Thousands of protesters have poured on to the streets of Buenos Aires after Argentina’s new president announced a far-reaching emergency decree containing dozens of controversial economic measures – a move one prominent critic compared to the actions of an absolute monarchy.
Javier Milei, a radical libertarian economist who was inaugurated less than a fortnight ago, won power promising a dramatic shake-up of Argentina’s moribund economy amid rampant inflation and widespread poverty. On Wednesday night Milei appeared on television, flanked by 12 stony-faced ministers and top officials, to unveil a decree he claimed would haul the South American country out of “the economic hell we are now living through”.
Milei’s decree paved the way for the privatisation of state-owned companies, stripped away workers’ rights including maternity leave, ended limits on exports, and altered housing rental and land ownership laws to allow for foreign investment. Milei also tipped his hat to the rightwing billionaire Elon Musk, who endorsed his campaign, by announcing changes to Argentina’s satellite internet market that would “allow the entry of companies such as Starlink”.
“Today is a historic day for our country. After decades of failures, impoverishment, decadence and alienation we are today formally starting to take the path of reconstruction,” Milei said as he outlined what is known as his shock-therapy “chainsaw” plan.
Milei, who last week devalued Argentina’s currency, the peso, by more than 50% and suspended all public works, said his country “required an urgent change of direction to avoid disaster” and hyperinflation. “This change begins today.”
The policies delighted supporters of the wild-haired far-right populist, who is often compared to the former presidents of the US and Brazil, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. “One of the happiest days of my life,” tweeted ally Ramiro Marra.
But they infuriated the opposition and many ordinary citizens, who took to their balconies immediately after the president’s 9pm address to protest by banging pots and pans. Soon the dissent spread to the streets as people began blocking roads in different parts of the capital. By the early hours of Thursday thousands of protesters had congregated in the plaza outside congress, where Milei was sworn in on 10 December.
“Milei! You’re garbage! You are the dictatorship!” they chanted.
“He thinks he’s a Roman emperor!” fumed one protester, a 55-year-old historian called Carola Gómez. “Not even the military dictatorship did this … This is worse than Thatcher!”
Myriam Bregman, a prominent leftist and former presidential candidate, called the edict a “battle plan against working people” and urged an immediate nationwide strike. “There are so many illegalities here I don’t know where to start,” she tweeted, accusing Milei of using the emergency decree to bypass congress.
Juan Grabois, a well-known social leader and politician, claimed Milei had decreed “the establishment of an absolute monarchy … bent on using heavy ammunition to attack the country’s middle and lower classes”.
Earlier in the day, several hours before Milei’s pronouncement, thousands of protesters had marched through Argentina’s capital in what was the first major mobilisation against their new government. The demonstration was met with a massive show of force from police, who flooded the streets of Buenos Aires after Milei’s administration vowed to stamp out piquete protests in which dissenters block roads.
That initial anti-Milei march was underwhelming, with turnout lower than expected – something some observers attributed to government threats to cut benefit payments to anyone caught obstructing traffic.
But the president’s televised announcement triggered a more significant and spontaneous explosion of anger as protesters flocked to the Plaza del Congreso from across the city carrying kitchen utensils, whistles and Argentinian flags.
Gómez brought a small pot and a spatula to the rally to thwack out her disgust. What would she do if the police caught her, given the new restrictions on protest? “I will say I am making a cake,” she said, laughing, before immediately turning serious. “We even have to justify why we carry pans … this is an undeclared state of siege,” Gómez complained.
Gabriel Solano, a 49-year-old leader from the leftwing party Partido Obrero, vowed to resist Milei’s attempt to push through his economic policies without consulting congress and claimed Argentinians from the working and middle classes were already waking up to their mistake in electing the radical economist.
“I think people’s mood has changed,” Solano said. “A lot of people are realising the situation is not what they thought it was going to be, that the austerity measures are enormous.”