Tens of thousands of Argentines took to the streets Wednesday and many downed tools in a major challenge to President Javier Milei’s budget-slashing policies just weeks after he took office.
Huge crowds gathered outside parliament in the heart of Buenos Aires for one of the biggest demonstrations in recent years, heeding the strike called by the South American country’s main labor union, the CGT.
Protesters bore placards reading “The homeland is not for sale” and “Eating is not a privilege” as they marched to the beat of drums and sound of exploding firecrackers and held aloft a giant effigy of Milei.
“We come to defend 40 years of democracy, defend the homeland,” CGT leader Hector Daer told the crowd.
“Walking around with a chainsaw is one thing, governing is another,” he added in reference to Milei’s frequent brandishing of a chainsaw on the campaign trail as a symbol of his envisaged public spending cuts.
Ten days after he came to power in December, the new president announced a set of sweeping reforms that lessened some worker protections, abolished a price ceiling on rent and lifted price controls on certain consumer goods, among other things.
Poverty levels in Latin America’s third-biggest economy are at 40 percent and the country is battling annual inflation exceeding 200 percent after decades of financial mismanagement.
Won’t ‘yield an inch’
The main rally in the capital targeted Parliament, where lawmakers are discussing Milei’s package of deregulation and economic reform, which many citizens fear will leave them vulnerable to exploitation, and poorer.
Some 80,000 gathered in Buenos Aires, according to the police, while protesters put the number at half-a-million.
Demonstrations were also held in numerous other cities and towns, gathering thousands more.
The CGT was joined in its call for action by smaller unions and civic groups, vowing to “not yield an inch of what has been achieved” in terms of worker and consumer protections, according to another CGT leader Pablo Moyano.
Air traffic was affected early by the strike, with Aerolineas Argentinas cancelling nearly 300 flights “affecting more than 20,000 passengers” for a loss of about $2.5 million, according to the company.
Protesters in Buenos Aires started dispersing peacefully after about three hours in the streets.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich insisted on X Wednesday that “The country does not stop!” and claimed protester “mobilisation is small compared to the number of people who have decided to go to work.”
She put the number of striking workers in Buenos Aires at 40,000.
The government has vowed to stick to its reform plan, and Bullrich denounced “mafia labor unions, managers of poverty, complicit judges and corrupt politicians… who resist the change democratically decided by society.”
Challenges to reforms
Never before has a mass strike been called so soon into the term of a new Argentine government: just 45 days.
According to Ivan Schuliaquer of the National University of San Martin, polls show that Milei’s popularity has fallen since his election, though he remains popular in some sectors.
“What is interesting is that the honeymoon period is a time when consensus is usually broadened and that’s what you don’t see here.”
The government is not taking the worker challenge lying down.
It has set up an anonymous, toll-free line for people to report “threats and pressure” on workers to stay away from their jobs.
It has also said it will take a day of pay from each striking public servant and hand unions the bill for Wednesday’s police deployment.
Milei’s reforms are being challenged on several fronts, with more than 60 lawsuits under way.
One chapter of the so-called “mega decree” — dealing with labor reforms — has been frozen by a court pending review by Congress.
Among other things, it sought to increase the job probation period from three to eight months, reduce compensation in case of dismissal and cut pregnancy leave.
For the rest of the decree, which also envisages privatization of state enterprises, the government is putting pressure on lawmakers for a quick adoption, but faces resistance.
Milei’s party is only the third-biggest group in parliament.
The economy, too, has resisted Milei’s attempts to boost export competitiveness by devaluing the peso by more than 50 percent last month, with inflation fast outpacing initial gains.
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