Shock therapy in Argentina

8 January 2024
Jasmine Duff

In an old, rundown theatre in Córdoba, Argentina, a mass assembly of cultural sector workers and students met on the night of 3 January. Almost every seat inside was taken; many stood, packed next to the cinema screen and flooding the aisles. A stream of people ran to the front to get on the speaking list. Others assembled in the heat on the pavement outside trying to connect to Wi-Fi so they could listen to the discussion about resisting the attacks coming from the country’s newly elected far-right president, Javier Milei.

University teachers were received with whoops and cheers. People interjected, argued and broke out in applause. It was organised independently of the union leaders, but led by workers with close relationships to the bureaucrats. The assembly will meet weekly now. Its immediate projects are building a nationwide night of mass protest on 10 January and bolstering a general strike on 24 January, initiated by the country’s main union federation, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT).

Scenes like this have been playing out across Argentina since 20 December, when Milei announced the first of a series of massive attacks on workers, the poor and the middle classes. Each day brings a new price increase, a layoff of workers or a new anti-protest measure. It’s shock therapy. The government is trying to overwhelm the country with such frequent attacks that the population can’t respond.

In an opinion piece titled “Don’t try to understand”, published in a mainstream publication, Pagina12, journalist Washington Urunga writes:

“I suppose that you, like many, are trying to understand what is happening in the country at the moment ... If you want to take some advice from this simple chronicler: dont waste your time, don’t keep trying. Because in reality all, absolutely all, the criteria and categories hitherto used to read politics and, in particular, the ways of relating to each other in society in Argentina, have been thrown into the rubbish bin.”

Milei’s key attacks are contained within two packages. The first is the Necessity and Urgency Decree (DNU), which was announced on 20 December and came into effect on 29 December. It includes privatisations of public assets and attacks on workers. Milei pushed the DNU through by executive decree, bypassing Argentina’s democratic institutions.

Two days after Christmas, he presented his second package of attacks to the Congress. This second bill, known as the omnibus law, declares the country in a state of “public emergency”. It includes 664 attacks relating to almost every aspect of life.

If passed, it will give the government special powers to circumvent Congress for two years and alter the electoral system in favour of the wealthiest political parties. It will eliminate the system of open primary elections of candidates, which currently selects candidates for national office, remove free advertising spaces for candidates and raise the ceiling of donations to political parties.

The bill includes a crackdown on protests and strikes which could result in protest organisers being imprisoned for up to six years. Gatherings of more than three people that obstruct roads or industry will be subject to prison time. It makes 41 public enterprises “subject to privatisation”, including the country’s main airline, the railroads, the oil company YPF, the post office, the mint and the public media.

Combined, the two packages of laws would usher in the biggest changes to Argentina’s economic and social makeup since the fall of the right-wing dictatorship that governed the country until the mid-1980s.

Adding to this is a pre-existing inflation crisis. In early January, petrol prices rose by 27 percent. Milei is about to introduce tariffs that will increase electricity prices for middle-income homes by 337 percent and by 129 percent for low-income households. The same set of tariffs will increase the price of bus tickets by about 500 percent and gas by up to 700 percent across much of the country. Milei has also sacked 1,500 state employees and hundreds of healthcare workers.

The political situation has many moving parts. The capitalists are united behind the president’s attacks, which will restructure Argentine society in the interests of the rich. Sections of the courts and lawmakers are divided, mainly because Milei has bypassed the democratic institutions. For example, the section of the DNU package relating to workers’ rights has been temporarily blocked by the labour court. The casting vote was made by a hard-right judge who opposes Milei’s attempts to circumvent the judiciary.

Córdoba assembly

Workers assembly in Córdoba, 3 January. PHOTO: Jasmine Duff.

Among the oppressed, the situation is mixed. Huge numbers of the poor, the working class and the middle classes voted for Milei in the general elections in November. Milei won 56 percent of the vote in the second round. Yet assemblies to discuss resistance to the attacks have convened in many neighbourhoods.

“People are divided. But little by little, the rising costs are making people realise they voted wrongly”, Tatiana, a participant in a Córdoba neighbourhood assembly, told Red Flag. “People will come out to fight when the food no longer reaches their tables. We will take to the streets without taking a step back. The whole of Argentina must come out. We need to make the protest [the general strike on 24 January] visible so that people know that it is possible to fight.”

Some sectors of workers, including state employees, healthcare and cultural workers, have held assemblies and marches. Some of these were initiated by union officials; others have been driven from below. Mass, spontaneous cacerolazo protests shook the country from 20 to 22 December, when the DNU package was first announced. Cacerolazo protests (literally “casserole dish” protests), traditionally are a form of middle-class demonstration in which people leave their homes banging pots and pans, urging others to join them in the streets. Since Christmas, there have been more cacerolazo protests across the country, but of a considerably smaller size.

In the coming weeks, a series of united mass actions are planned. Cultural sector workers have called the nationwide cacerolazo on 10 January. The union representing public sector workers has called a day of action on 15 January. Then comes the general strike on 24 January—the first in five years and called in response to pressure by the base of the unions and the organised far left. It will be important in terms of giving a unified lead, so that workers and other sections of the population gain more confidence to fight the government.

There’s a danger that the CGT will use it only to release some of the pressure it is under and then attempt to stymie future actions. The CGT leadership has been conducting semi-secret negotiations with the government since the announcement of the DNU. For now, the far-left groups are organising to build the general strike as much as possible and attempting to make sure there’s momentum after 24 January.

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