Argentina’s President Announces Economy Deregulation as Thousands Protest Against Austerity

President Javier Milei announced sweeping initiatives Wednesday to transform Argentina’s struggling economy, including easing government regulation and allowing privatization of state-run industries as a way to boost exports and investment.

The right-wing libertarian announced the moves for South America’s second biggest economy just hours after thousands of Argentines took to the streets of the capital to protest against austerity and deregulation actions taken last week by Milei.

The demonstrations went off relatively peacefully, after a government warning against blocking streets.

Around the start of the protest, which drew thousands of marchers, police briefly scuffled with some demonstrators and two men were arrested. But the event concluded without widespread street blockages that have been frequent in past years.

Undeterred by the protest, Milei afterward announced the measures in a televised address to the nation.

“The goal is start on the road to rebuilding our country, return freedom and autonomy to individuals and start to transform the enormous amount of regulations that have blocked, stalled and stopped economic growth in our country,” Milei said.

The approximately 300 changes would earmark many government companies for privatization, and loosen protections for renters, employees and shoppers.

After the announcement, people in some neighborhoods of Buenos Aires banged pots to show their disapproval. “Cacerolazos” — noisy anti-government protests in which people bang casserole pots — have been symbolic in Argentina in recent years when people want to express their anger.

Milei’s administration had said it will allow protests, but threatened to cut off public aid payments to anyone who blocks thoroughfares. Marchers were also forbidden to carry sticks, cover their faces or bring children to the protest.

Marchers set out toward Buenos Aires’ iconic Plaza de Mayo, the scene of protests dating back to the country’s 1970s dictatorship. Police struggled to keep demonstrators from taking over the entire boulevard, and in the end many kept to the sidewalks and filled about half the plaza.

Eduardo Belliboni, one of the march’s organizers, said demonstrators faced “an enormous repressive apparatus.” Belliboni’s left-wing Polo Obrero group has a long history of leading street blockages.

Toward the end of the demonstration, organizers called on the country’s trade unions to declare a general strike.

Today’s was Milei’s first test of how his administration would respond to demonstrations against economic shock measures, which he says are needed to address Argentina’s severe crisis.

The steps include a 50% devaluation of the Argentine peso, cuts to energy and transportation subsidies, and the closure of some government ministries. They come amid soaring inflation and rising poverty.

Protesters “can demonstrate as many times as they want. They can go to the squares .. but the streets are not going to be closed,” Milei’s security minister, Patricia Bullrich, told local media.

Bullrich announced a new “protocol” to maintain public order that allows federal forces to clear people blocking streets without a judicial order and authorizes the police to identify — through video or digital means — people protesting and obstructing public thoroughfares. It can bill them for the cost of mobilizing security forces.

Some groups say the protocol goes too far and criminalizes the right to protest.

A woman sleeps on sofa that was discarded on the sidewalk next to a mural depicting Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” painting in the Padre Carlos Mugica neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023. Argentina’s government cut transportation and energy subsidies and devaluated the peso by 50% as part of shock measures new President Javier Milei says are needed to deal with an economic emergency. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A street vendor sells newspapers featuring the previous day’s inauguration of Argentine President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. In his address, Milei presented figures to lay bare the scope of the nation’s economic “emergency,” and sought to prepare the public for a shock adjustment with drastic public spending cuts. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Argentine labor, social and human rights groups on Tuesday signed a petition asking the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intercede against the new public order procedures. The document says the security protocol is “incompatible with the rights to free assembly and association, freedom of expression and social protest” recognized by Argentina’s constitution.

On Monday, the government announced that people who block streets could be removed from the public assistance benefit lists if they are on one.

Commuters get off a train at the Retiro station in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Argentina’s government cut transportation and energy subsidies, as well as devaluated the peso by 50%, as part of shock measures new President Javier Milei says are needed to deal with an economic emergency. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

In Argentina, some people receive social support directly from the government, but others get support through social organizations with direct links to federal offices. Milei’s administration says many of these groups use this as a way to force people to go out to protests in exchange for support

A recent poll by the University of Buenos Aires’ Observatory of Applied Social Psychology said 65% of those surveyed agree with banning street blockages.

Milei, a 53-year-old economist who rose to fame on television with profanity-laden tirades against what he called the political caste, became president with the support of Argentines disillusioned with the economic crisis.

– Débora Rey and Almudena Calatrava, AP News

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