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December 21, 2014
Saturday, August 9, 2014

Reputation and the vultures

By Marcelo J. García
For The Herald

After a month and a half of concentrating on a single issue, the government has finally decided to move on from the vulture imbroglio and go back to a proactive agenda that, it hopes, could have more impact on the voters next year than the adventures of a bunch of rapacious financiers wielding defaulted Argentine bonds.

The vulture saga has handed the administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner a perfect weapon to consolidate its standing as the main entertainer of Argentina’s political battlefield, at a time the lame-duck curtain was ready to set on the president.

Polls circulating in government circles and elsewhere show that the escalation of the tug-of-war with Paul Singer and Co. pushed up the President and the government’s approval ratings. It was almost a breath of political fresh year in what is in the top three among the worst years for the Kirchners’ decade-plus rule — only comparable to farming conflict 2008 and global recession and midterm defeat 2009.

The cost for this gasp is high though. The government is declared to have delivered a “credit event” which most of the mainstream Western world is calling a “default.” The incident does not do any good to the country’s international reputation, in a world where image is one important aspect of competitiveness. In a book published last year (Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity, Oxford University Press, 2013), Melissa Aronczyk explains how important a nation’s image has become to achieve domestic and international policy objectives — the reason why governments are increasing hiring nation-branding consultants to help in their efforts.

National reputation, thank goodness, is not just (not even primarily) about marketing, but about the actual deeds and actions a State produces through time: there is no Facebook for Nation-States. In the vultures’ epic, the Fernández de Kirchner government has sought to spread a narrative that could serve its public audience and, at the same time, play a moral card abroad in a number of international forums, especially among the emerging world. The government has insisted it is acting for history books rather than the next election.

The argument may sound specious, but it is still not entirely clear how this new type of default the government is witnessing — different from 2001 and different from almost anything the world has known, one is to trust the likes of Joseph Stiglitz — will have on an economy that was already struggling to make ends meet after a troubled start of the year.

So the government hopes it can have it both ways: rally support here and abroad and at the same time escape the economic ordeal of the default. The “both-ways” strategy included this week with a battery of announcements designed to keep the economy alive and hopefully make it walk again.

The primrose path of confrontation also includes moving the issue all the way to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The world judges need an unlikely okay from the United States to proceed with a case in which Argentina argues that, through the action of its court system, Washington has violated its international obligations. If, as expected, the US declines to pick up the ICJ gauntlet, Argentina would still have the option of garnering support to get the UN General Assembly to request an Advisory Opinion from the Court – something that would not settle this particular conflict but could have Argentina set a new precedent in its international moral quest against the vultures.

The government can stretch the debt tussle all the way to the end of its term in December 2015, but it would do so at its own peril. The most recent precedent dates back to 2006, when Argentina sued Uruguay at the ICJ for its decision to build a pulp mill on the shore of the bordering Uruguay River opposite Gualeguaychú in Entre Ríos. The greyness of the Court’s decision was a show that nothing that can be solved politically should be left up the courts to settle: a bad deal is often better than a good suit.

***

The debt brouhaha has put the start of the long presidential campaign ahead of Argentines on hold — but just for a while. Too much limelight for the government startles the opposition, especially when the government’s take goes down well with the public. But the candidates are finding the cracks on the political wall to slot in their messages, especially to the big audiences.

One of those crack is the prime-time show of Argentina’s most popular TV host, Marcelo Tinelli. This week, Tinelli got the three main presidential hopefuls by phone on his Canal 13 primetime air to talk banalities surrounding the coming wedding of Congressman Martín Insaurralde, who is running for Buenos Aires Governor. Daniel Scioli, Sergio Massa and Mauricio Macri all picked up the phone to talk to Tinelli. The host also called — twice — the Olivos residence hoping to get hold of the President. He did not. Tinelli, whose show is watched by millions, is not in good terms with the government after he was subsequently invited and uninvited last summer to manage the Fútbol para Todos government-sponsored soccer programme. There is also a cost to not picking up some calls.

@mjotagarcia

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