Government supporters and militia in a rally in Caracas © AP

In a tableau of South America’s simmering stand-off between leftist populism and pragmatism, protesters blocked Buenos Aires’ streets and tried to bring Argentina to a standstill in a national strike on Thursday, even as a Davos crowd of bankers met in the capital to proclaim the virtues of free markets and liberal democracy. 

The presence of David Lipton, number two at the International Monetary Fund, also marked the first time in a decade that a senior IMF official has visited the country — a striking symbol of how Mauricio Macri, the Argentine president, is seeking change after 12 years of leftist rule by the opposition Peronists. 

The national strike, the first since Mr Macri took office 16 months ago, comes as the region has suffered a series of clashes over the past week. There was an attempted coup in Venezuela, the sacking of Paraguay’s congress on Friday and Ecuador’s tightly fought presidential election on Sunday, where leftist candidate Lenin Moreno narrowly won, checking South America’s swing towards centre-right pragmatists. 

“These protesters are just spoiling for a fight,” says Rodrigo Acosta, before walking briskly into one of the gleaming office buildings in downtown Buenos Aires. “There is a cruel division in Argentine society — between those who want progress and those who cling to the past. Sadly, I don’t see that division healing any time soon.” 

In Venezuela, opposition street protests continued on Thursday, amid demands for early elections after the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro sought to suspend the opposition-controlled Congress. 

“When in a country there is no law, people have no other means than taking to the streets,” said Julio Borges, president of Venezuela’s Congress. “Venezuelans could lose our right to vote forever,” he added from Washington, where he met Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, who condemned the coup. 

But in a counter-march by government supporters in Caracas, the deputy president of the ruling socialist party, Diosdado Cabello, warned: “Not even with blood will there be change in Venezuela.”

One of the region’s few leaders not to condemn the coup is outgoing Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, a longstanding Venezuelan ally.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, former president Cristina Fernández was indicted on corruption charges in Buenos Aires on Tuesday and had $8.5m of her and her son’s assets frozen. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison. 

Ms Fernández, who faces multiple court cases involving alleged kickbacks and public works fraud, called the latest charges “a shameful prosecution”, and launched a torrent of tweets protesting her innocence. She also slammed Mr Macri’s “regressive” economic policies and celebrated Mr Moreno’s victory in Ecuador. 

“Correa’s candidate [Moreno] won [in Ecuador] precisely because he showed the danger of returning to conservatism . . . in his country as has happened in Argentina,” read two of her tweets. 

In Buenos Aires, the protests on the same day as the regional meeting of the World Economic Forum, the Latin American branch of the more famous Davos meeting, echoed in far weaker form the burning of Paraguay’s congress last week during annual meetings of the Inter-American Development Bank — although the climate of unrest there now appears to have simmered down.

The Argentine strike comes as Mr Macri is 16 months into a presidency that has sought to reopen Argentina to global trade, liberalise previously frozen prices, and encourage foreign investment. 

Mr Lipton, the IMF’s first deputy managing director, said it was the first time a senior IMF official had visited Argentina since Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2007. For many years, the IMF’s name in Argentina has been associated with the country’s devastating devaluation and $100bn sovereign default in 2001-02. Mr Lipton praised Argentina’s reforms, saying the inheritance of economic imbalances from the former administration “has been very difficult”. 

Earlier in the day, Argentine security forces clashed with picketers on the Pan-American highway, the main road leading into Buenos Aires from the north, where normally busy streets were left half-empty and many businesses were closed. Union members, including teachers, transport workers and customs officials, walked off the job at midnight on Wednesday for 24 hours, threatening to strike for longer if no agreement on pay was reached with the government. 

But the strike has drawn only lukewarm support. Many went to work on Thursday, when the hashtag “I’mNotOnStrike” became a trending topic on Twitter. Last Saturday, the government received an unexpected boost when the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities were filled by a noticeably middle-class public, protesting — without the explicit support of the government — against weeks of nonstop strikes and protests in Argentina. 

“It is madness that our children have not yet returned to school. Term started a month ago. Meanwhile, what have the teachers been doing?” asked Angela Fuentes, a harried mother flanked by two restless young children. “The children are our future, and they need an education.”

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