Argentina’s Milei threatens to cut off social welfare for protesters who block streets

On December 20, left-wing organizations will march to the downtown Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to protest the president’s $20 billion cut in public spending and what they call the ‘criminalization of dissent’

Javier Milei, presidente de Argentina
President Javier Milei at Argentina's National Congress; December 10, 2023.Tomas Cuesta (Getty Images)

Tensions are ramping up in Argentina ahead of the first protest against the Javier Milei administration. On December 20, left-wing organizations will march to the downtown Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to protest Milei’s $20 billion cut in public spending and what they call the “criminalization of dissent.” The government promptly announced that security forces will take action to clear any street blockades. Opposition legislators say that such measures are unconstitutional and have presented their claim to the courts.

The Minister of Human Capital, Sandra Pettovello, warned that people blocking streets won’t receive the social welfare payments they count on for survival. This measure targets Argentina’s most vulnerable and amplifies the country’s stark socioeconomic class disparities. In Milei’s Argentina, blocking a street is a much bigger risk for the poor than for the rich.

According to Milei, good citizens don’t block streets. Yet his administration seems to suffer from selective memory. During the pandemic, Milei’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich joined and supported protests against the prolonged confinement imposed by the Peronist government. Another time, she joined a protest about the scandalous VIP vaccination center at the Ministry of Health.

In her short message, Pettovello said people have a right to protest, but also that people have a right to move freely and go to work. The December 20 demonstration is scheduled for the afternoon, when most Argentines are returning home from work. Regardless of the timing, the new policy will be strictly enforced for those who disregard it. This means that people will need to protest on the sidewalk instead of marching in the street, which is the usual practice in Argentina.

The government anticipates a rise in social unrest as the impact of its $20 billion spending cuts (equivalent to 5% of GDP by 2024) begins to take effect. This is expected to lead to higher inflation, increased hunger and growing poverty. Before the new restrictions on public demonstrations, Buenos Aires experienced almost daily protests, causing traffic jams and detours around the Obelisk, the Plaza de Mayo, and the former Labor and Development ministries (now secretariats).

Milei wants an end to all this chaos and urged protesters to respect traffic rules and the flow of vehicles. The new regulations will pose even greater challenges during large-scale annual demonstrations, like the one planned on March 8 for International Women’s Day and the one on March 24 to protest the 1976 coup that overthrew Isabel Perón.

Human rights organizations warn that the new security protocol attacks the right to protest and targets social and political organizations. “Instead of restrictions on the use of force by police, the government has authorized them to use violence against protesters,” stated the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS).

Argentines protest inflation on the streets of Buenos Aires; July 2022.
Argentines protest inflation on the streets of Buenos Aires; July 2022.Anita Pouchard Serra (Bloomberg)

A 40% poverty rate

Since taking office on December 10, Milei has frequently reaffirmed his commitment to transforming Argentina. In his inauguration speech, Milei declared that he was “a president with unwavering convictions who will use all the resources of the state to advance the changes that our country needs.” The person in charge of cracking down on protesters is Patricia Bullrich, who previously held the Security portfolio in the Mauricio Macri administration. Her job will certainly be easier if fewer people participate in the marches, cowed by the administration’s threats.

According to Argentina’s Catholic University, 40.1% of the Argentine population lives in poverty, with one in every two citizens receiving some form of direct government aid, or indirectly through intermediary organizations. The Milei administration is angling for a way to cut out these intermediaries, alleging that they coerce people to participate in demonstrations by threatening to withhold aid.

Patricia Bullrich
Patricia Bullrich in Buenos Aires; October 25, 2023.Matías Baglietto (REUTERS)

Pettovello also stoked fears about bringing children to the demonstrations. “We are particularly concerned about the mothers who join the marches with their children. It is unnecessary to subject them to the heat and violence of the demonstrations. In the new Argentina, this must stop,” she warned. In response, CELS tweeted, “We shouldn’t be criminalizing mothers and fathers who simply want better conditions for their families, or excluding those who are responsible for their care.”

Anonymous complaints

Pettovello’s message was replicated on every official government social media account. An abbreviated version posted on the official Mi Argentina app said, “We want to assure you that if you follow the law, we will take care of you.” The government urged anyone coerced to block public roads with threats of halted aid payments to make an anonymous report to the 134 phone line. The Mi Argentina post concludes with season’s greetings that seemed more like a veiled warning in this particular context: “Have a peaceful Christmas and New Year’s Eve.”

The government’s statements in the final few weeks of 2023 raised hackles instead of soothing frayed nerves. Eduardo Belliboni, a leader of the Polo Obrero worker’s organization, called for the nation to take to the streets on December 20. The date was not chosen randomly — December 20 is linked to the massive protests of 2001 opposing severe economic austerity measures that led to 39 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Since then, December in Argentina has remained a turbulent month, with several incidents of supermarket lootings in recent years. Belliboni stressed that social aid programs are already at risk due to rampant inflation, which stands at 160% and continues to rise. If this trend continues for several more months, Argentina will surpass Venezuela as the country with the highest inflation in the world. “The social aid programs are currently frozen, so they cannot be canceled due to protest marches. That would be illegal as people have the right to demonstrate under any circumstances. However, these programs will eventually disappear due to ongoing high inflation,” said Belliboni.

Eduardo Belliboni from Polo Obrero in front of the National Congress building in Buenos Aires; May 20, 2022.
Eduardo Belliboni from Polo Obrero in front of the National Congress building in Buenos Aires; May 20, 2022.SILVINA FRYDLEWSKY

Left-wing lawmakers are taking a stand by utilizing legal tactics. On December 18, they filed for a precautionary measure in court to suspend and declare Bullrich’s protest protocol as unconstitutional. As the country awaits the court’s decision, December 20 will reveal the left’s capacity to mobilize and the new government’s response.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS