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April 18, 2014
Sunday, December 15, 2013

Who’s on top of the cops?

Men in blue after their equivalent of “blue” dollars.
By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor / Economic Outlook

And what lies beneath the events traumatizing a major anniversary?

Despite everything, the most important event last week was the 30th anniversary of continuous democracy but it will not be the subject of today’s column — no disrespect intended but we dedicated eight pages to this milestone last Tuesday. Such respect does not necessarily extend to the festivities themselves — they were in order to defy the challenge to democracy and they started appropriately enough (including the tribute to 1983 president Raúl Alfonsín) but they should have cut out the music and dancing as out of joint with tragic times (at least a dozen direct or indirect dead)

Last Sunday the looting problem was largely Córdoba (which still ended up absorbing around half the total damage) but ultimately only three provinces and this city were spared the domino effect of the Córdoba police’s instantly successful extortion. Yet the nationwide scale of the police pay protests leaving a vacuum for looting promoted the problem into destabilization of the national government in many eyes — that word was actually used by Supreme Court Justice Eugenio Zaffaroni and 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel after President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner strongly implied it with the “no coincidences” of her Tuesday speech.

While the unrest does indeed seem too much of a coincidence with the 30th anniversary (as Cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich also said), this talk of destabilization is ultimately misleading. There is a widespread assumption that coups etc. are always meticulously planned when they are so often haphazard and opportunistic affairs (as Robert Cox pointed out last Tuesday, military intelligence stands out for its lack of intelligence). A good example would be the brief ouster of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in 2002, which was dubbed a coup for want of a better word. If it had been at all planned, the opposition would surely have had a better leader than the pathetic Pedro Cármona — what really happened was a temporary loss of nerve by Chávez and the army after a bloody end to a demonstration with the opposition sucked into the vacuum.

By the same token, Argentina’s troubles this month should not be seen as a plan beyond its Córdoba and police origins with everything else mostly opportunism and the government running behind events. The closest the government came to a direct accusation was against Sergio Massa’s Renewal Front, based on an ex-police municipal councillor advocating unionization of the force — perhaps the real substance of the charge was that Massa has attracted several followers of 2002-3 caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde, widely suspected of toppling Alliance President Fernando de la Rúa in yet another violent December (2001). Yet this overrates the importance of Duhalde while Massa might well be wondering if he still wants municipal police forces after the last 10 days. In general, a feckless opposition is more guilty of sins of omission — Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo was more on target in stressing their silence.

Instead the focus should be on the mutinous police themselves — the 200,000-strong provincial police forces whose democratization CFK urged in her Tuesday speech. And perhaps we should start with their central grievance, pay, where they have a case — indeed their pay demands were often as reasonable as their blackmail methods holding society hostage were unreasonable.

Generally underpaid for a risky profession (less than bus-drivers), the case of the police highlights that Argentina not only has a well-known problem of relative prices but also of relative wages. Yet it is not just about pay levels. Nobody seems to have singled out the fact that the basic pay of the Santiago del Estero police is 1,089 pesos a month and yet there was hardly a whisper of trouble there. What makes a Santiago del Estero cop so blissfully happy with 1,089 pesos? One has to suspect moonlighting or worse (the “narco-cops”). This also raises the question of whether these police protests are not a back-handed sign of progress — the more they are deprived of illegal earnings, the more they need money above the counter.

There is thus so much more to police reform than their pay, which should be improved but also be accompanied by a far more professional (and democratically imbued) training. As things are now, both the cops and the robbers tend to spring from the same deprived neighbourhoods as almost the only two career options — this leads to ill-gotten gains as pay supplements but also police brutality and trigger-happy behaviour which has caused over 4,000 deaths since 1983.

Despite being scolded for their extortionate use of the arms entrusted to them to protect the public, crime does seem to have paid for the police this week. Buenos Aires province Governor Daniel Scioli took the lead when he “decided, not offered” an 8,500-peso floor (despite no provisions for pay increases in the 2014 budget so painstakingly agreed with Massa). An average range of 8,000-8,500 pesos (Neuquén and Río Negro policemen will now enjoy five digits) was co-ordinated nationwide (the return of the “governor’s league”?) as last week’s blame game between national and provincial governments subsided. Córdoba Governor José Manuel de la Sota proposed legislation on national guidelines as well as to define the right to strike in essential public services.

The new pay bills for mutinous cops are sure to revive federal revenue-sharing tussles but in the more immediate term other provincial employees are seeking parity — teamster and other strikes loom. And then there is always the question of the national security forces — remember the Border and Coast Guard upheavals of October, 2012?

To run over the events themselves, it now seems their origin in Córdoba had been brewing for at least two years when the wives of the Córdoba police (doubled to 22,000 since 2007) started marching to express their grudges and grievances. The trouble spread to Santa Fe last weekend with looting in Rosario and Border Guards requested more promptly than in Córdoba’s case. Elsewhere the four provinces with problems last weekend became all but three provinces (Jujuy, Santa Cruz and Santiago del Estero) in the next couple of days.

The looters were never more than a few dozen or a few hundred — and not always impoverished. Government spokesmen highlighted often upmarket cars taking goods away but who says they were oligarchs — why not drug-traffickers or more successful criminals? The big question about the looting was whether it was merely opportunism or complicity with the striking police. Or just a general loss of values?

After the trouble largely died down, both punishment and compensation remained in the air. Some police chiefs were bounced while some governors spoke of prosecuting the “seditious.” Tax breaks for victims were raised but not defined. And what about the insurance?

Among sidelights, if UBA students provided the violence on the sidelines in the previous week, it was the turn of Boca Juniors fans last week. Across the water Uruguayan President José Mujica found time in the midst of legalizing marijuana (is his country going to pot?) to snipe at events here throughout the week, talking of a “power vacuum” — is he sour over the new credit card surcharge?Decembers are often tricky but this one is unique.

OTHER NEWS. Amidst all this drama the new Congress was sworn in — 33 caucuses in the new Lower House with 28 of them opposition (15 single-seat) while the Victory Front has 118 of the 257 seats with 13 allies.

Despite Mujica’s talk of a “power vacuum,” the government is having some success in imposing its own agenda — the Senate Appointments Committee cleared the promotion of controversial Army Chief-of-Staff César Milani despite human rights and embezzlement accusations against him while prosecutor José María Campagnoli was suspended (see editorial on the opposite page). Nevertheless, Vice-President Amado Boudou’s legal complications continue to mount (too intricate a topic for this space).

Meanwhile the national government and City Mayor Mauricio Macri agreed on a controversial tax exemption for gaming in this city in return for three percent of profits being transferred to City Hall.

Against many expectations, Central Bank reserves stayed above 30 billion dollars and actually edged up some days — thanks to Chevron money coming in and the more flexible bonds now being offered soy farmers (there is also more seasonal demand for pesos for Christmas bonuses and summer holidays). The tourism headache for greenback drainage is less Argentines abroad than tourists here discovering the “blue” dollar” (only a third of their exchange operations are legal). But energy and auto part imports are the real problem.

The new Economy Minister Axel Kicillof spent the first half of this week in China (Argentina’s third export market and second source of imports), chasing the 20 billion dollars famously expected from Hu Jintao’s 2004 visit for infrastructure. Meanwhile he held interest rates down although offering 21 percent for million-plus peso deposits (most big savers only want pocket money in peso accounts).

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