Angry Cops Fuel Argentina's 'Inflation Riots'
Politics is not driving the past two weeks of police-led protests and looting, it's the rising cost of living. Now, if the administration of President Cristina Kirchner would just deal with it.
A strike over wages by Argentine policemen that began in Córdoba late on Dec. 3 set off 24-hour mayhem and looting and sparked similar police protests elsewhere in Argentina. Officials have accused “enemies” of fomenting violence to weaken the government of President Cristina Kirchner on the 30th anniversary of democracy being restored.
Clarín"s Eduardo Van der Kooy wonders if the Kirchner government is trying to find scapegoats for the country’s real problems.
BUENOS AIRES —
There are a combination of reasons for the proliferation of partial or full-blown police revolts around the country — chief among them runaway annual inflation that has reached a troubling 25%, exacerbating poverty in Argentina. And not for the first time the government has acted badly here, as it tends to do in other areas as well, in failing to adequately tackle increasing problems in pay for police, security forces and even the Armed Forces.
Add to this the “political condiment” of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s defeat in parliamentary elections last October, and a picture emerges of her administration showing signs of dysfunction despite efforts made by Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich. Fragmentation is increasingly evident, and there’s been a dangerous lack of basic order and authority. This is a reality that helps explain the looting that has followed police protests.
Perhaps all this is a mirror into certain fundamental weaknesses in our democracy as it marks its 30th anniversary.
In several disputes, police have created de facto unions and twisted politicians’ arms — most notably of the provincial governors who have keenly felt the protests’ impact. Policemen first forced Córdoba Governor José Manuel de la Sota to return from a foreign trip and douse the fire by giving police wage increases the province can scarcely afford. The protests also forced his recently appointed security minister and police chief to resign.
Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli abandoned a trip to Rio de Janeiro — where he managed at least to have a picture taken with former U.S. President Bill Clinton — to return and offer his police a pay rise. He failed to grasp the magnitude of the dispute when he imagined on Dec. 7 that giving an early bonus would appease the disgruntled workers.
In the province of Entre Ríos, as in Córdoba, police abandoned the streets of Concordia at the precise time when Governor Sergio Uribarri was to be there. And rebellious policemen in the province of Catamarca prevented Governor Lucía Corpacci from leaving her office last week. She had to be freed by the Gendarmerie.
Police in the Sante Fe province of Argentina demand higher pay (Telam/Xinhua/ZUMA)
All of this represents a troubling deterioration in government authority. Certainly, the government did little or nothing to control police protests when they began, in part because of political miscalculations unrelated to the protests.
The demands of these public employees whose jobs are critical to civil stability are generally based on reality. Salaries usually consist of a small, basic rate beefed up with extras and supplementary payments. A rebellious policeman from Entre Ríos explained that his basic monthly wage was around $285 and that extra hours worked could take it to the equivalent of almost $800.
There is a similar situation with the military, where 70% of the salaries of 73,000 active servicemen consist of extra payments they must earn beyond their basic pay. Many soldiers have gone to court to increase their salaries, and thousands of such cases remain unresolved.
The government has resorted to its usual bad habit of making it a political issue. Capitanich characterized the protests as a supposed attempt to destabilize the government, precisely on the anniversary of democracy’s return. The interior minister questioned the opposition’s silence, while the minister of justice pointed his finger at Sergio Massa, the former cabinet chief turned opposition parliamentarian.
The Kirchner political discourse is seemingly always on the verge of denouncing the ever-present phantom of subversion. Yet these revolts reflect above all bad management and the Kirchner administration’s obstinate refusal to address a problem disrupting society from top to bottom: inflation.