Buenos Aires subway shutdown enters eighth day

AP News
Posted: Aug 11, 2012 7:21 PM
Buenos Aires subway shutdown enters eighth day

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — There was still no exit Saturday in the weeklong subway strike in Argentina's capital, where a million commuters are caught in the middle of a power struggle between President Cristina Fernandez and Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri.

The strike began Aug. 3 with workers demanding a 28 percent pay increase to match inflation. The problem is the politicians can't even agree on who is running the system let alone where the money should come from.

The national government tried to transfer authority of the subways to the city in January, but the mayor backed out, saying the president reneged on her promise to fund operating costs for a year. Fernandez then refused to take the trains back and blamed Macri for failing as a leader.

Macri said Saturday the strike will end only when the president decides she's done enough damage.

"It's up to her. I can't change her decision. If she decides there won't be a subway, there won't be a subway," the mayor told a small group of foreign correspondents.

Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo spoke for the president on Saturday, telling Radio El Mundo that Macri's "obstinance" is harming commuters.

"If Macri really wanted to help the millions of passengers harmed by the subway strike, he would have already done so. Instead he shifts the responsibility to the national government even though his neighbors are already livid over his attitude," Randazzo told the pro-government Pagina12 newspaper.

The city's six subway lines were privatized in 1991 and the workers are nominally employed by a private concessionaire, Metrovias, but the system hasn't generated enough profit to defray operating costs for many years. Both fares and salaries are set by the government, and the subway lines and cars are also public property. Only fat government subsidies have kept the subways operating, and since January, the president has made it the mayor's responsibility to come up with most of that money.

But Macri said what the president really wants is to destroy the city's financial and thus political independence. He described a multifaceted campaign to shift costs onto the city, while at the same time taking away its capacity to generate revenues.

"This is no longer just one problem, but an effort to force the government of Buenos Aires to surrender. Why? Because it's one of the few districts with financial autonomy and of course independence of thought," he said.

Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner spent years subsidizing much of Argentina's economy while the country was struggling to overcome its economic crisis a decade ago. Now, the subsidies have become unsustainable, with inflation soaring at more than 25 percent a year according to private analysts and an increasing sensation among foreign investors that putting money into Argentina is too risky.

The subway system, meanwhile, is in major trouble. Most of the subsidies went to pay increases for a workforce that nearly doubled, to 4,500 while under national government control. But maintenance needs have gone ignored: The cars are 40 years old or more, increasing the danger of deadly accidents like the commuter train wreck that killed 51 people in February.

And while fares more than doubled to 2.5 pesos (54 cents) this year, that's still less than half of what's needed to defray operating costs. The system needs infrastructure improvements, but with Argentina closed out of most international lending, the cost of those loans would be prohibitive.

"The problem applies to the entire transport system," Macri said. "After 10 years of this government with a festival of subsidies, the lack of investment has the public transportation system collapsing, with fatal accidents, accidents each day."

Still, he said the city reached a deal with the main subway workers union to pay them more, and was on its way to resolving the strike this week until a splinter group of workers calling themselves the Metrodelegates refused to go along. Macri's top aide, Marcos Pena, said they presented a list of 20 unreasonable demands including 10 more days off each year to handle personal business during working hours.

Pena alleged Saturday that he was told by three separate sources that the Metrodelegates blocked the deal after their leader met with the president and was told to prolong the strike.

Randazzo denied that the Metrodelegates answered to the president, and said "labeling them Kirchneristas is seeking to shift responsibility to another, and that's what Macri always does."

With no clear sign Saturday that the subways would be open for business again for Monday's commute, passengers were showing their anger on social networks, criticizing both governments, the two union groups and the subway operator failing to resolve the strike. A campaign spreading on Twitter called on passengers to jump turnstiles and refuse to pay for a week.

"The answer is to NOT PAY for a service that we don't receive and that no one takes charge of," an online poster said.