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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 24-04-2024 16:03

Middle class puts first limit on Milei’s chainsaw

President Javier Milei underestimated the march in defence of public education, which proved to be massive and exemplary. Dominated by the very same people who are feeling his adjustment the most, he had better listen.

President Javier Milei’s government underestimated the march in defence of universities. It could be the head of state’s biggest mistake yet in his short time in office.

We do not know whether Milei reached that conclusion on his own initiative or if he was persuaded by his advisors. 

On other occasions, the President has surprised everyone with strange assessments. The messy breakdown of the so-called ‘omnibus’ law in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, when it was half-approved, was a victory for him. Ever since then, his administration has not been accompanied by Congress on anything except in protocol matters, such as the approval of a round of new ambassadors. And even then, he had to make an effort.

The demonstrations for universities in rejection of budget slashing was huge and transverse, both politically and sociologically. Tens of thousands of people (some 150,000 in Buenos Aires, according to conservative calculations by the Buenos Aires Police) took to the streets of the country’s main cities in defence of a free higher education system.

If one had to analyse the social breakdown of the demonstration, at its heart was the middle class. The call to arms was not subject to a CGT umbrella union march or a social movement, two discredited sectors in Milei’s eyes. Anyone who took part or even followed it on TV will have noticed: students, professors and university students and graduates, in many cases in the form of family groups of parents and children, were present. 

Education, and especially higher education, is the engine of upward social mobility, the pride of generations of Argentines.

It is not the first time this has happened. Two decades ago, before the big crisis and during Fernando de la Rúa’s government, then-economy minister Ricardo López Murphy attempted to cut the education budget. A mass demonstration forced him out of the government and he barely lasted a week in the position. (A retrospective look shows the 13-percent cutback proposed by the current Buenos Aires City deputy would have been plausible – the adjustment would be completed, fatally, by the market months later.)

On Monday, in his message to the country delivered by national broadcast, Milei acknowledged the “heroic effort” and the “integrity” with which Argentines are withstanding his policy of tough fiscal adjustment. He could not be more right. If that support did not suffice, the crowd which demonstrated on Monday in defence of a right set forth under the Constitution did so without the smallest incident. It was full of the same people who have been bearing a brutal loss of purchasing power for no less than six years, which is especially sharp today. The march, besides one of the biggest demonstrations in recent history, was exemplary.

Milei’s government made use of marginal elements to discredit it. The presence of officials from the last government and of renowned human right organisation leaders, together with presidents of state universities, were in some way functional to the government’s strategy. However, they do not represent the demonstration, they themselves know that.

The President has set himself as a mandatory objective the reduction of public expenditure. It was what he celebrated when he tooted his own horn in Monday’s national broadcast. As necessary as that is – and indeed it is – an administration cannot be reduced to solely cuts. Milei ought to review the chain of responsibilities in the Ministry to which the Education Secretariat responds and to define a policy contemplating the education community as a whole.

The middle class has spoken. They have set the first limit on Milei’s chainsaw. He had better keep it in mind.

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Walter Curia

Walter Curia

Director de Perfil

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