The New York Times
February 29, 2004

Argentine Leader Faces Tumult From the Left

UENOS AIRES, Feb. 28 President Néstor Kirchner of Argentina has spent much of his first year in office trying to bring groups aligned with the right the military, the police and the state intelligence apparatus to heel. But now he has begun confronting his far-left flank, represented by a dogmatic and often violent "picketers' movement" that claims to speak in the name of the country's unemployed.

In response, the most militant members of "los piqueteros," many with their faces masked and lead pipes in hand, have stepped up actions in the street aimed at paralyzing normal activities and forcing the president to back down. But that seems only to have increased public support for Mr. Kirchner, who took office in May after winning just 22 percent of the popular vote.

"We deplore all types of repression and extortion, regardless of where they originate," Mr. Kirchner said Feb. 20 after picketers blocked more than 50 main highways and bridges. "This goes against the will of many people who have to work, live or go and look for work."

The picketers' movement emerged here in 1997, at the start of a six-year recession, and initially had broad public support. After the government froze bank accounts in December 2001, middle-class protesters banging pots and pans also took to the streets. Their combined strength forced President Fernando de la Rúa to resign.

In recognition of the same potential threat, Mr. Kirchner's predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde, sought to buy the support of the picketers' leaders. When his government organized a plan to pay each unemployed head of a family a $50-a-month subsidy, about one-tenth of the two million accounts were funneled through the movement, giving leaders control of $10 million a month.

Mr. Kirchner's government is now trying to eliminate that perquisite, citing audits that show payments to dead and nonexistent beneficiaries. The president refuses to expand the program and wants all existing payments to be made through the Ministry of Social Development, which is run by his sister, Alicia Kirchner. The government has also put in place other aid programs.

Early this month, the most hard line of the picketers' groups occupied the Ministry of Labor in protest against the new policy. When that failed to budge Mr. Kirchner, the picketers on Feb. 19 carried out their biggest protest since 2001, cutting highway links all over the country.

"If the government does not sit down to have a dialogue, the struggle in the streets is going to continue in an increasingly massive form," warned Raúl Castells, leader of the Independent Movement of Unemployed and Retirees, the most confrontational of the picketers' groups.

But with the economy having grown by more than 8 percent last year, the picketers no longer have the same public support they had during the worst moments of the economic crisis. Three-quarters of those asked in recent opinion surveys said they now resented the picketers and the disruptions they caused. On the Internet, calls for pot-banging counterprotests against picketing groups are growing.

"It is protest just for the sake of protest," Hugo Bianchi, a flower vendor, complained on Wednesday as he watched a downtown protest here. "We need work, not conflict, and they are not helping to resolve the country's problems."

Indeed, public demands for "a strong hand" against picketers are growing. But Mr. Kirchner has thus far opted for a more subtle strategy.

Mr. Kirchner "has ruled out blood and force and has preferred to divide the picketers' movement, to break it internally and isolate it from the rest of society," said Joaquín Morales Sola, a political commentator. "He has always been certain that repression would multiply exponentially the magnitude of the conflict."

Other commentators maintain that allowing some protests actually serves Mr. Kirchner politically at a moment when foreign creditors are clamoring for Argentina to resume payment of the more than $100 billion in debt on which it defaulted late in 2001. Picketers in the streets, they argue, allow the president to point to the danger of a resurgence of social unrest if he cedes too much at the negotiating table.