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THE VERTICAL

Buenos Aires, Shuttered

Trade unions are the most potent stopgap against Javier Milei, an outlandish avatar of Argentina's Faustian bargain with the far-right. But Argentina is poised on the razor’s edge: outside of brutal crackdowns or Milei losing his voting base, there are few foreseeable outcomes for the working class in impoverished Argentina.
VOL. 2
REPORTAGE

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The second general strike this year happened this past Thursday on May 9th, bringing Buenos Aires to a standstill (photograph courtesy of Confederación General del Trabajo).

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The second general strike this year happened this past Thursday on May 9th, bringing Buenos Aires to a standstill (photograph courtesy of Confederación General del Trabajo).

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12 May 2024
Reportage
Argentina
Reportage
Argentina
Trade Unions
General Confederation of Labor Javier Milei
Javier Milei
Peronism
Omnibus Bill
La Libertad Avanza
Austerity
Economic Crisis
Inflation
Unemployment
Poverty
Unitary Central of Workers of Chile
Brazilian Unified Workers' Central
Worldwide Unions' Federation
Kirchnerism
Party of Social Workers
Bolsonaro
Military Dictatorship
Free Market
Welfare Cuts
Privatization
Justicialismo
Juan Peron
Cristina Kirchner
Partido Justicialista
Nestor Kirchner
Progressive Wave in Latin America
Pink Wave

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On January 24, in a city with many of its stores and banks closed, there was a suffocating heat. In the blocks surrounding the National Congress, Buenos Aires witnessed the first general strike in the country in seven years.


Workers in columns with their flags came from all over to reject the measures of the government that took office a little over a month ago. This scene was soon replicated in the main cities throughout the country. 


In front of the steps of the Congress, Pablo Moyano, Truckers union leader and co-chairman of the trade union federation known as the General Confederation of Labor (Confederación General del Trabajo or CGT), spoke to a square full of workers who were raising their voices against the proposed austerity policies by the government. "We ask the deputies to have dignity and principles,” Moyano said. “We ask them not to betray the workers, the doctrine of Peronism, which is to defend the workers, the poor, and the pensioners."


Moyano condemned the decreed privatization of state corporations such as Aerolíneas Argentinas (National Flag Carrier), Télam (News Agency), Banco Nación (National Bank), and Radio Nacional (Public Radio). He accused them of leaving “millions of workers on the streets and handing them over to their friends [the private corporations].”


CGT organized its first strike just 45 days into Javier Milei's regime under the slogan "The homeland is not for sale". The strike protested the state reforms and the deregulation of the economy, including sweeping labor changes, the end of severance pay, the extension of employment trial periods from three to eight months, and the privatization of state-owned companies. The sweeping reforms included a massive presidential executive order and a 523-article bill, the Omnibus Bill, that has been hotly debated in Congress for months but passed in April. Milei’s ruling coalition, La Libertad Avanza, wrangled a majority opinion on the bill by eliminating many of its original articles, including the privatization of the national bank, with the support of right-wing and center-right parties.


But in a country in a deep economic crisis, with the highest annual inflation rate in the world (almost 300%), with 40% of the population now under the poverty line, and a near-collapse of industrial production, the toll the austerity measures have taken on Argentines is immense, and Milei’s policies are still far too punishing, especially those concerning the privatization of public agencies. The Omnibus Bill is on track for a contentious fight in the Senate next week.


Over the past few months, unions from all over Latin America and Europe marched in support of the strike such as the Unitary Central of Workers of Chile and the Brazilian Unified Workers' Central. The Worldwide Unions' Federation, which groups unions in 133 countries, called its affiliates to show solidarity with Argentina's workers.


This past Thursday, on May 9th, the CGT, the Argentine Workers' Central Union (CTA), and the Autonomous CTA carried out the second general strike against Milei’s austerity policies since January, after the passage of the Omnibus Bill in the lower house.


Hundreds of flights were canceled. Bus, rail, subway systems were all halted. Banks and schools were shuttered. Industrial production was at a standstill. 


The streets outside of the demonstration on 9th May 2024. (Official CGT statement).

Buenos Aires, a city with a metropolitan population of 15.6 million people, was as empty as it would be on a holiday. 


 


The CGT represents trucker unions, health personnel, aeronautics, and construction. They were joined in the strike by informal workers, pensioners, and the state´s workers unions–the main sectors affected by these austerity measures. 


In January, Rodolfo Aguiar, Secretary General of the State Workers Association of Argentina (ATE), entering the Plaza de los Dos Congresos along Avenida de Mayo, spoke to SAAG and argued that the government's main victims are those who are publicly employed. “We, the state workers, bother those who want to appropriate the State to put it at the service of global corporations.” Milei's anti-state and austerity policies have caused changes in the national administration. As of April, over 15,000 state workers had been fired.


In order to discourage participation in the demonstration, on January 18th the presidential spokesman, Manuel Adorni, announced the deduction of pay for any state workers who participate in the strike (the same threat was repeated on May 9th).


The move backfired. The political opposition party also participated in the demonstration. Axel Kicillof, the governor of the province of Buenos Aires, the most important in the country, attended the march. Kicillof is representative of the left wing of Peronism—a camp often considered as best positioned to be the political heir of Kirchnerism. 


Albeit with a different call than that of the CGT, the leftist Party of Social Workers (PTS), which has four deputies in Congress, also participated in the mobilization. “There was a strike in many places, but the most important thing was the mobilization. The government wants to downplay it, but the participation in the streets was very high,” said Myriam Bregman, congresswoman and former presidential candidate of the leftist coalition Workers’ Left Front, in a statement outside Congress. 


According to the CGT, one and a half million people joined the strike throughout the country in January, while 600,000 were part of the epicenter of the march in the city of Buenos Aires. The government says that only 40,000 people were mobilized. 


It remains to be seen what numbers will be used to describe the most recent strike.


The Criminalization of Protest


With the election of Javier Milei, the far-right has come into power in Argentina for the first time since the recovery of democracy in 1983. Milei is bombastic, a self-described “anarcho-libertarian.” In a broad sense, he evokes a contemporary authoritarian ruler in the vein of Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. In Argentina, this means that Milei espouses a classically liberal view of the free market, as well as a sharp rollback of welfare reforms. He also cuts an incendiary figure in more outlandish ways. He has argued for the privatization of everything from human organs to babies. Milei has also confessed that he talks to his dog Conan, who died 7 years ago, through an “interspecies medium.” Apparently Milei has been known to ask Conan, whom he has four living clones of, for political advice.


But most consequential for Argentina is Milei’s strong affinity with the last military dictatorship: an ugly history rearing its head in a country that has been reeling from the damage for decades. Under the dictatorship, 30,000 people were tortured and/or disappeared. Approximately 500 children were ripped from their parents. 


The military dictatorship (1976-1983) carried out a policy of illegal repression, indiscriminate violence, persecutions, systematized torture, forced disappearance of people, clandestine detention centers, manipulation of information, and other forms of State terrorism. In addition, it contracted the largest foreign debt up to that time in Argentine history. Eventually, industrial production collapsed, leading to mass deindustrialization of the country during the following years.


Having come to strength in the waning years of the last Peronist government, Milei’s political party was supported mainly by young men, many of whom voted for the first time in the last elections in October last year. During the toughest years of the pandemic, Milei characterized the center-left government as a "criminal infection."


Milei represents, of course, much of what has always been anathema to Peronism.  Under the broad political ideology of justicialismo, Peronism has a long history of leadership in Argentina. It has staunchly opposed the military dictatorships, and broadly supported Juan Perón's agenda of social justice, economic nationalism, state-led market intervention through subsidies, and international non-alignment. Trade unions in Argentina have long been considered the “spinal column” of Peronism.


Milei came to the government accompanied by Victoria Villarruel, the vice president and an activist from the last military dictatorship. Villarruel denies the number of disappeared people and supports the controversial “theory of two demons,” equating left-wing killings with state terrorism, a theory of far-right which denies the genocide under the military dictatorship.


Milei and Villaruel are the first president and vice president in Argentine democracy who have tried to relativize social condemnation against the crimes of the last military dictatorship (1976-1983) and state terrorism—breaking with the democratic consensus on the dictatorship’s crimes against humanity. Indeed, Milei's verbiage is similar to that of the military. For Milei, there was “a war” in the 1970s, in which “excesses”  were committed. Of course, in reality it was an illegal systematic plan of extermination.


More specifically, under Milei, “internal security” has become the state’s chief prerogative, involving policies denounced by human rights organizations and left-wing activists in Argentina. The president appointed Patricia Bullrich, a politician with a long and strange history in Argentina (originally part of the left, but ended up in the extreme right) to Minister of Security. Bullrich, in turn, came up with an anti-protest protocol that aims to criminalize protests and crackdown on demonstrations in the street.


Bullrich’s protocol details the operation of the security forces in the event of disturbance of public order. The measures include sanctions on groups making such demonstrations. The sanctions include detention or a payment of fines, as well as the withdrawal of benefits for those who are beneficiaries of social security. 


Despite the implementation of the protocol, the mobilization on the street was massive and successful. That the unions can and have brought the capital to a standstill is a fundamental challenge to Milei: few options are imaginable, save brutal crackdowns, or an erosion of Milei's support.


 

In recent months, leftist groups demonstrating against the Omnibus bill in front of Congress have been brutally repressed. Police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons to disperse protests, which have by now become everyday occurrences.


Protests have challenged Milei's government ever since he took office. Ten days after he was inaugurated, he was confronted with a spontaneous cacerolazo (a form of protest by hitting pots) against the devaluation and the increase in prices. 


After the first cacerolazo, the president gave an interview on radio, where he made a statement that "there may be people who suffer from Stockholm syndrome." 


"They are embracing the model that impoverishes them, but that is not the case for the majority of Argentina," he said.


Of course, there is also a very large portion of Argentines who support the far-right government, in the hopes that it can be successful in Argentina, especially in the macroeconomy in order to stop inflation. Critics of this “pragmatist” viewpoint point continually to IMF stipulations and the devastating impacts that austerity policies have had many times in the past. But in truth, Milei’s voting base is part and parcel of a larger political drift in Argentina.


The Rightward Drift


How is it that a country like Argentina, one with a long tradition of social and labor rights, has elected a president who seeks to abolish so much of what its citizens have come to know? 


In the simplest analysis, much blame lies with the previous administration, in the hands of the largest Peronist party, the Partido Justicialista or PJ. Under President Alberto Fernandez and Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the administration failed to stem inflation and thus recover the purchasing power of wages–a crisis that modest wage increases were insufficient to mitigate. The frustration caused by the economic crisis led citizens towards the neoliberal parties, plunging the left into demoralization and uncertainty.


The years under the presidency first Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and subsequently his wife, Cristina Kirchner (2007-2015), have long been known as the years of the “progressive wave” in Latin America, a historical period that is often characterized by leftist leaders in the region including Lula da Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Evo Morales in Bolivia. The progressive wave is often associated with a strong expansion of rights and an improvement in employment and social coverage.


During the years of Kirchnerism, Argentina became a pioneer of socially progressive policies in Latin America. It became the first country in the region and the tenth in the world to allow same-sex marriage in 2010. Two years later, it passed the Gender Identity Law, allowing transgendered people to register their documents with the name and sex of their choice. In 2013, Cristina Kirchner enacted a new law that punishes child labor and another that seeks to regularize the situation of more than a million domestic employees, the majority of whom work informally.


Kirchnerism, at the time, also presided over low unemployment rates. When Néstor Kirchner took office in 2003, the country was overcoming one of its worst economic crises in history, and more than 17% of Argentines were unemployed. Kirchnerism managed to reduce that figure to less than 7%, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses about 6 million jobs were created during the K era. The economic growth was promoted, especially, by the gains of productive capital in the heat of the significant rise in real wages, the increase in external competitiveness derived from the establishment of a high exchange rate, the phenomenal increase in the prices of agricultural commodities, and through the labor value of skilled workers who were unemployed during the long recession at the turn of the century. Thus, redistributive policies were an essential component of strategies for reducing inequality in both economic and social realms.


Kirchnerism remained the main wing within Peronism, under the leadership of Cristina Kirchner and managed to return to the government in 2019; the expectation was that it would be able to overcome the economic crisis left by the government of Mauricio Macri (2015-2019), one with hefty external debt with the IMF and a weak economy.


Despite the economic crisis, the Peronist government of Alberto Fernandez continued with public works and maintained subsidies for energy and transportation. It also maintained the various social programs that have been promoted to support the most vulnerable sectors.


The exit from the pandemic and the prolonged confinement, added to the scandal of the leak of a photo showing the first lady and a group of people, including the president, celebrating her birthday at the presidential residence, during confinement. This leak concentrated the fury of a middle class that had seen its level of income increasingly deteriorate and strengthened “anti-caste” sentiment (“caste,” in Milei’s personal parlance, refers to career politicians, equivalent to the “deep state”).


Milei on the Razor’s Edge


Notably, even before the recent passage of the Omnibus bill in the lower house, Argentina´s lower house approved the bill in a 144-109 vote on February 3rd. La libertad Avanza has only 38 deputies in the lower house.


In February, the main opposition party, Unión por la Patria, a Peronist alliance composed mainly of Kirchnerists, voted against the bill, with their deputies sitting in the session with banners saying “May it NOT become the law!” The leftist Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores, Unidad (FIT-U), also rejected the bill.


Following the general vote on February 6th, the omnibus bill was sent back to the commissions over lack of support. The main disagreements were privatizations and federal taxes. The government did not achieve the support of governors whom Milei accused of being traitors and threatened to defund. But between then and April, it was been speculated that Milei is beginning to wise up: giving up some campaign promises to ram through his reforms. At least with the lower house thus far, he has succeeded.


Ahead of the Senate battle, Milei remains at a crossroads: whether to continue betting on his anti-caste discourse, accusing the opposition that was willing to support him of being traitors and criminals, or sit down to negotiate and make concessions and understand that the Argentine political system is sustained based on negotiations between the national government and the provinces. 


But even if the Omnibus Bill now succeeds in the Senate, even in its milder form, it is unlikely to satisfy the unions. Back in February, the bill may have been destroyed in the “palace” but it was first put in check on the street. 


Indeed, it seems Milei will keep facing down the unions, which are now arguably the most potent force challenging him, not the opposition parties.


“A new strike or mobilization is not ruled out,” Moyano had said on March 8th. “But it is latent. It will always be latent. If your worker's rights are attacked, if you lose your job, if your salaries are lowered... I am not going to stand by and no union or leader is going to allow them to fire their workers.”


When the CGT did carry out the second general strike, it did so with high compliance, alongside labor across the country including unions representing public transport. But not before thousands of layoffs, subsidy eliminations, wage slashes and pension cuts crippled the working class of Argentina. 


According to the CGT, the general strike on Thursday was "forceful" and it demanded that the Government “take note.” For the CTA, the strike was the result of "a government that only benefits the rich at the expense of the people, gives away natural resources, and seeks to eliminate workers' rights.”


But the real question is: have the events of this year shifted the needle for Milei’s voting base? ∎

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