Argentina: Two Killed in Clash Between Unemployed Pickets and Police
Published on Thursday, June 27, 2002 by Inter Press Service
Argentina: Two Killed in Clash Between Unemployed Pickets and Police
by Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES - Two were killed, 90 wounded and 60 arrested when police tried to prevent unemployed protesters from blocking roads leading into the Argentine capital Wednesday to demand larger unemployment subsidies and food and medical supplies for public hospitals.

Unemployed workers clash with police, in Buenos Aires
Unemployed workers clash with police, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, June 26, 2002. Police and national guardsmen fired tear gas Wednesday at hundreds of jobless protesters trying to blockade highways around the capital. Two people were reported killed and 173 were arrested. (AP Photo/Enrique Cabrera, Telam)
''We would like to not have to block any more bridges, but our babies and elderly are dying here, and the doctors can't do anything, because we have no medicines in the hospitals,'' said Roman Catholic priest Alberto Spagnolo, who heads one of the numerous organizations of unemployed that have sprung up in this crisis-ridden Southern Cone country.

The tension, which continued to run high after the violent clash between demonstrators and police on the Pueyrredón bridge, which links the Buenos Aires satellite city of Avellaneda with the southern part of the capital, led security forces to declare themselves on alert, to prevent looting.

On Dec 20, rioting, looting and protests led to the fall of the government of president Fernando de la Rúa, and 26 people were killed in the disturbances.

Wednesday's protests, in which organizations that tend to hold their own separate demonstrations came together, also targeted the government's economic policy and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which received Argentine Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna in Washington the same day.

The minister admitted that his hopes were limited to securing the disbursement of a pending quota of an IMF credit to prevent a cessation of payments to the multilateral lending institutions.

The government of Eduardo Duhalde lacks the funds to pay off a one billion dollar debt owed the international lenders, which falls due in mid-July.

The outlook for the negotiations is dim. On his return to Washington, after a visit to Buenos Aires last week, IMF official John Thornton presented a report that was critical of the Duhalde administration. Thornton was especially referring to the lack of clarity with respect to the government's future fiscal and monetary policies.

After a four-year recession, the government froze millions of bank accounts late last year, devalued the peso, and defaulted on the country's 141 billion dollar debt.

With an unemployment rate that has climbed above 24 percent and half of the population of 36 million living in poverty, the steady increase in prices has seriously upset the lowest-income segments in Argentina, while weakening the unemployment subsidies that the government began to shell out a month ago.

Unemployed heads of households are now entitled to a stipend of 150 pesos (38 dollars) a month, equivalent to 25 percent of the minimum monthly wage. But the unemployed protesters complain that the subsidies are not reaching everyone who needs them, due to clientelism.

Activists with the Movement of Retirees and Unemployed, the National Bloc of Pickets, the Anibal Verón Coordinator and the Neighbourhoods on Their Feet movement blocked five bridges leading into Buenos Aires, on the north, south and west sides of the city, even though authorities had warned that they would ensure the free circulation of traffic at each access point.

The groups decided on the protest last weekend, after representatives of the unemployed movement unsuccessfully sought a meeting with President Eduardo Duhalde or Labor Minister Graciela Caamaño. The delegates were not received by any government official.

Wednesday's protests were staged by the most radical groups of unemployed activists. The road blockades were not backed by the Combative Classist Current or the Congress of Argentine Workers, the two largest organizations of unemployed, which typically block highways or gather along the sides of roads without any incidents.

The most violent incidents Wednesday occurred at one of the roadblocks when police used batons, tear gas and rubber bullets to keep pickets from reaching the Pueyrredón bridge between Avellaneda and the capital.

Outraged demonstrators, many of whom had their faces covered, threw stones at the police before falling back and smashing shop windows and the windshields of dozens of parked cars.

Two unidentified people were killed and dozens wounded in the incidents. The Fiorito Hospital, where the wounded were taken, reported that the two men had been killed and four others critically injured by gunshot wounds.

''This is a war of the poor against the poor! The government has to do something, because we're not going to pay our taxes anymore!'' said one sobbing woman, who explained that she was the owner of a food shop that was attacked by the protesters.

As the demonstrators fell back, some were hit by rubber bullets. ''I have six rubber bullet marks on my back,'' complained Norma Giménez in the Fiorito Hospital. Giménez belongs to the Workers Pole, a group that forms part of the National Bloc of Pickets.

Giménez said she was hit by rubber bullets as the protesters tried to retreat, before reaching the bridge. She said that one of her friends, a woman who is 32 weeks pregnant, was also hit by five rubber bullets on the back and the neck.

As the families of some of the wounded protesters gathered at the hospital, tension mounted and one of the relatives punched a police commissioner in the face who was giving reporters his version of the events.

The incident triggered further confrontations, this time in the hospital, which continued until the police arrested several people and left.

Roads and bridges were blocked in 19 provinces, although the most serious incidents occurred in Avellaneda.

Copyright 2002 IPS