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April 25, 2014
Sunday, December 8, 2013

The looting season

A pedestrian walks behind a burning barricade set up to discourage looters and robbers during a police strike in Cordoba last week.
By James Neilson
For the Herald

CFK government making enemies’ lives unpleasant

Unlike the looting spree that, to widespread bewilderment, wreaked havoc in London and other British cities a couple of years ago, what happened in Córdoba last week did not come as a surprise. In Argentina, people in the retail trade, especially those who look after supermarkets and the numerous Chinese establishments, have long been aware that the looting season begins when the summer holidays are fast approaching and, with luck, ends soon after the new year has been ushered in.

This time round they are especially worried. It is not just that inflation has been devouring pay packets, leaving many people hard up. Even more ominous, in their view, is the political outlook. What they and others fear is that “militants” recruited by Cristina’s government may feel it is in their interest to run amok in opposition strongholds such as Córdoba, Santa Fe and, in the view of the more bellicose, Buenos Aires Province.

The new Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich, along with interior minister Florencio Randazzo and the man in charge of security, lieutenant colonel Sergio Berni, did not go out of their way to disabuse them. Far from it. As soon as the mayhem in Córdoba hit the television screens, they made the most of it by blaming it all on governor José Manuel de la Sota for not preventing the local police from going on strike and, just to make sure he got the message, let him know they would not be sending any gendarmes to restore order. Apparently, Cristina had told them to bide their time so De la Sota, a Peronist who dislikes the Kirchnerite government, could stew in his own juice for a while. Later, after De la Sota had returned from an official trip to Central America, she changed her mind, but by then the damage had been done.

Refusing to lend a helping hand to a provincial governor when he needed it was only to be expected from Cristina. To build what they hoped would be an impregnable power base, first Nestor Kirchner and then his wife made it their business to discriminate, systematically and blatantly, between “their” provinces and those in enemy hands. Friendly governors get loads of public money, the rest have to beg for scraps. Until quite recently, the scheme paid handsome dividends; not just Peronist governors but even some Radical ones prostrated themselves before their liege lord and his lady to swear life-long loyalty to “the project” and “the model”. But since it became plain that Cristina would not manage to remain in office after December 2015 and she was seeing her power slip away at an alarming rate, such opportunists have been looking for alternatives. Few doubt that, to keep them in line, Kirchnerite operators will make full use of their considerable ability to make trouble.

In most democratic countries, the national government understands that it will lose face if things start going badly wrong in any place where its writ is supposed to run. In Argentina, the government has grown accustomed to exploiting the difficulties not only of its foes but also of allies as fulsomely subservient as Daniel Scioli who are suspected of having their own interests, not just Cristina’s, at heart. That is why many assume that Kirchnerites have been behind the long teachers’ strikes that periodically interrupt schooling in Buenos Aires Province, and that on occasion Cristina has deprived Scioli of funds to pay public employees. It is her way of reminding him who is in charge. Would the La Cámpora boys be capable of encouraging looters to do their worst? They certainly would if they thought that they could get away with it.

When over a week ago some supermarkets near Rosario were pillaged, the Santa Fe governor and other officials pointed their fingers as the drug cartel bosses who think they own parts of the city and object to attempts by the local authorities to poke their noses in. Observers in Córdoba essayed similar theories when they saw squadrons of motorcyclists roaming about attacking homes, shops and people who looked unable to fight back. But though it may be assumed that many looters were either drug peddlers or customers, it seems a bit far-fetched to make out the country is under attack from hordes of them, whether allied or not with bent cops determined to take over what is a temptingly lucrative business.

In any event, whenever looting starts, the individuals who presumably work for some criminal mastermind are soon joined by “ordinary” folk who make the most of a chance to get hold of some free stuff. Youthful thieves in Córdoba were proud enough of their exploits to film and then post videos online, much as do devotees of the increasingly popular “knockout game” in the US. In some cases, their vanity will land them in jail.

Unless we are lucky, Argentina is in for a very hot summer. As money dries up, the genuinely poverty-stricken who survive on government handouts, young people who already know they have no future, and disgruntled political activists who feel they have been betrayed by Cristina or who, encouraged by the willingness of Capitanich, Randazzo and company to try and make some political capital out of a monumental disaster, think she wants them to make life unpleasant for her many enemies, are providing themselves with all the excuses they need to lash out against the established order. The Buenos Aires Province security minister Alejandro Granados was right to say there was a “lot of psychosis” going the rounds but, as he surely realizes, in the current circumstances even a little “psychosis” can be dangerous.

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