May 22, 2013
Give me liberty or give me death
Argentina and Venezuela have acquired another point in common — if Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolás Maduro runs the show there, his local counterpart Amado Boudou is acting president for all this week and beyond as President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner vanishes into Pacific airspace en route to Asia.
The preceding week can be divided quite neatly into three parts — sound and fury via Twitter and Facebook over the weekend ultimately not signifying very much, the return of the naval training frigate Libertad in midweek (the extravagant celebration of a mistake) and the pilgrimage to the Havana sickbed of ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the end of the week. Although the importance of CFK’s almost unprecedented use of the i-word “inflation” should not be underestimated.
The news blackout in Cuba — hardly anything beyond CFK lunching with the Castro brothers and giving the Chávez family a Protestant bible — invites all kinds of speculation into which this column will not delve. Instead we will begin the summary of the week with its peak — Wednesday’s return of the Libertad to Mar del Plata.
Billed in advance as an epic nationalistic triumph over a hostile outside world, it proved no more transformational than last month’s “7-D” milestone supposedly marking the end of negative and malicious misinformation. CFK’s speech, the event’s centrepiece, was short (barely half an hour) and half-hearted by her fiery standards, not even broadcast nationwide — neither was the vessel renamed (as urged by some pickets) nor the navy purged.
Various reasons combined to take the wind out of CFK’s sails (so to speak). Awareness that the next evening she would be boarding a Chapman Freeborn chartered jet (frequent flyers to the Malvinas, thus making its use technically treason) must have made her feel any victory over the “vulture funds” with the Libertad’s return was highly relative (perhaps this explains her otherwise gratuitous injection of the Malvinas issue into her speech as compensation).
Moreover, such a nationalistic event nevertheless failed to be national because the audience was so partisan — a Mar del Plata brimming with holiday-makers would surely have supplied a huge crowd out of sheer curiosity over such a unique event without need of organizing 500 buses to bring in the faithful from Greater Buenos Aires but there were evidently fears of saucepan-bashing so that CFK ended up preaching to the converted against “anarcho-capitalism.” Yet in fairness, it should also be pointed out that the highly partisan nature of the crowd was not entirely the government’s fault — the opposition made a huge mistake in shunning this genuinely national occasion in welcoming back the Libertad from Ghana after almost three months of captivity by hedge fund creditors.
Nor is the cause against the “vulture funds” purely national and this perhaps deflated CFK when taking on an outside world which might very well be mostly on her side. A powerful international coalition opposes New York Judge Thomas Griesa’s pari passu ruling in favour of debt bond swap holdouts, — 93 percent of Argentina’s creditors accepting the 2005 and 2010 haircuts (headed by the influential Gramercy Fund), several crisis-stricken countries (Greece etc.) fearful about the Griesa precedent blocking similar solutions for themselves and even Washington apprehensive about New York’s future as a financial centre, not to mention some opposition politicians here like former Central Bank governor Alfonso Prat Gay.
It must also have been difficult for her to celebrate the frigate’s return too effusively if only 10 weeks ago she had said that Argentina’s creditors could keep the boat but could not take away “our liberty, sovereignty and dignity” — memories are short but not so short. Nor should the gross negligence exposing the Libertad to seizure be forgotten — Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman’s list of hitherto undisclosed near misses from similar confiscations over the years only made it worse. The early arrival of the Libertad off Mar del Plata, only to kill time for over a day awaiting the presidential presence, turned the event into something of a forced farce (a Tuesday ceremony might have enabled CFK to make Thursday’s presidential inauguration in Caracas but the event was the victim of its own enormity with too many prior arrangements made).
But perhaps one warcry from Wednesday’s harangue should be singled out as the shape of things to come — “We’ll fight and if we have nothing left, we’ll fight naked like the Indians” because this fervent nationalism also points to austerity ahead. An impression only confirmed the next day when her pre-departure announcements of railway modernization (which need to be seen to be believed after the “bullet train” and the way the Sarmiento line rail underpass unveiled in 2008 to prevent level-crossing accidents still lay in the future at the time of the far greater Once tragedy on the same line last year) was accompanied by liberal use of the hitherto taboo i-word inflation. Needless to say, the blame was externalized (to City Mayor Mauricio Macri’s sharply rising ABL property rates and his quest for a subway fare of 3.50 pesos and to attempted fuel surcharges in some provinces) when her own government has been active jacking up fuel prices, utility rates and transport fares but her first nationwide broadcast of 2013 suggested that inflation denial might finally be ending — although whether to tackle it as a potential electoral liability (hitting her core low-income vote the hardest), to fuel it in this year’s inevitable electioneering or even as part of a possible deal with the International Monetary Fund remains unclear. But rising public service charges from all levels of government (leading to a riot against higher bus fares in Córdoba last Thursday) and rising fuel prices (YPF’s nationalization is paradoxically resulting in market instead of populist pricing with reduced oil export duties another sign of a new pragmatism) look like making inflation an issue impossible to avoid in 2013.
TWITTER JITTERS. Last Sunday’s column was written at a confusing time amid the full flush of presidential social media outbursts against the media, leading us to promise an attempt at clarification today so here goes. The genesis of this summer storm was an attempt at compromise which backfired when the Civil and Commercial Court said yes to everybody — lifting this month’s court holiday to accelerate the CFK administration’s legal feud with the Clarín Group while also giving the Rural Society a stay on the nationalization of their Palermo fairgrounds. CFK still went ballistic but from the isolation of Calafate could only express herself via Twitter. Brevity is not her strong suit — last year’s state of the nation speech lasting over three hours would have required 895 tweats according to this scribe’s calculations and on this occasion she needed 22 basically to say that the judicial branch was a “superpower” whose injunctions were making democracy dysfunctional, also defending Justice Minister Julio Alak’s barbecue at the former Navy Mechanics School concentration camp (now a memorial museum).
But in the end it was a single day of fury — the government stayed within the legal system by appealing and seeking a new court with no purge of the judiciary along the lines of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (1992) in the offing although just possibly reforms drastic enough to necessitate a constitutional reform (a third CFK term by the back door?). For its part, the Rural Society also adopted a more pacific stance with the Liaison Board of farming leaders proposing to replace sales boycotts with dialogue to counter farming policies leading to Argentina having less meat and wheat than ever.
Yet while the court’s timing looked sneaky to Cabinet Chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina, its impeccable ruling went to the heart of the matter in the government’s clash with the judiciary — the state cannot contradict itself by dubbing illegal its own action 20 years ago (i.e. the privatization of the Palermo grounds) without establishing that illegality in court, although the distinction between state and government is lost on CFK. Quite apart from safeguards against arbitrary expropriations, a government valuing political loyalty over merit has been too error-prone in the last year not to need itself such checks and balances.
At the same time CFK took it upon herself to satisfy actor Ricardo Darín’s curiosity as to her wealth with far greater promptitude than evinced by either the Once tragedy or the pre-Christmas lootings, writing him a Facebook letter of almost 2,000 words (via Twitter it would have been 72 tweats). She threw in his face car contraband charges from over 20 years ago but Darín said he was the victim, not the culprit, and was acquitted rather than off the hook from the statute of limitations. As for her wealth, this had been thoroughly thrashed out in court — it might well be that such methods as buying Calafate state land cheap to sell it dear as upmarket hotels is not technically illegal but the purpose of state land is surely not to make presidents rich.
There was method in the madness — she used the Darín reply to point to Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli’s greenback deposits (Scioli was forced to admit to over 200,000 dollars). Scioli’s lieutenant-governor Gabriel Mariotto kicked in (in the same week as the Chaco lieutenant-governor dismissed the provincial education minister in the governor’s absence), as did Senator Aníbal Fernández and Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo, while CFK also used her Libertad speech to mock those who try to please everybody with talk of love and peace instead of taking tough decisions (without naming the 2015 presidential frontrunner Scioli).
Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion from the social media outburst is that CFK seems to have a largely verbal understanding of reality with more interest in winning arguments than in achievements.
In labour news, even the pro-government
CGT wanted the income tax floor raised by 57 percent, ATE state workers put in for a 48 percent wage increase and long-distance bus drivers played up.