The auto workers were not alone in showing their distaste at the representative of U.S. imperialism. O’Neill’s whistle-stop in the crisis-wracked country, part of a four-day trip to South America that also took in Brazil and Uruguay, drew protests wherever he surfaced.
Some 3,000 unemployed workers and others rallied in the Plaza de Mayo on August 6, the city’s central square, to demand Washington and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stop their "interference" in Argentina’s affairs. This and other protests went ahead in spite of a massive police mobilization in the capital.
One stop at a Buenos Aires soup kitchen funded by the World Bank, the imperialist agency touted as specializing in "development assistance," was designed to allow O’Neill to "meet some of the victims of the recession in person," reported Reuters. "But tight security did not allow much contact with the public and his cavalcade sped past buildings sprayed with slogans like ‘O’Neill stay away’ and ‘Get the hell out IMF.’"
In his talks with Argentine officials, O’Neill offered no promises of loans or other financial assistance. "There was an emphasis on the resolution by the government to move forward quickly in the discussions with the IMF," he said of his discussions with Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna.
As Argentina’s crisis has deepened and depression conditions have become generalized, IMF officials have refused to provide new loans until the government of President Eduardo Duhalde draws up a "sustainable" plan to their satisfaction. "Reining in public spending" would be part of such an approach, noted the Washington Post.
In contrast, O’Neill declared Washington’s support for a $1.5 billion IMF loan to Uruguay, and a $30 billion loan package by the agency to Brazil.
"Every country is different...even countries that are very close together can be very different," said O’Neill, the man who last year described Argentina--an exporter of beef and other products for more than a century--as a "laid-back" place with "no export industry to speak of."
In contrast to O’Neill’s statement, Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has emphasized that through the 1990s Argentine governments followed policies of privatization of government services and other "reforms," including the currency peg, that were recommended by the IMF and other imperialist agencies.
Writing in the May 12 Washington Post, Stiglitz observed, "The IMF said make cuts and Argentina complied, trimming expenditures at the federal level...by 10 percent between 1999 and 2001." The only government spending that wasn’t cut, Stiglitz noted, involved interest payouts on the government’s debt.
"The cuts exacerbated the downturn," wrote the bourgeois economist. "Had they been as ruthless as the IMF had wanted, the economic collapse would have been even faster. Social unrest would have come earlier."
Protests for jobs, payment of wages
In frequent protests, strikes, and workplace occupations, working people in Argentina are demanding jobs, the payment of back wages, and a measure of government protection against the impact of the crisis.
On August 7, 70 unemployed workers occupied a Repsol-YPF oil distribution facility in Comodoro Rivadavia, a coastal city on the southern plains of Patagonia. "We are prepared to resist until we win our objective of jobs for 800 laid-off comrades," said Carlos Vargas, of the Comodoro Rivadavia Federation for Land and Housing. The federation is affiliated with the Argentine Workers Federation (CTA), one of three national union federations. "We demand real jobs." One option, said Vargas, "is that all the workers at Repsol work for eight hours only, without losing any wages. In this way 1,200 jobs would be generated."
Faced with threats of eviction by the police, the workers threatened to set the place on fire. Meanwhile, the company cut off water to the plant and the occupiers, who have won solidarity from broader layers of working people in the region.
On the next day 5,000 workers from around the province of Entre Ríos marched in Paraná, to protest the privatization of the state bank and energy enterprises.
Argentine news agencies reported on August 16 that state workers in the city of San Juan, near the country’s border with Chile, occupied the "majority of public buildings" as they stepped up their fight to force the government to pay wages owed to them from February through July.
As the IMF officials and representatives of the imperialist governments insist on further restrictions in government spending, rising unemployment and inflation are driving the living standards of millions of Argentines down to unprecedented levels. More than 40 percent of the working-age population is unemployed or underemployed, while the government admits that more than half the population of 36 million falls below the official poverty line. According to official figures, more than 11,000 people fall daily into that number, defined by a daily income of less than $3.
The average per capita income--a figure that obscures the deep class divisions and inequalities that mark all capitalist societies--stands today at $2,500, and falling. Before the country’s long-lasting recession began in 1999, it was almost $9,000.
The government predicts that the economy will shrink by 15 percent this year, making for a total decline of 21 percent since 1999, a retraction 50 percent greater than occurred during the Great Depression years of 1930-33.
Meanwhile, the collapse in the value of the peso, which went from a one-to-one peg last year to some 30 cents today, has helped to generate inflation of some 33 percent. Subject to profiteering by merchants and other capitalists, food staples have risen by much more, with the price of flour up by 166 percent and canned tomatoes by 118 percent over the last six months.
"I could buy rice for 30 cents a kilo last year," said Beatriz Orresta, 20, to reporters. "It’s more than 1 peso 50 now." Orresta lives in the agricultural province of Tucuman, where health workers say that cases of malnutrition have risen by up to 30 percent over the past year.
On August 16 Economy Minister Lavagna appealed for new assistance in a "letter of intent" to the IMF. A key point in the letter, he said, was that "when an agreement is signed, we’ll begin the process of renegotiation with our creditors." The government’s failure to pay the interest at the end of 2001 on the majority of its $141 billion national debt, much of which is owned to foreign private banks as well as the IMF, is the biggest such default in history.
In late July, the Telecom Argentina, a French-Argentine company that together with a Spanish firm dominates Argentina’s telecommunications market, stopped interest payments on its $3.2 billion debt. As such companies slashed spending on installations and maintenance, some 400,000 fixed telephone lines--one in 20--were taken out of service in the first six months of this year.
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