Three days of protesting by the Buenos Aires Province police force – including worrying scenes of a group thronging outside Olivos presidential residence – jerked President Alberto Fernández into a controversial and drastic decision this week, as the demonstrations seized attention and dominated political debate.
The Peronist leader, reacting to the crisis, announced Wednesday that he was reducing Buenos Aires City’s slice of the federal revenue-sharing pie from 3.5 to 2.32 percent, redirecting the money to Buenos Aires Province.
Although no specific purpose was identified in what was billed as a fiscal reinforcement fund for the province, it was understood that the move was to placate the police pay grievances and it enabled Buenos Aires Governor Axel Kicillof to announce a net basic wage of 44,000 pesos on Thursday after the decree was rapidly published in the Official Gazette in the small hours.
Calling the move a “betrayal” after months of anti-pandemic consensus with the President, City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta said that he would take the funding transfer to the Supreme Court as “unconstitutional.”
The Juntos por el Cambio opposition was virtually unanimous in its criticism and rejection of the decree. But President Fernández said that the mayor had no cause for surprise or annoyance since the reduction of the City’s federal revenue-sharing share had been broached last summer before being interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Along with the promise that the protesters would not be sanctioned for their insubordinate behaviour which also drew criticism from the opposition, Kicillof’s pay hike announcement served to defuse the unrest between yesterday and Thursday.
President Fernández, in a televised broadcast Wednesday, demanded respect for institutions.
"Every claim has a way of being made, not just anything is valid, not everything is allowed when making a claim. I ask you amicably, democratically, to put aside this attitude," he added, surrounded by socially distanced mayors from the province, including those both from the ruling Frente de Todos and opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalitions.
The protest began on Monday as a group of active and retired officers made wage claims to the provincial authorities in a rally at Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof's official residence in La Plata.
Demonstrations continued on Tuesday at various locations across the province, but Wednesday's rally took a political turn, when a group of police officers stationed themselves in front of the presidential residence, demanding to be let in to see Fernández, despite the fact that the policemen have provincial and not national jurisdiction.
Officials admit that salaries have fallen behind with promised rises. Some officers say their pay is drastically undervalued, with overtime hours working out to just 40 pesos an hour in some cases.
"Just as people have their families, so do we. And a family has to be supported. A salary of 35,000 pesos (US$448) is the basic basket [of goods], it is useless," a serving officer named María told the AFP news agency.
Fernández said in his address that the officers' claim "is fair," adding it was "necessary to give an answer."
He asked the police to "accompany us in this difficult moment" in "the effort we are making."
The protests by provincial police officers, which were organised without a central leadership and drew support from retired and former cops, drew considerable attention, coming at a time when Argentina is registering its highest daily infection numbers yet of the virus crisis.
"We want a solution immediately, we are not asking for miracles, we are asking that this conflict, which has solutions, be unlocked," said officer Alberto Díaz, dressed in camouflage gear, as he protested near a strategic command post near La Matanza on Wednesday.
The provincial police force has around 90,000 serving officers to guarantee the safety of some 17 million inhabitants of the region, the nation's most populous and extreme, in terms of inequality. Police leaders say that salaries are unacceptably low, especially given they are serving on the "front line" of the fight against Covid-19 in Argentina.
"The trigger for the claim was the announcement of investment in security but with nothing for salaries," Nicolás Masi, a police delegate, told FutuRock radio.
Fernández said last week that US$460 million would be deployed to improve security in the province, which has seen a sharp rise in crime.