujuy Province Gerardo Morales accusing President Fernández and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of fomenting the unrest.
Police said more than 70 people were injured in the clashes throughout the week, with 58 arrests.
The constitutional reform that sparked the row expressly prohibits "street and road blockades, as well as any other disturbance of the right to free movement of persons and the improper occupation of public buildings in the province," definitions that critics say slap limits on the right to protest.
The text also contemplated modifications with respect to indigenous peoples' land rights, but these were pulled at the last minute by Morales’ provincial coalition.
Responding to the crisis, President Fernández announced from the Casa Rosada on Thursday that he will seek to have the controversial reform of the provincial constitution struck down by the courts.
The Peronist leader read aloud from a letter sent by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights expressing concern and cited statements from other international NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
"They have made a clear and forceful statement calling for an end to state violence and guaranteeing human rights in the province of Jujuy," argued the head of state, who at no point in his address condemned the violence committed by some demonstrators.
"I immediately urge Governor Gerardo Morales to comply with international human rights standards," declared the head of state, who did not take questions from the media.
Fernández, who clashed with the UCR leader on social media earlier this week, confirmed he had asked his Justice Ministry to "analyse and eventually promote actions of unconstitutionality of the articles of the reform." According to the president, the changes "violate the National Constitution and international treaties.”
The Peronist leader also urged Morales’ government to meet with indigenous communities and other actors involved to “immediately resolve the situation.”
The Jujuy governor this week accused Fernández and his vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, of funding and encouraging violent demonstrations in the northern province.
"You are the only one responsible for having brought our beloved province of Jujuy to this extreme situation by trying to impose a constitutional reform that does not respect the National Constitution," Fernández responded to Morales on Twitter, demanding the "immediate cessation of repression” in the province of 800,000 inhabitants.
Fernández de Kirchner also fired back on social media, telling Morales to "take charge and stop the repressive madness" that he himself had "unleashed."
‘Behind the backs’
Stoking the flames further, Fernández’s Justice Minister Martín Soria confirmed he is studying whether the reform can be declared “unconstitutional” and slammed its approval “behind the backs” of the people. He did not mention that a majority of the ruling coalition’s own provincial lawmakers backed the reform in the legislature.
"It is necessary to analyse the whole constituent process in a comprehensive manner, from the moment the convention was convened, but also the way of working, the deadlines and the final text. The whole process was obscure, opaque, very non-transparent," argued Soria in a radio interview.
“It is a constitution approved behind the backs of the people, without participatory methods, without listening to the sectors of Jujuy society and it was released in the worst way, violating basic principles of the Argentine democratic system,” he alleged, describing the process as a “monstrosity.”
Soria went on to criticise the “repression” by security forces in Jujuy, an allegation that also found favour with the Foro de Convergencia Empresarial, which condemned the “violent acts” in Jujuy.
Nevertheless, the business grouping highlighted that the reforms “were made within the framework of the provincial constitution,"stressing that "the people of Jujuy voted for the constituent conventions and they approved the questioned articles by a majority.”
Thousands of representatives from the almost 300 indigenous communities based in the foothills of the Andes have joined teachers' and state workers' unions staging protests over the past two weeks. Roadblocks and marches have at some points blocked access to the provincial capital of San Salvador.
The reform of the provincial constitution has escalated the situation, with tensions now running high.
Morales describes his alliance’s reform as "progressive" but protest leaders reject that definition, instead arguing it "limits the right to protest and strike and questions the property of indigenous communities."
"They are eliminating our rights to our ancestral lands," Verónica Chávez, the president of the Tres Pozos Community of the Kolla people, said at a press conference on Tuesday.