Thousands strike in Argentina over Macri's austerity programme

Labour unions stage two-day strike, cutting off public transport, cancelling flights and paralysing government offices.

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    A demonstrator holds a banner that reads "Enough of light and water high rates!" during a national strike in Buenos Aires, Argentina [Agustin Marcarian/Reuters]
    A demonstrator holds a banner that reads "Enough of light and water high rates!" during a national strike in Buenos Aires, Argentina [Agustin Marcarian/Reuters]

    Buenos Aires - Thousands of Argentines marched through Buenos Aires on Tuesday as part of a two-day nationwide strike over rising poverty and unemployment due to what protesters say is President Mauricio Macri's fiscal austerity programme.

    Many services including banks and schools closed, while hospitals were only attending to emergencies. The Buenos Aires underground and many bus lines were down and flights were cancelled.

    The strike, which started a day ahead of Labour Day - a public holiday in Argentina - was organised by trade unions and social movements, including Argentina's powerful freight transport union. Some groups are expected to continue with public transport union strikes on Wednesday.

    On Tuesday, trade unions, social movements, political organisations and members of the general public marched to the central Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires.

    Daniel Catalano, Secretary-General of the Buenos Aires City sector of the State Workers' Union, told Al Jazeera the strike had been organised because people were unable to keep up with the costs of living.

    "The degree of distress is really high," he said. "People have lost the ability to feel joy".

    Roberto Perez, a student activist, said: "We're mobilising to make the demands of the working class clear".

    Perez told Al Jazeera he struggles to make enough to get him through the end each month. "Public transport is getting more expensive all the time."

    Members of the Mechanic and Automotive Transport Union (SMATA) sing the national anthem in a protest near Plaza de Mayo square during a partial strike against the economic policies of the government in Buenos Aires [Juan Mabromata/AFP] 

    At least 27 people were detained by police during the strike and march, according to state repression watchdog Correpi or Coordinator against Police and Institutional Repression. On Monday night, two buses were set on fire, local media reported. There were no reported injuries.

    Security Minister Patricia Bullrich tweeted, "We hand the organisers of this strike the 18 million-peso ($406,089) bill for the security operation in which over 6,000 members of the security forces were deployed. After buses were burned yesterday, it was necessary to bolster security to avoid more incidents. People should not have to assume this cost."

    'You buy medicine, or you pay the electricity'

    Argentina is facing an economic crisis that has had a severe effect on living standards in the country. Inflation in 2018 reached 47.6 percent and the rate has continued to rise in 2019, but wages are not keeping up with the pace, meaning ordinary Argentines are rapidly losing purchasing power. At the same time, the government is rolling back subsidies on utilities and public transport in order to curb spending. 

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    The peso halved in value against the US dollar in 2018, and Macri turned to the IMF for a record $56.3bn financing deal. The austerity measures implemented as a result of the crisis have led to widespread layoffs. According to Argentina's National Statistics and Census Institute, 32 percent of people were living in poverty in the second half of 2018, compared with 25.7 percent a year before.

    In Buenos Aires, Araceli Ibarra, who is retired, said she was marching on Tuesday against the living conditions for older adults in Argentina. The minimum state pension is $234.57, which is below the monthly minimum wage. When she retired in 2015, her pension was worth around $450, she said.

    "It's not enough for food, medicine or transport, because [water, power and gas] bills are so expensive that they don't allow us to use money for the real basics," she told Al Jazeera. "You either eat or you pay the gas. You buy medicine, or you pay the electricity."

    Ibarra, who lives with her son, said many elderly people have to beg outside restaurants and bakeries at closing time or look through the bins for food. 

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    Lucia Manes, a social worker at Tuesday's march, said the effects of growing poverty were clearly felt in the deprived neighbourhoods where she works.

    "Kids stop going to school. There's more drugs, more sale of drugs," Manes told Al Jazeera. "There's more violence. And they don't have anything to eat," she said, adding that many teachers need to work two jobs to make ends meet.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News