Tens of thousands of Argentines protest against Milei amidst strong security measures

The downtown streets of Buenos Aires where the march took place were heavily guarded, especially the Plaza de Mayo

Manifestaciones Javier Milei Argentina
In Buenos Aires, workers and members of social organizations demonstrated on Wednesday to commemorate December 20, 2001, and oppose the new president’s austerity measures.JUAN MABROMATA (AFP)

This Wednesday, in a highly tense atmosphere, tens of thousands of Argentines took to the streets to protest against Javier Milei’s government and its harsh cuts to public spending for the first time. Buenos Aires dawned with a huge police deployment at the entrances to the city and train stations, and reinforcements were added as the demonstration’s scheduled 4 p.m. start time approached. The surroundings of the Plaza de Mayo were heavily guarded by riot police; they had the clear goal of preventing street blockages and guaranteeing the free circulation of traffic.

Security forces failed to meet this radical objective. The high turnout made it impossible for demonstrators to march only on the sidewalk, as the government wanted. Protestors advanced with banners and drums along the entire width of the two avenues leading to the Plaza de Mayo, the epicenter of the protest, and traffic had to be diverted to nearby streets.

The crowd chanted “worker unity,” while some protesters approached the police cordon to insult the riot police. They were prepared for arrests and whistled as vans passed by.

The demonstration took place in a tense atmosphere, but it remained peaceful. There were only two arrests in an isolated confrontation, amid the large, peaceful march called by over a hundred Argentine organizations. Originally, the idea was to remember the victims of the violent repression that marked the end of Fernando de la Rúa’s government in 2001, as Argentines commemorate every December 20. A total of 39 people were killed and close to 500 injured during mass protests. But this year’s demonstration took on a new meaning after Milei announced pending cuts. It was the first protest against his administration, coming only ten days after he assumed office as the president of Argentina.

“Milei, you swindler. You promised austerity for the political caste, and you enacted austerity for the people,” one banner read. Another sign said: “Money for education, not for the IMF.” That one belonged to Catalina, a teacher from La Matanza, the largest city in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. She explained that “the situation in public schools is desperate. There are children who go hungry, sometimes they come to the classroom without having eaten, and with Milei it will get worse because food prices soared after the devaluation.” Alberto Fernández left the office with an annual inflation rate of 160%, but official estimates for 2024 are four-digit figures, a world record.

The ban on picketing reflects a complete about-face in the state’s response to one of Argentina’s most common forms of protest. Pickets consist of blocking the streets and highways for hours, sometimes even days. In recent decades, there has been a lot of tolerance for these protests; some pickets even involved Milei himself and his Security Minister, Patricia Bullrich.

The demonstrators occupied some streets today, but they did not block the main traffic arteries, a middle ground that satisfied both sides. Both the organizations and the government considered the day a success.

The far-right government’s attitude does not come as a surprise. It campaigned on the promise to control the streets and that is its most popular policy, even among those who did not vote for Milei. 65% of the population approves of the government guaranteeing freedom of movement, according to a survey conducted last week by the University of Buenos Aires Observatory of Applied Social Psychology. On the other hand, over 50% oppose Milei’s other stated policies, including dollarization; the privatization of the state-owned oil company YPF; the deregulation of food and fuel prices; and the elimination of energy and public transportation subsidies.

Riot police officers hold their shields as they face demonstrators during a protest against Argentina's new President Javier Milei's adjustment policy
Police raise their shields against protesters on Wednesday in Buenos Aires. AGUSTIN MARCARIAN (REUTERS)

No children at the protest

In the past few days, the government did everything possible to dissuade protesters. It asked demonstrators to avoid bringing children to the protest, “so as not to expose them to the heat and violence,” and it threatened to strip those who blocked the streets of their social benefits. Thus, Argentina’s poorest residents were trapped between two extremes: social organizations, which encouraged them to demonstrate, and the government, which warned them not to do so and set up an anonymous hotline to report if they were forced to attend the march. Official sources say that over 9,000 people called to report threats from social organizations.

Many of those who attended the protest in the plaza this Wednesday were pushing back against a stereotype that they are forced to contest. “I wanted to come to the march because I can’t afford to eat. They call us lazy, planeros [welfare queens], but I work more than anyone else. I receive aid and work at a store that pays me a pittance while the owner vacations in Uruguay,” says Fatima Flores. She was holding a one-year-old baby, one of the few children present at a demonstration that many feared would end in serious clashes and police repression.

“This country’s problem is not protests; the country’s problem is that Milei took away 50% of our purchasing power overnight with a devaluation,” said Betina Sanchís, a 70-something retiree at the Once train station, which was tightly controlled by police officers throughout the day. She says that she suffers insomnia because she does not know if she will have a roof over her head next year. Currently, she pays 40,000 pesos ($50)—a third of her pension— for a room, but Milei’s decision to cut pensions makes her fear that she will have to give her room up in a matter of months. Sanchís says Argentines are used to crises and getting out of them, but she laments the growing division she sees in society. “I don’t like any of this at all. It’s [pitting] the poor against the poor, instead of uniting us. It’s going to end very badly,” she warns.

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