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BUENOS AIRES: In this aerial view members of social organizations gather outside the Ministry of Human Capital to protest against food scarcity at soup kitchens and President Javier Milei’s government's austerity plan in Buenos Aires. – AFP
BUENOS AIRES: In this aerial view members of social organizations gather outside the Ministry of Human Capital to protest against food scarcity at soup kitchens and President Javier Milei’s government's austerity plan in Buenos Aires. – AFP

Thousands protest as hunger grows amid Argentine austerity

BUENOS AIRES: Thousands protested across Argentina on Friday to demand food aid for the poor as soaring inflation and President Javier Milei’s harsh austerity measures take their toll. Since he took office in December, Milei has slashed public spending, winning the approval of the International Monetary Fund and securing a budget surplus for the first time in 12 years in a country whose previous governments oversaw rampant inflation and multiple fiscal crises.

However, annual inflation has still risen to 254 percent, the price of bus tickets has more than tripled, and the government has frozen crucial aid to soup kitchens that have ever more mouths to feed. “In a little more than two months, this government has generated a very critical situation of poverty,” Alejandro Gramajo of the UTEP union told AFP.

“No to the increase in transport costs,” protesters chanted, along with cries of “Hunger doesn’t wait” and “Pots are empty, pockets are too.”

Argentina’s 38,000 meal centers, which provide a hot plate of food to those in need, received their last batch of government-provided supplies in November before Milei - a libertarian and self-described “anarcho-capitalist” - was inaugurated.

Milei’s government says it plans to audit the needs of each individual soup kitchen and put in place a system of direct aid, aiming to exclude intermediaries such as social movements he describes as “poverty managers.”

“There is no money,” said Milei when he took office, vowing to put an end to “decades of decadence” by his overspending predecessors, whose governance was marked by repeated inflationary crises and debt. The 53-year-old leader devalued the peso by over 50 percent, cut tens of thousands of public jobs and halved the number of government ministries. An outsider elected on a wave of fury over the country’s decline, Milei has warned the population that the economic crisis will get worse before it gets better. “When we hit rock bottom, we will bounce back,” he said.

Social tensions are rising, with train drivers and healthcare workers going on strike this week, and teachers due to down tools the next.

However, Milei’s government has received praise from the International Monetary Fund - to which it owes $44 billion - for its “bold actions to restore macroeconomic stability.” The government says that monthly inflation is coming under control and should be in the single digits by the second half of the year.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Milei in Buenos Aires on Friday, and said the “work that is being done to stabilize the economy is absolutely vital.” “We see extraordinary opportunity here in Argentina,” he said, adding the country could “count on” the United States as it works to end its economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has urged the government of Argentine President Milei to shield the poor as he pursues harsh austerity measures to cut government spending, according to an interview published Sunday. The IMF has praised Milei’s government for efforts to balance the books after years of overspending, but his drastic measures have led to strikes and raised concerns about growing hunger.

IMF deputy managing director Gita Gopinath told La Nacion newspaper that austerity measures must be “calibrated to ensure that social assistance continues to be provided and that the burden does not fall entirely on the poorest groups.” Gopinath visited Buenos Aires last week to evaluate Argentina’s $44 billion credit program and met with Milei, members of his government, economists, union leaders and civil society organizations.

Since taking office in December, the libertarian Milei has devalued the peso by over 50 percent, cut tens of thousands of public jobs and halved the size of the government.

He also ripped away generous state transport and energy subsidies and froze aid to 38,000 soup kitchens pending an audit, hitting the poor hard as annual inflation soared to 254 percent.

“The economy that this government inherited was close to a crisis, and required bold and decisive action to move it away from the precipice,” said Gopinath. However, she said more social measures were needed to “ensure that the reduction of the fiscal deficit does not fall on the vulnerable.”

Gopinath estimated Argentina’s monthly inflation — which stood at 20 percent in January — would drop to single digits by the middle of 2024. “But I think it will take at least a year to bring inflation to low levels, and then maintaining it at those levels until 2025 will also require efforts.”

She said that for the IMF, it would be “critical” for the government to invest in human capital.

“Child poverty rates of more than 55 percent are extremely worrying. It is important to ensure that this percentage drops greatly and to be able to invest more in education.” — AFP

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