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Milei's 'chainsaw' paralyzes Argentinian public works

STORY: The aging train tracks along this rail line through the outskirts of Buenos Aires were being replaced with new ones.

:: La Plata, Argentina

Then, one day earlier this year, work stopped. You can see exactly where the new rail ties end.

Agustin Pecora is an engineer on the site:

:: Agustin Pecora, Technical Engineer

"The project had approximately 60 people working in two shifts. In the morning shift there were 30 people and in the night shift another 30 or so and today, with the work paralyzed, we have six people."

The stalled La Plata railway construction site is a casualty of a crackdown on public-funded construction works under Argentina's new self-styled libertarian President Javier Milei, who took office in December.

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:: December 10, 2023

:: November 19, 2023

Milei, a right-wing economist, came into power pledging to "chainsaw" through government spending, which he blames for the country's worst economic crisis in decades.

Tens of thousands of jobs have been cut in construction alone.

Pablo Vazquez had worked on the railway.

:: Pablo Vazquez, Former Agro employee

"I went there a Friday and without prior warning, they called us and told us: ’Well guys, this is as far as we've come, we can't keep going any longer.'"

Vazquez said he had never been without a job for more than a month in the 28 years he has worked in the railway sector. Now he is struggling.

Signs announce paralyzed projects, such as this one repaving a road. Or this one constructing a school.

Milei has halted most public infrastructure works around the South American country, helping improve the state's finances but battering construction activity.

Argentina's economic activity and construction plunge is nearly unprecedented, with the recent slide on par with the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic when the government shut down large parts of the economy to halt the virus' spread.

Pablo Quantin runs a Buenos Aires-based construction firm working on the La Plata rail project.

:: Pablo Quantin, Businessman

"All of a sudden they turned the lights off on us, contracts don't work, the payments don't come through, our obligations have become extremely complicated, so today the situation in our sector is extremely serious."

He told Reuters he had been forced to lay off 600 of his 1,000 employees so far this year because almost all of the firm's 24 public works projects were halted.

:: November 19, 2023

The cutbacks are a major shift and gamble by Milei. He has so far avoided sparking anger on the streets despite his austerity campaign.

Social unrest is one of the biggest threats to Milei's tough medicine reforms.

At least some Argentinians worry the president may not realize how difficult it is to swallow.

VAZQUEZ: "This man has to realize what is happening. I don't know if he doesn't watch the news because he says that everything is fine but we see many people unemployed, people on the streets, sleeping on the streets, so we are not doing well. There are soup kitchens that don't have enough to feed people and that's regrettable, you can see that there is hunger all over the country, so we're not doing well."