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20,000 Protest Spending Cuts in Argentina - 2001-08-30

Thousands of fed-up Argentines filled the historic Plaza de Mayo, Wednesday, to protest against the government's economic policy. Amid chants of "no more cuts", top labor union leaders addressed the 20,000 strong crowd vowing to defeat the neoliberal system in October legislative elections.

The largest protest to fill Buenos Aires' central square in recent years took place after the two main labor confederations called the joint rally.

The General Workers Confederation, known as the CGT, and the hard-line breakaway CGT joined forces and rallied 20,000 angry Argentines in protest against the government's economic plan of spending cuts.

Alluding to the important role labor unions have played in Argentina's modern history, Rodolfo Daer, head of the CGT, called on the government to end the current economic policy of impoverishment and anguish.

Exploding firecrackers and booming drums provided background music for Mr. Daer's fiery speech that decried government attempts to privatize the nation's social security and health care systems and require public university students to pay tuition.

The mustached union leader relinquished the podium to his one time rival, Hugo Moyano, head of the hard-line CGT, calling him a dear friend and comrade. The last time the two unions marched as one was back in 1996 before deep rifts between Mr. Daer and Mr. Moyano led to a split.

After sharing a hug with his former rival, Mr. Moyano railed against the government for what he called "tricking, lying to and making fun of Argentine workers". Mr. Moyano called the government's economic plan a recipe for disaster. He then urged the public to take to the polls October 14 and defeat the government's economic policy.

After more than three years of a grinding recession, Argentina's national unemployment rate has risen to above 16 per cent and nearly one-third of the country's 37 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.

With no signs of economic recovery, investors have grown increasingly worried the government will be forced to default on its nearly $130 million in foreign debt.

In an attempt to boost investor confidence the federal government has implemented an austerity plan and passed a balanced-budget law that limits government spending to what it collects. As a result, the government slashed federal workers wages and pensions by 13 per cent which labor unions say hurts those Argentines with the least.

President Fernando De La Rua has said he has no choice but to forge ahead with the much-hated spending cuts and has acknowledged the social impact of the belt-tightening.