Thousands of Argentines protest government economic policies

Tens of thousands of Argentines protested Friday against the government's economic policies and its unpopular decision to seek help from the International Monetary Fund.

The "Federal March" began four days ago in various regions of the country and culminated in front of the presidential palace in a demonstration of growing social discontent. Demonstrators demanded laws that guarantee food, land and infrastructure projects for the poor and urged union leaders to call a nationwide strike to pressure the government.

Argentines continue to lose purchasing power as consumer prices rise an estimated 25 percent a year, one of the world's highest inflation rates. They have staged protests against a series of government belt-tightening measures, including the elimination of subsidies for utility rates that has forced them to pay higher monthly bills.

"They're putting at risk the social peace of Argentina with this wild tightening that they're ordering," said Daniel Menéndez, a national coordinator for one of the social organizations that participated in the protest. "We have to put a break on these economic policies," he said.

The frustration has grown even more since President Mauricio Macri announced last month that his government would seek a loan from the IMF following a sharp drop in Argentina's peso. Many blame the policies of the international lending institution for Argentina's worst economic crisis in 2001, when one out of every five Argentines were jobless and millions were thrown into poverty.

A survey in May by local pollsters D'Alessio Irol/Berensztein said 75 percent of Argentines feel seeking assistance from the IMF is a bad move. Demonstrators on Friday held a large banner that read: "Down with the Macri-IMF deal."

Macri, a conservative who took office in 2015, says that the deal with the IMF will avoid another economic implosion and that it will not harm the estimated one-third of Argentines who live in poverty. He has also defended the austerity policies, saying they are needed to slash the government's deficit, attract investment and strengthen the weak economy.

But the elimination of subsidies and Macri's ordering of thousands of layoffs for public workers to cut spending have caused labor unrest in a country with a long tradition of the state providing jobs and benefits.

On Thursday, Macri vetoed a measure passed by Congress that would have capped increases in gas, electricity and water rates. The bill's goal was to bring back subsidies on utilities and return rates to the levels of last November. Macri called the legislation "irresponsible" and said it effectively would have blocked payments for infrastructure and other projects.