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Jobless Workers March in Buenos Aires to Demand More Help

June 19, 2004|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Thousands of unemployed workers descended on this capital Friday, disrupting traffic and closing some stores and restaurants, as a new report showed that although Argentina's economy is growing rapidly, unemployment remains at 14%, among the highest in the region.

The marches by the piqueteros, or picketers, movement of the unemployed capped a week of demonstrations and roadblocks throughout this metropolis of 12 million people, including a daylong barricade Tuesday of the highway connecting Buenos Aires to its international airport.

Although the piqueteros movement has split into several factions, the elements united for Friday's protests. Raul Castells, leader of one of the more militant groups, called for "forceful surprise actions across the country," including "the synchronized occupation of buildings, because the national government still does not listen to the demands of hungry Argentines."

Though the protesters took over only a few restaurants, the threats prompted the evacuation of the downtown headquarters of the Repsol YPF oil company. One group of picketers had planned to stage a protest there, demanding that the company sell propane gas to the needy at a 50% discount. Propane is a key source of heat for the poor during winter, which in the Southern Hemisphere is just beginning.

The protest was one of dozens Friday seeking a variety of concessions from the government, including an increase in handouts to the unemployed, which average about $60 a month, and free milk for community soup kitchens.

Protesters gathered outside the Congress and staged a rally before the offices of President Nestor Kirchner in the Casa Rosada palace.

Nestor Pitrola, leader of the Workers Center group, said the actions were the culmination of a series of protests that began in the impoverished northern Argentine provinces of Jujuy, Salta and Chaco.

"We are calling for an end to the payment of the foreign debt," Pitrola said. "We should use those resources to build housing for the poor."

The Argentine government is negotiating with officials of the International Monetary Fund over how much the country will pay to private bondholders, who are owed more than $100 billion. The country defaulted on the bonds in December 2001.

Argentina's economy touched bottom shortly after the default, with the official unemployment rate reaching 25%. In 2002, the government devalued the currency, allowing the peso to decline drastically relative to the dollar. The resulting drop in labor costs has helped spur economic growth.

According to a government labor report released Thursday, Argentina's first-quarter gross domestic product increased 11% compared with the same period last year. Growth was most robust in the construction sector, which registered a 41% increase.

But unemployment has remained high, falling only 0.1% in the first three months of the year. About 2.3 million people remain out of work, and 2.6 million more are "underemployed," meaning they survive on less than full-time work, according to government statistics.

For months, the protests of the unemployed, government workers and others have been a daily feature of life here. Often, a group of a few dozen marchers will shut down one of the city's main avenues. Not long ago, taxi drivers staged their own protest, saying it was impossible to work with so many streets blocked.

Friday's demonstrations saw tens of thousands of people marching through the city center. Although there were no reports of office buildings being occupied, the picketers took over several McDonald's restaurants, including one near the city's Obelisk monument.

"We are here because this is an American company and we are against the intervention of the Yankees in our country," said Nina Peloso, an activist with the Independent Movement of the Retired and Unemployed.

Many Argentines feel the U.S. is pressuring their government to adopt measures that limit spending on social programs.

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