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November 28, 2014
Sunday, March 9, 2014

A week marked by dangerous sounds

Justice Minister Julio Alak (left) alongside Supreme Court Justice Eugenio Zaffaroni, who headed the drafting commission to overhaul the Penal Code.
By Mempo Giardinelli
For the Herald

Teachers strike, drug-trafficking, the Penal Code reform hit the headlines but debate is still missing

This week was marked by the dangerous sounds which (as around this time every year) were provoked by the pay battles between the teacher unions and the governments (both national and provincial) while millions of families watched on television to see if their children could go to school or not — something only possible in a handful of provinces.

The Cabinet chief along with the Education and Labour ministers are still negotiating on behalf of the national government with a pool of unions which in some provinces can be counted in dozens — quite literally. The difficulties of such collective bargaining are not trifling — not least because funds are lacking and because the “police precedent” from the December mutinies was and continues to be dire.

Such as things are, everything was still very much “wait and see” at the time this column was penned. On the one hand, a certain intransigence on the part of the national government (which has almost no teachers on its payroll, serving more to orient provincial collective bargaining) and on the other hand, a certain flexibility on the part of many unions at odds with the extreme obduracy of the heavyweights.

The issue was settled in a few provinces where classes are being given normally but remains wide-open in Buenos Aires province, which is a third of the country, where the conflict is fiercest. In the capital, where a pay agreement was reached, problems persist because an appalling registration system has been stubbornly sustained while the “solution” of pretending that disused containers could function as classrooms is resisted.

Everything thus remains open for this coming week although it is also foreseeable (and desirable) that the distances close and agreement is reached on a teacher pay increase in the 25-35 percent range. Neither the national nor the provincial governments really have any other choice unless they want to risk this arm-wrestling spiralling into a conflict beyond any control.

Of course, there were other fireworks this week of various colours and intensity. The most striking was the surprising opposition shift with regard to the new Penal Code, which is an urgently necessary instrument, given that Argentina has had since 1921 an incomprehensible cluster of legal matter, which it is high time to order into a new code and which was discussed and prepared for almost three years by a team of jurists headed by Supreme Court justice Raúl Eugenio Zaffaroni.

The amazing thing (and so pathetically typical of Argentina) was the hasty ensemble of negative voices which (as may obviously be presumed) hastened to oppose the bill without reading the draft. And it remains just that — a draft which has not even attained the parliamentary status of going up for debate.

At the forefront was the deputy Sergio Massa, leader of the so-called Renewal Front, who proposed throwing the draft bill “into the rubbish.” The first support he obtained was from his mentor, ex-president Eduardo Duhalde, but in just a couple of days they were joined by the rest of the opposition, ranging from City Mayor Mauricio Macri to the most eminent Radicals, Socialists and UNEN centrists. They all ended up lining up behind Massa, each with their own rhetoric but all behind him.

Discarding the code — whose elaboration also included the participation of such important PRO centre-right and UCR Radical leaders as Federico Pinedo and Ricardo Gil Lavedra, who were left badly wrong-footed — was essentially based on some punishment being seen as soft, for example, the idea of eliminating life imprisonment and a certain presumed spirit (Massa dixit) of “favouring criminals and not workers.”

This absurdity — refusing to debate a bill in Congress — shows up yet again the opportunism and frivolity which unfortunately characterizes the political opposition in Argentina, although it also brings to light another question which hardly anybody raises although it should serve as a wake-up call to both government and society.

And that is that this Massa was the national government’s Cabinet chief a mere three years ago. And he had been preceded, for a much longer spell, by the lawyer Alberto Fernández. The Pink House cries “betrayal” but there they were, appointed and enjoying the most absolute confidence. And to those blunders should be added various others, no less serious — maintaining Ricardo Jaime as Transport Secretary when his supinely useless stewardship only knew how to pile up denunciations of corruption or the appointment of Vice-President Amado Boudou with the enormous political cost it keeps having or the unsuccessful bid to place as national Attorney-General a highly questionable lawyer.

Some with long memories would also insist on pointing out various other ex-officials of K presidencies who turned into furious opposition figures such as Messrs. Martín Redrado, Alfonso Prat Gay, Dante Giustozzi and so many others. One might even mention the notorious Schoklender case in which an ex-convict grew to be so powerful that he functioned almost as a Housing Secretary.

And as if all the above were not enough to analyze a complex week, there were also some of those police cases so beloved by Argentine journalism in general — the slaying of a Colombian hitman in Palermo and the arrest of youths linked to the world of celebrities and models. And also the resounding reply of Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman to Washington’s State Department, which in its traditional style between paternalistic and arrogant released a report on drug-trafficking worldwide in which it stated that Argentine cocaine production is “small, but a growing problem.”

This was tendentiously exaggerated by certain metropolitan media for their anti-government campaigns, which prompted Timerman to emerge with an unusually harsh reply: “Argentina does not recognize the right of the United States to make value judgements about other governments when they themselves are the main drug-trafficking problem,” adding: “The US is the world’s biggest drug consumer with the most illegal money from it.”

As a final cherry on the cake, the week ended with the helm of the main opposition party, the Radicals, delivering to the farmers’ Liaison Board a document in which they say that “government regulation has had a greater negative impact than the export duties,” also promising to “lower taxation and eliminate export duties for regional economies.” More than one founding father of the Radicals must be turning in his grave.

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