A loud message of opposition to austerity

January 5, 2018

Last month's protests in Argentina against pension "reform" are the latest in a struggle against austerity that stretches back decades, write Natalia Tylim and Stacey Bear.

ATTEMPTS BY Argentina's right-wing government to drive through an attack on the country's pension system last month were met by mass protests that brought the capital of Buenos Aires to a halt--and that were attacked by riot police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.

President Mauricio Macri is continuing the neoliberal assaults he has tried to carry out since becoming president two years ago with a measure that would cut payments from the state retirement system. Though the "reform" is being sold as a way to reduce the deficit and attract investment, some of the most vulnerable Argentines will pay the price: the elderly poor.

Proposed days before Christmas, the cuts are guaranteed to turn people's lives upside down if they go through.

On December 14, as the Chamber of Deputies was set to take up the pension reform bill already passed by the Senate, masses of people converged on Congressional Plaza for a demonstration against Macri's cutbacks.

Police moved in, leading to clashes with protesters. With chaos reigning outside the Congressional Palace, the Chamber tabled the debate and vote to the following week, on December 18.

Tens of thousands march against austerity policies in Argentina
Tens of thousands march against austerity policies in Argentina

By noon on the 18th, union members, supporters of different political organizations and others were already filling up the Plaza, accompanied by banners, flags, marching bands and fireworks. Activists estimate that 300,000 people attended. Among the crowd were elderly people, who would be immediately affected by the cuts.

The protest grew so big that crowds of people blocked traffic half a mile away from Congressional Plaza on 9 de Julio Avenue, the widest avenue in the world. The General Confederation of Labor (CGT), Argentina's largest union federation, also called a general strike for noon on November 18, lasting until noon the next day.

The demonstration started out peaceful and cheerful, filled with music, songs and chants, but once again turned violent when mounted police started moving in on the crowd, forcing protesters dangerously close together or out of the Plaza to the smaller surrounding streets.

Around 3 p.m., police began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, some of whom threw rocks back in self-defense.

As fighting between police and protesters continued on the streets into the night, the debate inside the Congressional Palace raged on for 12 hours until early Tuesday morning, when the Chamber of Deputies ultimately passed the pension cuts law by a margin of 128 to 116, with 2 abstentions.

That night and in the days that followed, many Argentines continued to show their disapproval of the new law by banging together pots and pans in the streets in an act of protest known as cacerolazo. The sounds could be heard all throughout the city.

People who joined or sympathized with the massive protests view the passage of the law as a disappointing defeat. But one local activist describes this as a pyrrhic victory for the Macri government:

It may seem like a win for now, but the cost of their win is too high. In Argentina, we have a long history of activism, and as they continue to impose austerity measures, we will continue to take to the streets and escalate the fight. In 2001, massive protests forced President de la Rúa to resign. I don't think Macri and his administration will forget that.

IN ARGENTINA'S midterm elections last October, Macri's party made electoral advances with a campaign centered around "renormalizing" the economy and lowering the deficit in order to attract foreign business and investment.

This was a success for the right, but the election outcome is being used as evidence that Macri has a mandate to dismantle the pension system and further go after working-class living standards.

Since his election in 2015, Macri has used executive orders and the violence of the state to attack labor unions, the left and the poor. But this backfired--protests and strikes have forced Macri to back off of his plans.

The midterm election was not a referendum in favor of pension reform--two-thirds of the population oppose the government's proposal.

But the election results can be seen as a referendum against Peronism, the dominant political force in Argentina for many years and a traditionally populist and nationalist political movement that has increasingly adopted neoliberalism over the past two decades.

Since the economic crash of 2001 and the massive social explosion known as the Argentinazo, which brought down several presidents in a matter of months, a battle has played out around the direction of the country.

Protests, factory takeovers and mass mobilizations were a force to be reckoned with in the immediate aftermath of the Argentinazo. But ultimately, Peronist leader Nestor Kirchner, and later his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (often referred to as CFK), were main political beneficiaries of the high points of protest against the impact of neoliberalism.

They successfully channeled the discontent that gave rise to the mass protests into an electoral strategy backed by a section of capital. "Kirchnerismo" represents a center-left section of the Peronist movement, combining populism with plans for national development. With this political appeal, Kirchners co-opted the social and political unrest that brought them to office.

Now, almost 20 years later, Kirchnerismo's attempts to rebuild the country through national development based agriculture and exports have been unsuccessful. The austerity policies that accompanied Kirchnerismo's populist appeals continue to erode the quality of life for Argentines. Meanwhile, CFK has been at the center of numerous political scandals, proving that she is indeed a part of the political elite, and not a left-wing warrior.

The excitement with which much of the left greeted Kirchnerismo has been replaced with cynicism and frustration. In this way, CFK paved the way for Macri's unexpected victory two years ago.

In the most recent presidential election, CFK was considered, at best, a lesser evil candidate who would be "less worse" than her center-right opponent, but who wouldn't achieve far-reaching reforms. She is now rightly recognized as seeking to demobilize the movement against neoliberalism.

The attempt to take a centrist tack against neoliberalism has failed. Now, things have come full circle: The president of Argentina today is closer in politics to Carlos Menem, who was held largely responsible for the economic collapse of the early 2000s.

WHAT HAPPENS next in Argentina depends on the left's ability to pose an alternative to the right in the coming years.

Internationally, there is a polarization between right and left--but in Argentina, where the labor movement is very conscious of its own strength and where the living memory of struggle is a part of everyday discussion, the process is much further along than in other countries.

One question will be how the left and the wider population responds to a hallmark of Macri's rule: the intensified use of state repression against protest and dissent.

In the lead-up to the midterm vote in October, the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, an activist who went missing after an Indigenous rights demonstration in Patagonia, was expected to take votes away from Macri's party because of suspicions that his death was caused by the state.

Argentina's recent history of the dictatorship of the 1970s--during which 30,000 people were disappeared and killed in detention centers--has not receded from memory.

But days before the election, Maldonado's body was found, and the cause of death was determined to be "drowning," which defused the issue somewhat before the vote.

Nevertheless, Macri is widely known to have given the military increased powers, and he has come under extreme criticism for questioning how many people were actually disappeared during the dictatorship and saying that there were "two sides" to the coup.

In May, masses of people mobilized for protests that put a full stop to legislative changes that would have lowered the prison sentences of the generals who presided over the Dirty War. So it isn't hard to imagine that the government's authoritarian moves will overstep, striking a nerve that could raise far-reaching demands against it.

The stakes are high in the battle to defend the pension system. Argentina has a lot to show people around the world about how to push back against draconian attacks. But won't be automatic. Stepping up the resistance to austerity will depend on independent mobilizations of the labor movement--and how successful the left is in connecting its strategy to the self-activity of workers and students.

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