The Miami Herald
Dec. 22, 2003

Anti-Kirchner crowd protests in Argentina

Tens of thousands hold the largest antigovernment rally to date against eight-month President Néstor Kirchner.


BUENOS AIRES - Two years after violent protests brought down the government, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Argentina's capital this weekend in the largest demonstration against President Néstor Kirchner since he took office seven months ago.

Though polls show Kirchner enjoys the approval of three quarters of Argentines, the scale and volume of the peaceful antigovernment demonstrations -- most estimates measured close to 50,000 people crowded into the Plaza de Mayo, a historic site for Argentine protest -- promise an end to the honeymoon for the populist president.

While Kirchner oversaw impressive economic growth of 8 percent in 2003 as the country recovered from its worst collapse in history, one in seven Argentines are still unemployed and more than half live in poverty. Picketers continue their daily blocking of key streets and bridges in the capital as they demand more generous unemployment benefits and new jobs.

In response to middle-class frustration with these shutdowns, Kirchner, a center-leftist, has taken an increasingly hard line against picketers in recent weeks.


The protest movements showed strength in their response Saturday. Rallies, held in Buenos Aires and across the country, from Misiones to Tierra del Fuego, had a dual purpose: to commemorate the massive protests of Dec. 19 and 20, 2001, that toppled the presidency of Fernando de la Rúa and to demonstrate dissatisfaction with the Kirchner government.

''The popular rebellion is present in the Argentina of today,'' a speaker from the Workers Party, his raw voice cracking, shouted at the crowd.

Adding to the anger was the revelation earlier this month that Argentine congressmen were bribed during the de la Rúa administration to approve an unpopular labor reform law that has been hard on Argentina's working class.

Saturday's protests were of a different quality from those they honored. In 2001, Argentine professionals and business owners banged pots side-by-side with the unemployed to demand in a rare single voice Que se vayan todos'' -- throw them all out.

But two years later, the Argentine middle and lower classes are again at odds.

In his first months in office, Kirchner has made a series of reforms geared toward Argentina's battered middle class. He revamped the armed forces and the Supreme Court, pushed through a repeal of amnesty laws for officers in the 1970s military dictatorship and successfully negotiated a debt repayment plan with the International Monetary Fund.

Kirchner remains popular with the Argentine business class. Rather than join the protests as they did in 2001, downtown store owners shuttered their stores for fear of looters.

''Today, with a few days to go before Christmas, we ask that you don't cause confrontations or ruin the work of small businesses,'' ran an ''Open Letter to Picketers'' written on posters plastered throughout downtown.


The protest movements themselves are splintered. The more moderate groups willing to compromise with Kirchner held their demonstrations earlier in the day, in the nearly 95-degree noontime heat of summer in Argentina. The most radical groups demonstrated last and loudest, bringing almost 40 fist-waving speakers during a four-hour rally that lasted past sunset. Speakers railed against paying the foreign debt or negotiating free-trade pacts, calling for protectionist policies that would generate jobs for the country's poor.

In a country where a police presence is considered a provocation, police stayed away from the demonstrators, and protests remained generally peaceful.

An unknown explosive detonated in a trash can in the center of the Plaza de Mayo Saturday evening, injuring two dozen protesters, included three children and a pregnant woman.

Red Cross workers who attended the scene said the blast came from a misfired firecracker, while protesters insisted it was a grenade.

Onstage, speakers called the blast a government provocation and called for another rally to be held today.

''The government is building a country on our deaths and bloodshed,'' announced speaker Raúl Godoy, the leader of a Patagonian ceramics factory called Zanón taken over and run by its workers.

Analysts said the newly injured could serve as a rallying point for the extremists in their rhetoric, but without unity among the protest groups they pose little threat to the Kirchner government.