May 25, 2013
Train of thoughts
These days were always going to be dominated by one issue: the first anniversary of the Once train station crash that killed 51 people (including a pregnant woman who lost the child that she was carrying) on February 22, 2012. A Sarmiento line train arriving from Greater Buenos Aires at Once, a main terminal station in Buenos Aires, packed with working class commuters in the morning rush hour smashed into the platform buffers. To the relatives and friends of those killed, the crash was a “massacre,” the horrible consequence of a combination of corrupt national government officials, rogue trade unions and cash-thirsty executives running the private concession.
Peronist railway union bosses are also suspects in the killing of Mariano Ferreyra, a young far-left activist, during a demonstration by outsourced railway workers in 2010. There’s more blood on the railway tracks. Engine-driver Leonardo Andrada, who was manning the train in the shift prior to the crash, was shot dead a fortnight ago. He was a key witness in the case.
To a wider set of critics, the deadly crash is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The President, those critics say, has claimed that her unorthodox economic policies, away from neoliberalism, have pulled Argentina out of poverty and put it back on the track of economic growth. But the crash, to those critics, shows that in reality the country is still as dysfunctional as ever and that the “model” is mere fantasy.
Fernández de Kirchner, according to the critics, is not a reformer. She has continued to do business with the same union leaders and business executives who were involved in the privatization of the railway in the nineties.
The February 22 crash was marked with a moving morning ceremony at Once train station on Friday. In the afternoon, the relatives of the victims called a demonstration in Plaza de Mayo that was attended by thousands who called for justice. Supporters of the government say the calls for justice have not gone unanswered.
Two former Kirchnerite transport secretaries, Ricardo Jaime and Juan Pablo Schiavi (secretary at the time of the crash) have been indicted. The private concession was stripped from the executives. The President has also since the crash reportedly met with the relatives of the victims in private.
Yet judging by the look of Friday’s ceremonies the relatives are not satisfied by what the national government has done. Fernández de Kirchner chose not to react immediately when the train crashed last year.
The crowd jeered Fernández de Kirchner in Plaza de Mayo on Friday. Unfortunately, for the lovers of the free market, the demonstrators on Friday also called for the outright nationalization of trains.
Clearly at issue on Friday was Fernández de Kirchner’s handling of the situation since the very day the commuter train crashed.
There are signs that the tragedy has anguished the President. Fernández de Kirchner has rarely referred to the crash in public. This week was never going to be easy for the national government. The President’s 92 year-old mother in law (the mother of the late former president Néstor Kirchner) died on Sunday. The President was in mourning when she turned 60 on Tuesday. She made the first public appearance of the week on Thursday to launch a new state-run sports channel at the Tecnópolis science fair in Greater Buenos Aires.
The occasion itself was celebratory. But the President chose to make a sombre direct reference to the Once station crash to pay her respects to the bereaved on the eve of the first anniversary. Fernández de Kirchner said on Thursday that the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo had waited a long time for justice, an apparent message to the relatives of the victims that the courts are often slow. The CFK administration has the support of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo for quashing amnesty laws passed in the eighties. But Nora Cortiñas, a Mother of Plaza de Mayo, said at the Once train station ceremony on Friday morning that she did not agree with the President’s comparison.
The ruling party’s anguish was also clear at Thursday’s Senate session called to debate the memorandum of understanding that Argentina has signed with Iran to establish a truth commission into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
The Senate session opened just before noon. Opposition senators tabled a motion for the Senate to formally pay tribute to the victims of the Once train station tragedy. But Senator Miguel Angel Pichetto, the leader of the Kirchnerite Victory Front caucus, dismissed the motion saying that extraordinary sessions (like Thursday’s) are called to exclusively debate bills sponsored by the Executive. Many were outraged by Pichetto’s stance.
The Senate debate on the treaty with Iran was still raging when the President spoke at Tecnópolis late on Thursday afternoon. Pichetto must have received an order from a very high place because later that night during the session he announced that the Victory Front caucus had changed its mind and had decided to back the resolution paying tribute to the Once station victims.
Thursday, the eve of the anniversary, was not an easy day for the CFK administration. Pichetto also had an argument with Vice-President Amado Boudou, the Kirchnerite head of the Senate, over the house rules when the opposition’s motion for a tribute was discussed.
The nerves of the Victory Front were frayed in the Senate. But the long Senate debate was more specifically about the treaty with Iran, which has been opposed by Argentina’s large Jewish community and some of the relatives of the 85 people killed in the 1994 attack. According to the national government, the agreement with Iran will allow Argentine court officials to question five Iranians wanted by Interpol (including serving Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi) for their alleged role in the attack. But Laura Ginsberg, who lost her husband in the attack, told a Senate hearing last week that the accord is a bid to bring the investigation to a “full stop” for the sake of mending Argentina’s diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran.
The 72-seat Senate approved the accord with Iran 39-31 (two absent) late on Thursday. The bill now moves to the Lower House. Already there is speculation that the Victory Front could have problems in mustering the required quorum of 129 for the session scheduled for Wednesday to open.
Quorum is at risk because the opposition has said that it will only attend the debate if the Victory Front manages to open the session.
At least two Victory Front lawmakers, now loyal to the anti-government CGT union leader Hugo Moyano, have said that they will not support the accord. Any problems in approving the treaty in the Lower House will make it less legitimate and will also be a sign that the President is not completely in control of her party in an election year.
Moyano was once a key ally of the Kirchnerite administration (his son Facundo Moyano is a Victory Front lawmaker). But Moyano has been at odds with the President and is now in the opposition after his political demands were not met ahead of the presidential elections in 2011.
Moyano, the leader of the well-organized teamsters, is on the warpath. On Monday, teamsters picketed the premises of a wholesale supermarket chain to demand the affiliation of logistics sector workers. Moyano on Tuesday addressed a group of teamsters outside the Labour Ministry. The leader of the teamsters was in a confrontational mood. If the President, Moyano said, wants to “throw me in jail” then she should go ahead and do so. Labour Minister Carlos Tomada accused Moyano of trying to trigger food shortages now that the national government has hammered out an accord with the major retail supermarket chains to freeze prices for 60 days, in a bid to control inflation during the wage bargaining season.
Moyano announced an end to the picketing for 10 days after opening negotiations with the Buenos Aires City labour portfolio on Tuesday. The talks sponsored by the municipal government prompted speculation that Moyano is now cultivating a political friendship with Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right party PRO.
Moyano has established his own political party away from the Victory Front and has not ruled out running for president in 2015. But the latest bout of picketing could be a sign that Moyano is losing his cool because he feels under pressure now that he is at odds with the national government’s powerful political machine.
Concern about inflation is also bringing more tension to wage talks. The national government’s offer of a 22 percent pay hike for teachers has been rejected by practically all the unions. Strikes have been called for Monday. There was no progress in Buenos Aires province between Governor Daniel Scioli and the teachers unions. Scioli’s Buenos Aires province government is reportedly lacking at least 10 billion pesos to meet the 22 percent wage hike. CFK’s Economy Minister Hernán Lorenzino on Wednesday warned Scioli, technically a Kirchnerite with presidential ambitions in 2015, not to issue debt to pay for salary hikes. Lorenzino and Scioli administration officials traded barbs. Scioli last year said that he will run for president in 2015 if the President does not seek to the reform the Constitution to allow for a new mandate.
Lorenzino was sending out the President’s message to Scioli: you will suffer financially if you do not put your political ambitions on ice ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Scioli at times also looks cornered territorially. A number of Peronist mayors in Greater Buenos Aires have stated that they back the President’s re-election. Scioli, speaking on Thursday night at a Peronist gathering, swore loyalty to the Victory Front — a sign that he could well indeed be feeling financially and territorially cornered by the President.