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Protest of Jobs Program Turns Violent in Argentina

May 13, 2000|From Reuters

BUENOS AIRES — Hundreds of protesters clashed Friday with police in a northwest Argentine town after a crackdown against picketers demanding funds for a job subsidy plan turned bloody and led to looting, arson and vandalism.

The violence was triggered by a dawn raid on a roadblock where police and paramilitary troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas at hundreds of truckers who had been blocking access to an oil refinery along a stretch of highway about 30 miles south of Bolivia's border since May 2.

A dozen people were injured in that incident, which dispersed protesters. They converged on the town of General Mosconi later in the morning, where they set the town hall afire, looted buildings and smashed phones, computers and furniture.

"We have nothing. We're educated, but young people like us are the most unemployed. We're paid $1 to sweep the streets. We work for nothing," one demonstrator said through a surgical mask to protect himself from the thick fog of tear gas in front of General Mosconi's burning town hall.

The so-called "Plan Trabajar" paid unemployed people as much as $200 a month to clean streets or do other public works, but funds were cut in government efforts to reduce overall spending to meet International Monetary Fund deficit targets.

The local economy began to decline after the country's largest oil producer, YPF, was privatized in 1993. Spanish energy firm Repsol bought the Argentine oil company last year for $15 billion.

Dozens more protesters were injured throughout the day as an estimated 10,000 protesters in the town named after YPF founder Gen. Enrique Mosconi clashed with 1,500 officers armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.

"The conflict stems from supposed nonpayment of the program for two months, and this is happening because some mayors are keeping people working and they think they will be paid," Employment Secretary Horacio Viqueira said before boarding a flight to the troubled province of Salta.

Bad weather forced his team of negotiators to land in the neighboring province of Jujuy, which was the epicenter of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit about the same time. The quake's epicenter was about 150 miles underground and no damage was reported. The officials planned to drive to General Mosconi.

The bishops of Salta and Oran pleaded for calm and asked protesters to meet with the negotiators.

Argentina has had double-digit unemployment for the last six years. However, its northwestern provinces have been well above the national average in unemployment and underemployment.

"What's happening in General Mosconi is based on the poor execution of the YPF privatization and the political use of Plan Trabajar," President Fernando de la Rua told congressmen, pushing blame back on the former Peronist administration of President Carlos Menem, whose second term ended in December.

This is the second violent protest in Argentina in as many months after union truckers and garbage collectors clashed with police in front of Congress in April, protesting labor reforms, eventually passed Thursday, which aim to reduce labor costs.

"We reject with all our vigor this savage repression brought down on humble workers and families who are only asking for work and something to eat," said Hugo Moyano, who orchestrated last month's congressional protest and said he might call a national strike to protest Friday's police action in Salta.

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