May 20, 2013
Libertad seeking own per saltum
Two recent news items from the outside world (Chinese writer Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize for Literature and the revival of the group No Doubt best-known for its early hit Don’t Speak) are linked by the fact that “Mo Yan” is Chinese for “don’t speak” — if Mo Yan’s namesake on the political scene here is obviously maverick labour leader Hugo Moyano, then who is the local equivalent of “no doubt”? Equally obvious — President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Except that Moyano did speak (on Peronist Loyalty Day) while CFK is full of doubt these days — equally unable to gun for or pull out of a third term with popularity ratings barely above a third.
Last week can be summarized as a voluntary agenda — the government onslaught to control the media — and an involuntary agenda surrounding the naval training frigate Libertad trapped in Ghana by creditor lawsuits. Without forgetting the “Chaco effect” looming over an already uncertain economy.
This column does not propose to write much about the media war (still several weeks away from its presumed grand finale) for various reasons — because we have a Saturday column specializing in the issue (Marcelo García) while the opposite page has an infinitely more qualified voice in former Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) president Robert Cox, because of a suspicion that press-on-press issues interest the general reader less than journalists who should declare an interest but perhaps above all, because of a feeling that everybody is taking their eye off the ball with this media conflict. Because there are numerous problems which are real enough and not media inventions, as the government would have us believe.
The main development on this front last week is that amid continued pressure on the Magistrates Council, the ruling party introduced a bill in the Senate for a per saltum to send Media Law implementation straight to the Supreme Court (almost the first time this shortcut has been proposed since Carlos Menem’s airline privatizations). Yet what is the point if this issue has already been there — where else did this famous deadline of D-7 (December 7) come from but the last Supreme Court ruling on the case? And if the haste is to define the magistrate, the CFK administration already seems to have done enough court-shopping to find a surrogate judge to its taste (Horacio Alfonso). The only area where there is any interest in filling court vacancies, it might be added — if the “empty chair” is the problem for Clint Eastwood in the United States, vacant judicial benches are surely the curse here. But Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti (re-elected last week) stood firm against pressures while from Sao Paulo IAPA defined authoritarian governments as the biggest danger to the Latin American press after murderous violence.
World eyes are on the Libertad ‘s plight in Ghana but not world sympathies — perhaps the main conceptual error here is to tackle an international problem primarily in domestic political terms. Especially in a week when Argentina’s 2013-14 presence on the United Nations Security Council was confirmed (with the Senate voting to name its ex-member Marita Perceval to the “empty chair” at the UN in the nick of time last Wednesday after almost a year of vacancy). Not that Argentina is not looking abroad — to the UN and to international courts (all too often scorned by Argentina on other fronts in the recent past) or even trying a per saltum of its own within Ghana. But scapegoats are proving rather easier to find than solutions.
Thus far the scapegoats have been from the military sphere — Navy Chief-of-Staff Carlos Paz and two other members of the naval helm on Monday (when three former naval officers were sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1972 Trelew Massacre to complete a bad day for the force) with Vice-Admiral Daniel Martin, who fought the 1982 South Atlantic War aboard the scuttled submarine ARA Santa Fe, becoming the third naval chief in 10 months as well as the first sub officer to head the Navy. But DINIEM National Military Strategic Intelligence chief Lourdes Puente Olivera, who resigned on Thursday, was rather closer to the Defence Ministry which was perhaps as much Página/12 columnist Horacio Verbitsky’s target last Sunday as the Navy. Yet alongside a natural Kirchner administration preference for military scapegoats, there is an intense blame game unfolding between the Foreign and Defence Ministries with the Defence Ministry very much on the defensive. But is that right if an international solution needs to be found for an international problem — has not Defence Minister Arturo Puricelli proved much more open to the world in general and the US in particular than Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman?
Needless to say, much of the blame game comes with the virtue of hindsight — who would have expected in advance this odd couple of a “vulture fund” and a Third World country like Ghana? We live on a changing planet indeed if Third World justice lines up behind the “vulture funds” while Switzerland’s top court rebuffs them (creditor claims on Central Bank funds in the Bank of International Settlements in Basel, Roger Federer’s birthplace).
Solutions are harder to find. A mission headed by the deputy ministers of the Defence and Foreign Ministries returned empty-handed from Ghana at the end of the week. Quite apart from being repugnant to the Kirchner mentality, paying the NML hedge fund the 20 million dollars “bail” demanded on their 300 million dollars of Argentine debt (virtual junk bonds) is not an option because of the 2010 “padlock law” banning any departure from the terms of the 2003-5 bond swap “haircut.” One variant of the blame game seeks to shift responsibility from either the Defence or Foreign Ministry by stressing the underlying foreign debt situation in general and the Menem past in particular but in the process revealed that sovereign immunity had been waived by the original issue of these bonds in 1994. On its side the Accra government pleads respect for its courts although Argentina argues that a 1982 naval convention also signed by Ghana has been violated.
Yesterday Timerman announced that the Libertad would be evacuated save for the captain and a skeleton crew, arguing that this act of “piracy” had placed the lives of crewmen in danger through dodgy refrigeration, etc. Earlier in the week the hedge fund offered to pay for this evacuation — Timerman did not say if this offer had been accepted. But it is clear that the Libertad presents a dangerous precedent for far more regular activities than its annual round-the-world voyages — such as Aerolíneas Argentinas flights.
If Moyano’s main focus in the past week was Peronist Loyalty Day last Wednesday rather than the mass CGT-CTA rally the previous week, the big question on the labour scene is when the general strike threatened by the dissident wings of the two umbrella labour groupings is going to come? Trade unionists of all stripes are complaining about a rigid income tax floor costing workers 4.5 billion pesos thus far this year, apart from massive union-run health care scheme arrears.
Peronist Loyalty Day under a nominally Peronist opposition nevertheless saw all the main rallies held by opposition elements — apart from Moyano (who accused CFK of looking through a rear-view mirror), perhaps the largest was headed by PRO centre-right party’s Cristián Ritondo with dissident Peronists and leftists. Government and organized labour are thus on separate tracks. The noisiest evidence of that was the rift between Moyano and Héctor Recalde, the CGT’s top labour lawyer for decades — Moyano accuses Recalde of choosing Aerolíneas (headed by his son Mariano) over the CGT.
Another source of social unrest was the continuing wave of school occupations in this city over syllabus issues — a lengthened school year has been proposed in reaction.
The “Chaco effect” was compounded last week when Governor Jorge Capitanich proposed pesofying all provincial debt with a bond swap for 30 million dollars (after triggering mass panic earlier this month for a mere 263,000 dollars). His right but who would want to be repaid in pesos? Moody’s promptly downgraded all Argentine provincial and municipal debt to “subsovereign” — provincial penury will only be deepened.
Meanwhile the national government duly paid off 200 million dollars worth of Bonar X bonds in that currency without easing fears. The lack of dollars as evidenced by currency curbs (perhaps dreading future fuel bills) leads the markets to fear that the government might disguise pesofication as a “cultural battle” to make a virtue out of necessity. But why attempt pesofication now rather than in previous years when the peso still had some-purchasing-power? Why cling to dollars instead of seeking them? Capital flight may have been blocked but also inflow, leading to even fewer dollars. If economic policy abruptly changed last spring, a new “Spring Plan” (a term last used in 1988) is needed.
The week also included some high-profile trial news — the indictment of former transport secretaries Ricardo Jaime and Juan Pablo Schiavi and the Cirigliano brothers for last February’s 51-death Once rail crash (Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo blamed the state of the Sarmiento line on Menem); vague testimony from briefly missing witness Alfonso Severo in the murder trial of railway union leader José Pedraza and the trial of the murder of Río Negro Governor Carlos Soria at the start of this year.