Police in Buenos Aires Use Tear Gas and Water Cannons to Disperse Protesters Against Milei’s Bills

June 13, 2024 by No Comments

Argentine authorities used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters who threw sticks, stones, and Molotov cocktails outside Congress on Wednesday, escalating tensions ahead of a vote on state overhaul and tax bills proposed by President Javier Milei.

The vote represents the most significant test yet of the libertarian leader’s vision for governance and change.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Buenos Aires as the Senate began debating the key legislation, urging lawmakers to reject Milei’s program of severe austerity and economic deregulation.

The festive atmosphere that prevailed around Congress earlier in the day, with protesters playing trumpets, dancing, and enjoying impromptu street barbecues, quickly turned chaotic as crowds jostled and pushed against a line of police armed with shields and batons.

Security forces, backed by armored vehicles equipped with water cannons, repelled protesters throwing flaming bottles and other objects. Despite the cold weather, hundreds of police deployed water cannons and tear gas at crowds that surged towards cordoned-off streets, at one point even trampling over a police barricade.

Subsequent clashes between police and protesters resulted in injuries to at least 20 officers, according to authorities. Security forces reported arresting 15 individuals.

Scenes of chaos unfolded in the streets surrounding the central square. Protesters hurled Molotov cocktails at bicycles and set a car belonging to a local radio station on fire. Police used pepper spray to disperse a line of demonstrators, sending at least four opposition lawmakers to the hospital, according to the left-wing Peronist party Unión por la Patria.

The presidency issued a statement condemning the protesters as “terrorists” who “attempted to mount a coup d’état by disrupting the normal functioning of the Argentine National Congress.”

“The only thing the old guard knows how to do is obstruct progress,” Milei stated Wednesday at a conference for a right-wing think tank at the Hilton Hotel in Buenos Aires. “We are going to transform Argentina, we are going to make it the most liberal country in the world.”

Violence outside Congress led to a heated argument inside as opposition senators sought to pass a motion to suspend the debate due to the clashes. The motion failed, and the debate continued.

Milei rose to power on the promise of resolving Argentina’s economic woes within two decades, but his political party, comprised largely of inexperienced politicians, holds a small minority of seats in Congress, and he has struggled to forge agreements with the opposition.

Senators commenced debate on Wednesday on two bills: a tax package that lowers the income tax threshold and a 238-article state reform bill, originally known as the “omnibus bill” due to its initial 600-plus articles.

This streamlined version still grants the president broad legislative powers in energy, pensions, and security, and includes measures aimed at incentivizing investment, deregulating the economy, and reducing the deficit.

“They seek to bankrupt our national industry for the benefit of certain monopolies,” Peronist lawmaker Juan Marino said regarding a controversial incentive scheme for investments included in the bill.

Certain contentious issues, such as unions’ provision of healthcare and the privatization of Argentina’s national oil company, have been removed in an attempt to reach a compromise.

“If this law passes, we will lose countless labor and pension rights,” said 54-year-old primary school teacher Miriam Rajovitcher, explaining that her school budget has already been slashed, her wages have been cut, and food prices have skyrocketed. “My situation has drastically deteriorated.”

Launching fireworks and chanting, “Our country is not for sale!” bankers, teachers, truckers, and workers from numerous trade unions displayed signs mocking Milei for his self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” agenda and drastic efforts to cut spending across the state. “How can a head of state hate the state?” one banner read.

After weeks of difficult negotiations to secure potential allies, Milei’s two major bills cleared a significant hurdle in late April, passing the lower house of Congress. If the Senate approves the bills with modifications, the lower house must still vote on them again.

“Today, it is almost more crucial for Milei to demonstrate his ability to pass laws in Congress than what he actually passes,” said Lucas Romero, director of Synopsis consultancy.

The package faces strong opposition from right-wing moderates and the left-leaning Peronist movement loyal to former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which has dominated Argentine politics for two decades.

The Peronist bloc controls 33 out of 72 seats in the Senate, while Milei’s party, Freedom Advances, holds only seven. The bill requires 37 votes in the Senate to secure a majority.

Analysts suggest that foreign investors and the International Monetary Fund, to which Argentina owes a staggering $44 billion, are closely monitoring the vote to assess whether Milei can build consensus with his opponents and deliver on his promises.