Public Goods

Forrest Hylton

Argentina’s interannual inflation rate is 250 per cent – only Zimbabwe’s is higher – while subway fares have risen sevenfold since January, and the public hospitals administered by the University of Buenos Aires are in danger of closing because the university can’t pay its electricity bill. The UBA, which is consistently ranked among the best universities in Latin America, could shut down in May. With the budget frozen at 2023 levels, in real terms universities are broke.

A general strike on 26 February was perhaps the largest mass mobilisation since the democratic transition away from military dictatorship after the Malvinas War in 1982, with an estimated 500,000 people gathering in the centre of Buenos Aires. On 23 April, across the country, more than a million took to the streets and plazas to defend free public higher education. Many of them were not university students or staff. A hundred thousand mobilised in Córdoba alone.

Citizens made a mockery of the government’s plans to repress protest – there were far too many people, and too few cops, despite the authoritarian pretensions of the security minister, Patricia Bullrich. ‘I am grateful to you for the rebirth of a great hope,’ Juan Grabois, a law professor at UBA and the leader of the left-wing Patria Grande party, wrote in an open letter to President Milei. ‘What happened in every corner of the country only happens when something moves the tectonic plates of a society.’

The hope is for the rebirth of society in the face of its imminent destruction, and the destruction of the state itself, which Milei’s government is pursuing in the name of freedom – by which they mean privatisation and deregulation, a dictatorship of private property and finance, and state repression. The Pinochet model, without the blood and iron. The Argentine military remain in their barracks, with little chance of emerging, thanks to the strength of the country’s democratic movements.

In the words of the writer and teacher Liliana Heker, who opened the 48th Buenos Aires Book Fair last week, ‘it favours the government to have people who don’t think and can’t read reality … They want to erase science and culture from the map, and that’s brutal.’

With Decree 70/2023, Milei plans to make good on his promise to take an economic chainsaw to public goods and services. The need to reimpose price controls on private medical insurance companies – which took advantage of the decree to hike their prices 150 per cent – will only have strengthened Milei’s determination to recoup his ideological and political losses elsewhere, starting with education.

The CGT and other trade union confederations, which organised the general strike of 26 February, mobilised on 23 April and will lead another demonstration on 9 May, stated simply: ‘Education is a public good the people refuse to give up.’ Such a potent convergence between public universities and organised labour dates back to the ‘reform movement’ for university democracy, co-government, secularism, modern science, free tuition and autonomy, which kicked off in Córdoba in 1918, spreading to Buenos Aires and across the Rio Plate to the Universidad de la República in Montevideo. It was powerfully updated in the CGT strike of cultural, artistic and intellectual workers in May 1968, and the massive uprising in Córdoba in May 1969. It is a venerable Argentine tradition, alive in the defence of university autonomy against police incursion in Jujuy last summer.

In Chile and Colombia, between 2018 and 2021, university students and staff protesting in defence of public higher education helped galvanise general strikes that became national popular uprisings, which partially transformed the political landscape in both countries. (Colombia recently passed a reform making free public higher education a universal right.)

Income inequality in Argentina increased under Carlos Menem in the 1990s, then declined under the Kirchners, but was deliberately worsened again by Mauricio Macri (in conjunction with the IMF). Now, under Milei, the majority of the working and middle class see public higher education as the only (potential) equaliser to improve their options and opportunities for jobs, housing, healthcare and pensions, as well as education itself. ‘Public universities,’ as protesters have said, ‘are synonymous with social justice.’

Without them, there is only more informal economic apartheid. Minimum wage workers, whose purchasing power rose under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, now pay French prices for milk and Canadian prices for rice. Ground beef is less affordable than elsewhere in Latin America, with prices jumping, and consumption dropping, in a country that has exported and consumed beef since colonial times.

Private higher education is beyond the means of the middle class – not to speak of the working class, more than half of whom lack formal waged employment – while private grants and fellowships are few and far between. In Neuquén, most public university students are the first members of their family to go to university.

Yet Milei aims to introduce tuition fees, as well as new financial audits. He insists that students are not defending public education but being politically manipulated. Anyway, the money’s already been disbursed. End of story. The aim is to transition to a US model, he says, based on donor and alumni contributions.

But, as the recent strikes demonstrate, Argentina is not like the United States, no matter how much Milei wishes it were. The attempted privatisation of public education is likely to generate further collective action and resistance, and unlikely to succeed, at least in the short term. The same is true for other public goods and services, as the general strike on 9 May will demonstrate. If Milei is to stay true to his ideological commitments and turn them into public policy, greater police repression may be his only option.


  • 4 May 2024 at 11:24am
    NEIL LARSEN says:
    Well said and observed. Why, then, given your sense of the situation, do you think so many people voted for Milei? Surely many of those same people are now demonstrating against him and his government.

    • 5 May 2024 at 1:51am
      Guido the Younger says: @ NEIL LARSEN
      The author's previous columns on Argentina may have addressed this, however insatisfactorily. Pablo Stefanoni is a more reliable guide, to be sure.