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Violent protests erupt in Argentina over pension reform

Eitan Abramovich / AFP | A demontrator kicks back a gas canister at riot police during a protest against proposed pension reforms outside the Congress in Buenos Aires on December 18, 2017.

Argentina's Congress passed a pension reform measure on Tuesday, despite violent protests and a 24-hour general strike against the proposal.

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Lawmakers passed the measure in the lower house in a 128-116 vote after debating for more than 12 hours. It had already cleared the Senate.

President Mauricio Macri, elected in 2015 with a mandate to lift the heavy-handed currency controls favored by his leftist Peronist predecessors, said Argentina needs pension reform to cut the deficit, attract investment and promote sustainable growth.

Debate on the bill was suspended on Thursday due to violent demonstrations. Macri then promised to decree a bonus payment to the neediest retirees. But that did nothing to satisfy the opposition and union activists who converged on Congress again on Monday as lawmakers debated the proposal inside.

Balaclava-wearing protesters used sling shots to fire rocks at police, who answered with water canon and tear gas, turning the vast lawn in front of the capitol into a battleground.

"This bill will put millions of retirees at risk. It changes the whole pension system," Laura Rivas, a 34-year-old teacher told Reuters, standing back from the most violent protest areas.

"We are going to have to work more years before we can retire, and then the pension payments we get will be minimal, so it hurts us as workers," she added.

Others closer to the front line shouted attacks on Macri, accusing him of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.

Opposition lawmakers joined the protesters in dismissing the bonus sweetener.

"It will be a one-time bonus payment made in March," opposition lawmaker Agustin Rossi told reporters, adding that the overall bill remained inadequate to meet pensioners' needs.

The pension bill will change the formula used to calculate benefits. Payments will adjust every quarter based on inflation, rather than the current system of twice-yearly adjustments linked to wage hikes and tax revenue.

Economists say the current formula means benefits go up in line with past inflation. Left unchanged, that could harm Macri's efforts to cut the deficit.

Under the new formula, benefits will increase by 5 percentage points above inflation.

The plan will take effect at a time of lower inflation expectations, hence slowing the pace of pension benefit increases.

Macri is aiming to cut the fiscal deficit to 3.2 percent of gross domestic product next year from 4.2 percent this year, and reduce inflation to between 8 percent and 12 percent from more than 20 percent this year.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AP)

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