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Unemployed and assemblies plan for mass protests on May Day
Pushed to the edge by the IMF

By Héctor Reyes | May 3, 2002 | Page 5

ARGENTINA'S PRESIDENT Eduardo Duhalde almost lost his job last week when every member of his cabinet resigned. The ministers quit after Economy Minister Jorge Remes Lenicov was forced to resign following unsuccessful negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to get the global loan sharks to ease harsh conditions for granting Argentina a $12 billion loan.

Last weekend, Duhalde was able to cobble together a "new" plan for dealing with Argentina's disastrous economic crisis--apparently putting off for the moment the threat that he might go, too. But the renewed conflicts in the government highlighted the importance of protests slated for May Day.

A coalition of piqueteros (unemployed groups), popular assemblies from neighborhoods, left-wing parties and some unions have planned for mass demonstrations on May 1. The main demand is that Duhalde --and his IMF overseers--must go.

With anger stoked by the government's latest schemes to implement IMF-mandated austerity measures--even as Washington calls for ever-deeper cuts--the demonstrations could swell into a mass revolt like the one last December that toppled two governments in the period of one week.

Argentina is immersed in its worst economic crisis ever. Mass unemployment and hunger led to the huge protests last December--known as the Argentinazo--that forced out both the elected President Fernando de la Rúa and his successor.

Since Duhalde took over, the crisis has only grown worse. Official unemployment has topped 23 percent, while inflation is running at nearly 30 percent. The health care system has collapsed. Most hospitals are virtually closed--for lack of supplies and because the staff hasn't been paid. The education system is now meeting the same fate--with teachers who haven't been paid in months. In the province of Buenos Aires alone, an estimated 150,000 children dropped out of school in March.

Remes Lenicov's fate was sealed by the failure of Argentina's Congress to approve the so-called Bonex Plan--a scheme for the government to effectively confiscate $29 billion worth of savings held in banks, and turn the money into bonds that would be paid back over time. The Congress shied away from approving the measure, out of fear that the country would erupt.

Ordinary people's savings would lose as much as 70 to 80 percent of their value--on top of the 40 percent already lost due to the devaluation of the peso. The Bonex Plan was basically written by Argentina's banks, which are on the verge of collapse, as a desperate bid for a bailout.

Duhalde would have gone the same way as the Bonex Plan, but he was saved by a last-minute deal with provincial governors that allowed him to remain in power as long as he continue to faithfully obey IMF requirements.

But this is a recipe for making Argentina's desperate crisis that much worse. After all, the IMF considers Duhalde's austerity measures insufficient. In spite of 23 percent unemployment, Washington believes that an additional 348,000 public employees should be laid off.

Ordinary people haven't taken this onslaught lying down. Protests over all sorts of issues have continued to erupt across the country. Argentina is becoming increasingly ungovernable. The building where Congress meets has been surrounded by a fence to keep out protesters--who have now replaced the pots and pans from the cacerolazos with wrenches to smack at the fence.

Hunger is pushing increasing numbers to take to the streets. They don't have access to their money because bank accounts have been frozen. Plus, inflation has made food much more expensive. And on top of it all, shops are refusing to accept credit or debit cards--for fear that the banks will collapse.

That's why hundreds of people in places like Buenos Aires, Chaco, Córdoba and Neuquén have started again to surround supermarkets, demanding food bags--the very actions that signaled the start of the Argentinazo last December.

In the province of Río Negro, thousands of teachers and state workers who are owed months of back wages fought police to enter the legislative building. Likewise, state workers in the province of San Juan defied tear gas and rubber bullets to take over the building that houses the governor's offices.

May 1 could help unite all of these local struggles--and bring out forces new to the movement, as well. The scale of the crisis urgently requires a united movement that can strike a decisive blow against Argentina's politicians, bosses and bankers--and their senior partners in the U.S. and Europe.

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