Final push needed for $105,000 Pathfinder Fund
Workers in Argentina,
Uruguay march for jobs
Protests in Southern Cone say ‘no’
to government austerity drives
Some 10,000 workers march November 7 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to demand jobs and increased unemployment benefits. Imperialist investors want to squeeze working people further to assure payments on $140 billion in foreign debt.
BY MICHAEL ITALIE
Record unemployment levels and government belt-tightening demands fueled protests by workers and students in the capitals of Uruguay, Argentina, and Paraguay in early November. Each of these South American countries is being devastated by the worldwide economic depression.
In Uruguay, the trade union federation PIT-CNT organized a half-day general strike November 7 to protest the austerity policies of President Jorge Batlle.
With the official unemployment rate reaching an all-time high of 19 percent, thousands of workers in the capital city of Montevideo rallied to demand jobs, higher wages to compensate for price increases, and a response to the "food emergency" situation caused by plunging living standards. The workers opposed government moves against the railroads and other state-owned companies that threaten further layoffs, and demanded no funding cuts in health care and schools.
The unionists were joined by students mobilized by the Federation of University Students of Uruguay, as well as unemployed workers and debtors’ organizations.
In May the International Monetary Fund had applauded the "impressive steps taken" by the Uruguayan capitalists "to reinforce the foundations for sustained growth" in the economy. But just weeks later the government abandoned the peso’s exchange rate peg, letting the currency float. The peso lost 28 percent of its value, with devastating results for the living standards of working people and middle-class layers.
The same day as the Uruguayan general strike, more than 10,000 unemployed and retired workers marched through downtown Buenos Aires to demand jobs and government relief for the worst depression in Argentina in decades. The march tied up traffic in the capital city for eight hours, as the procession traveled from the Ministry of Labor to the government house.
One of the main demands of the demonstrators was to double unemployment benefits from 150 to 300 pesos a month. With the plunge in the peso’s value this year, these shrinking benefits don’t come close to meeting the needs of workers, since prices for staple foods have doubled or tripled.
Argentine Minister of Labor Graciela Caamaño tried to calm workers with the announcement that "in the last two months more jobs have been created than eliminated."
While the unemployment rate declined a bit in two or three regions, the official jobless rate remains at a record 21.5 percent, which is much higher if the figures for "underemployment" are added. Today, half the population of Argentina lives below the government-defined poverty line.
Increasingly unbearable conditions for millions of Argentine working people sparked an explosion of protests last December, forcing the resignation of President Fernando de la Rúa. The current president, Peronist Eduardo Duhalde, ended the policy of pegging the peso to the dollar. The resulting devaluation dealt a body blow to workers’ wages and benefits.
The IMF and other imperialist financial institutions have pressed the government to cut workers’ social wage and other measures to guarantee payments on Argentina’s more than $140 billion foreign debt. The Duhalde government is seeking to negotiate the rescheduling of the debt payments, which de la Rúa suspended in December when it was unable to meet them.
IMF second-in-command Anne Krueger responded sharply when Argentine economy minister Roberto Lavagna, seeking not to appear completely subservient to the IMF, stated that "the world wouldn’t end" if an agreement wasn’t reached rapidly. Krueger declared that if Argentina doesn’t stay current on its debts, then the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank would halt funding for social programs.
In Paraguay, President Luis González Macchi is also facing popular resistance to his plans to carry out an austerity package in his quest for IMF approval of $200 million in additional loans. A proposed cutback program has sparked repeated protests. The most recent took place November 7, when private schools--600 high schools and 12 universities--were shut down in a protest against a 30 percent tax on private educational institutions.
Protests in Paraguay
In mid-October, high school students spearheaded street demonstrations in the capital city, Asunción, against proposed cuts in funding for public schools.
In September, thousands of peasants, truck drivers, and other workers poured into the streets against the government’s proposed Economic Transition Law, which would impose a 10 percent to 12 percent value added tax on consumer products and cut 5,000 public employees’ jobs. They also demanded a reduction in the price of gasoline and a rollback in rate hikes for public utilities. A protest a week earlier was attacked by the police, leaving 130 injured.
The González Macchi government was pushed back in a previous attempt to make working people bear the brunt of IMF dictates. A two-week wave of strikes and marches this spring forced the government to back down on plans to sell off the state-run telecommunications, railroad, and water and sewer companies.
The protesters also succeeded in winning their other demands: the repeal of a value-added tax on agricultural products, suspension of a plan to sell off state banks and roadways, and the withdrawal of a repressive "anti-terrorist" bill.
To justify a crackdown on the mounting struggles by workers and farmers, the Paraguayan capitalists, backed by Washington, are promoting a "terrorism" scare as a pretext for increased restrictions on workers’ rights and civil liberties.
A November 8 CNN report announced that "top terrorist organizations from Argentina, Paris, Brazil and Paraguay," including "representatives of Al-Qaida, Hizbullah and other extremist Islamic groups" met in Paraguay’s second-largest city, Ciudad del Este. Representatives of workers and peasants organizations in Paraguay say that Washington is using the antiterrorist campaign to build a military base in the eastern region of the country, not far from Ciudad del Este.