Civic patience in Argentina is being increasingly strained by escalating social protests, extending beyond momentary irritation to fears of a vicious circle as both cause and effect of a deepening crisis – the bigger the protests for social plans, the more money dished out for appeasement which only goes to fund even bigger marches causing downtown traffic havoc, thus turning into a permanent spiral. Possibly feeling the pressure from the hawks of his own centre-right PRO party and libertarians, such an incarnation of moderate and responsible opposition as City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta has gone so far as to propose the removal of social plans from the increasingly radical participants in these obstructive protests, thus interrupting the vicious circle. A proposal which will be widely applauded but immediately undermines the institutional discourse favoured by the Juntos por el Cambio opposition by challenging the constitutional right to protest.
Rights only extend as far as they do not clash with other rights (the right to protest versus the right to freedom of movement in this case), it is widely argued, but these institutional issues are only the surface of the problem. Neither side has the monopoly of right or wrong. The protesting sectors are unwise to convert themselves into a public menace when most of them are in reality the victims of social injustice – they are their own worst enemies by conspiring against those feelings of solidarity which are essential for maintaining the myriad welfare benefits which help them. Quite apart from the perception that these social plans are being abused to hold the general public to ransom, others would ask if they serve any useful purpose against poverty, destitution and unemployment (especially when it comes to formal jobs) if all these have only grown in the last two decades – investment in education would offer more permanent solutions, some might argue. The leftist groupings in particular can be legitimately accused of feeding the grieta chasm by fostering class consciousness in a land with a tradition of upward mobility where it has few roots. But social protest can also blame the ruthless political exploitation for giving their cause such a negative image.
That political exploitation cuts both ways – not only leftists and Kirchnerites but also those on the right seeking to ride civic anger to mount an authoritarian agenda. Such voices underestimate the acute socio-economic problems suffered by the poorest sectors cruelly punished by inflation to throw the blame for the government’s chronic insolvency on the social plans. This is grossly misinforming the general public – social assistance is only five percent of the budget as against a third earmarked for pensions. To blame senior citizens (early victims of austerity and most of them struggling to survive on minimum pensions) for the fiscal deficit would seem far more outrageous than picking on picketers but mathematically at least it would be more justified.
Virtually everybody agrees that real jobs are the ultimate answer, not welfare handouts, and these must inevitably come from the private sector because there is no fiscal scope for expanding the public sector. This need not be a pipe dream – despite all the prophets of doom and gloom say, the economy is currently growing with poverty and unemployment dipping while today’s complex world offers a new commodity boom (which Argentina is admittedly underequipped to exploit), although snowballing inflation leaves little room for complacency or longer-term optimism.
But in a more immediate term it is not so much a question of scrapping the social plans as retooling them. The critics might exaggerate but there can be no doubt that the rise of the picket movement has led to a new vested interest which thrives on poverty and would weaken with its elimination – a vested interest now blocking progress along with all the others. Until welfare benefits can be redesigned so they genuinely further job training and education, instead of perpetuating dependence on the state and social organisations, they will be vulnerable to a growing unpopularity which could lead to their elimination in a backlash. At the end of the day nobody really wins from these obstructive protests, or unrealistic soundbites that sound good while campaigning.