March 12, 2014
An inconvenient responsibility
When the only presidential statement in a fortnight of a record heat wave and endless power cuts is to comment on an ultra-loyalist’s claim that she will be running in 2015 and when motorists heading to the coast might just see posters reportedly going up to promote the Buenos Aires gubernatorial candidacy of City Deputy Mayor María Eugenia Vidal in that distant future, there seems to be a serious mismatch between the priorities of the political class and the general public. The very concept of public services points to an inescapable responsibility of the public sector and the tired old pantomine of the government scolding the utilities, both fining them and forcing them to compensate power cut victims (only to refund them afterwards out of snowballing subsidies), is not good enough. Even the government seems to realize this although Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich now revives an ingenious way of shifting the responsibility other than outright nationalization — transferring it to City Hall and the Buenos Aires provincial government (which would have the highly beneficial side-effect of making the burden of national subsidies magically vanish). The Carlos Menem administration pushed through a similar self-serving transfer of responsibility two decades ago when it decentralized education and health to the provinces and the negative consequences for both areas cannot be underestimated.
Instead the government should seriously assume its responsibility for a national grid strained to the limit, not play for time waiting for the mass exodus of the owners of air-conditioned homes to their holiday destinations. And this means government at all levels, each one of which should be able to produce a contingency plan on its own initiative instead of waiting for the others to move — thus if City Hall is so keen on generators as the solution with its bill to mandate their installation in all buildings of over six storeys or more, why is it doing nothing to place those generators at the disposal of those hapless citizens denied power for 10 days or more (or at least some water)?
Perhaps this crisis responds to deeper causes than pseudo-utilities and a perverse subsidy system — perhaps we should be looking harder at climate change as fuelling this relentless heat wave and perhaps we should be asking if it is reasonable to expect cheap power on demand for such a huge urban monster as this metropolis into which nearly half the population of this vast and rich land insist on crowding? But if those are the questions, the government responsibility is equally inescapable.