Yesterday marked the first national mobilisation of the trade unions, political parties, and community organisations against the vicious measures already taken and proposed by the neo-fascist Milei government. Workers took action throughout the country. The two most common chants reported by the press were: Don’t sell our country, Jump if you did not vote for Milei. Protesters were denounced beforehand as violent, and government ministers threatened anybody who attempted to block roads (piqueteros/as), a popular tactic in Argentina. In the event, the thousands of demonstrators prevented the police from stopping them from getting to the rally points. Milei understands that the measures he is bringing in will spark huge protests, so he wants to criminalise the opposition and use force to break up mobilisations.
Milei’s chainsaw measures
Last week, Milei released an 86-page document known as a decree of necessity and urgency (DNU, by its Spanish acronym) that contained 366 articles. The DNU declared a financial, fiscal, and administrative “emergency” in Argentina while mandating wide-scale deregulation. Declaring an emergency and governing by decree allows the president to bypass parliament to some extent. Milei has already devalued the peso by more than 50%. Inflation has subsequently soared; all imported goods will cost a lot more. Layoffs have already started. His aim is to reduce the role of the state to the minimum; it is far more extreme than the neo-liberal reforms brought in by Pinochet in Chile after the 1973 coup. Milei is also an admirer of the fascist Videla regime (1976–81), which massacred tens of thousands. Civicus interviewed Mariela Belski, Executive Director of Amnesty International Argentina,who summarised the main measures:
- medical insurance companies will be able to increase their fees as they like, and are already doing so. If they receive complaints about their service, the state will not impose sanctions. Drug prices will also be deregulated.
- In the area of labour, a series of regressive measures is being introduced regarding severance pay, overtime pay and the extension of probationary periods, among other things.
- On housing, it repeals the rent law and leaves contractual terms, amounts and the currency rent is paid in up to negotiation between landlords and tenants, allowing the landlord to impose whatever conditions they wish.
- According to the omnibus law, the updating of pensions will no longer be governed by a formula set by law, but left to the discretion of the executive branch.
- The bill also conceives of protest as a crime rather than a right to participation and expression of dissent. It establishes, for instance, notification requirements for any public meeting or demonstration involving three or more people, the bill establishes the role of the ‘organiser’ to allow for the identification and eventual sanctioning of protest leaders.
- In the area of security, the bill expands the circumstances in which a police officer can be considered as acting in self-defence,
- On the environment the forestry law will be amended to further enable deforestation, the glaciers law changed to permit more mining and the fires law modified to allow more burning.
- In terms of gender policies, both the bill and the DNU remove any reference to diversity and gender. In particular, the omnibus law introduces changes to what’s known as the ‘1,000 days law‘, approved alongside the law on the voluntary interruption of pregnancy to support those who decide to carry a pregnancy to term.
- women, are viewed exclusively as mothers, and the incorporation of figures such as that of the ‘unborn child’ reveal an attempt to bring about a strong regression on sexual and reproductive rights.
A militant left at the heart of the mobilisation
Myriam Bregman, Nicolás del Caño, Alejandro Vilca and Christian Castillo, members of parliament for the radical left PTS-Frente de Izquierda (Socialist Workers party- Left Front), joined the big demonstration in the Plaza Congreso, together with an independent column that brought together militant trade unions, people who have blocked streets in protest (piqueteros/as) and cultural organisations, neighbourhood assemblies, organisations of pensioners, human rights, women, environmentalists and students that are mobilising under the slogans “For a plan of struggle until we defeat Milei’s and the IMF’s austerity measures, the DNU (economic policies), the Omnibus law, Bullrich’s repressive protocol and all the bosses’ offensive”.
The left MP’s comment was:
“The mobilization is enormous, even in spite of the pressure that the government and the bosses wanted to impose, because there is no other choice but to take to the streets. Today has to be the kick-off of a real plan of struggle (…). In addition, we say it is necessary for the trade union confederations to call for a national strike with pickets and demonstrations to the National Congress on the day the law is dealt with, in order to mobilise the power of working people to defeat these plans that want to put Argentina up for auction.
As we saw yesterday in parliament’s Plenary of Commissions, Milei does not have the votes to pass the Law, he can only move forward with this anti-worker, anti-pensioners and anti-popular package if he is accompanied by the other blocs that call themselves ‘dialoguistas’ (those opposition parties who want to accommodate and work with the Milei government, extracting some minor concessions- Tr). For us ‘dialoguing’ means listening to what the street says and that is where the repudiation of Milei and Caputo’s (economic minister) adjustment is growing. From the Frente de Izquierda we are going to do everything possible so that it is not approved, working in Congress and accompanying the mobilization as we are doing today. Neither the Mega DNU nor the Omnibus Law can be negotiated. It would be to negotiate parts of an economic programme that will continue to be a savage attack on working people. We must defeat them in the streets”.
What is Peronism?
Of course, the traditional Peronist movement still controls much of the trade union movement and has alternated with conservative parties in government since the end of the Videla fascist dictatorship in 1981. Fernández de Kirchner and Massa, its leaders, have opposed participation in the strikes and made sure that Peronist MPs and leaders did not participate in the previous mobilisation called by the CGT, the main trade union confederation controlled by Peronists, on December 27. Massa denounced the call for yesterday’s strike, saying it was premature and that the people did not support it. Some of the ministers in the previous government are even in minor roles in the Milei government. Milei won the presidency, but he has no party with a majority in Congress.
Juan Peron was president of Argentina from 1948 to 1955 after participating as a colonel in a successful coup in 1943. His nationalist populist policies helped industrialise the country, establish a strong trade union movement, albeit controlled in a corporate way by his party, and set up a welfare system. Conditions after the war were favourable to some import substitutions built on exports of beef and other goods to Europe. His wife, Eva, who died early of cancer, became a beloved populist icon since she was the figurehead of many welfare and health reforms. The West End hit musical Evita was loosely based on her life and provided the hit tune, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.
After the Peronists won the general election in 1973, the military that had overthrown him in 1955 allowed him to return from exile. Splits in Peronism, which included currents from Guevarists and social democrats to neoliberals, played a role in the fascist takeover that General Videla led in 1976. The specific economic conditions of the 1950s, facilitating the populist coalition between a mass organised working class and a ‘nationalist’ capital, never returned. The Peronists have provided only a slightly more moderate, socially liberal alternative to the conservatives and hard right. Their failure, alongside the traditional conservative parties, resulted in massive poverty and huge inequality. It opened the door to maverick Milei, who came from outside the political parties but was promoted by a media baron. His rise mirrors the trajectory of Trump and Bolsonaro.
Peronism and the level of industrialisation explain why Argentina has one of the strongest labour movements in Latin America. However the Peronist leadership of most unions are often corrupt and have built fortunes based on businesses like insurance that can be sold through the membership. One newspaper reporting on the strike mentioned the big limousines that ferry them around. The left front does challenge for leadership positions and has some influence in unions like the railway workers. There is an organised left current led by the Left Front, and it calls on the CGT and other unions to join with them in a consistent struggle against the Milei attacks.
Given the tepid response of the Peronist leadership to the Milei government, working people are unlikely to find mainstream political opposition at their side in this struggle. The scale of the attacks and the whole-scale privatisation of the state and welfare sectors mean trade union membership and organisation will be at great risk. We saw this in Britain as a result of the Thatcher offensive. In this sense, the bureaucratic interests of the main union leaders will be directly under attack. Hence, although the Peronists’ political leadership may do very little, their trade union leaders may be more easily pushed to formally support strikes like they did yesterday. Certainly, the existence of an organised labour movement—weakened since its heyday—remains an obstacle to any extreme neo-liberal offensive.
We need to give international solidarity to the self-organised struggle of the Argentinian masses and to the left currents helping to radicalise the movement. The presence of class struggle workers’ representatives in parliament provides a national and even international platform for the movement. There has been a proud tradition of resistance in Argentina, and Milei will find it harder than he may imagine. Yesterday’s strike was just the first round.
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