Argentina’s Government Cuts Pensions As Anti-Austerity Protests Intensify

A controversial bid to reform Argentina’s pension regime has passed in the National Congress amid intensifying anti-government protests seeking to halt the bill’s progress. According to official sources, approximately 49 people have been arrested in connection with the protests, and another 147 people (including police officers) treated for injuries of varying severity. Protestors say the change will disproportionately affect Argentina’s poor and elderly, who in many cases rely on the pension to survive once they reach retirement age.

The proposed changes – involving a change in the way pension is calculated – would result in a saving of almost 100 billion pesos (approximately $5.7 billion U.S.D.) in the amount of annual government spending directed to spending on pensions in Argentina. It would form part of a package of market reforms proposed by President Mauricio Mauri’s fiscally conservative “Cambiemos” (“Let’s Change”) coalition. Despite claims that the pension reform will allow the government to prioritize public funds for attracting foreign investment and restoring Argentina’s economy to a rate of steady growth, critics have pointed out that the reform essentially seeks to revitalize Argentina’s economy at the expense of the most vulnerable in its society – the poor and elderly.

Described as policies of “misery and hunger” by the Secretary-General of Argentina’s National Confederation of Labour, many resent the reforms as another instance of perceived “meddling” in the political affairs of Argentina by neoliberal economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The country has had a long and rocky history with the IMF that has left Argentinians justifiably suspicious of its motives. In 1998, for example, Argentina was hit by a devastating recession that left its domestic economy reeling and millions of Argentinians in poverty. At the behest of the IMF, Argentina’s economy underwent three years of painful austerity treatment, slashing billions off public expenditure in exchange for loans. Yet this proverbial “shock treatment” failed to produce any improvement for Argentina – in fact, only once Argentina ignored the IMF’s advice and defaulted on its debts did it begin to see any improvements. Since this experience, protests against austerity measures have become a regular occurrence.

Until Monday, the pressure applied by a coalition of citizen protestors, community organizations, and influential labour unions paralyzed parliamentary debate on the bill, creating hope that widespread opposition to the changes would force the Mauri administration to drop the proposal. The passage of the bill represents a serious setback for Argentina’s opposition and sections of the community fighting to keep Argentina’s economic policy as focused on its vulnerable poor and elderly – especially in indigenous communities. If the current administration is serious about further reducing Argentina’s 28.6% poverty rate, it is clearly failing to communicate that it has these issues at the forefront of its approach to rebuilding Argentina’s economy. Policy reassurances must be given to Argentinians that the government is still working in their best interests, and not those of large corporations and financial institutes.

Matthew Bucki-Smith