The administration of president Cristina Fernandez was facing on Wednesday the major challenge of her second mandate as thousands of troops and petty officers from the border patrol and coast guard, plus some naval and police sectors went on strike over wage cuts and working conditions.
The magnitude of the protest took the Argentine government by surprise, which reacted by firing the Coast Guard and Gendarmerie chiefs and forcibly retiring their ten commanders while promising to maintain the same level of pay checks as the previous month.
National Security Minister Nilda Garre announced the moves Wednesday evening, naming replacements and declaring that “the situation with the two security forces is therefore normalized”.
However late Wednesday night the new chiefs were holding talks with the striking members of the Coast Guard and the Border Guards plus retired personnel, whom turned the initial protest into a long list of demands.
The trigger was decree 1307 which eliminated all extra compensations and benefits, which meant cuts of 30% to 70% in pay checks. The government blames the administration of both forces for the ill-implementation of the decree which was meant only to be applied “to officers and not at troop level”.
However, protestors are now demanding not only the elimination of decree 1307, but a basic salary of 7.000 Pesos (approx 1.200 dollars) for a starting coast guard and border guard (compared to 3.400 Pesos currently); that the whole sum be taken for pension contributions and that the many court sentences favouring rank and file and retirees demands be complied by the Argentine government.
Under the current system only the basic salary contributes to the pension fund with all other payments and compensations not included. This was part of a policy implemented by the Kirchner couple when taking office in 2003 to lower the military budget, weaken pension funds and at the same time pay out lower pensions to the retiring officers.
However all along protestors have been very careful to point out that the issue is salaries, work conditions and pensions; it is no military mutiny or coup or any attempt to bring down a democratically elected government.
Nevertheless the irony of the situation is that back in 2003, then President Nestor Kirchner, who distrusted the Army, Navy and Air Force and drastically pruned their budgets, on the other hand boosted the Coast Guard and the militarized Gendarmerie, doubling their numbers and relying on them for intelligence gathering, plus custody of government buildings and other properties.
“Our idea is to stay until they find a solution” Gendarmerie officers gathered at the Centinela building told the press. We support democracy. This is not a political uprising. It's nothing strange officer Fernando Parodi shouted into a bullhorn at the rally in Buenos Aires, where hundreds of olive-green clad officers chanted slogans in solidarity.
We are workers, like any others, who need to support our families; we are demanding wage conciliation talks said the protestors at the Centinela building in downtown Buenos Aires.
In addition to the downtown area of Buenos Aires, officers across different parts of Argentina were also taking part, including in Rosario, Mar del Plata, Quequén, Zárate, Jesús María, Posadas, Paso de los Libres, La Plata, Dock Sud, Ensenada, Barranqueras, Comodoro Rivadavia and Río Gallegos.
The situation actually took off Tuesday night when Coast guard officials began protesting the passing of decree 1307 that had decreased their salaries by “between 30 to 60%”.
President Cristina Fernandez called an emergency meeting Tuesday night on her return from Peru and met with Secretary of Security Sergio Berni, Minister of Security Nilda Garré and Economy Minister Hernán Lorenzino. Berni and Lorenzino had held negotiations that failed.
Political analyst Rosendo Fraga stated in a column that this is the most serious situation presented by the Argentine Coast Guard in its 200 year of existence and similarly with the 70-year Gendarmerie and blames the “anarchic income policy” implemented by government in the different forces.
Fraga points out that active officers under the current system are paid two and three times what a retired officer makes, but sooner or later he will also retire and this has triggered thousands of court demands most of them with favourable sentences further disrupting the wage scale.
“From a historic perspective it is an important crisis and its consequences currently hard to anticipate. Government mistakes can worsen the situation and getting it right can help to channel it” says Fraga.
He adds that many times wrong calculations can escalate situations and this evidently has played its part in this case but also “the attitude from members of the Argentine government who underestimate or are simply ignorant about security forces”.