Roadblocks in Buenos Aires

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Traffic tie-ups are long and tempers are short in Buenos Aires. That's because protesters in the Argentine capital are mad as hell, and they're not going to take this any more. What they're mad about is Argentina's slowing economy. Gone are the days when that economy was growing by six or seven percent a year. These are the days of high unemployment and inflation, and street protests in the form of road blocks. Ian Mount sends this report from Buenos Aires.

IAN MOUNT: Outside Argentina's Social Development Ministry, several thousand demonstrators block the 12 lanes of Avenida 9 de Julio. It's the main artery connecting the northern and southern halves of the city. These protestors are piqueteros, groups of unemployed poor from the southern suburbs.


MOUNT: The protestors have come to demand jobs, says Federico Orchani, a spokesman for a participating community group. He says government money intended for creating jobs is not going to the right people. The use of roadblocks as a means of protest started in Argentina in the late 1990s. Workers laid off in the privatization of the state oil company blocked provincial roads to demand jobs. The practice took off in 2001 and 2002, when Argentina's economy imploded. It calmed down as the country recovered. Cecilia Cross is a researcher who studies protest groups at a government-funded think tank.

CECILIA CROSS: [Translated] Just as marches are associated with political parties, the roadblocks are the expression of the self-organized, the apolitical. It's much more related to necessity. We need this now.

MOUNT: With the global economic crisis, roadblocks are back. In recent weeks, roads and highways have been blocked by factory workers, teachers, hospital workers, construction laborers, Falkland War veterans, even nightclub owners angry over a law forcing them to close at 5:30 a.m. One study suggests Argentina is averaging 228 roadblocks a month. As Argentina heads into summer, the roadblock boom is making the morning commute a sweltering multi-hour odyssey. And local businesses are watching their customers disappear. Some 20 yards from the Ministry roadblock, Fernando Rivas stands in front of his empty store.


MOUNT: Maybe they have the right to protest, Rivas says, because there is so much poverty and unemployment. But they don't have the right to stop people who need to work and get around. Now, he says, anyone can block a street when they want, and no one says anything to them." The city government says it wants the roadblocks forcibly removed, but it doesn't have its own police. The federal police patrol the city and they answer to the national government. But the government has taken a non-confrontational approach since a police crackdown in 2002 that killed two protestors and contributed to the resignation of a president. Here's Buenos Aires Security Minister Guillermo Montenegro.

GUILLERMO MONTENEGRO: [Translated] Sadly, we're just observers of the issue, suffering the consequences.

MOUNT: The roadblock boom doesn't look like it will go away any time soon. But as roadblocks grow more common, they may be getting less effective. The government and employers have fewer resources to meet protestors' demands. Paola L�pez is an unemployed roadblock veteran.

PAOLA LOPEZ: [In Spanish]

MOUNT: Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, says. Before the government was a little more flexible. Now it's getting tougher all the time." For The World, this is Ian Mount in Buenos Aires.