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Argentina's President Milei faces test on his tough warning to protesters

The government has authorized police to identify protesters through video or digital means and bill them for mobilizing security forces if they obstruct public thoroughfares.
Javier Milei, President of Argentina in Buenos Aires on Dec. 12, 2023.
Argentine President Javier Milei in Buenos Aires on Dec. 12.Guido Piotrkowski / AP Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Just days after taking office, Argentine President Javier Milei’s government announced drastic economic measures that angered some social and labor groups, and warned it would crack down on any protests blocking streets.

The right-wing populist on Wednesday will face the first test of how his administration responds to demonstrations after those groups called on people to turn out to protest the economic shock measures, which Milei has said are needed to address Argentina’s severe crisis.

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

Milei’s security minister, Patricia Bullrich, presented 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.

The new protocol is aimed at preventing blockades, especially in Buenos Aires, where regular protests often block street for hours in what are commonly known as “piquetes.”

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

On Tuesday, Argentine labor, social and human rights groups signed a petition asking the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intercede against the new security protocol. In the petition, they say it is “incompatible with the rights to free assembly and association, freedom of expression and social protest” recognized in the country’s constitution.

Argentina’s government went farther this week, and on Monday announced that people who block streets could be removed from the public assistance benefit lists if they are on one.

“To the beneficiaries of social plans: know that no one can force you to go to a march under threat of taking away your plan,” said Sandra Pettovello, head of the newly created Human Capital Ministry, which combines what were the ministries of Labor, Education and Social Development.

“Protesting is a right, but so is the right of people to move freely through Argentine territory to go to their workplace,” she said.

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 that many of these groups use this as way to force people to go out to protests in exchange for support.

Polo Obrero, which represents the unemployed, is one of the social groups calling for the protests on — Wednesday. Its leader, Eduardo Belliboni, said Milei’s government is planning to go “against the right to protest.”

People were called to protest in Buenos Aires, marching from Congress to the historic Plaza de Mayo. The march will coincide with the 22nd anniversary of a protest against the government’s handling of an economic crisis that left dozens dead and led to the resignation of then-President Fernando de la Rúa

A recent poll by the University of Buenos Aires’ Observatory of Applied Social Psychology indicated that 65% of those surveyed agree with banning the blockades.

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.

Argentina has an annual inflation rate of 161%, and four out of every 10 people are poor. The South American country also faces a $45 billion debt owed to the International Monetary Fund.