June 18, 2013
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has had terrible weeks in office. Imagine, Néstor Kirchner, the president’s late husband and predecessor, first rose to power in 2003. The Kirchnerite era is now practically a decade old. Soon there’ll be books written about those 10 K years, and the Kirchnerite era isn’t even over. Fernández de Kirchner’s mandate ends in 2015. Some of the President’s weeks in power, since she took over from her husband on being elected in 2007, have been so bad that it makes you wonder how the Kirchners managed to stay on top for so long. Remember 2008? The President’s fierce standoff with the farmers over export duties left her popularity in tatters less than a year after taking office.
Yet Fernández de Kirchner has shown resilience. The President was re-elected in 2011, riding a wave of sympathy after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 60 in 2010.
Are those bad weeks back? On September 13, thousands took to the streets in Buenos Aires and other cities bashing pots and pans to protest about all that they see wrong with Argentina: crime, high inflation, a potential reform of the Constitution that would allow the President to seek “re-reelection,” and strict currency exchange controls that make it practically impossible for the average citizen to purchase dollars.
The protesters claim that the dollar restrictions are not their priority. But the mood of those who criticize Fernández de Kirchner has grown increasingly foul ever since the national government has made the currency exchange controls stricter this year. The President addressed the “dollar clamp” issue on Monday. Already last week, she had fielded questions from students at Georgetown and Harvard during a visit to the US to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations.
“Clamp,” the President said on Monday, is not the right word to describe the restrictions. The “dollar clamp” story is a fabrication of the media, she said. The national government is servicing debt in dollars and dollars are leaving the country all the time, she argued. There is no clamp if you ask the President. But another protest has been called for November 8, so be ready. All presidents have difficult weeks. What else could go wrong?
Fernández de Kirchner, true to form, was ready to continue picking arguments with her critics on Monday. But in a flash on Tuesday, like so many times before in this volatile land that is Argentina, the political landscape was transformed by another unexpected protest. This time there was no saucepan-bashing ringing down from apartment buildings like when the President was taking questions in Harvard on September 27. On Tuesday, the din was coming from a group of Coast Guards protesting outside their forces’ headquarters in Puerto Madero. The disgruntled Coast Guards were complaining about a decree recently signed by the President reforming the payment of salaries to heed a Supreme Court ruling saying that extras must be counted as part of a salary. That changed the way salaries are paid effectively leaving at least 7,000 Coast Guards with less money in their pockets when they picked up this month’s paycheck.
The sight of men and women in uniform openly defying their commanders can be a chilling one in Argentina even when ultimately this sounds like a labour dispute. In 1990, at those same headquarters in Puerto Madero an elite Coast Guard group rebelled in support of a nationalist army leader at odds with then President Carlos Menem.
On Tuesday, the Coast Guards brandished no weapons and looked more like a bunch of angry workers who happen to be in uniform. The protesters said that they were off-duty and that the force was working normally. Technically, this was not a mutiny even when it looked and felt very much like one. But the protest was worrying enough for the national government to dispatch Deputy Security Minister Sergio Berni, an Army doctor on leave, and Economy Minister Hernán Lorenzino, to talk with the Coast Guards on Tuesday night.
Berni and Lorenzino could not perform the trick of bringing the protest to an end that night. Some Coast Guards scuffled with their commanders as tempers ran high when night set in on Tuesday. The economy minister was reportedly locked inside Coast Guard headquarters for a while. There was more worrying news. The protest about salaries was clearly spreading to the Border Guards, who during the Kirchnerite years have been used as riot police to deal with street demonstrations and also to police in tough neighbourhoods in Greater Buenos Aires.
Border Guards gathered outside their headquarters, the Centinela building, in Retiro on Wednesday. Pay was also their main demand. Many Border Guards were also paid less than the month before due to the decree. But the Border Guards quickly voiced a set of demands, including a starting net salary of 7,000 pesos a month, the right to choose a healthcare scheme and labour risk insurance.
On Wednesday morning, Juan Manuel Abal Medina, the Cabinet chief, called a press conference with Lorenzino and Security Minister Nilda Garré sitting next to him. Abal Medina said that the Border and Coast guard commanders who paid salaries had interpreted the decree all wrong. Abal Medina implied that the commanders had deliberately left troops with less money because the decree was intended to put an end to privileges for high-ranking officers.
The decree, Abal Medina said, had been “suspended.” He vowed that all troops would be paid the money they claimed to be owed. On Wednesday afternoon, Garré announced in a brief statement to the press that the Coast and Border guard top brass had resigned. They were quickly replaced by new commanders who went to their respective headquarters to talk with the protesters. Garré, with Berni sitting by her side, said that the resignation of the commanders effectively brought the conflict to an end. But did it? The Border Guard protest grew louder and the basic demand was still a starting salary of 7,000 pesos. Here was an institutional crisis of unpredictable consequences unfolding. The Border Guards were also protesting while off duty. But they were clearly disregarding their commanders and the Constitutional authority. Leaders of the protest declared over and over again that they had no hidden plan to attack democracy or the President. Yet memories of past rebellions are relatively fresh and flashed through the minds of many.
On Wednesday, Lower House Speaker Julián Domínguez, a Kirchnerite, had no problem in quickly meeting with all the opposition parties. All political parties in the Lower House issued a statement saying that a protest was all very well, but that both forces had to respect “democratic formalities.” The Senate also issued a statement. Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the leader of the opposition centre-right party PRO, called a press conference on Wednesday. For the last ten years, Macri said, the forces had been “humiliated.” But he called on the protesters to “go home to their families.” Security forces, he said, could not take to the streets to voice demands. Macri, a potential presidential candidate in 2015, was sending out a wider message. The nation’s political leaders must be obeyed by the security forces. The Kirchnerites meanwhile issued a statement voicing concern about coup-mongering.
The national government has relied heavily on the Border and Coast guards to beef up security at a time when polls show that crime is the public’s main concern. The Coast Guards patrol a swath of southern Buenos Aires City, including the plush Puerto Madero neighbourhood and grittier La Boca. The Border Guards are deployed to deal with emergencies such as a recent protest by petrol workers in Neuquén.
The protest is not over. But concern about any veiled anti-democratic putsch has dissipated. Berni, who according to speculation is at odds with Garré, has vowed to answer the demands for more pay and healthcare come Tuesday. Negotiations involving accountants continued yesterday to find a way to grant hikes without scrapping the decree, sources said.
Yet the situation is still essentially unpredictable until an agreement is finally reached and the protest is lifted.
Now looming is the other pot-bashing protest in November. The national government is also still engaged in a confrontation with the giant media group Clarín. Martín Sabbatella, the leftist lawmaker, has been formally named to lead the AFSCA media watchdog. The national government has announced that, because an injunction filed by Grupo Clarín expires on December 7, the law will go into full effect on that day (forcing Clarín to divest).
Fernández de Kirchner was talkative on Monday. But the President has not made public statements since the protest by the Coast Guards started on Tuesday. News will overtake news — even when the protest is not going away. The alleged abduction on Wednesday night in Greater Buenos Aires of former railway employee Alfonso Severo, a witness in the Ma-riano Ferreyra murder case, made headlines. Ferreyra, a Workers Party activist, was allegedly murdered by a gang at the service of the railway workers’ union in October, 2010. Severo was found alive and well on Thursday night in Greater Buenos Aires. But that looks like a brief abduction has brought attention to the Ferreyra case. Severo said that what happened was “a message directed at the President.”
October 2010 was a difficult month for the President. Ferreyra was killed. Days later Kirchner died. These are not easy days for the President now in October, 2012. The consequences of the Border and Coast guard protest could go beyond 2015. Maybe that’s why Macri called the press conference asking the troops to go home to their families.