Argentine unions protest Macri's austerity policies

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Thousands of demonstrators marched through the Argentine capital Buenos Aires on Thursday to protest President Mauricio Macri's austerity measures, turning up the heat on his government six months ahead of general elections.

The protests come in a climate of social unrest in recession-hit Argentina, with Macri's center-right government determined to reach a zero fiscal deficit as part of a $56 billion bailout agreement last year with the International Monetary Fund.

However, trades unions like the powerful General Confederation of Labor (CGT) -- which called Thursday's protest -- say the measures are crippling the country's economy by forcing the closure of thousands of small businesses.

"This demonstration is one more expression of the unrest there is," Juan Carlos Schmid, leader of the Transport union Confederation, told AFP.

"Keeping on this path means we are heading to the abyss. Economic policy has to change, until now there has been a policy of permanent adjustment."

- Braving the rain -

Thousands of trades union members, many waving bright banners and placards decrying Macri and the IMF, defied a downpour to march down the central July 9 Avenue to converge on Macri's offices on the Plaza de Mayo square.

Elected in 2015 at the head of a center-right Cambiemos (Let's Change) coalition, market-friendly Macri has failed to stem public anger at his belt-tightening policies, which have cut services to low-income Argentines already hit by inflation of 47 percent in 2018.

Undeterred by his tumbling popularity ratings, Macri is set to run for re-election in October's presidential and legislative elections, citing the need to continue tough reforms.

"We cannot afford to pay for the electricity or the gas. Before, people in my neighborhood used to do small jobs like gardening, but now that's gone, because the middle class is collapsing -- the increases are also affecting them," said 55-year-old Blanca Carmona as she marched.

The portion of the population living under the poverty line increased to 32 percent in December -- up from 25 percent in 2017 -- taking another three million Argentines into the poverty trap, figures released last week show.

"The government is getting a loan from the IMF but we're flirting with hunger," said Julian Perez, a 19-year-old who said he had come up from the coastal city of La Plata to "claim jobs" with his friends from a local cooperative.

- Business crisis -

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) have borne the brunt of the cuts.

"SME's are going through a period of extreme gravity, and every day we are seeing hundreds of SMEs closing and firing workers," said Osvaldo Cornide, head of the Argentine Confederation of Small and Medium-sized businesses.

He claimed his members were suffering "a lethal and perverse combination of unpayable tariffs, an internal market destroyed as a result of wages lost day after day through inflation, massive dismissals that remove people from the market as consumers, indiscriminate opening up to imports, deranged interest rates and unviable tax pressure."

CGT secretary-general Hector Daer, called for the creation of a broad "opposition front" to block Macri's route to re-election in October.

"We have to go forward asking for an alternative proposal and a different model for the country, We can't continue like this," he said.