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Argentina's new libertarian president and unions are headed for a showdown

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To Argentina now, where mass protests are expected in a general strike against the new president.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Javier Milei took office last month, promising to overhaul the economy in a time of high inflation. He campaigned as an outsider, holding up an actual chainsaw, and former President Trump here in the United States praised his victory. A big union objected to Milei's policies, and they're the ones who've called for this general strike today in a country where a large percentage of the workforce is unionized.

MARTIN: Natalie Alcoba is a journalist based in Buenos Aires, and she's here with us to tell us more about all this. Good morning.

NATALIE ALCOBA: Good morning.

MARTIN: Could you just start off by saying more about why these voters are striking?

ALCOBA: Yes. They're demonstrating against a series of sweeping reforms that President Milei is trying to push through and that he says are key to getting Argentina back on track, economically speaking. This ranges from cutbacks to public spending, privatizing publicly owned companies. He intends to slash subsidies to transport and energy, limiting the ability of some workers to strike and also curtailing some environmental protections.

Some of these reforms are being challenged in court. It's not just the substance of the reforms, but the way in which many of them are being implemented that these - that people are objecting to through a national decree. The congress is now debating some of these changes and may reject them.

MARTIN: You know, so help me understand this. Milei won election very recently, and he just took office in December. So how does this sort of strike, you know, fit into that? I mean, is this strike expected to be big? Is the president losing popular support or are these people who never supported him to begin with?

ALCOBA: I mean, it's a combination. It's certainly expected to be large. It's - I mean, I think, you know, perhaps in the tens of thousands more, as well. It's going to be the largest show of opposition against him since taking office. There have been smaller protests over the last month and a half. It's going to concentrate in Buenos Aires, but there's going to be protests in cities across the country. It includes everybody from bus drivers to teachers, bankers, social movements.

It's true that - I mean, the polls really are mixed. There are some that show that his personal popularity is faltering. But then there's others that actually indicate that his approval is in many ways stronger than it was when he was voted into office last year. So there's one last week that showed that nearly two-thirds of people said that they believe that he could solve the country's problems. It's just that he needs some time to do so.

MARTIN: OK. Well, so before we let you go, I understand that there are fears of a crackdown on demonstrators under a new law that Milei just implemented. What is your sense of how the government will respond?

ALCOBA: So the government of Milei has been taking a harder line with demonstrations and protests, indicating they've got no tolerance for them blocking roads or impeding traffic. Up until now, with the demonstrations that we've seen, there's been a large police presence on the street, many of them dressed in riot gear even though, you know, the demonstrators have been, by and large, peaceful. I mean, ultimately, like, it's a strong show of force that the government is trying to make.

MARTIN: That's Natalie Alcoba in Buenos Aires. Natalie, thank you.

ALCOBA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYA TAKAHARA'S "ZENITH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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