BUENOS AIRES — Argentina was paralyzed Friday by a general strike protesting President Raul Alfonsin's economic austerity policies.
The Peronist-controlled unions that called the walkout said it was an overwhelming success, more than 90% effective nationwide.
"It is a plebiscite demanding a change of economic and social policy," exulted Aldo Serrano, a spokesman for the unions.
The government made no effort to head off the strike by declaring it illegal, but it called the action senseless and warned that it will not affect government policy.
In sweltering 90-degree heat--it is summer in the Southern Hemisphere--Buenos Aires looked like a ghost town Friday. Some small shops and restaurants were open, government offices were manned by skeleton staffs, and some buses and taxis were being operated by their owners, but they were the exceptions.
The strike was equally effective out in the provinces, where scattered incidents of vandalism were reported. There were no reports of injuries, however.
Peaceful, Sleepy Capital
Overall, the 24-hour walkout was much more successful than the three previous union actions since democratic government was restored to Argentina under Alfonsin 25 months ago.
Buenos Aires was peaceful and sleepy. In some normally crowded bus terminals and shopping areas, policeman outnumbered all other people. Business, industry and commerce shut down. No trains were running, no ships entered the port. Supervisory personnel maintained emergency service on the subways but abandoned it early for want of riders.
Despite the near-total shutdown, it was difficult to measure popular support for the strike. According to a recent poll, 72% of the Argentine people think that the only effective way for the government and its opponents to settle their differences is through negotiation.
The strike was carefully timed for a summer Friday. January is traditionally the slowest month of the year here, and tens of thousands of Argentines used the strike as an excuse to begin a long weekend. Undaunted by the absence of striking lifeguards, they jammed South Atlantic beaches.
Luis Zamora, leader of a Trotskyite political movement that joined with the rest of the political left in supporting the strike, said it was "the first step in a continuing and growing action to end the surrender to foreign powers and salaries that mean hunger."
Accusations From Left, Right
Opponents of Alfonsin, on both the left and right, argue that the president has surrendered national sovereignty to creditor banks and the International Monetary Fund, which had urged him to adopt the more austere economic policies that he has instituted. And they have demanded that he abandon what they call a too-costly attempt to repay Argentina's $50-billion foreign debt.
Strike posters calling for higher wages said that "the people must not be asked to pay a debt they do not owe."
According to Alfonsin's opponents, debt repayment consumes 52% of all export earnings, the highest percentage among the world's major debtor nations. They blame repayment efforts for a prolonged recession and call for a unilateral debt payment ceiling, such as the one Peru said last year that it would adopt--10% of earnings from exports.
Alfonsin insists that he will not be coerced into abandoning his austerity program--the Austral Plan--which has been praised abroad. The plan has succeeded in slowing inflation and has restored Argentina to international financial respectability, but at a high social cost. Real income for salaried workers has declined as much at 30% since the plan was enacted last June.