Presidential speech strikes cooperative note
Initiatives to seek limits on roadblocks and challenge to teachers’ unions may cause friction
In a chamber packed with deputies, senators, and boisterous supporters, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner yesterday opened the 132nd session of the Argentine Congress with a speech that included tentative olive branches to the political opposition and only superficially set out the legislative agenda for the coming year.
Before a largely impassive opposition, the president as expected announced that a reform to the Penal and Civil Codes will be presented to the Congress for its review along with a reform to the code regulating administrative disputes.
The president coupled these announcements with a challenge to Congress to improve on the existing agreement with Iran designed to facilitate the investigation into the 1994 attack on the AMIA building and with a vague exhortation to look for “guidelines for urban co-existence,” after criticizing the fact that small numbers of protesters regularly snarl major avenues.
The speech was focused almost entirely on domestic issues, save for an energetic but quite moderate comment on Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.
The bulk of her speech, her seventh speech to open a Congressional year and the 11th of a Kirchnerite administration, contained three primary themes: a defence of the role of the State as an effective administrator of resources, including as an actor within the private sector, critiques of the teacher’s union and the rejection of the indiscriminate use of road-blocks, and the crucial importance of energy sovereignty as a contributing factor for an economy’s competitiveness.
Much less combative than in other years, the President used a generally conciliatory tone and made a nod to greater political understanding between the various parties represented in the Congress, chiefly with a reference to the Radical Civic Union’s (UCR) tradition of upholding democracy, to which she said “Peronism hasn’t always given the same value.”
Cristina Kirchner’s speech contained an extensive review of her administration’s achievements, beginning with a quote from the World Bank which lauded her government’s successes in improving social indicators, reducing poverty and economic inequality by way of social spending, which is the biggest in Latin America.
The president then segued into a series of case studies spanning the breadth of the Argentine economy in a demonstration of her government’s, and by extension the state’s capacity, to be an efficient arbiter, regulator and agent in favour of the population.
Investment and the modernization of agricultural equipment was linked to record harvests and exports, which was followed by an exposition on the role that Aerolíneas Argentinas has had on promoting domestic tourism.
Aerolíneas Argentinas was famously expropriated by the administration with the political support of the UCR and was presented as an example of how the state could efficiently run a company with social objectives.
Achievements in health, education, retirement pensions, science and technology, housing, employment and in the media sector followed, with the president providing copious amounts of numbers and statistics to support her case.
In each case, the role of the government as an active and successful promoter of the stated goals was central to her argument.
Thinly-veiled targeted messages
Special mention was given to the education sector, most specifically as the president criticized teachers’ unions resistance to the inclusion of absenteeism provisions into their collective bargaining contracts.
Cristina Kirchner also questioned the fact that every year negotiations with the teachers’ unions drag on, threatening the start of classes.
By the same token, she also publicly thanked the teachers’ unions decision to cancel a strike which would have pushed back the beginning of the school year.
The critiques of the teachers’ unions was matched by the president pointing out that pickets and roadblocks, independently of the legitimacy of their claims, were damaging the whole of society when they indiscriminately obstruct traffic and economic activity.
In that vein, she called upon Congress to help her administration to develop “guidelines for urban co-existence” which would guarantee the right to assembly and protest but which would also establish the conditions necessary for mass urban centres to continue operating.
Both comments come ahead of collective bargaining negotiations with not only the teachers’ unions but a host of unions set to begin later this month. These have the potential to be contentious as there is disagreement about the “fair” rate for annual adjustment to inflation.
Energy policy defence
Coming soon after this week’s finalization of the purchase of 51 percent of the shares of YPF, and the subsequent announcement last night that the expropriation agreement had been sent to the Congress for its approval, the biggest applause was reserved for the president’s defence of the expropriation of Repsol-YPF and the subsequent reform headed by Economy Minister Axel Kicillof and the Legal and Technical Secretary Carlos Zannini.
However, Cristina Kirchner’s vindication of the expropriation of YPF and its consequent increase in production was not merely a recognition of her officials’ capacity.
It was couched within a defence of the strategic importance of energy sovereignty, wherein the production, cost and distribution of energy are of critical importance to the competitives of an economy.
Kirchner compared Argentina’s energy demands to those of a major power, such as the United States, which has made it a policy priority to become an energy exporter by investing in its existing energy resources and by promoting non-conventional non-renewable resources like shale gas.
The relatively cheap energy that United States would obtain from that energy would be used as an input for heavy industry, in turn generating economic growth.
While slyly suggesting that the United States seeks energy autonomy and sovereignty to dominate others, the president simply said her administration seeks it so as not to be “pushed around.”
The expropriation of Repsol-YPF and the corresponding interest in developing the Vaca Muerta deposit, was thus presented not as a whim but as a strategic effort to make the economy competitive and at the same time work for the interests of the country, and not necessarily of its investors.
The point was made clear when the president said that she welcomed investments in YPF but reminded her audience that 51 percent of the company was now in state hands, which was met with extensive applause.
However, the loudest applause accompanied Cristina Kirchner’s defence not of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro but of “democracy, just as we have every other time that it has been threatened in the region, be it a left-wing or right-wing government.” Opposition members such as Victoria Donda was one of many who rose to applaud the statement. The president also said that Maduro’s government was facing a “soft coup d’état.”
The president also broached the delicate subject of the memorandum of understanding signed with Iran, which she “humbly” recognized had not achieved the desired objectives.
Kirchner said that her only interest was for the suspects to be interrogated, be it by an Argentine or Iranian judge, but also admitted that the suspects have been able to travel around the world without cause for worry.
She then challenged Congress, in a spirit of co-operation, to consider the best way to achieve advances in the investigation, adding that she was open to striking down the memorandum if a better solution is found.
Shift in tone
The president’s language and tone, despite the opposition’s reluctance to applaud the vast majority of her statements, was far more conciliatory than in other years and her rhetoric concerning her perceived political enemies was much softer.
Beyond the shift in tone, the president also praised the UCR’s democratic tradition and called for national unity to protect the achievements of her administration.
To drive home the point, the president’s final statements, given in a rising crescendo reminiscent of a partisan political rally, celebrated the designation of Gerardo Zamora, a Radical senator and former governor, as president of the Senate and second in line for the presidency.