This is probably the most important mobilization in Argentina since the start of Javier Milei’s presidency. Hundreds of thousands of people, students in the front row, demonstrated on Tuesday April 23 throughout the country to defend “free public university” and denounce the austerity policy of the ultraliberal government of the president who took office in December 2023 .

In the capital Buenos Aires, the mobilization brought together “between 100,000 and 150,000” people, according to a police source, and half a million, according to the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). A teachers’ union reported a million protesters across the country. The rallies in the provinces mobilized around sixty public universities in the country, which were joined by private institutes. In Cordoba (center), seat of the oldest university in the country founded at the beginning of the 17th century, the procession brought together tens of thousands of people.

Students, parents, teachers, university agents, but also unions and members of opposition parties, paralyzed the center of Buenos Aires all afternoon, around the Parliament, all the way to the Plaza de Mayo, headquarters of the presidency 2 km away, packed with people at the end of the day, noted Agence France-Presse (AFP). In a festive atmosphere, students symbolically brandished a book at arm’s length, denouncing “a brutal attack” against the university, as Pablo Vicenti, a 22-year-old medical student, lamented to AFP: “They want to cut off his funding. pretending there is no money. There is, yes, but they choose not to spend it on public education.”

A threat of paralysis

Public universities, which welcome more than 2.2 million students, say they are “in budgetary emergency” since the government decided to maintain the 2023 budget for the 2024 academic year (which began in March), despite inflation of 288% year over year. And this within the framework of all-out budgetary austerity, to aim for a “zero deficit” at the end of the year, the Milei government’s objective, and to tame inflation.

For several establishments, this is a threat of paralysis, and certain sections of the prestigious UBA have recently implemented emergency savings: unlit common areas, restricted use of elevators, reduced library hours, etc. The UBA Faculty of Exact Sciences, which notably trained the 1984 Nobel Prize winner in medicine César Milstein, has set up an online countdown until the day its 2024 budget is exhausted. At the time of the protest on Tuesday, he had 37 days, 9 hours and 15 minutes remaining.

The major union center CGT joined the protest, as well as radical left organizations and opposition politicians, giving way to accusations of “political demonstration” by the executive. Mr. Milei added fuel to the fire, accusing some public universities of being places of left-wing “indoctrination.”

The Undersecretary of State for Universities, Alejandro Alvarez, warned the demonstrators and their supporters. “Let them do what they want, but as long as Javier Milei is president, the public money that goes to universities will be AUDITTED (…) we are establishing an inspection and an audit that did not exist,” he said. he says about X.

“Our plan is working,” says Javier Milei

Presidential spokesperson Manuel Adorni stressed Monday that Argentine public education has in the past been “an educational beacon in America” but that “for decades the university has had serious problems (…) and low rates of ‘completion of studies that dive’.

“You can’t question 200 years of history. Even with a very low budget, UBA is among the three best universities in Latin America,” protested the dean of the UBA Faculty of Medicine, Luis Brusco.

Mr. Adorni also recalled an agreement a few days ago to increase the operating costs of universities in two installments − 70% in March then 70% in May. Far from inflation, but now a “settled discussion”, according to him.

“Don’t expect an outcome on the side of public spending,” Mr. Milei warned on Monday evening, trumpeting a budget surplus in the first quarter of 2024, without precedent since 2008, thanks to austerity. “Our plan is working,” he boasted.

“All our problems are solved with more education and public universities (…) Education saves us and sets us free. We call on Argentine society to defend it,” a student read to the crowd in Plaza de Mayo at the end of the rally.