Image via Clarín.

A long-awaited public hearing called to discuss the government’s plans to increase gas prices opened this morning at Usina del Arte cultural centre in the Boca neighborhood, amid disruption efforts by protesters.

Energy Minister Juan José Aranguren was first up to speak this morning, and was given 20 minutes to defend the government’s proposed 203 percent average increase of gas prices, with a view to fully eliminating government subsidies everywhere except Patagonia by October 2019. Aranguren said the proposal would take the monthly bill of the users who consume the least to AR$107 a month plus tax, and the average bill to AR$371. The government’s objective is to carry out “gradual and predictable increases to close the gap between the cost of producing the gas and the rate paid by consumers,” Aranguren said. He added that “the current system of gas supply is distorted: it is unequal, unfair and archaic.”

An additional 373 speakers are then expected to have their say, including representatives from the provinces and from gas companies.

The Supreme Court ordered the government to carry out the hearings before it increased residential gas prices. It was already clear the hearings would be a place for political posturing, and those who arrived at Usina del Arte this morning were met with around 100 protesters, who had been there for two hours, brandishing banners that opposed the rate hikes known as tarifazo.

A variety of left-wing groups, including activists from the Frente de Izquierda (FIT), Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (MST) and former presidential candidate Nicolás del Caño, have been protesting outside the Usina del Arte.

Image via Clarín.
Image via Clarín.

These groups don’t just oppose the heavy increase in bills, but also the way in which the hikes are being implemented. According to Página 12, a number of work cooperatives and former officials complained they were denied speaking rights and entry despite completing the necessary paperwork on time.

In Neuquén, one of the eight centers across the country that was set up to take part in the conference via videoconference, the public event had to be suspended before the talks even started, after physical confrontations between the police and union activists. In Buenos Aires, authorities went as far as suspending lower division football games to increase police capacity in anticipation of protests, with a total team of 3,000 police officers on call, and reinforcements stationed outside the building since yesterday afternoon.