Wednesday, July 24, 2024

ARGENTINA | 12-06-2024 20:53

Chaos outside Congress as anti-omnibus protest turns violent

Cars and bins set alight as security forces and police clash with protesters outside Congress; At least five Peronist lawmakers treated by medical staff after being sprayed with tear gags.

Hundreds of security forces fired tear gas and water cannons at rioting demonstrators outside the National Congress building in Buenos Aires on Wednesday as protesters called on senators to reject President Javier Milei’s sweeping reform plan.

Demonstrators who were protesting against the proposed reforms, which are being debated by lawmakers in the lower house, were dealt with aggressively by riot police and Border Guard officers. 

As the protest turned ugly, two cars were set alight by what appeared to be protesters. 

Police later said that at least 18 people, 16 men and two women, had been arrested amid the disturbances. At least three police officers were injured.

"Among those arrested is a 41-year-old man who was in possession of a grenade which is being analysed by specialised personnel. A woman was also arrested for being responsible for setting fire to government bicycles," said the City Police.

Scuffles first broke out when those rallying tried to bypass a system of fences set up between them and Congress. Demonstrators lobbed stones at officers who pepper-sprayed them in response.

Observers and opposition MPs said dozens of demonstrators and a small group of lawmakers received medical attention. Journalists were also reported to have been injured. 

As night fell, thick blocks of shield-bearing officers and others on motorbikes pushed back the protesters, who overturned and set alight two cars – one of which belonged to the Cadena 3 Argentina media outlet. Molotov cocktails were also thrown at the authorities. 

At least five opposition lawmakers in the crowd were "hospitalised" following the clashes, claimed opposition Peronist legislator Cecilia Moreau.

The group were later named as national deputies Carlos Castagnetto, Leopoldo Moreau, Luis Basterra, Juan Manuel Pedrini and Eduardo Valdés (all Unión por la Patria).

"We started to walk towards the Plaza [del Congreso] and the Gendarmerie and the police began to surround us and to spray gas,” Moreau told a local news channel, decrying the “repression.”

At least 40 people were treated at the scene after being pepper sprayed, the Association Against Institutional Violence, a non-governmental organisation, told the AFP news agency.

Many protesters demonstrated peacefully. Some complained on national TV broadcasts that they had been forced back by the security forces after standing and applauding.

In a fiercely worded statement, Milei’s Office slammed the “terrorist groups” behind the violence and accused protesters of seeking to carry out a “coup d’état.”

"The Office of the President congratulates the Security Forces for their excellent actions in repressing the terrorist groups that with sticks, stones and even grenades, attempted to perpetrate a coup d'état, attacking the normal functioning of the Congress," read a brief statement released on social media.


Inside the chamber

Tensions also soared inside Congress, as several Peronist lawmakers denounced the “repression” by the security forces and called for an intermission.

Senate chief, Vice-President Victoria Villarruel, batted back the request, refusing point blank and telling senators they could “go and see what is happening in the Plaza” but that the session would not be paused.

“They are free to go,” she declared.

Meanwhile, senators continue to debate what remains of Milei's flagship ‘Ley de Bases’/’omnibus’ reform bill. 

This is the government’s second run at approval – it was rejected in its original form and eventually pulled by the President at the turn of the year.

After major changes, it was approved by the lower house Chamber of Deputies back in April.

Speaking at around 6pm at a business forum in Buenos Aires, Milei said the choice for lawmakers was between “falling into decadence” or taking “the road of freedom.”

He praised Security Minister Patricia Bullrich for her handling of the incidents.

“The fight is even being fought in the streets. Fortunately, we have a great minister of security and she is putting things in order," he declared.

One adviser to the President told journalists that the protesters wanted “to interrupt the session and we’re not going to give in.”

The official, speaking anonymously, also denied reports that PRO Senator Lucila Crexell had decided to vote in favour in exchange for her appointment as Argentina’s ambassador to UNESCO.

"The issue had been under discussion for months, the file for her appointment is months old, it has nothing to do with this, the only thing they are doing is sullying the name of the senator," insisted the adviser.

What’s being debated

Milei’s whittled-down bill has 238 articles – slimmed from an initial 600-plus. 

The measures include declaring a one-year declaration of a state of economic emergency, allowing Milei to disband state agencies, and privatising around a dozen public companies. 

However, negotiations have forced Milei’s minority ruling party, La Libertad Avanza, to accept changes. 

State-owned carrier Aerolíneas Argentinas, the Correo Argentino post office and public radio and TV firms were pulled from the list of those to be flogged off on Wednesday during debate.

Other articles in the bill deal with reducing access to minimum retirement allowances and weakening labour protections by allowing for longer probation periods – slammed by the opposition as a licence to fire workers.

The provisions also envision tax, customs and foreign exchange incentives to encourage investment.

On the Senate floor, opposition lawmakers claimed the bill would set progress back by decades.

The labour reforms, in particular, "take us back to the last century when the employee had no labour rights," said opposition Peronist senator Mariano Recalde. 

The bill is opposed by social organisations, leftist political parties, retirees, teachers and labour unions.

"We cannot believe that in Argentina we are discussing a law that will put us back 100 years," said protester Fabio Núñez, a 55-year-old lawyer.

If approved in discussions set to continue until the early hours of Thursday, the law will return to the lower house for a final green light.

Milei in the minority

Milei's party is in a minority in both houses of Congress, which he has described as a "nest of rats." The President has not had any legislation passed in the six months since he took office last December.

The self-declared "anarcho-capitalist" won elections last November vowing to take a chainsaw to public spending and reduce the budget deficit to zero.

By decree, he has cut the number of Cabinet ministers by half, slashed tens of thousands of state jobs, suspended new public works projects and ripped away fuel and transport subsidies.

In the meantime, wage-earners have lost a fifth of their purchasing power through a steep devaluation and annual inflation is approaching 300 percent.

Economy Minister Luis Caputo insisted Tuesday that the ‘Ley de Bases’ bill is "an accelerator, an enabler of economic recovery."

The debate is taking place with the economy mired in recession, amid a slump in construction, manufacturing and consumption.

If the bill and its accompanying fiscal package is rejected, Milei will have to wait another year to resubmit it to Congress.



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