Police blasted mainly middle-class, peaceful protesters with tear gas and youths looted and set fire to the parliament building in Buenos Aires in a night of protests over the week-old Peronist government's handling of the country's economic crisis.
Thousands of pot-banging demonstrators, some wrapped in Argentine flags, swarmed to the pink presidential palace in the Plaza de Mayo at around 2am yesterday, calling for an end to crippling cash restrictions, a corrupt legal system and complaining that Adolfo Rodriguez Saa's new government was no better than the last.
When a group of chanting, bare-backed youths climbed the palace entrance gate, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon into a crowd that included elderly people and children. The clashes came barely a week after bloody street riots forced President Fernando de la Rua to resign on 21 December and left more than 25 people dead.
As the protest degenerated, men threw rocks and sticks at riot police and smashed the windows of several city center banks. Fires burned in the streets around Plaza de Mayo and youths broke into the parliament building, a few blocks from the pink palace, lighting fires and smashing windows until they were forced out with tear gas. Local television reported seven policemen were injured in the clashes.
The middle classes helped bring down de la Rua's government with a massive protest on 20 December. With the return of familiar faces from previous Peronist governments, many feel their call for not only a new economic policy but also a new class of politician went unheeded.
'We had a revolution. But all we got is just more of the same. Just more of the same corrupt politicians stealing from our pockets,' said Martin Cajales, a 23-year-old musician, wearing swimming goggles to protect his eyes amid clouds of tear gas.
The government seemed unprepared for more public unrest and protesters easily reached the palace front gates and climbed onto its lower windows. Carlos Grosso, Rodriguez Saa's newly nominated cabinet chief who had been forced out of politics in 1991 by a corruption scandal, resigned amid the protests.
People from wealthy districts of Buenos Aires marched spontaneously on Friday evening after a day of chaos in the country's struggling banks. Queues of irate people clamored for their money after a week-long freeze on basic transactions such as clearing checks was lifted.
'The government has changed but the economic policy is just as bad. They are not letting us get our money out of the bank. They are keeping our deposits captive,' said Adolfo Alvarez, banging saucepans with his wife and 17-year-old son in the Plaza de Mayo. 'This is the worst Christmas in our history.'
Argentines are still struggling to cope with a monthly 1,000-peso cash restriction introduced nearly a month ago to stop people pulling their salaries or their savings out of the country as it hurtled towards bankruptcy. On Friday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal to end the cash restrictions.
Since Rodriguez Saa declared Argentine in default on its colossal £91 billion debt on December 23, most banks have remained closed and transactions are limited. The peso is devaluing unofficially, some shops have started to raise their prices and dollars are growing scarce as exchange mechanisms have been suspended.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001