Unprecedented levels of unemployment and discontent with the government's economic austerity policies have sparked a wave of social explosions in major cities throughout Argentina. Growing opposition to police brutality has added fuel to the fire. The protests have involved sugar mill workers, teachers, paper workers, students, and others, from the northern provinces to Tierra del Fuego in the far south.
In the town of Libertador General San Martin, in the northern province of Jujuy, thousands of sugar refinery workers, other unionists, and unemployed workers blocked National Highway 34 for three consecutive days May 20-22. They demanded unemployment benefits for the 5,000 laid-off workers in the area and retirement benefits for the hundreds that the owners of Ledesma Sugar mill had laid off without pensions.
The unemployment rate in Jujuy is 33 percent. The unemployment level in Argentina stands at a record high of more than 17 percent.
"I worked 34 years in the mill, they laid me off in 1992 and I have not been able to find work since," explained Juan Gime'nez, president of the Center for Unemployed and Laid- off Workers, a local organization founded in 1994.
The sugar workers joined in the protests with members of the State Employees Union Front, Congress of Argentine Workers (CTA), the Multi-Sector Union Coalition, and the organization of unemployed workers. For three days the pickets, mostly youth, were violently attacked by the police but they defended themselves by throwing stones and barricading the highway. On the third day, 3,000 protesters were attacked by 1,000 cops with tear gas and rubber bullets and dozens were injured.
The unions in Jujuy called a general strike and protests for May 22 in support of the sugar workers and against the repression.
In response to these events, Argentine president Carlos Menem declared, "I am not going to allow them to block my highways. This is a legitimate and democratic government." He ordered measures to end the unrest. As it became apparent, however, that the protests continued to expand, the nervous government promised it would increase social spending by $600 million.
At the same time in Tartagal, in the province of Salta, which is also plagued by unemployment, thousands of workers blocked the national highway in mid-May demanding jobs. The protesters were viciously assaulted by the police.
On May 20 in La Plata, in Buenos Aires province, "The city was a battle field," reported the headlines of the daily Clari'n. The police provoked violent confrontations by attempting to remove dozens of so-called "illegal" vendors from their street booths. The vendors resisted their forced removal and fought back against the cops.
"They club us with their batons and they repress us, and I have three children to feed. We want to work," said one of the vendors.
On the streets of La Plata a pitched battle broke out. The vendors defended themselves throwing stones and other objects. For a while, they beat back the regular units, the mounted police, and the "canine" units of the cops. The police backed by antiriot tanks and even a helicopter, chased the street vendors with tear gas, stones and batons.
After a brief occupation of the America 2 television station, the vendors took refuge in the National University. A sizable group of students came out in their defense and confronted the police who entered the university campus with horses. Police arrested 75 and many protesters were injured. Ten cops were also injured.
The assaults have caused nationwide outrage. In the Argentine capital on May 22, some 3,500 students of the University of Buenos Aires poured into the streets protesting the repression against the La Plata vendors and students and the Jujuy sugar workers. During rush hour, they blocked major avenues at five key points and organized teach-ins and street rallies. Protesters burned tires and threw firecrackers and flares. As they marched, they were greeted with confetti raining down from balconies and the cheers from the local residents.
One of the students' most popular chants, directed at the government, was "Sabi'a, Sabi'a, que a Cabezas lo mato' la polici'a" (They knew it, they knew it, Cabezas was killed by the cops). This refers to the murder of Jose' Luis Cabezas, a journalist for the weekly newsmagazine Noticias, who had investigated cases of official corruption. His charred body was found January 25, handcuffed with a shot through the head, inside his incinerated car.
Cabezas's death, attributed by many to the Buenos Aires provincial police, has become a major scandal for the Argentine government and the focal point of the growing protests against cop violence. In recent months, the Argentine Press Workers Union and student groups have repeatedly demonstrated, demanding an investigation of the murder.
In the past month there has been a wave of protests and rebellions against unemployment and the government's economic policies - in many cases with highway roadblocks - in Co'rdoba, Entre Ri'os, Tierra del Fuego, Tucuma'n, and other areas. In Mendoza, cops attacked a union protest against the vote by the provincial senate to sell off a state-owned electrical power station. And in Rosario 500 workers marched through the industrial sector of the city demanding jobs and against the layoffs of 41 workers at the Celulosa paper factory.
The workers' protests have mutually inspired each other. "When we saw what was happening in Cutral-Co' and in Tartagal, we understood that we were not fighting alone," explained Eugenio Torre, a member of the Center of the Unemployed in Jujuy.
Torre was referring to the union battles taking place since March in Cutral-Co' and Plaza Huicul, two towns in the southern province of Neuque'n, some 800 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. On March 10, teachers of Neuque'n, members of the Confederation of Education Workers of the Argentine Republic (CTERA) began a strike against a decree by Governor Felipe Sapag that would slash their wages by 20 percent.
The teachers' strike was also fueled by discontent over the massive layoffs carried out by the YPF oil company since this former state-owned company was sold to capitalists. In this area there are more than 50,000 unemployed workers of the oil and petrochemical industry.
The authorities responded with repression, but when the police attacked a union protest near Cutral-Co' on April 12 and fatally shot Teresa Rodri'guez, a 24-year-old domestic worker, the protest flared into outright rebellion. The people of Neuque'n joined marches of 15,000 and groups of masked students, dubbed the fogoneros (fire starters) blocked roads with barricades and burning tires. Thousands of people blocked cop reinforcements from entering the provincial capital at several strategic points.
On April 14 the CTERA, backed by the General Workers Confederation (CGT) and the Argentine University Federation (FUA) carried out a successful national strike in solidarity with the teachers of Neuque'n.
The teachers decided to end their strike after 30 days when the governor of Neuque'n signed an agreement canceling the wage cut.
The Menem government initially claimed the protests from Neuque'n to Jujuy were infiltrated by "armed ideological groups." The speed with which the revolts spread, however, surprised and frightened the regime, which was forced to change its stance and promise workers a few concessions. The capitalist opposition parties, seeking to profit from the crisis, have called for the resignation of Minister of the Interior Carlos Corach, holding him responsible for the cop brutality.
Meanwhile, Michel Camdessus, president of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), visited Argentina to tighten the screws. Camdessus declared that there is much more belt tightening needed in regard to economic "reforms" and austerity measures to guarantee continued financial aid from the IMF.
The Argentine government has been debating a package of "labor flexibility" bills that, among other things, would gut the trade unions' collective bargaining rights and would make it easier for employers to get rid of workers.
"Only when my visits are as a tourist and friend, will the IMF be able to speak of success in Argentina," he intoned.
Above all, the IMF chief sharply warned Argentine government officials not to "provoke the world's laughter by attempting to limit its foreign debt payments."
For now, no one is laughing in the Casa Rosada (Pink House), the presidential mansion, which faces the most severe social and political crisis in years. On top of the mobilizations by sugar workers in Jujuy and the teachers in Neuque'n, political activity is bubbling among high school students.
In late April, more than 2,000 youth, mobilized by the Coordinating Committee of High School Students of the Capital and Greater Buenos Aires, marched through the streets of Buenos Aires behind a large banner reading "From Teresa Rodri'guez to Bulacio: prosecute and jail the guilty parties, police out of Neuque'n."
Walter Bulacio was a youth whose murder by the police six years ago sparked ongoing protests against police brutality in Argentina.
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