BUENOS AIRES -- When Luis D'Elia is asked to describe his relationship with Argentina's President Nestor Kirchner, he nods his head wearily and purses his lips, like a man tired of explaining the same thing every day.
"He's an ally and a loyal friend," said D'Elia, the leader of a group of thousands of demonstrators that almost always supports Kirchner's political agenda. "But I don't take direct orders from the government."
Argentine President Nestor Kirchner has shared headlines recently with a protest leader some call his point man.
Kirchner consistently backs up D'Elia on this point -- but many here refuse to believe them. Instead, they see D'Elia as the president's point man, someone Kirchner sends to the streets when he needs to rally public support for a pet cause. The local newspapers label D'Elia an "official piquetero" -- a protester with the government's stamp of approval.
Whatever their relationship, the president and the protester have been sharing headlines in recent weeks. Responding to price increases, Kirchner last month called for a national boycott of the Royal Dutch/Shell group. D'Elia's band of protesters -- called the Land and Housing Federation -- responded with what skeptics considered suspicious alacrity.
Soon after Kirchner finished his televised speech condemning Shell, protesters aligned with D'Elia were encamped at more than 30 gas stations. Some press reports said that picketers were seen at Shell stations minutes before Kirchner went public with his boycott request.
The Buenos Aires media -- particularly the daily newspaper La Nacion -- highlighted the D'Elia-Kirchner connection. The newspaper reported that D'Elia was one of several protest leaders whom the government met with regularly to arrange demonstrations. Kirchner responded angrily, accusing the media of calling all pro-government demonstrators "shock troops" and all anti-government protests "great popular demonstrations."
"The government does not manipulate demonstrations in favor or against" anything, Kirchner told reporters.
The piquetero movement in Argentina began in the 1990s, when the country's unemployment rate climbed after widespread privatization of state-owned businesses. Many who became regular demonstrators were former union workers, able to organize themselves into social movements quickly. The piqueteros' presence remained strong during Argentina's financial collapse of 2001-2002 and now is regularly evident in the crowded streets of the capital.
D'Elia's federation was one of the groups of mostly unemployed former union members that formed in the 1990s, and he estimated it now has about 125,000 supporters. It has evolved into something similar to a political party, fielding candidates in local elections who consistently oppose institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and adopt a populist stance against foreign economic interference.
D'Elia, 48, said that although he usually agrees with Kirchner's policies, he sometimes finds himself at odds with his government. He said he did not like it when Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna suggested that populist demonstrations such as the anti-Shell protests might hurt Argentina more than help it by sending negative signals to foreign investors.
According to both Kirchner and D'Elia, the protests against Shell arose less from government coercion than from genuine grass-roots concern. Since the protests, there have been regular anti-inflation demonstrations, despite government statements that the expected inflation rate of 8.5 percent is not cause for alarm.
"When an economy is growing at 9 percent a year for two years, you're bound to have some inflation," said Alan Ciblis, an Argentine economist in Buenos Aires with the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy and Research. "But the problem is that in Argentina, many people still remember hyperinflation" from the late 1980s. "So when prices get a little higher, people notice."
Last week, Sandra De La Canal was one of about 5,000 people who marched through the streets of Buenos Aires to draw attention to rising prices. D'Elia and other "official piqueteros" had nothing to do with it, she said. Unlike D'Elia's group, the march organizers said, they were firmly opposed to Kirchner and his policies. Even though the government this month reached agreements with producers of some key food items to keep prices under control, they said the government should do more.
"We can't afford to live if prices keep increasing," said De La Canal, who lives about an hour outside Buenos Aires. "Since the beginning of January, the price of meat per kilogram has doubled."
D'Elia said he was organizing another protest for next month against utility companies that he had heard were planning to raise rates substantially. It will be the second protest he has organized this year, he said.
And why hasn't he or his federation organized more? "In the last 20 months," he explained, "we have dedicated ourselves to accompanying President Kirchner."