May 18, 2013
Caught up in court
Yesterday now looks like last year with a sudden change of pace
A three-day week with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner down in Patagonia the whole time was saved from being a total news vacuum by last Thursday’s 180th anniversary of continuous British presence on the Malvinas. Not that this added too many degrees to the temperature or tempests to the storm-clouds. The ritual sparring in various media marked closure in many ways as much as the start of anything big. 2012 was not the only year to end in the course of the past week — last Thursday also effectively wound up the 30th anniversary of the 1982 South Atlantic war. Starting last year as the great national cause, Malvinas sovereignty was run up the flag-pole here but hardly anybody saluted and as from April the CFK administration was proceeding as if the black gold were to be found in the shale deposits of Vaca Muerta rather than offshore in the South Atlantic.
Little was new in last week’s exchanges, least of all CFK’s letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron complaining of “colonialism” and an “implanted population.” The islanders retorted that they were not a colony but a British overseas territory — the Foreign Office (dating British settlement of the islands back to 1765, not 1833) also stressed self-determination with the status of the Malvinas very much up to the islanders to be decided in a March referendum, further reminding Argentina that this issue was thus three-cornered rather than a bilateral Anglo-Argentine dispute. British Ambassador John Freeman was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to be told the opposite of the above. Perhaps the main novelty was an objection to Queen Elizabeth Land (recently renamed at the end of Diamond Jubilee year) in Antarctica, thus marking a projection of Argentine interest beyond the South Atlantic.
Anyway it all served to bring the Herald some global attention and a place in the sun — and here we are not just talking about that London newspaper which chronicled the 1982 sinking of the General Belgrano with that ineffable headline: “Gotcha.”
COURT TAUT AND TORT. Despite CFK’s somewhat left-handed letter to Cameron, her administration gives every impression that their real enemy is not British imperialism but its own judiciary. A combination of presidential absence and a technical stalemate left the various legal disputes in abeyance for most of the week but right at the end various developments seemed to ensure that this feud between branches of government will bulk large in next Sunday’s column.
In theory nothing at all should be happening on that front because January is the month of the court holiday but the government had moved to suspend the holiday in order to clear away faster the tangle of appeals and injunctions blocking the divestment of the Clarín Group under the 2009 Broadcasting Law (which is defined as an “institutional urgency”). But this placed the government in something of a cleft stick because lifting the court holiday would also help the Rural Society avert the nationalization of its Palermo exhibition grounds (which it had been ordered to vacate by January 20 so that resuming litigation in February after the court holiday would have found them on the wrong side of the “Possession is nine-tenths of the law” maxim which seems so important in the Malvinas situation). Short of the double standards of opening one court and closing others, this cleft stick seemed to suggest that either maintaining or lifting the court holiday would be politically neutral, a curate’s egg, thus giving judicial impartiality after all.
Yet in the closing hours of the week it seems that both sides had scored a point against each other, intensifying the feud — the Rural Society its injunction and the government a suspension of the court holiday on the Clarín front (this will be explored in more depth next Sunday). But just beforehand (on Thursday, the day of the 180th anniversary) tension had erupted on other judicial fronts. Most of the week there was relatively mild skirmishing — pro-government media highlighted the alleged complicity between the Rural Society and the 1976-83 military dictatorship while Lower House Majority Leader Agustín Rossi proposed taxing judges as the latest move toward “democratizing” justice — but then there was an uproar over Justice Minister Julio Alak’s tasteless choice of the former ESMA Navy Mechanics School concentration camp for a barbecue to celebrate the end of 2012, leading critics to question the sincerity of Kirchnerite identification with the human rights cause. On the same day Mothers of Plaza de Mayo leader Hebe de Bonafini revived a previous threat (uttered in September, 2010) to storm the Supreme Court unless it cleared the obstacles to the Broadcasting Law, accusing its justices of being corrupt cowards controlled by the media.
There is a need for everybody to calm down — after all, neither CFK’s presidency nor Clarín newspaper nor the Palermo farm show are seriously at stake in all this — but will they? We’ll see how this story unfolds next week.
TOMORROW’S MEN? CFK was scheduled to start 2013 on Wednesday by welcoming the creditor-impounded naval training frigate Li-bertad back from Ghana with celebrations on a par with the 2010 bicentenary but some pundits argue that there is no comeback — that the long odds against a constitutional reform to permit her a third term plus including Peronism among the culprits for the pre-Christmas looting are causing the wheeler-dealers of the country’s historically dominant political movement to look elsewhere for the 2015 presidential elections. Where? Once again last Thursday is the key day — the photograph of Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli and City Mayor Mauricio Macri meeting to discuss waste disposal at a garbage recycling plant.
Yet anybody sensing here a major CFK alliance in the making should recall the last time a photo with Macri sparked similar comment — his huddle last October with dissident CGT leader Hugo Moyano, which was followed in the very same week by Moyano’s CGT and Macri’s PRO centre-right party clashing over the ART industrial accident legislation reform then going through Congress. Equally, Scioli and Macri have conflicting interests — not least, over the problem of where to dump waste which brought them together on Thursday and even more so over 2015 presidential candidacies (this rivalry will intensify in inverse proportion to how seriously they take the prospect of a third CFK term, for which a credible alternative has yet to emerge).
Apart from any 2015 presidential rivalry, both men need to watch their backs in their current posts. If Argentines increasingly feel overtaxed, neither is immune from blame. City Hall has doubled ABL property rates in some cases in the recent increase while highway tolls have been hiked by up to 43 percent to fund the newly municipal subway. Scioli’s “reassessment” of rural property taxation last year very visibly irked farmers in the month before the midyear bonus crisis, which exposed Buenos Aires province’s fiscal vulnerability. Nor are they immune from responsibility in public anxieties over crime. And do we need look any further than the teachers of Buenos Aires province or the unruly subway workers to remind ourselves that they will face problems in what looks like a very tricky labour year?
Macri began municipal control of the subway last week with many questions up in the air — the fare (he floated six pesos and not even trade unionists pampered by subsidies seem to expect less than four), the future management (will Metrovías stay, is a foreign company like France’s Alstom in line or will City Hall have to move into the vacuum?), relations with a split workforce (like his predecessors, Macri seems to prefer UTA transport workers union to the shop stewards). The one certainty is that “A” line will close down next weekend for a major overhaul — this points to serious investment ahead but does Macri have the political will and clout for real change? But something will have to give since a subsidized system has to run harder and harder to stay in the same place.
Scioli was rather more serene in his reflections last week — he has differences with CFK (which he will not identify) just as with his wife but they get on fine; his job is to meet everybody, not just government allies (he met farm leaders on the same day as Macri); the Broadcasting Law is up to the Supreme Court; the pre-Christmas looting was not much more than looting rather than any conspiracy; waste is a problem of growth, etc. Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.
THE ECONOMY (STUPID). Most 2013 economic forecasts have Argentina “condemned to success” thanks to Brazilian pickup and soy but they could be faltering on both fronts. Torrential rains could threaten the harvest while Brazil, which grew barely one percent last year, is struggling to reach three percent this year — the momentum is slow (and slowest with cars, 25 percent of Brazilian industry, and capital goods) while a 35 percent plunge in the 2012 trade surplus threatens export-led growth. European recession and Argentine protectionism (imports from Brazil fell 20 percent last year to 18 billion dollars) are the main culprits for the latter. Nor is economic revival here guaranteed by electioneering for which there is less fiscal margin while inflation looms as en electoral liability (especially as it can no longer be seen as the price of growth after 2012).
In other economic news last week, unofficial dollar hit seven pesos (due to seasonal factors such as summer vacations abroad, the Christmas bonus and the temporary revival of dollar deposits for tax reasons) while the 2012 tax haul was reported as 680 billion pesos (approximately one peso for every dollar of Gross Domestic Product) as against 540 billion in 2011 — greatly aided by inflation.