Guarantors of Poverty
Shock therapy involves a shock: Argentine leftists seem to have misunderstood the words newly elected libertarian President Javier Milei was saying. In his inauguration speech, Milei assured Argentines that the economic situation would get better—but to brace for turbulence in the short run.
Argentina’s inflation rate is over 200 percent, above even nearby Venezuela’s. The country owes $45 billion to the IMF. Roughly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. There’s no option but to attempt to dig the country out of the hole by implementing severe austerity measures. But that doesn’t mean the people—who remain, in many cases, disturbingly unaware of how they have been swindled for decades by Peronist leaders—are supportive of Milei’s plan.
Yesterday, thousands took to the streets in a protest slash work stoppage organized by some of the country’s most powerful unions. Quotes from protesters were just stunningly detached from reality, mostly because it seems people on the ground fail to grasp what shock therapy means.
Alicia Pereyra, a 63-year-old retiree who spoke to Al Jazeera, opposes Milei’s changes to labor law and scrapping of rent regulation. “He wants us to be slaves,” she told the publication.
“Before we used to have asados [barbecues] every Sunday. Not now. Even rice is very expensive,” Elizabeth Gutierrez—a nurse finishing up an overnight shift—told Al Jazeera. “Rents have shot up. You can’t live off your salary any more: It’s not enough.”
“The unions are the only ones that help and that are with the people, with the workers,” 78-year-old Víctor Saragusti told The New York Times.
The actual plan: After he took office, Milei deliberately devalued the Argentinian peso by 54 percent—so inflation shot up. He slashed the number of government ministries in half in order to cut public spending. Federal transfers to Argentina’s roughly two dozen provinces were slashed. “Real wages fell in December more than in any other month since at least 2002,” economist Santiago Manoukian told Al Jazeera.
Interestingly, Milei has also raised import tariffs (from 7.5 percent to 17.5 percent) and extended an export tariff (hovering at 15 percent), while fortifying the social safety net, ostensibly on a temporary basis. Argentina’s food stamp equivalent and child benefits will both double during this temporary period, despite Milei’s broader commitment to slashing government spending, seemingly to make sure poor people don’t starve amid this difficult time.
These details, of course, are not emphasized by the people protesting, who attribute their economic malaise to Milei, despite the fact that the situation had been dire right before he took office as well.
“There are two Argentinas,” Milei said before the protests. One is backward, and the other “puts us on the path to be a developed country.”
Unions are no longer running the show: Patricia Bullrich—who ran against Milei but now serves in his administration—called the unions who organized the strikes, and frequently attempt to block nonstriking folks from going to work, “guarantors of poverty.”
“Of 21 million workers, only 0.19% mobilized, if we consider La Cámpora and social organizations among the workers. 40 thousand people,” wrote Bullrich on X. “Total failure.”
“There is no strike that stops us, there is no threat that intimidates us,” she added.
There’s a lot of truth to Bullrich’s words. Milei has taken a hard line on protesters including cracking down on road blocking and docking pay for state employees who take part, measures meant to restore order in a country frequently crippled by union activity.
Scenes from New York: “New York City declared Wednesday that it’s t
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