Argentines take their impatience with Macri to the streets


The veins around Paco Moreno’s temples are pulsating with rage. An anti-government protest led by a few dozen men brandishing wooden sticks has paralysed one of the main avenues in Buenos Aires, where he has been stuck for more than an hour.

“Why don’t the police just clear these ruffians away? What they are doing is illegal,” barks Mr Moreno, a lawyer who has missed his appointment some time ago. “It’s ridiculous that they are able to hijack the city like this.”

In recent weeks in downtown Buenos Aires, chaos has reigned. As activist groups and trade unions air their discontent with the centre-right government of Mauricio Macri, protests are set to climax during a general strike on April 6 that will demand higher salaries.

“We want a million workers in the Plaza de Mayo so that we can crush Macri’s policies once and for all,” says Néstor Pitrola, a congressman for the Workers’ party, referring to the historic square in the centre where Argentina’s powerful trade unions have long sought to show their strength. “Without a Copernican change, the social situation is only going to get worse — of that there is no doubt,” he warns.

Certainly, patience is wearing thin among Argentines — both the privileged and the poor. Many have yet to feel the impact of Mr Macri’s market-oriented economic reforms as real salaries failed to keep up with inflation of more than 40 per cent last year, pushing 1.5m people below the poverty line.

Although Mr Macri started this year with much stronger public support than expected after a challenging transition from the previous government, which left behind an economy on the brink of collapse, his approval ratings fell abruptly by 10 points in February. That was largely because of a series of unforced political errors, including mishandled debt negotiations with Mr Macri’s father’s company, leading to accusations of favouritism.

“The real question is whether or not Macri’s approval ratings will keep falling,” says Alejandro Catterberg, a director at Poliarquia, a local polling firm.

Especially worrisome for the government is that the biggest fall in its support is in the vast urban sprawl around central Buenos Aires, the most populous and poorest area in the country, where former president Cristina Fernández’s approval ratings are now 10 points higher than Mr Macri’s, according to Poliarquia.

Despite the union strikes and social unrest, Poliarquia’s March poll shows a stabilisation in Mr Macri’s ratings at about 47 per cent. “It’s a very good number in absolute terms,” says Mr Catterberg.

Even so, Fernando Iglesias, a writer and former congressman who supports the government, argues that this is Mr Macri’s “most difficult moment” so far.

“People still don’t have money in their pockets, and of course the Peronist opposition is taking advantage of this with strikes, demonstrations and roadblocks . . . There is a long history of coup-mongering in Argentina,” warns Mr Iglesias, pointing to the failure of all non-Peronist governments to complete their electoral mandates since the return of democracy in 1983.

Just in the first two weeks of March, there were 62 roadblocks in the city of Buenos Aires, compared to 16 in February, while there were 53 in all of March last year, according to the consultancy Diagnóstico Político.

“The Peronists know that if the country recovers they will never return to power. The stakes couldn’t be higher, so they are going all in,” adds Mr Iglesias. Indeed, many senior figures from the previous government face corruption charges, including Ms Fernández herself, who is due to stand trial soon for the first of various cases against her.

Officials complain that the timing of the general strike makes no sense. Despite a 2.3 per cent decline in gross domestic product overall in 2016, in the third and fourth quarters the economy grew by 0.1 per cent and 0.5 per cent respectively compared to the previous quarters. Since October, around 25,000 jobs are being created each month, say officials.

Such encouraging data even led Moody’s, the rating agency, to upgrade its outlook on Argentine debt to positive from stable earlier this month. And although the situation in the capital may be tense, it is a different story in the countryside, where Argentina’s booming agricultural sector is driving the economic recovery.

Maria Victoria Murillo, an Argentine political scientist at Columbia University in New York who specialises in labour relations, argues that the general strike is “not a big deal” and is “nothing new.”

She explains that the leaders of Argentina’s fragmented trade unions need to flex their muscles from time to time to maintain support among the grass roots. It will not be a deciding factor in important midterm elections in October in which Mr Macri’s party needs to perform well if he is to press ahead with his reform programme, she argues.

“It may have an impact on the margins, but ultimately the election will be decided by the economy,” says Ms Murillo. “Unless they can solve that, they are toast — the rest is decoration.”


Benedict Mander in Buenos Aires

Complete article: