Report from Argentina

Quarantine, poverty, and repression lead to protests and strikes

April 2020: Signs supporting locked-out meatpackers at the Penta de Quilmes plant in Buenos Aires say "Penta in struggle" and "We are all Penta." PHOTO: Ruben Cruz
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Maria Álvarez is a frontline healthcare worker in Buenos Aires and a founder of Partido Socialismo y Libertad, a member of the Committee for Revolutionary International Regroupment (CRIR).

On March 20, President Alberto Fernández decreed a quarantine to prevent the collapse of the health system due to the spread of the coronavirus.

This occurred during Fernández’s third month in office after winning 48 percent of the popular vote in the presidential elections. But his popularity was beginning to wane due to his commitment to continue implementing neoliberal reforms.

However, everything changed with the institution of “mandatory social distancing.” Fernandez’s approval ratings skyrocketed to more than 80 percent. This was the result of the climate of panic fomented by the global media that resulted here in a call for national unity to confront the “invisible enemy.”

This situation empowered the president to deploy the armed forces to control the streets and neighborhoods. It resulted in the cancellation of planned March events to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the end of the genocidal military regime in which 30,000 people were disappeared.

In the first stage of quarantine, more than 60,000 citizens were detained or delayed from traveling. Police abuses against youth from poor neighborhoods multiplied. Worker protests of layoffs were suppressed by the courts. Femicides increased dramatically and a woman working as a driver was arrested and ended up hanged in a police station cell.

The pandemic aggravated the worldwide recession that began in 2008. It intensified the worst economic crisis ever in Argentina’s history. Given the state repression, the lack of bread, employment and wages cut in half, and with 40 percent of the population already living in poverty, the president’s “stay at home” orders did not prevail for long.

Just 15 days into the quarantine, millions of retired workers and people receiving state aid broke social distancing and gathered at banks to receive paltry allotments. This exposed the most vulnerable to contagion and initiated a second stage of the quarantine marked by resistance to employer attacks and demands for workers’ medical safety.

By the end of the month, the lack of protective gear for health workers triggered protests around the country. The official figures of 150 deaths from the coronavirus and 374 infected health workers signaled the collapse of the public health system even before the country reached the peak level of the pandemic as measured by the number of hospitalizations.

Job actions and strikes broke out among part-time workers such as delivery and public transport workers. Unionized meatpackers stopped production for 24 hours to protest layoffs.

The reality is that the quarantine is being used to fire workers and massively reduce wages, attack democratic freedoms and militarize poor neighborhoods, where residents defy the lockdown due to overcrowding, poverty and hunger.

These struggles are beginning to reveal what lies behind the declared state of emergency due to the pandemic: the economic crisis caused by the same transnational monopolies that are now clamoring to be rescued by the state.

President Fernández decreed the elimination of employers’ tax obligations. He gutted the funds of the state pension system to subsidize 50 percent of the workers’ wages in the private sector and decreed a one-time payment of $100 to 7 million recently driven into poverty.

Currently, he is negotiating the extension of International Monetary Fund (IMF) deadlines to pay the foreign debt and working with parliament to levy a one-time tax on the richest Argentinians.

These measures parallel those applied by governments around the world to rescue big corporations at the expense of workers.

We as socialists maintain that there is no way out of this collapse of the capitalist economy as long as a handful of billionaires remain in power. The only way forward against this massive attack on the working class is to expropriate big business without compensation and put the production of goods and services under workers’ control for the benefit of the community.

Without breaking with the IMF and declaring the non-payment of the foreign debt, there will never be decent healthcare, adequate wages, pensions or education in Argentina.

Only a government of the working class will be able to impose these and other measures in the interests of the majority.

A future of full social and economic equality, freedom and true democracy for humanity depends on the overthrow of the capitalists and the establishment of a people’s government that will transform the whole of society in the context of building socialism around the world.

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