May 18, 2013
It’s difficult to gauge the strength of a storm when you’re in the middle of it. At first glance, Wednesday night’s downpour looked like just another bout of hard rain and hail. But dawn revealed the real impact of that storm. At least 17 people were reported killed. The devastation was harsh in many Buenos Aires neighbourhoods and also in Greater Buenos Aires, the bastion of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Blackouts were reported, triggering public rage directed both at the private power utilities and the national government for failing to plug Greater Buenos Aires back into the power grid fast enough.
How can a storm be political? There was devastation and that’s it. But the political implications of the storms came in the form of roadblocks in Greater Buenos Aires as well as fear of looting and other crimes with neighbourhoods still in the dark.
The President on Friday ordered the army to help out in aid work. The storm has evidently hit the power base hard. It will also test the efficiency of both the national government and the Kirchnerite mayors that rule over Greater Buenos Aires for the President. The working class suburbs were not necessarily in an excellent mood even before the storm: a commuter train taking mainly workers from the suburbs to Buenos Aires City crashed in the morning rush hour of February 22 at Once train station, killing 51 people.
On Wednesday, you had a real storm. But Argentina has had to deal with political storms of the metaphorical kind since at least 1930.
Stormy winds have swept through the disputed Malvinas Islands all this year. Monday, a national holiday in Argentina, marked the 30th anniversary of the military dictatorship’s occupation of the disputed islands in 1982.
The rhetoric between Argentina and Britain concerning Malvinas, which included many verbal jabs between Fernández de Kirchner and British Prime Minister David Cameron, had certainly been stormy before Monday’s anniversary. Argentina, if you ask Britain and the islanders championing their right to self-determination, has been engaged in demagogic saber-rattling for too long.
Maybe. But even the President’s critics agreed that on Monday, when she addressed a ceremony in Tierra del Fuego, there was no talk of confrontation. Fernández de Kirchner, in yet another sign that there is a limit to the kind of inflammatory rhetoric she will use in Malvinas, called for peaceful diplomatic dialogue with Britain to solve the conflict. Britain, of course, has flatly refused to address the sovereignty issue unless the islanders want to. There’s no chance that the islanders will ever want to agree to sovereignty talks with Argentina after the occupation of 1982.
There’s nothing really new to write home about once you see through the nationalist rhetoric thrown about by the President, which according to polls is favoured by the Argentine public.
What could be news is that nationalism, in case you hadn’t noticed, is making a comeback now that global capitalism is going through an identity crisis.
When it comes to Malvinas, the President’s nationalism has been of the harmless symbolic kind (although Argentine business leaders have been instructed to purchase less British products). But what looks like very real nationalism is the speculation that Fernández de Kirchner is poised to announce the state takeover of the oil company YPF, privatized in the 90s and currently controlled by Spain’s Repsol.
Argentina’s oil-producing provinces have been revoking YPF’s concessions over fields, prompting the company’s stock price to plummet both in New York and Buenos Aires.
Repsol-YPF (also partly owned by the Argentine Eskenazi family) is now worth about 10 billion dollars when it was, until recently, worth approximately 16 billion dollars. The national government has denied reports that it plans to use funds from the state social security agency ANSES to purchase the company. Yet the speculation of a state takeover has not gone away and it rhymes perfectly with the nationalist agitation about Malvinas that was encouraged by the President before the 30th anniversary.
The President on addressing Congress to deliver her State of the Nation speech on March 1, announced a bid to open talks with Britain to establish three flights between Buenos Aires and Malvinas. Such talks have not materialized, but before the speech many had anticipated that what the President had in mind was banning flights from Chile to the islands from flying through Argentine skies. Also on March 1, the President refrained from making a major nationalization announcement about YPF.
Reports in March said that Spanish government officials and King Juan Carlos had lobbied in favour of Repsol. The lobbying worked then. But will it keep on working for Spain now?
Other oil companies have also lost concessions, including Brazil’s Petrobras. Federal Planning Minister Julio De Vido is scheduled to meet with Petrobras officials tomorrow after the Brazilian company said it was “surprised” at losing a concession in Neuquén province.
The traumatic way in which the YPF issue is playing out is perfectly in tune with the many eccentric policies embraced by the Kirchnerites, especially when it comes to managing the economy. The critics have complained loudly all along that the Kirchnerite recipe will ultimately turn out to be populist poisoning, but the economy has not crashed just yet and the President is in control of the nation after clinching re-election with 54 percent of the vote in October. Yes, that ugly train crash and the storm will hurt the President’s popularity. But it’s unlikely that the President will lose control of Congress before the midterm elections of 2013.
You can tell a real storm when you see one because it rains hard over your roof and it wreaks havoc in no time. That is not where the economy stands right now, especially after Congress approved the reform of the Central Bank charter, allowing the national government to use foreign currency reserves to service debt and finance itself.
Yes, the political and economic weather could get worse for the national administration: the economy is expected to slow down the hardest in the second half of this year.
A major political storm could come in the form of the allegations against Vice-President Amado Boudou, who is facing a court investigation for allegedly lobbying in favour of a crony when he was economy minister in 2010 to gain control over the printing and mint company Ciccone.
An apartment owned by the Vice-President in the plush Puerto Madero neighbourhood was raided by court authorities on Wednesday.
The public had a lot of time to read about the spectacular raid on bank holiday Thursday. Investigators, headed by Judge Daniel Rafecas, are trying to establish any real ties between the Veep and one Alejandro Vandenbroele.
Rafecas had said in an interview before Thursday’s raid that there was nothing to link Boudou with his alleged frontman. But reports said that documents seized in Thursday’s raid showed that the alleged frontman had paid for apartment expenses. The ultimate goal of rescuing the mint company was to use it to clinch a juicy Central Bank contract to print 100-peso bills.
The Vice-President on Thursday summoned the press for a briefing in the Senate (he took no questions). Boudou launched a fierce attack against the judge and the case’s prosecutor Carlos Rívolo. Rafecas was accused of leaking the news of the raid to the opposition press, including the dailies Clarín and La Nación.
Clarín Group CEO Héctor Magnetto, the Vice-President said, is pulling the strings of the accusations against him. Boudou denied any wrongdoing and described the accusations as an “institutional attack” by the opposition press against a Vice-President.
There are many questions being asked in this case even when opposition legal experts say that it is difficult to prove in court that the Vice-President did anything wrong. The accusations against the Vice-President will not necessarily stick. But what could stick is the sleazy story being reported by the newspapers that despise Boudou for attacking them fiercely on charges of manipulating the news to wrestle political favours from politicians. The ultimate question is what kind of support the Vice-President enjoys inside the government and what the President makes of all this. Government supporters also complain loudly about media bias. Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right opposition party PRO, has been indicted on allegations of snooping by the Metropolitan Police, and yet the major newspapers have not made such a fuss about that specific case of alleged corruption. The President’s bastion has been rattled by the storm. But so have many neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires City, still trying to come to terms with a hefty increase in the ABL property tax sponsored by Macri.