March 12, 2014
Some don’t like it hot
This week’s story was all about power — in both the political and electrical sense.
Unless we are given an alternative explanation, we can only suspect that the perpetuation of power is in some way the ulterior motive behind the Faustian pact whereby the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration sacrificed the political capital from a decade of solid identification with human rights to push the controversial promotion of Army Chief-of-Staff César Milani through the Senate. In the past five months the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) and others have done an excellent job in explaining why that promotion is controversial — centred on three specific cases from the 1976-83 military dictatorship, especially the “desertion” (read forced disappearance) of the conscript Alberto Ledo (not to mention embezzlement accusations from more democratic years).
But what was missing from Wednesday’s five-hour Senate debate preceding the 39-30 vote in Milani’s favour was any solid argument to explain this insistence on this gratuitous choice doing untold damage to the CFK government’s image and risking the alienation of staunch human rights allies — what exactly made Milani so important? After all, one would think that after almost four decades it would be extremely hard work to find a serving officer with even the minor role of a very young Milani in the “dirty war” but amazingly the government managed to find him.
In their “due obedience” to presidential wishes, ruling party senators could not come up with anything better than a lame assertion of the principle of innocent until proven guilty (when the burden of proof on an Army Chief-of-Staff should surely be akin to Caesar’s wife) so we can only speculate about the real reasons for needing Milani at the top. Is it his long experience at the helm of military intelligence, with an agenda (to speculate more wildly) of imposing an espionage network which would horrify an Edward Snowden or perhaps simply because he knows too much? Or (to continue the wild speculation which administration silence permits), are there plans to impose Bolivarian governance which would never be complete without its military wing? Or could Milani’s ideas on a social role for the Army in poor neighbourhoods offer a useful stick alongside the carrot in this month of looting — providing a potential supplement to the Border Guards who are currently the pet solution of Security Secretary Sergio Berni (an Army officer on leave and thus Milani’s subordinate, by the way) to militarize socially explosive zones? Or the most extreme speculation of all, is a politicized force under Milani a potential strategy for retaining power beyond 2015? This is unfair on an administration which has proved its democratic credentials this year by fighting and losing two electoral contests without fraud or protest but yet CFK does not feel that she owes any explanation to anybody about Milani. But she does — ours is to reason why.
Yet since “power” is the key word of this column, the Senate vote was an impressive demonstration of the government’s continuing control in the new Congress (no less than seven allies joined the Victory Front). Such a controversial case as Milani should surely be considered an acid test of loyalty on a par with the pact with Iran at the start of the year. As for the human rights groups, the rift has yet to make itself felt — both criticism and support were minority expressions with the groups more silent than anything else, reflecting an ambivalence between distaste for Milani and gratitude to a government which has done so much for them in the “won decade.”
The random blackouts with angry pickets transforming the pre-Christmas urban landscape have put paid to post-electoral “fine-tuning” just as surely as the Once rail tragedy in early 2012, four months after the CFK landslide. Politically impossible perhaps but the subsidies are fiscally unsustainable, up 48 percent so far this year (as against an average public spending increase of 37 percent) to approximate five percent of Gross Domestic Product.
And these constant new power consumption records all this torrid week did not even wait for summer (which started yesterday) and nor are they accompanied by peak demand from industry (car output slumped 15 percent last month with Brazil in negative growth) — this is not a “problem of success” from “Chinese” growth. In fact the main fluctuations of demand come from private households and retailers, not continuous industrial processes.
For almost the first time the government has admitted the problem — if indeed it has. While the utilities were the main culprits as usual (with the threat of nationalizing a dysfunctional public service, as happened to the Sarmiento railway line only two months ago), Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich also pinpointed the four million air-conditioning units sold in the last five years. In midweek Capitanich proposed rotating shifts, rapidly backtracking under criticism, but it was a reasonable suggestion — why not share the pain instead of always the same neighbourhoods suffering?
The utilities were claiming 99 percent normal service at the end of the week but there will clearly be no respite from heat waves. Clearly the grid will have to expand to meet rising demand long before Vaca Muerta shale can be effectively tapped (nuclear energy may need to be debated in the week the Greenpeace activists were amnestied in Russia) but the immediate debate is between more capacity instantly or better maintenance of the existing grid (which totals 31,000 megawatts as against this week’s peaks of 23,000). The problem is, of course, investment, which is discouraged by the same frozen utility rates which spur extravagant demand — a system which burns the candle both ends (even if more realistic pricing would not guarantee more investment). At the same time inflation constantly raises the utility costs (hence the mushrooming subsidies) while Argentina’s continuing exclusion from global credit markets undoubtedly hurts investment. Nor is all this even a case of sacrificing economic sense to populism because it is bad populism with the biggest benefits for the richest households with the most power-driven gadgets.
One instant solution to boost the national grid was to deploy private generators — City Mayor Mauricio Macri wants to mandate them for buildings of six storeys or more. But these are not such an easy way out — they are costly (starting at 100,000 pesos) with dangerous fumes (two people died last week).
No doubt Friday’s anniversary of the turbulent end of the Alliance administration was far more normal than many people had feared because the power cuts have supplanted the looting earlier this month as the big concern. But the major police pay hikes springing from those episodes are a worrying precedent for demands for parity elsewhere in the public sector — a headache in particular for provinces already struggling to pay Christmas bonuses. But the collective bargaining now starting seems to cluster around 30 percent — aside from parity, many workers are anxious about keeping their jobs (although the accelerating devaluation also adds pressures). In other labour news, teamsters obtained a Christmas bonus of 2,500 pesos instead of the 4,500 they were demanding, court clerks obtained a five percent pay hike and there were air strikes.
With the abeyance of looting, debate on the police front centred on their prospective unionization — advocates argue that it would provide a more orderly negotiating vehicle but unionized police could also be a barrier to their own modernization on a par with Mexico’s teachers. Senator Aníbal Fernández presented a bill to punish police dereliction of duty. Meanwhile CFK seems to discount motives other than destabilization for either this month’s looters or police mutineers.
A huge media buzz this week was tycoon Lázaro Báez seeking a court injunction to make his business dealings with the Kirchners “private and confidential” at the expense of press freedom (see editorial on opposite page). Another court injunction has stayed the gaming agreement between the Báez twin Cristóbal López and Macri’s City Hall which gave the former some two billion pesos of tax relief at the expense of social obligations.
In party politics, there are two new chairmen — Mendoza Ernesto Sanz for the national Radicals replacing Mario Barletta and La Matanza Mayor Fernando Espinoza for Buenos Aires province Peronists.
Another major story was the Tucumán provincial supreme court’s reversal of the acquittals of 10 of the 13 defendants in the Marita Verón white slavery trial. In the year since the acquittals, the offending judges were removed from the bench (in just 10 minutes by a Tucumán legislative committee) but it looks like one of those cases where the law is at odds with justice in the broader sense. There were technical reasons for the acquittals — the usual problems of murders without a body, a jurisdictional problem with the gang being mainly based in La Rioja and no specific links to Marita Verón while plenty to human-trafficking (a class action might have been more advisable) — but public opinion was outraged with this impunity for white slavery and rightly so. Less impunity now.