November 24, 2014
Boudou as crisis and opportunity
Even if Vice-President Amado Boudou’s judicial saga was the big noise last week and even if it gives this column its headline, this page does not propose to devote too much space to this issue today. After all what is the point of speculating about which way Boudou is going to jump over his court summons when we shall know tomorrow? According to his own statements, the possibilities range from quashing or shunning the proceedings to fully televised testimony — so why risk a wrong guess when an error would be exposed almost immediately? And what is the point of adding to the deluge of copy on the Ciccone money-printing outfit, a subject about which everybody knows everything and nothing?
But amidst all the unpredictability, it is not looking good for Boudou from the way he is being left almost alone to lash out wildly against all conceivable foes with all but two or three leading government figures mum on the subject (including the pivotal La Cámpora youth grouping) or leaving his fate in the hands of the courts — although he may well count on further support subsequently according to the absolutely key question of who else falls. The only upside for the veep is that having repeatedly asked for the chance to defend himself, he can now do so in the serious forum of a courtroom rather than the Babel of tendentious media as until now.
But beyond the protagonist, the really bright side of Boudou’s courtroom blues is that Argentina remains a serious democracy with functioning institutions — even if the current government in general and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in particular show scant signs of a genuine democratic spirit.
And this remains true in the week of the creation of the new Co-ordination of Strategic Planning for National Thought department under the ultra-Kirchnerite Carta Abierta’s Ricardo Forster (at least it was not “National and Popular Thought”) — immediately derided by critics as a kind of Orwellian thought police. “We don’t need no thought control,” sang Pink Floyd and we won’t be getting any — it is simply ludicrous to equate this lame-duck government’s scope with Stalinism. This aberration can be more soberly assessed as yet another example of following in the trail of Venezuela (which last year created a Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness) in slightly less preposterous fashion.
Nothing especially new about this move — memories of the Strategic Planning department created for Jorge Castro in the last stages of the 1989-99 Carlos Menem presidency make it seem almost a ritual step for lengthy administrations which have outstayed their welcome. Nor is it limited to the left — Menem was a neo-conservative Peronist while PRO centre-right City Mayor Mauricio Macri named intellectual Iván Petrella (whose think tank is actually called Pensar) as his top municipal legislative candidate last year.
Perhaps the only real harm of this initiative is how the message given in paying somebody 40,000 pesos a month to think nationally will go down among old-age pensioners with the minimum retirement benefit of 2,757 pesos or those sleeping in the street. And the message given to the likes of Emilio Pérsico (who wants small farmers to have their own Agriculture Ministry), who will now push harder for similar sinecures.
Other than the all-absorbing Boudou issue and Forster’s “Brave New World” (Ricardo, not E.M. Forster — we know Aldous Huxley wrote that book), the unusual spectacle of CFK and Macri jointly inaugurating a key stretch of the Illia highway on Tuesday probably triggere d the most political comment, reviving speculation as to a “pact” between them (denied by CFK in her speech even before it began).
Two comments prior to explaining the “pact” theories. Firstly, anything to ease downtown traffic congestion is both high on urgency and low on ideological conflict, lending itself to a bipartisan approach (thus many Kirchnerites, including Macri’s mayoral rival last year, Daniel Filmus, praised his Metrobus at the time of its launch) — no political explanation is thus needed to supply this long overdue relief for commuting motorists. Secondly, insofar as there is a pact, it would be purely tactical, not ideological — CFK and Macri are poles apart on such fundamental issues as state planning versus the free market.
The original inspiration for the CFK-Macri pact was the precedent of 1999 when outgoing Peronist president Menem clearly preferred the opposition Alliance to his own party’s candidate Eduardo Duhalde, following the logic that it would be easier to regain the presidency (presumed impossible to run without Peronist support) than the leadership of the natural ruling party. More recently the Chilean scenario of Michelle Bachelet on either side of the rightist tycoon Sebastián Piñera supplied a readymade comeback model across the Andes while handing over some of the problems arising this year to an easily demonized rightist like Macri must surely have its appeal. This strategy is mostly win-win for CFK — if Macri can pull it off, he would presumably be much easier to displace than a party heir taking control of both the government and Peronist machinery but should he suffer from being linked to an unpopular president, that would have its advantages too (much less in it for Macri, though, which raises doubts if there is a pact). Replacing ideologically loaded polarization with dialogue and practical benefits to counter CFK’s abrasive image might well bring opinion poll dividends. Finally, proximity to a mayor himself facing court charges might prompt some opposition politicians to rethink their pressure on Boudou to resign or request leave.
While a major institutional crisis is brewing with the Boudou saga, the opposition also did their bit of institutional mischief by shunning Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich’s monthly report to Congress last Wednesday. Understandable in human terms perhaps (after May’s 11-hour monologue) but absolutely inexcusable in institutional terms. The opposition constantly complained about a full decade of chronic absences by four successive Cabinet chiefs — now that they finally have one who shows up conscientiously at the start of every month, all most of them can do is boycott him on the grounds that he refused to field follow-up questions (which are normally more about scoring brownie points than seeking genuine information — in any case a single question from the 120-odd opposition deputies would already be too numerous). The opposition rightly criticizes the cavalier attitudes of an ultra-presidential democracy addicted to emergency decrees which abuses its overall Congress majority to rubberstamp legislation and denies quorum at every turn but what are they doing to earn respect?
Meanwhile the Supreme Court marked the 29th anniversary of the 1985 junta trial two months late, presumably in order to remind people that human rights did not originate with Kirchnerism — a valid enough motive (as Robert Cox’s column yesterday makes clear) but somewhat forced. Needless to say, CFK steered a wide berth.
The abdication of Spanish King Juan Carlos was obviously a big news splash across the world. Perhaps the main Argentine interest would be to contrast the start of his reign (a few months before the 1976 military coup here, thus permitting Spain’s constitutional monarchy to offer a model of democratic evolution before it added economic to political tutelage with the privatizations of the Menem era) with its end — the abdication perhaps places the final nail in the coffin of the Ibero-American Summit (whose latest version in Panama was barely half-attended) but in real terms the Repsol exit from YPF completed this year marks the real end of the era of Spanish influence (with Pemex leaving Repsol last week).
Meanwhile a spectacular news item from the previous week — the invitation to Argentina to join BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — was somewhat deflated in the first days of June. The Russian invitation now seems to take the form of being one of various emerging market observers at next month’s Fortaleza summit rather than a full BRICS member, as well as to ally commercially via Kazakhstan. The fact that the invitation came from Russia — under critical scrutiny worldwide due to the Ukraine — rather than the actual hosts and Latin American neighbours Brazil is also delicate. Let us enjoy the World Cup and then see what happens in Fortaleza on July 15. In other news, the Buenos Aires province municipal police bill remains deadlocked even if Governor Daniel Scioli’s and Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa’s rival Peronist caucuses agree on the principle.
In labour news, the industrial action at Gestamp auto parts continues to bulk large, paralyzing various assembly lines. Everybody has heard of Volkswagen, Ford and Peugeot-Citroën and nobody of Gestamp but it is a tail wagging some very large dogs. Incredibly this year’s collective wage bargaining for teamsters began last week, nearly halfway through 2014.
On Wednesday CFK announced a pension moratorium to add nearly half a million beneficiaries — with far less clarity than Economy Minister Axel Kicillof (who spelled out the 12-billion-peso cost) the following day. No need to repeat here the concepts in the editorial on the opposite page but while this moratorium was criticized as a new dose of populist fiscal insolvency (an interpretation implicitly accepted by Kicillof when he defended the move against an alleged drive by “international organisms” to lower public spending), it could also be presented as a bid to save by withholding pensions from those who do not need them.
AFIP tax bureau announced a May revenue haul of 105 billion pesos, a figure which raises doubts as to whether either inflation is slowing that much (although definitely down from summer peaks) or if the recession is so severe.
(Martín Gambarotta will be on vacations all this month)