The economic crisis fuels the piqueteros protest in Argentina | International

Social protest grows in Argentina. Along with the economic crisis, social movements have taken to the streets. At the end of last week, they camped for 48 hours on Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest and busiest in the city of Buenos Aires. Men, women and children set up tents on the asphalt and spent the night there, waiting for some authority from the Ministry of Social Development to receive them. They demanded more social assistance plans: they say that there are 1.8 million poor Argentines who have been left out of government aid. The Casa Rosada is facing a great challenge. Peronism does not feel comfortable when pressured with protests and pickets; just to them, members of a movement born in the heat of the workers’ protests.

In an unusual gesture, the Government of Alberto Fernández has said that it is against what it considers “a squeeze” on working Argentines. The city of Buenos Aires is a traffic chaos every day, with buses and cars stuck in the middle of the protests. Bad humor grows towards the “piqueteros”, as those who block streets are called, but also towards the government. Some, because he doesn’t send the police to evict the camps; others because they consider that as long as inflation exceeds 50% per year and poverty is around 40%, there is not much that can be done to avoid protests. In the middle are the almost 17 million people who, according to the latest official data for 2021, barely earn enough to eat.

When there is a problem, Argentines protest in the streets. According to a study by the Political Diagnosis consultancy, in 2021 there were 6,658 pickets, the highest figure in seven years. Employed and unemployed, state workers, neighbors demanding a traffic light, taxi drivers, bus drivers, employees of airports or of a small business that closes: cutting off traffic is a way to make yourself heard, and in the best of cases to reach the television screens. In that universe, piquetero protest predominates.

Since the 2001 crisis, the social movements manage the discontent of a new army of citizens who have since been left out of the system. They formed cooperatives, organized solidarity food purchases, created schools and even universities. Over the years, they grew in number and also added power. The different governments used them as a bridge between people and social assistance, especially to identify beneficiaries and control the execution of programs. The symbiosis was consummated with Alberto Fernández: leaders of the Evita Movement, Barrios de Pie and the MTE joined the Frente de Todos. They lent names to Congress or officials who now administer the aid.

The agreement notably reduced the tension, but the crisis gave fuel to the movements that were left out of the pact. There they are, for example, the Polo Obrero, but also parties of the extreme left. These groups took over July 9 Avenue this week and threatened a large federal march on April 13. They say that there are almost two million Argentines without work who are out of social assistance and want new plans. The Minister of Social Development, Juan Zabaleta, will receive them this Thursday. But he has already announced that there will be no new social plans, an impossible expense when Argentina has promised before the IMF to reduce its fiscal deficit to 0.9% of GDP in 2024.

The official proposal is, instead, to increase the amounts of assistance, but without adding beneficiaries. “I said that we had to stop squeezing the Argentines and I’ll say it again: we must not cut off the streets,” Zabaleta also warned. Eduardo Belliboni, referent of the Polo Obrero, answered him in the media, with irony. “The Government says that it does not grant more plans. What do we do with the poor person who qualifies for a plan and can’t get a job? Shall we tell him to get involved in drug trafficking?

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Dozens of protesters camp in front of the headquarters of the Ministry of Social Development, on July 9 avenue in Buenos Aires, on March 31, 2022.
Dozens of protesters camp in front of the headquarters of the Ministry of Social Development, on July 9 avenue in Buenos Aires, on March 31, 2022.CARLOS BRIGO (AFP)

State aid is part of Argentine policy. They began with the return to democracy, in 1983, when the government of Raúl Alfonsín assisted 5.6 million people with food boxes, almost 20% of the population at that time. During the 2001 crisis, President Eduardo Duhalde created the Plan Jefas y Jefes de Hogar, a program that financially helped two million poor families. Since then, the aid has not stopped growing, until forming a complex network of 141 plans that often collide with each other. Today there are at least 22 million Argentines (almost half the population) who receive some kind of state aid. The data comes from Social Debt Observatory of the Argentine Catholic University (UCA). If pensions are added, social spending in Argentina is equivalent to 12% of GDP.

Such an amount of money is what it costs to maintain social peace. In 2001, when the riots removed Fernando de la Rúa from power, the poorest sectors managed as best they could. Two decades later, there are well-oiled mechanisms to neutralize discontent. Natalia Zaracho collected cardboard in the streets before becoming a deputy for Patria Grande, one of the groups that make up the ruling Frente de Todos. “Today there are more than 50% of kids (children) below the poverty line, the least people can do is go claim. If everything doesn’t explode, it’s because the social organizations are in the neighborhoods with the popular pots, with the popular economy,” she says. “In order for the internal economy to move, we have to invest in the neighborhoods, because there people are not going to buy dollars, they are going to invest the money and that is what we need,” she adds.

The Government is aware that social aid must be maintained, but it is moving forward with the idea of ​​gradually converting it into genuine work. For this, he proposes the “institutionalization of the popular economy”, as the Secretary of Social Economy Emilio Pérsico, the maximum referent of the Evita Movement, said a few days ago. Among the plans are to facilitate the tax registration of informal workers, increase non-bank credits and improve informal marketing lines. The economic context is not the best, and patience is running out.

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