Tens of thousands of Argentines took to the streets nationwide and in smaller groups around the globe last Thursday to protest the government of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In the last several months, demonstrations like this have become increasingly common: a similar protest in September drew around 200,000 angry Buenos Aires residents out of their homes, armed with pots and pans in a so-called cacerolazo, clamoring and banging their utensils to express their dissatisfaction with the current administration.
Although Fernández de Kirchner was elected with 54 percent of the vote just a year ago, her approval ratings have since fallen to little over 31 percent. The issues moving people into the squares are numerous. The public’s concern over insecurity, inflation, government corruption, and rumors of constitutional reform to facilitate a third term for the president in 2015 are some of the most important grievances.
"We don't want a Chávez who is in power for thirty years. Cristina needs to respect the constitution," says German Levisman, a 29-year-old pharmacist who is worried about the prospect of a third term for Fernández de Kirchner and angered by the government’s policies. "Something that's worth five pesos will increase in price by one peso in a few months. I can't possibly save any money for a house of my own. Meanwhile, government officials buy themselves luxury apartments in the business district. And they have the audacity to call hardworking people 'oligarchs' and 'bad persons?' They are the real bad guys!"
The president has refrained from a direct response to Thursday’s mass protest, which was mobilized mostly via social networks. Fernández de Kirchner did allude to the protest indirectly, referring to participants as "provocative people" who “want to return to the ultra-conservative regime".
The Kirchner government uses export substitution and heavy import restrictions in combination with currency controls to prevent capital flight and bolster national industry. New regulations require importing companies to export an equal volume of goods, resulting in decreased production, car manufacturers that have had to export wine and olives, and prices for cell phones and laptops increasing fivefold. Those who publicly criticize such policies could receive an impromptu visit by the Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos (Federal Administration of Public Income—AFIP), Argentina's revenue service.
On a national level, the Fernández de Kirchner government's economic and financial policies are also taking a toll. Within the last month and a half, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the sovereign credit rating and Moody's lowered the rating of Argentine banks.
Despite discontentment with the current government, political alternatives are equally hard to come by. Argentina's opposition movement is Balkanized and not exactly well-loved by the population either: the survey of Fernández de Kirchner's approval also showed that 65 percent of the respondents disapproved of the opposition's performance. Says Levisman: "Both government and opposition politicians are ridiculous. All they do is mutually ridicule one another. When will they begin to think about this country for once?"
Many Argentines are personally affected not only by economic difficulties, but also by insecurity. Violent armed robberies are increasingly common and many of the crimes remain unsolved. Belén Hornos, a 28-year-old educational psychologist, says: "Each and every one of my woman friends has had their car window smashed in at a traffic light. They drive up next to you on a motorcycle, break your window as you're parked between cars and can't move and take whatever they can get." Hornos has had special, stronger windows installed in her own car.
Next year, Argentines will vote in legislative elections that will decide a third of the seats in Congress. Currently, Fernández de Kirchner's Frente para la Victoria (“Front for Victory”) alliance holds a working majority in both houses. If the protests are any indication, this majority will not survive and the constitutional reform Fernández de Kirchner requires for a third term will be more difficult to pass. But in Argentina's volatile political climate, political predictions are almost impossible to make. As Luciano Bugallo, one of the Facebook-promoters of last Thursday's protest, says: "Things change on a week to week basis here. There is no telling what is going to happen."
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.