/** labr.global: 263.0 **/
** Topic: Gen Strike Sweeps Argentina Protesting Memem-IMF Policies **
** Written 12:32 AM Aug 16, 1997 by labornews in cdp:labr.global **
From: Institute for Global Communications <
BUENOS AIRES, Aug. 14 A general strike by union members and government employees wreaked havoc today throughout much of Argentina, as angry demonstrators abandoned their jobs and blocked roads and bridges to protest the labor polices of President Carlos Menem's administration.
The key agricultural port of Necochea was closed by protesters, who also tied up roads to the important industrial cities of Rosario and Cordoba, according to local media reports. In the northern province of Tucuman, almost 60 percent of the work force participated in today's strike. Demonstrators there built makeshift roadblocks of wood and debris that virtually prevented commerce.
Here in Argentina's vast capital, the strike gained less support and had less impact, but nevertheless was felt in some sectors. Most schools were closed as teachers, who have been among Menem's most vocal opponents, walked off the job. Striking transit workers caused problems for commuters as only one in five buses were running today. Trains, planes and subways, however, were still operating -- although behind schedule -- without major incident throughout the capital.
The general strike -- and how it played out in and outside the capital -- reflected a significant political shift in Argentina, where a powerful new alliance of parties united last week in opposition to Menem's Peronist government. The alliance -- which joins the center-right Radical Party and the leftist Front for a Country in Solidarity, known as Frepaso -- has suddenly made the opposition a real threat to Menem's Peronists, who for years have enjoyed political supremacy amid a fractured opposition. Though the strike was planned before the alliance was formed, its leaders cited the strike as evidence that Menem has fallen out of touch with the people.
The provinces have been hardest hit by the free-market economic reforms put in place by Menem's government in 1991. In some states, unemployment has shot up to almost 40 percent as state-owned industries have been sold off to private enterprise, causing work forces to shrink for the sake of efficiency and profit.
"The people are saying that it's time we ended this period of economic reforms without social support," Rodolfo Terrango, chairman of the Radical Party, said in an interview today.
The opposition alliance has said it will make creating jobs, improving education and revamping the Argentine judiciary -- viewed as extremely corrupt -- its primary missions. "They are saying they want an alternative to Menem," Terrango said.
The alliance has sent shock waves through the Peronist party, especially at a time when Menem's approval rating -- 18 percent, according to one recent poll -- stands at an all-time low and key congressional elections are scheduled for October. Menem's popularity has been severely marred by a series of scandals, including his administration's alleged links to Alfredo Yabran, a secretive businessman widely believed in Argentina to have ordered the murder of a noted journalist.
Perhaps the larger problem for the Peronists, political analysts say, is the civil unrest still being generated by Menem's economic reforms. While the reforms have brought a period of unprecedented economic growth, they have also caused high unemployment. Union leaders are opposed to the new Peronist proposals because they make labor laws more flexible for companies.
In April 1991, Menem cured runaway inflation by implementing an economic plan that fixed the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar. Tied to that plan was a move toward private enterprise that saw the sell-off of most state-owned industries. But critics say privatization happened too quickly, and the free market has not been able to absorb the great numbers of unemployed state workers. The overall Argentine unemployment rate stands at 17 percent, still one of the highest in Latin America. Foreign Minister Guido di Tella, a key Menem adviser, said in an interview that unrest is not as widespread as the local media have reported and that huge segments of the population have benefited from Menem's economic plan. "The [strikes] do not represent the idea of most of the Argentine people," he said.
Although the new alliance has promised not to alter the core of the economic plan, its leaders say they intend to create a new network of social assistance for those most hurt by the unemployment it has generated. Di Tella, however, criticized the alliance for what he called empty promises. "They have not once said where they intend to get the money," he said.