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Thursday, December 11, 2003

Breaking the News: Argentina

Marcelo has a thing that we bloggers will one day be able to 'front run' the traditional press. I think he may be right. If you want a bit of evidence why don't you float over to his post yesterday at Southern Exposure and read what he had to say before this FT article passed from being a mere brainchild in the editors head:

Jobless show Kirchner the danger of doing nothing By Adam Thomson
Published: December 11 2003 4:00 | Last Updated: December 11 2003 4:00

From a makeshift warehouse in a poverty-strickenneighbourhood of southernBuenos Aires, Raúl Castells is orchestrating a plan to overthrow Argentina's six-month-old government.

His office - a bench and an old wooden table - is surrounded by boxes of rice, sugar, cooking oil and medicine, supplies for some of the 60,000-strong Independent Movement of Pensioners and Unemployed, which he leads. For security, a man sits close by with a nickel-plated pistol in his jeans pocket.

Few of Argentina's 38m inhabitants believe Mr Castells' Trotsky-inspired plans will topple Néstor Kirchner, the centre-left president. But as leader of one of the country's growing numbers of militant unemployed groups, Mr Castells is becoming a big problem for the government.

With demonstrations planned to mark the December 2001 collapse of Fernándo de la Rúa's administration, the disruptive tactics of his group's members pose awkward questions about Mr Kirchner's ability to maintain law and order.

The piquetero ("picketers") movement - as the groups of unemployed are collectively known - has been around for years. Its leaders have aims as diverse as revolution to simply petitioning for jobs and handouts. But they all have one thing in common: the capacity to mobilise tens of thousands of people and cause havoc in urban areas.

Residents of the capital have grown used to the masked men and women who brandish wooden batons and block roads for hours at a time.

But the disturbances are becoming increasingly violent and intense - there were 120 blockades in the country last month com pared with just half that number in October. As a result, voters - particularly the urban middle classes who helped ensure Mr Kirchner's victory in April - are demanding tough action.

Rosendo Fraga, a political analyst in Buenos Aires, says limiting the piqueteros is a clear test of governability, which he sees as the biggest challenge Latin American governments face.

"The 1980s were about the return to democracy, the 90s about economic reform and this decade is about governability," he says. "When you consider that only three South American countries in the last 15 years have seen all their presidents complete terms in office, you realise the scale of the problem."

So far, however, Mr Kirchner has kept his distance, and Aníbal Fernández, his interior minister, recently reasserted the government's approach. "We are not going to repress the piqueteros," he wrote in Clarín, a daily newspaper.

The danger is that appearing to do nothing could erode the high popularity ratings the government has worked so hard to achieve.

Sergio Berensztein, a professor at the Di Tella university in Buenos Aires, says one reason for the presi dent's reluctance to get involved stems from personal conviction. "Kirchner belongs to a generation that was persecuted by the country's military authorities, and he strongly opposes the use of force."

Another is that the experience of previous governments shows that sending in security forces to clear streets usually leads to bloodshed.

Mr Kirchner has instead tried to co-opt the more moderate piquetero leaders with handouts for their members. Since Argentina's economy collapsed in December 2001, the government has been doling out 150 pesos a month to the most vulnerable families. About 2m households now survive on the relief. Last week, the government announced it would give them a Christmas bonus of 50 pesos each.

The strategy has worked - to a point. Leaders such as Luis D'Elia of the Land and Housing Federation, the largest group, with 120,000 members, now support the president and see him as a figure who can offer political and financial benefits.

Mr D'Elia says: "We want to ensure that the Kirchner government succeeds because the alternative is to return to the neo-liberal policies of the 90s."

But there are risks. One is that the piqueteros' demands will simply escalate. Mr D'Elia, for example, has begun a long-term campaign to get the 150 pesos increased to 380 pesos, with an additional 60 pesos for children under working age.

A second problem is that while the strategy has revealed divisions within the piquetero movement - Mr Castells called several fellow leaders "prostitutes" for having co-operated with the government - it has failed to woo all the radical groups.

Mr Fraga is in no doubt that sooner or later things will come to a head. "The government has two possibilities: do nothing and risk more blockades, or intervene and risk killing people. Either way, confrontation seems inevitable."

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