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Argentina’s government escalates war against social movements, calling them ‘a modern slavery system’

The Javier Milei administration accuses social leaders of coercion in their management of state-funded assistance for the needy. The organizations demand that food delivery be reactivated for soup kitchens

Argentina’s government
Protesters argue with police during a protest called by the Union of Social Economy Workers (UTEP) in Buenos Aires.JUAN IGNACIO RONCORONI (EFE)

The far-right government of President Javier Milei has renewed its crusade against social organizations that represent the unemployed and informal workers in Argentina. The Cabinet chief, Nicolás Posse, said on Wednesday that these groups have set up “a modern slavery system” and that they are “tremendously authoritarian.” He also accused them of various irregularities linked to social assistance programs financed by the State.

The remarks came in the middle of a judicial case originating from a government complaint against a group of leaders for alleged coercion. The organizations known as “piqueteras” — so named for their protest methods, mainly blocking streets or highways — maintain that the complaints are an attack aimed at delegitimizing them, and they are hoping for a response from the courts to reinstate the delivery of food to the soup kitchens that are under their control, which was suspended by the Milei administration late last year.

The justice system is investigating claims of extortion by leaders of these groups against the beneficiaries of social welfare programs, who are allegedly made to attend marches and protests and to participate in the sale of food intended for soup kitchens. According to the accusation, if the victims do not accept this deal, they are threatened with the loss of their social benefits. Under the previous government headed by the leftist Alberto Fernández, and before that as well, social organizations participated in the management of state aid programs, which have 1.3 million beneficiaries. Until December, recipients were receiving 78,000 pesos a month (about $78 at the current exchange rate). A few organization leaders even held positions in the Ministry of Social Development. That entire structure was dismantled by Milei in December when he took office, including the ministry.

The complaint against 28 leaders was filed by the Ministry of Security after the first protest against the Milei government in December of last year. According to the ministry, the claim is based on the facts described in anonymous telephone calls to the hotline 134, a communication channel opened by Minister Patricia Bullrich precisely to collect accusations against social and union leaders. As part of the judicial investigation, raids were carried out on Monday in soup kitchens and homes of the accused, whose assets were frozen.

“None of us could have imagined what Justice found this week in the raids: a system with a pyramidal structure and tremendously authoritarian,” said Posse about the social organizations on Wednesday in Congress. “It was a system of punishment and threat. One of the benefits of the higher positions in the structure was to force people at lower levels to sell food delivered by the State and keep the profits. Really very much like a modern slavery scheme.”

The complaint filed by the Ministry of Security was joined by another one from the Ministry of Human Capital, which claimed it had verified that almost half of the canteens dependent on social entities were non-existent or no longer functioned in the indicated places.

“Delegitimize and attack”

The social organizations have responded to the complaints with a joint news conference with remarks by representatives of the accused parties and others. All of them dismissed the claims about widespread threats and extortion practices. According to the organizations, the complaints seek to have a media impact, and investigations will show that there was nothing to them. Speakers questioned the raids carried out on Monday, defining them as “excessive” and “violent.”

The confrontation between social organizations and the government has been a reality ever since Milei took office. In addition to the generalized consequences of currency devaluation, inflation and lower salaries and pensions, the main focus of conflict centers on the cut to state funds that the state once allocated to the soup kitchens run by social entities. The government has responded to related protests with police operations that led to injuries and arrests.

“There is an obvious campaign to delegitimize and attack social organizations,” warned Nicolás Caropresi, leader of the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE). “This new attack occurs in a context where the legal cases that we initiated to send food to the canteens are progressing.” He was alluding to the appeal for protection that organizations filed to make the state comply with the current national plans for food security and the fight against hunger. Caropresi was also referring to a complaint against the Minister of Human Capital, Sandra Pettovello, for failure to fulfill her duties as a government official. Caropresi said that “the soup kitchens that remain open are being maintained with donations and the help of some municipalities. Before this, only homeless people came to the soup kitchens, but now they are joined by many workers and retirees. Every day there are more people and every day there is less food.”

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