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ARGENTINA | 25-01-2024 00:39

Thousands swarm Buenos Aires' streets to protest Milei’s reforms

Thousands flooded the streets and avenues surrounding Congress during a mass protest on Wednesday in Buenos Aires organised by the CGT, one of the nation’s oldest and most powerful union groups.

Argentina’s labour movement is testing popular support for President Javier Milei’s austerity blitz in a national strike less than two months into his presidency.

Thousands of Argentines flooded the streets and avenues surrounding Congress during a mass protest Wednesday in Buenos Aires organised by the CGT, one of the nation’s oldest and most powerful union groups. The events of the day will help set the tenor of debate as the libertarian economist attempts to slash the size of the state in a bid to tame triple-digit inflation. A key vote on part of that agenda was postponed by lawmakers until next week.

The government projected a sense of calm from afar. “Some thousands striking, some millions working,” Presidential Spokesman Manuel Adorni tweeted, while Milei — from his official residence in the outskirts of the capital — posted a chart showing money in circulation and the central bank’s liabilities. Security Minister Patricia Bullrich was set to meet with the president later Wednesday about the security response, with her office estimating there were only 40,000 strikers in the street.

Protesters concentrated around Avenida de Mayo and cut off the city’s widest avenue, 9 de Julio, despite strict measures against street blockades Bullrich announced in December. The crowd gathered to watch the principal union leaders deliver a brief address in the early afternoon and began to disperse afterward. In attendance were various Peronist political leaders, including Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof, and members of the country’s biggest unions carrying flags and playing drums.

“They devalued and tripled prices for food, gas, and now they tell us there won’t be pension raises,” Hector Daer, the umbrella labor group’s secretary general, told the protesters. “That’s why we are telling members of congress to act in line with their popular mandate.”

Camioneros (Truckers) union leader Pablo Moyano sent a sterner message to Economy Minister Luis Caputo, who is helming the government’s aggressive spending cuts: “If he continues with these measures, Minister Caputo will be thrown to the Riachuelo,” a famous river.

Moyano later backtracked on his comment, calling it a metaphor. Referencing the initial statement, Caputo said on social media that he hopes the justice system gets involved.

After taking office in December, Milei issued a decree deregulating vast swathes of the economy and sent a sweeping package of free-market reforms to Congress. He unfroze prices for thousands of everyday products and is advancing steadily on the removal of generous electric, gas and transport subsidies, amid annual inflation hurtling beyond 211 percent. While the CGT successfully challenged labour provisions of the decree in court, a vote on the so-called omnibus bill is headed for the floor of the lower house.

Milei has stuck to the bombastic rhetoric of his campaign but also taken a pragmatic turn by withdrawing a proposal to privatise state-owned oil company YPF SA from his package of legislative reforms. The bill’s passage will be crucial for his government to meet targets laid out by the International Monetary Fund in its latest review of Argentina’s US$44-billion aid programme, the multilateral lender’s largest.

“Depending on how many people they mobilise, the union will be able to demonstrate how much weight it carries at the negotiating table,” political analyst Raúl Timerman said in an interview. “If the protest is massive, lawmakers will have a harder time voting in favour of the government. But if the protest fails, it will make clear Milei still counts on the support of the population.”

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by Manuela Tobias, Bloomberg

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