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Argentina: Riot police confront Milei austerity protests

March 19, 2024

Police and demonstrators clashed in Buenos Aires on Monday as protests against social cuts by Javier Milei's libertarian Argentinian government escalated. The violence comes one hundred days into Milei's presidency.

Members of the Naval Prefecture in riot gear spray tear gas during a protest against Argentine President Milei's economic plan, and in demand of resources for soup kitchens and assistance, in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 18, 2024.
Police in Argentina responded to anti-austerity protests with tear gas and forceImage: Agustin Marcarian/REUTERS

Argentinian police deployed water cannons, batons and tear gas against anti-austerity demonstrators blocking key roads into the capital, Buenos Aires, on Monday.

Protesters responded by hurling stones at the police, injuring two officers and a journalist, according to local media.

Why were the protests called?

Thousands of supporters of various social movements have been protesting against severe cuts to social services and subsidies in Argentina, imposed by ultra-libertarian President Javier Milei as he attempts to combat an acute economic crisis.

Demonstrators protest against Argentine President Milei's economic plan, and in demand of resources for soup kitchens and assistance, in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 18, 2024.
One hundred days after his inauguration, Milei's drastic and ambitious set of cuts in public spending are encountering resistanceImage: Agustin Marcarian/REUTERS

The demonstrations were called by representatives of trade unions and other social movements claiming that 40,000 soup kitchens were running out of food to feed struggling families after Milei's government suspended supplies pending an audit.

"The hunger in the neighborhoods is terrible," Maria Medina, from the leftist organization Polo Obrero, told the AFP news agency. "They haven't delivered goods to the soup kitchens for four months and the kids need it."

Argentina's approval of sweeping reforms sparks protest

Milei taking campaign 'chainsaw' to public sector

With inflation at over 270% and an estimated 50% of the population in the once prosperous South American country living below the poverty line, Milei wants to reduce state benefits to a minimum and cut subsidies for electricity, gas, water and public transport.

He often appeared wielding a chainsaw on the campaign trail to indicate his plans for cuts. 

One hundred days after coming to power with a promise to halt an "orgy of public spending," Milei has halved the number of government ministries to just nine, slashed 50,000 public jobs, suspended all new public works contracts and ripped away generous fuel and transport subsidies.

From a purely financial perspective, the cuts have allowed the Buenos Aires government to record a first budgetary surplus in over a decade – much to the pleasure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which has a $44 billion credit program with Argentina.

"Stabilization is working, better than one originally imagined, but there are questions about governance," economist Marina Dal Poggetto said in a recent Argentinian television interview.

Argentina soup kitchens see demand soar

Milei cuts encountering resistance in Congress too

But Milei has come under fire for shutting down the state news agency and anti-discrimination agency, and removing funding for scientific research and the cinema industry.

Milei took office warning things would get much worse for people in Argentina before they get better, and so it has proved.

The devaluation of the currency, the peso, by 54% has caused relative purchasing power to plummet, resulting in a slowdown in consumption and economic growth. Month-on-month inflation is starting to slow, but year-on-year figures stood at 276% in February.

Milei says he is determined to push on with his program of tough love, but his minority party is still facing resistance from rivals in Congress and scrutiny from legal experts who have questioned the constitutionality of some of his measures.

The Senate last week rejected a "mega-decree" that seeks to alter or repeal more than 300 existing standards, such as removing rent caps and relaxing labor laws.

"Milei would like to promote his political and economic project at 100 kilometers per hour," Carlos Malamud, a researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute, told AFP. "But the government's cruising speed is much lower."

Milei, Pope Francis, Davos and Donald Trump

Milei has not stopped courting controversy since swapping the colorful campaign trail for the presidency.

A social media junkie, he has regularly trashed his political opponents online with bizarre posts and memes. During a speech to world leaders in Davos in January, he took aim at socialism, "radical feminism," the "bloody agenda of abortion" and "social justice."

Despite being raised a Catholic, he repeatedly insulted Argentine Pope Francis while on the campaign trail — but recently flew to Rome to reconcile with the pontiff.

He also cosied up to former US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of a conservative conference in Washington.

Argentina: Ever More Concrete in Buenos Aires

mf/msh (AFP, dpa)