Argentina: ‘Everything will depend on the battle being waged in the streets today’

February 7, 2024
woman at the front of a rally
Hundreds of thousands of people mobilised across Argentina in a general strike against newly-elected right-wing president Javier Milei, on January 24. Photo: Enfoque Rojo. Inset: Claudio Katz

It only took 45 days, but Argentina’s radical right president Javier Milei has already had to deal with the first general strike against his government.

Called by the main trade union federation, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), and supported by other unions as well as left, feminist, unemployed and student groups, the strike saw hundreds of thousands of people mobilised across the country on January 24.

The targets of the protests were Milei's December 20 Necessity and Urgency Decree and his omnibus bill, which he was forced to withdraw from Congress for further negotiations on February 6 following several days of clashes outside between police and protesters.

Together, the two measures represent a frontal attack on working people. They seek to repeal or amend hundreds of laws to further liberalise the economy, weaken trade unions, privatise public assets, grant the president greater legislative powers and severely restrict the right to protest.

In this interview with Argentina Indymedia, Argentine Marxist economist Claudio Katz discusses Milei’s strategy, the emerging resistance against it and likely scenarios going forward. The interview was translated, heavily abridged and edited for clarity by Federico Fuentes for Green Left.

* * *

What was your evaluation of the strike?

It had an extraordinary reach, both in terms of size and political impact. The plaza [in front of Congress] and its surroundings were filled by a combination of organised trade unionists and spontaneous protesters. It was a powerful protest, just 45 days into the government’s term, in the middle of the holidays and in very hot weather.

The march was organised via regional mass meetings and involved a large participation of youth, neighbourhood and cultural sectors. It was a clear reminder that when the organised workers’ movement intervenes, its power is overwhelming.

The mobilisation also had a big impact internationally...

Indeed. There were acts of solidarity in front of embassies in many European countries and in the main Latin American capital cities.

It demonstrated that there is an emerging global movement against the far right. It has become clear that if Milei wins, [other far right leaders such as Chile’s José Antonio] Kast, [Brazil’s Jair] Bolsonaro, [Colombia’s Álvaro] Uribe and [Venezuela’s Marina] Corina Machado will be strengthened in our region, so too [Donald] Trump [in the United States], [Marine] Le Pen [in France] and [Santiago] Abascal in [Spain].

On the contrary, stopping Milei would mark the first defeat for this global wave of reaction due to organised resistance mobilising in the streets. While [Milei] seeks international support from the IMF [International Monetary Fund], bankers and big capitalists, the struggle of Argentine workers is awakening solidarity from below in many corners of the planet.

Is [Milei’s strategy] simply one of submission to the US or is it part of a new general strategy of the ultra-right?

Both. Milei has great affinity with [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. They are currently the two central figures spearheading a change in direction for the international far right. Through their barbarous actions, they are driving a shift from words to deeds.

Netanyahu’s massacre in Gaza and Milei’s destruction of the Argentine economy differ from the conventional model previously implemented by Bolsonaro and Trump and currently maintained by [Hungarian prime minister Viktor] Orbán and [Italian prime minister Giorgia] Meloni.

These two key reactionary leaders are implementing drastic actions in pursuit of a geopolitical reordering that is in line with the US’ imperial counter-offensive. In Latin America, this means crushing the fragile reemergence of a new cycle of progressive governments. That is why Milei is a key piece in Trump’s strategy to return to the White House.

Does Milei’s strategy make him a fascist?

That is not the best term to characterise his project. Milei wants to introduce labour reforms that will make employment more precarious and consolidate a neoliberal model similar to the one in place in Chile, Peru and Colombia.

To achieve this goal, he needs to modify the balance of forces. This requires inflicting a defeat on the country’s trade unions, social movements and democratic organisations.

Milei has a Thatcherite objective, focused on breaking the back of the country’s powerful popular organisations. He is hoping to secure an emblematic victory for the ruling class, similar to what happened with the 1984 English miners’ strike.

That is why the powerful forgive anything he does, because they hope he will be able to implement his austerity plan. They look the other way, hoping his war against the people works.

But he will have to confront the same limitation that forced Bolsonaro in 2019 to have to negotiate with legislators and governors. He has the support of PRO [Republican Proposal], UCR [Radical Civic Union] and Hacemos Coalición Federal [We Do Federal Coalition] when it comes to attacking peoples’ rights.

That support, however, does not extend to business dealings. The common goal of destroying unions and social movements is one thing, but deciding who gets to keep the profits from privatisation and deregulation is quite another.

The different companies competing for a share of the pie have different spokespersons in Congress. That is why the traditional right wants to place limits on the powers delegated to the executive. It is happy to give the executive carte blanche to repress social protest, but wants to ensure that it is the one that benefits from the tax reform underway.

What will Milei do if these obstructions persist?

All indications are that he is thinking of going down the path of a plebiscite — either now or later. He is studying whether to call voters to the polls, using the excuse that Congress will not let him govern. By doing so, he could restart his campaign against the “caste”, the basis of his electoral success.

Milei’s big problem is that he lacks any organised political base of his own. This is the big difference between Milei and Bolsonaro, Trump or Kast. He has not been able to mobilise a reactionary movement against the strike, nor repeat the right-wing marches we saw under [former right-wing president Mauricio] or the reactionary protests during the pandemic.

He is also considering the option of repression, one that [security minister Patricia] Bullrich has been testing out every day through multi-million dollar fines for trade unions, restrictions on the right to assembly and provocations against protesters.

The police presence on the streets is increasing and Milei is looking for a pretext to authorise the Armed Forces to intervene in internal security. With that aim in mind, he purged the high command and placed a man with close ties to the Pentagon in charge. But he has not achieved results in this area either…

Won’t the economy be equally decisive?

Undoubtedly. Milei intends to lower wages and impoverish the majority as a means to stabilise the currency through lowering inflation via an induced recession. He hopes to flatten inflation by reducing public spending, domestic consumption and economic activity.

Milei is gambling on being able to deal with the exchange rate with the arrival of dollars from a record harvest, hydrocarbon exports and reduced imports. His aim is to recreate — with the IMF's approval — a scenario similar to what we saw in the 1990s under [right-wing president Carlos] Menem.

What are the likely scenarios going forward?

The alternatives will depend on the outcome of Milei’s attack on the people. All of Milei’s predecessors managed to impose their agenda for a certain period of time, but were never able to completely neoliberalise the economy nor achieve stability for their right-wing governments.

Milei hopes to avoid frustration by upping the ante with a possible dollarisation. Business elites are keeping a close eye on his administration, evaluating whether to continue supporting him or replace him with the [current Vice President Victoria] Villaroel-Macri tandem.

Everything will depend on the outcome of the battle being waged in the streets. What happens with the omnibus law will provide an initial insight into the balance of forces.

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