Argentina’s ‘shirtless ones’ rise up against hunger, IMF and austerity

As President Macri seeks re-election, the country is battling social distress, and an impossible public debt

September 15, 2019 12:25 am | Updated 12:25 am IST

A woman participates in a protest against the government’s economic measures in Buenos Aires, Argentina on September 4, 2019.

A woman participates in a protest against the government’s economic measures in Buenos Aires, Argentina on September 4, 2019.

“This government does not represent us,” said Jacqueline Flores, one of the leaders of the Confederation of the Workers in the Popular Economy (CTEP). On a sunny September day, Ms. Flores was standing outside Argentina’s Congress building, in the midst of a protest against hunger. She was once a street vendor. As a young woman, Ms. Flores joined the movement of the ‘excluded workers’ or informal sector workers.

The government Ms. Flores referred to was that of President Mauricio Macri, who will face an election in October. Manuel Bertoldi, a leader of the Patria Grande Front, introduced a phrase to the conversation — ‘Macrisis’.

Mr. Macri’s policies have favoured the narrowest sector of Argentina’s rich, and the international banks and financial institutions. As a consequence of his gifts to the wealthy, Mr. Macri’s government has found itself to be unable to honour its debts, with the currency in a state of free fall. He has even taken the country to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an enormously unpopular decision given Argentina’s experience with the organisation in the first decade of the 21st century. The term ‘Macrisis’ captured the mood: there was dismay at the country’s return to the IMF, and this dismay was personalised around Mr. Macri, who had become a deeply despised figure.

Reports from the government and scholars validate the view of the ‘excluded workers’. A report from the National Institute of Statistics showed that about half the children in Argentina struggle below the poverty line, an increase by 11% since last year. A study by the Catholic University suggested that nearly a third of Argentina’s population lives under the poverty line. Of Argentina’s 44 million people, a minimum of five million people cannot afford to buy the most basic necessities — according to a study by scholars at the University of Avellaneda. It is impossible to see these statistics and not be deeply moved. This is a country of great resources, and yet of increasing social distress.

The Peronists

In October 1945, thousands of Argentinians had gathered before the Casa Rosada, the President’s home in front of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, demanding the release of their leader Juan Perón from prison. They were called the descamisado s (‘the shirtless ones’). Juan and Eva Perón’s base amongst the working-class and the urban poor went on to create a political seam that favours the ‘shirtless ones’ till this day. The ‘shirtless ones’ or the ‘excluded’ are a key constituency of the struggle in Argentina against the IMF and the oligarchy.

From the villa miseria s the slums of misery — came the thousands of protesters in early September to demand the enactment of a suite of seven Bills that had originally been tabled in 2017. These Bills call upon the government to declare a National Emergency against hunger. Various national food programmes would increase the food delivery in public schools and in the popular restaurants.

The money needed for these programmes, said José Seoane, the Buenos Aires coordinator of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, is a fragment of the interest payments that drain out Argentina each week.

Argentina sits on a $101 billion debt with central bank reserves that are now around a mere $10 billion. Since 2000, the country has already defaulted twice on its debt. It is almost certain that it will have to default once more. The $56-billion loan from the IMF last year drove the country into a more perilous situation. There is no appetite for Mr. Macri’s very generous short-term bonds, and no sign that the IMF is ready to reschedule loan payments. Standard and Poor’s downgraded Argentina’s bonds to CCC-, deep into junk bond territory.

Mr. Macri is unlikely to win a re-election in October. The presidency, opinion polls and the public mood indicate, is likely to be retaken by the Peronists — Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — and their Frente de Todos (Front of Everybody) platform.

In late August, Mr. Fernández met with an IMF team and made it clear that the IMF’s loan and its conditions have not helped Argentina — inflation and public debt have grown, while the situation for businesses and families has continued to get worse.

In 2004, the IMF had admitted in a study of its earlier intervention in Argentina that the organisation “failed to highlight the growing vulnerabilities” in its “choice of policies” and that it “erred by supporting inadequate policies too long”. That report has perhaps been forgotten by the IMF, but not by the Peronists and the ‘excluded workers’.

“The Debt Is with the People, not the IMF,” read one banner at the September march. It was a clear summary of the situation.

Vijay Prashad is director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and chief editor, LeftWord Books

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