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Protests break out as Milei's reforms score major win at senate

By JIMENA ESTEBAN, in Buenos Aires, Argentina for China Daily | | Updated: 2024-06-13 22:25
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A demonstrator attends a protest outside the National Congress, on the day Senators debate Argentina's President Javier Milei's economic reform bill, known as the "omnibus bill", in Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 12, 2024. [Photo/Agencies]

The capital of Argentina was hit by riots, on June 12 as President Javier Milei achieved a significant legislative victory as the senate passed a massive omnibus bill that aims to reshape the country's troubled economy.

The massive bill is the cornerstone of Milei's economic reform plans, which have so far proven painful for Argentines.

The bill has proved incredibly controversial, and the vote sparked massive protests across the capital. Protesters set cars on fire and threw Molotov cocktails at police.

Riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters. The conflict continued into the night, even as legislators voted on the bill.

The day started out on a somewhat celebratory note, with barbecues and protesters chanting, but tensions grew through the day, even as legislators debated the omnibus bill. Riot police were eventually called in. At least 18 people were detained.

With inflation hovering around 300 percent, Milei has said the many provisions in the omnibus bill are key to getting the economy back on track. Since his election in December, Milei has cut expenditure at a pace that Argentine has never seen before.

Demonstrators said the bill will hurt millions of people by cutting social services and reducing funding at universities.

Milei's omnibus bill was approved by the senate, though lawmakers were tied at 36-36, as Vice-President Victoria Villarruel cast her tie-breaking vote late on June 12 night.

Villarruel said she cast her vote "for those Argentines who suffer, who wait, who do not want to see their children leave the country".

She referred to the violence on the streets, noting: "Today, there are two Argentinas. A violent Argentina that sets a car on fire, throws rocks and debates the exercise of democracy, and another Argentina with workers waiting with great pain and sacrifice for the change that they voted for."

The victory at the senate brings Milei closer to being able to fully execute his vision for the country. The lower house of Congress passed the bill in April and will have to vote on it again to approve the changes made by senators.

The challenge for Milei is that while he is popular personally, his government does not have a majority in either house of Congress. So, he needs to rely on coalitions to move his legislative agenda through Congress. The senate vote was seen as the biggest hurdle for the bill.

However, there still remains a question on the impact of this legislative victory.

"Economically, (the impact) is an unknown. There are too many expectations that this law could bring new investments, generate jobs, and ultimately grow the economy, (and be) generally positive for the markets," said Carlos Alberto Burgueno, an economic journalist based in Buenos Aires.

"Probably, tomorrow the markets will react very well," he said, not only because of the passage of this omnibus bill but also because of the renewal of the country's currency swap line for the equivalent of $5 billion through July 2026 with China and May inflation, which will be less than 5 percent.

"We are in a favorable moment for Javier Milei's government," Burgueno said.

"No one can ensure that the foundational law will end up being something truly positive; this will be seen over time," Burgueno said. "On the global stage, it remains to be seen if (the passage of this bill) generates legal certainty and a favorable investment climate."

In a statement after the vote, Milei's office celebrated the legislative victory at the senate and called the protesters "terrorists" who "attacked the Congress".

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

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