Argentina : Protests Test the State’s Commitment to Repression of Dissent

Thousands of public sector have been fired as part of an ideological purge since President Mauricio Macri took office last December.

Thousands of workers will march through the streets of Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires Wednesday, in what organizers expect to be a massive show of strength of the organized Argentine working class, to express their outrage at the policies implemented by President Mauricio Macri since taking his post in December 2015.

Public sector workers organized with the Association of State Workers, known as ATE, together with the Argentine Workers Union will descend on the presidential palace as part of a one-day national strike.

The principal demands demands of the ATE are: reinstatement of laid-off workers, the end to the criminalization of protest, guarantees for retired workers, and the end to precarious work in state institutions.

Despite running on campaign that promised only moderate changes, President Macri has engaged in a concerted effort to undo over a decade of progressive and pro-worker policies and return Argentina to the neoliberal era that characterized the country in the ’90s and saw the economy virtually collapsed in 2001.

The national strike is largely driven by the rapid series of controversial anti-worker policies implemented by the Macri administration. Below are some of the ways the decisions by President Macri have negatively impacted the Argentine working class.

Massive Dismissals of Public and Private Sector Workers

President Macri is ideologically disposed to reducing the public sector, arguing that private investment should be the source of new employment.

An estimated 10,000 state workers have been fired since the beginning of 2016, this in addition to 2,000 fired Senate staffers, 600 employees of the Kirchner Cultural Center whose contracts were not renewed, 150 fired Cabinet workers, and dozens more infrastructure and communications laborers laid-off from their posts.

Officials in the Macri government have said they intend to “review” 24,000 public-sector contracts, meaning many more dismissals may be down the line.

Worse still, many of the dismissals are politically motivated, Macri has alleged that the public sector employment generated during the previous five years, under the administration of his predecessor, was “unnecessary” and a product of “clientelism.”

Vice-President Gabriela Michetti has accused public sector workers of being “Kirchner militants,” referring to the supporters of the governments of the late Nestor Kirchner and his successor and wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

While Macri insists that his capital-friendly policies will mean that the private sector will provide employment for Argentines, a report released this month by a labor union said over 22,000 private-sector workers had been laid-off since the new president took office, mostly in the construction sector.

Labor leaders believe these mass dismissals are deliberate, forming part of “an attack run by employers against employees, supported and encouraged by the government” in a bid to “significantly reduce workforce costs.”

Policies that Punish the Poor and Favor the Rich

Macri has reversed many of the policies that helped make life affordable for Argentines. The price of gas is set to increase by 40 to 300 percent in less than two months, the energy ministry ordered the national institution of electricity to adjust the price of electricity resulting in an average 235 percent price increase, with residents of Buenos Aires paying up to four times what they once paid.

His government effectively eliminated controls on key goods on goods such as food, drinks, hygiene products and cleaning products by eliminating a regulation that dictated the labeling of prices for certain goods, which prevented price manipulation by traders.

At the same time, Macri has made changes the only benefit the rich and powerful. He decreed the elimination of the retention taxes on mining activities in the country and eliminated export taxes on big agribusiness corporations, moves that will greatly benefit transnational companies at the expense of the country’s income.

The Argentine federal government collected US$223 million through retention taxes on mining in 2015. By eliminating these taxes, the state will have less to invest in social programs.

Macri has also tried to cozy up to the much-vilified vulture funds, or holdout creditors who refused to accept a debt deal that 93 percent of creditors accepted.

The Macri government first tried to tell the public it was bargaining hard with the vulture funds. These funds were allegedly willing to accept collecting 35 percent less of what they originally wanted. Yet the government voluntarily offered a cut of only 25 percent of the original ask, increasing the payment Argentina would make by US$1.1 billion.

That meant that Argentines would pay a total of US$6.5 billion to the vulture funds, who never loaned money to Argentina in the first place.

Deliberate Loss of Purchasing Power

In an effort to attracting foreign investment, Macri launched a strategy to deliberately devalue the country’s currency by scrapping currency controls and making the exchange rate of the Argentine peso free-floating.

As expected, the move prompted a 30 percent slump in the Argentine peso against the U.S. dollar, which translated into a large increase in the amount of pesos on the market and further inflation, which was already high.

High inflation combined with hardline negotiations on wages means workers lose purchasing power, which has gone from US$600 in August to US$432 in January.

Devaluation, of course, does nothing to benefit workers and instead favors big businesses.

Crackdown on Dissent

Perfectly aware that these policies will prompt a backlash, the Macri government has signaled it intends to repress opposition.

Argentina’s Security Ministry has issued a new zero tolerance protocol allowing security forces to resort to potentially violent measures to disperse protests “to guarantee free circulation of people and goods.”

Police have already fired rubber bullets at a group of young musicians who were dancing and practicing with their group, an incident that was deliberately downplayed by Macri’s security minister.

Officers also tried to stop the human rights group, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, from holding their weekly protest. Their leader, Hebe de Bonafini, was accused of “inciting collective violence” for calling for mobilizations and resistance against Macri.

She’s not alone in her fight against the heavy hand of the state, political activist Milagro Sala was detained on Jan. 16 in the province of Jujuy and faces charges of inciting violence. Sala has been deemed a political prisoner by her supporters.

The crackdown on protest and dissent is designed to send a signal: resist at your own risk.