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September 19, 2014

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Francis factor

Pope Francis and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner are seen together during a private audience at the Vatican on Monday.
By Martín Gambarotta
Herald Staff

CFK has everything to gain from her long lunch with the pope

All right, a year has gone by since he was chosen and Argentine-born Pope Francis is a sensation in the Catholic world, and beyond. But locally the question of what political implications Francis’ rise might bring on the domestic front still remains. Kirchnerites were pretty edgy last year immediately after Jorge Bergoglio waved from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as Francis. Yet that quickly changed when President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner became the first head of state to meet with the new pope. Ultimately the Argentine press will always read too much into the pope’s every move. Recently the Vatican dismissed a report that Francis was trying to broker a round of political dialogue involving the Argentine Industrial Union and others. The opposition press has not always tried to drag the pope into the fray. It is also full of reports about Francis telling Argentine officials and celebrities that they should “take care of Cristina.”

It’s not easy to say if the pope has even ever uttered those words, but they are gospel here. Argentina has a history of democratically-elected presidents being humiliated by circumstances in the final years of their mandates. Fernández de Kirchner, in office since 2007, is scheduled to end her second consecutive four-year term in 2015. She can’t run for another re-election because it’s not allowed by the Constitution. The collapse of the CFK administration ahead of time is unlikely. But it can’t be ruled out entirely.

There are problems. Inflation is high. Crime is a major concern. And then there’s Argentina’s dysfunctional history. Raúl Alfonsín, the Radical elected president in 1983, was forced to cut short his six-year mandate during the hyperinflation crisis in 1989. The financial meltdown late in 2001 brought down the Alliance government of president Fernando de la Rúa, also a Radical. The context is different. Back in the days of Alfonsín and De la Rúa the economic situation was far worse. Back then, also, there was no Pope Francis.

Francis met with Fernández de Kirchner at the Vatican again on Monday. Pope and president shared a long lunch (over two hours). They exchanged gifts. The body language was cordial. The president’s political fragility was evident in the scene. Fernández de Kirchner sprained her left ankle in her hotel room in Rome and was wearing, to quote the Associated Press, a “clunky boot.” CFK in October last year underwent surgery to drain a blood clot lodged in her skull, and questions have been raised about her health since. It’s the same president who has been fiercely confrontational in the past. It is also the same president who has faced massive street demonstrations against her, which included people carrying signs and banners likening her to Hitler.

It has been fair in the past to write that Fernández de Kirchner liked to play a bruising game of politics. But since the death of her husband Néstor Kirchner and her own problems it’s not necessarily in good taste to say that.

The president is arguably in her frailest political hour and there waiting with open arms is the white-robed Pope Francis. You don’t need to be one of those fancy Italian film directors admired by Francis to comprehend the symbolism of this.

If the opposition, including the anti-government Peronists, was poised to unleash a fierce crisis to bring down Fernández de Kirchner it doesn’t look like they can count on the pope’s blessing.

Is the president also getting the message? She was not particularly confrontational when delivering her State of the Nation speech in Congress on March 1. On meeting Francis on Monday, the president said that Argentine politicians and people in general should not seek to have their photo taken with the pope, but should rather read his writings. Reports said that Fernández de Kirchner and Francis did not discuss specific current affairs issues like, say, the crisis in Bolivarian Venezuela. Instead they talked about more abstract things like “Latin American unity” and “social inclusion.” Drug trafficking, which the Catholic Church in Argentina has warned is a growing problem in the country, was not discussed.

It’s not really clear, when State and Church should not mix, why Francis should be a factor at all in Argentine politics. But a factor Francis is.

The coverage in the opposition press of the president’s meeting with the pope was objective and benign — as it rarely is. Francis was reportedly angry at his supposed efforts to broker transition talks. It feels like the press doesn’t want to upset Francis again by reading too much into his gestures. Again, even the opposition press seems to be buying the idea that the last thing that the pontiff wants is for Fernández de Kirchner to suffer the political humiliation of leaving office before the formal end of her mandate.

That’s interesting because in many ways the ultimate political question of the hour is if Fernández de Kirchner, who saw the ruling Victory Front coalition lose the midterm elections in all major districts, will leave with her political reputation relatively intact come next year.

Yes, the problems faced by the Kirchnerite administration have not gone away. February’s inflation rate officially clocked in at 3.4 percent, Economy Minister Axel Kicillof said on Monday. Inflation, according to the new nationwide consumer price index (IPCNu), reached 3.7 percent in January. The official inflation rate has a credibility problem ever since Kirchner ordered the takeover of the state-run statistics bureau in 2007. But inflation is so high according to the IPCNu that there is currently little criticism of the new index.

Kicillof on Monday criticized the private inflation estimates, saying that they lacked the reach and the scope that only INDEC can muster. But the national government is still struggling to control price hikes despite launching a “Price Watch” plan.

The collective wage bargaining season is here and the Buenos Aires province school teachers have been on strike for two weeks, demanding a pay increase of 35 percent. The teachers in Buenos Aires province have turned down a 30.9 percent offer made by Governor Daniel Scioli, a moderate Kirchnerite who says he has plans to run for president next year. The teachers are still on the warpath despite a formal call to conciliation and an injunction filed by an ombudsman for schools to open.

The teachers staged a massive demonstration to voice their pay demands in La Plata on Wednesday.

Teachers and Buenos Aires officials met again on Thursday at a meeting sponsored by the Ombudsman’s Office. But the negotiations broke down and Scioli, who prides himself in keeping his cool at all times, called a press conference where he looked slightly unnerved. Government officials, he said, had been mobbed by teachers. A brick was thrown at provincial economy minister Silvina Batakis, he said. A reporter asked Scioli if he saw veiled political motivations behind the strike. Scioli replied vehemently that he did, prompting speculation about Kirchnerites who do not back his presidential bid working to ruin his reputation.

Most teachers’ unions support the Fernández de Kirchner administration. Roberto Baradel, one of the teachers’ union leaders heading the strike in Buenos Aires province, is also considered a national government ally.

Jorge Capitanich, the president’s Cabinet chief, was forced to deny on Friday that Scioli’s comment was a reference to the national government. Baradel has also been photographed recently with lawmaker Sergio Massa, the rebel Peronist former mayor of Tigre who defeated the Victory Front last year in Buenos Aires province.

Rarely has the political pressure shown in Scioli’s face the way it did at that press conference in La Plata. The teachers’ strike is not over. Polls, Baradel told the Herald on Friday, show that the public wants school to open, but that they also back the pay demands. The teachers’ unions say that only some of the staff will collect the 30.9 percent hike while others will get less. Scioli has moved to pay the increase by decree. The conflict could land in court next week because of the injunction and the teachers will feel some political pressure of their own in Buenos Aires province to give classes to the estimated 3.2 million students that attend state-run schools.

Fernández de Kirchner was still out of the country while all this was going on. The president on Wednesday met with her French counterpart, Francois Hollande. Hollande expressed support for Argentina’s bid to cancel its debt with the Paris Club of creditor nations. Formal talks on restructuring the debt (nine billion dollars counting interest) are scheduled to open late in May. Argentina, Hollande said, is trying to overcome its financial woes and is succeeding. France is also backing Argentina’s case in the US Supreme Court against the hedge funds who did not accept debt swaps and are demanding full compensation for the defaulted debt that they hold.

Hollande’s comments are good news for Kicillof who recently went to France to knock on the door of the Paris Club, saying that Argentina wanted to make an offer.

But not all news is good for the government. Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide has admitted that he took a phone call from the office of Carlos Zannini, the president’s legal secretary, telling him to call off a raid on a financial office. An official working for Zannini told the judge that the Federal Police agents conducting the raid were asking for bribes in Oyarbide’s name. But the opposition sees foul play in government officials meddling in the affairs of a judge and are pressing for Oyarbide to be probed by the Magistrates Council, the court system’s disciplinary body. The Council has decided that Oyarbide must answer questions on the aborted raid. Also under investigation is Judge Claudio Bonadio, but in his case the calls for disciplinary action were promoted by the Kirchnerites after he probed the role of government officials’ responsibility in the airing of anti-opposition propaganda during the state-run Fútbol Para Todos soccer matches.

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