BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – Angry over inflation, crime and corruption, hundreds of thousands of Argentines of all ages flooded the capital’s streets for nearly four hours to protest against President Cristina Fernandez in Argentina’s biggest anti-government demonstration in years.
In a Thursday night march organized on social media, demonstrators filled the Plaza de Mayo in front of the pink presidential palace and also crowded around the city’s iconic obelisk chanting: “We’re not afraid.”
Protesters stayed peaceful, and the outpouring had the air of a family affair. Toddlers in strollers and grandparents in wheelchairs joined in the masses that marched through downtown Buenos Aires until nearly midnight.
People banged on pots, whistled and waved the Argentine flag. They held banners that read: “Stop the wave of Argentines killed by crime, enough with corruption and say no to the constitutional reform.”
Fernandez’s critics are angry over the country’s high inflation, violent crime and high-profile corruption, and many worry that the president will try to hold onto power by ending constitutional term limits.
“I came to protest everything that I don’t like about this government and I don’t like a single thing starting with (the president’s) arrogance,” said Marta Morosini, a 74-year-old retiree. “They’re killing policemen like dogs, and the president doesn’t even open her mouth. This government is just a bunch of hooligans and corrupters.”
A spokesman for Buenos Aires’ Justice and Security Ministry estimated the demonstrators in the capital at 700,000 people. Other demonstrations were held on plazas across Argentina, including in major cities such as Cordoba, Mendoza and La Plata, while protesters massed outside Argentine embassies and consulates from Chile to Australia.
In Rome, about 50 protesters, all Argentine expats, held a noisy protest outside the consulate on Via Veneto, one of the city’s landmark streets. Among the slogans being shouted was “Cristina, go away.”
About 200 demonstrators braved rain in Madrid to bang pots outside the Argentine consulate.
“In Argentina, there’s no separation of power and it cannot be considered a democracy,” said Marcelo Gimenez, a 40-year-old from Buenos Aires who has been living in Spain for two years. “Cristina is not respecting the constitution. The presidency is not a blank check and she must govern for those who are for her and against her.”
The protests hold deep symbolism for Argentines, who recall the country’s economic debacle of a decade ago. The “throw them all out” chants of that era’s pot-banging marches forced presidents from office and left Argentina practically ungovernable until Fernandez’s late husband, Nestor Kirchner, assumed the presidency in 2003.
“We came here because we don’t want Cristina,” said Shirley Brener, a 12-year-old student who protested in Buenos Aires with her mother, Monica, a 48-year-old school director.
The president’s supporters paid little attention to two earlier protests this year, but when it became clear the latest effort could turn out big numbers, her loyalists spoke out in her defense. They dismissed the protesters as being part of the wealthy elite or beholden to discredited opposition parties.
Fernandez didn’t directly refer to the protest in a speech Thursday, but she defended her and her late husband’s policies, saying they helped rescue Argentina from its worst economic crisis a decade ago and buoyed it during the 2009 world financial downturn.
“During boom times it’s easy to run a country but try running it when it’s crumbling down,” Fernandez said while urging Argentines to support her and pledging never to give up as her late husband taught her.
“Never let go, not even in the worst moments,” she said. “Because it’s in the worst moments when the true colors of a leader of a country come out.”
Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, a member of the opposition and a fervent Fernandez critic, praised the big protest via Twitter. “People are being heard nationwide joined by a single flag,” he said.
Polls suggest neither side has a firm grip on Argentines’ sympathies.
Fernandez easily won re-election just a year ago with 54 percent of the vote but saw her approval rating fall to 31 percent in a nationwide survey in September by the firm Management & Fit. The poll of 2,259 people, which had an error margin of about two percentage points, also said 65 percent of respondents disapproved of her opponents’ performance.
Crime is the biggest concern for many of her critics.
Newspapers and television programs provide a daily diet of stories about increasingly bold home invasion robberies, in which armed bands tie up families until victims hand over the cash that many Argentines have kept at home since the government froze savings accounts and devalued the currency in 2002. The vast majority of the crimes are never solved, while the death toll is rising.
Inflation also upsets many. The government’s much-criticized index puts inflation at about 10 percent annually, but private economists say prices are rising about three times faster than that. Real estate transactions have slowed to a standstill because of the difficulty in estimating future values, and unions that won 25 percent pay hikes only a few months ago are threatening to strike again unless the government comes up with more.
The phrase “Cristina or nothing” was stenciled on buildings surrounding the Plaza de Mayo.
Demonstrators held up signs accusing the president of arrogance. While some featured a lengthy list of demands, others simply said “basta” _ enough.
Associated Press writers Michael Warren, Almudena Calatrava and Emily Schmall in Buenos Aires; Frances D’Emilio in Rome; Jorge Sainz in Madrid; and Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.
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