The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 68/No. 34           September 21, 2004  
Class polarization sharpens in Argentina
over ‘piquetero’ protests
(front page)
The government of President Néstor Kirchner of Argentina is stepping up its crackdown on protests by unemployed workers, unionists, and others.

The Peronist administration, which took office last year pledging not to unleash the police against social protests, has been deploying more cops on the street and threatening to prosecute hundreds of protesters.

To justify this offensive the Argentine ruling class has whipped up a propaganda campaign against organizations of jobless workers, known as piqueteros because of their frequent tactic of setting up pickets to block roads. The capitalist media blames the unemployed groups for creating “chaos” and hurting the economy. This campaign has found an echo among middle-class layers.

On August 25, in a signal that the government is taking a harder line, the police arrested Raúl Castells, a leader of the Independent Movement of Pensioners and Unemployed Workers (MIJD), which for years has led demonstrations by retired and jobless workers. He was accused of leading a sit-in at a casino and demanding money to leave the premises.

About 3,000 piqueteros are now facing prosecution for actions they were involved in over the past several years.

On September 6 the government deployed dozens of riot cops in downtown Buenos Aires to prevent jobless workers from blocking railroad ticket offices.

The big-business daily Clarín applauded the police action. It complained that unemployed groups had already carried out 100 blockades at the rail line’s ticket offices this year, allowing passengers to travel free. The company has lost millions in sales as a result, the paper said.

The ruling class has seized on the class polarization fueled by the unfolding social crisis to whip up its campaign against the piqueteros. Newspaper headlines proclaim that “public support” for the unemployed protesters has “worn thin.” These divide-and-rule tactics have had an impact on layers of the middle class and better-off workers that had previously expressed sympathy with the jobless workers because they too had economic grievances.

The Kirchner administration has taken full advantage of the refusal by the pro-Peronist union officialdom to come to the defense of the unemployed organizations.

Playing on the grinding social decay, the big-business press has fostered a middle-class hysteria around the increase in street crime and kidnappings for ransom. On August 26, some 75,000 people holding candles gathered outside Congress in Buenos Aires to demand a police crackdown on crime. The protest was led by newly famous anticrime crusader Juan Carlos Blumberg, whose son was reportedly killed in March in a botched kidnapping.

On April 1, Blumberg led an anticrime march of 135,000 through the capital city, “making him a hero among a middle class worn down by spiraling violence after the economy’s collapse in 2001 and 2002,” the Reuters news agency reported.

These class-polarized reactions have been sharpened by the differential impact of the current economic recovery on the population.

Following a severe recession in 1999-2002, in which the economy shrank more than 19 percent, the gross domestic product rose by 8.4 percent last year. The country’s exports have increased sharply.

Inflation has gone down substantially and unemployment has eased from its high point in 2002. The official jobless rate is 14.4 percent.

If the number of jobless workers who rely on stingy workfare-type welfare programs is included, however, unemployment is closer to 19.5 percent. Half the population remains below the official poverty line.

The middle class has benefited from the current recovery more than the working class, which is still feeling the long-term effects of the 1990s sell-off of state-owned industries—and consequent mass layoffs—and the plant shutdowns of the past few years.

In December 2001, as a depression mounted, the Radical Party government of President Fernando de la Rúa defaulted on the foreign debt, setting off a financial collapse. After an eruption of working-class protests, the ruling class forced de la Rúa’s resignation. A month later the newly appointed president, Eduardo Duhalde of the Peronist party, ended the decade-long linkage of the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar, precipitating a 70 percent devaluation of the national currency.

Working people were devastated, as prices for essential goods skyrocketed and the percentage of the workforce that was jobless or underemployed rose to 40 percent. Middle-class layers were also hit hard by the inflation, and they howled in anger at the government’s decision to freeze bank accounts. Demonstrations by workers, often joined by middle-class protesters banging pots and pans, mushroomed.

Unlike de la Rúa, Duhalde was able to get away with the devaluation and other brutal economic measures to try to restore the confidence of capitalists because of his Peronist credentials as a “man of the people.”

In last year’s elections Duhalde was replaced by another Peronist, Kirchner, who continued to take steps to protect the interests of the ruling class while demobilizing some of the protesters with the promise that he would address the needs of working people and the devastated middle classes.

Meanwhile, foreign bondholders are banking on the current economic recovery to get the Argentine government to reach an agreement to begin repaying $100 billion in defaulted debt. The Kirchner administration has proposed that Argentina pay only 25 percent of the value of that debt, arguing that this is necessary to be able to make payments while avoiding a social explosion at home.

The bondholders, pointing to the current upturn in the country’s economy, are demanding that at least two-thirds of the bad debt be repaid.

In a visit to Argentina, the new managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Rodrigo de Rato, met with Kirchner and his economic team. Afterward Rato said the IMF accepted the government’s proposal to temporarily suspend the financial institution’s $13 billion short-term loan program and accompanying economic “reform” requirements so it could work out a debt restructuring plan with the bondholders.

Argentina’s total foreign debt has continued to mount—from $144 billion in December 2001 to a record $177 billion by the end of last year.  
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