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ARGENTINA | 23-03-2019 11:49

Mar 18th-24th: What We Learned This Week

What has happened the last seven days?

STORNELLI-GATE

Mixed messages for prosecutor Carlos Stornelli after he defied the summons of Dolores Federal Judge Alejo Ramos Padillla for the third time running yesterday – Ramos Padilla gave him another chance next Tuesday (March 26) but the Mar del Plata Federal Court ruled against Stornelli’s bid to challenge the judge. Stornelli had rejected Ramos Padilla’s jurisdiction on the grounds of both perceived bias and his Dolores venue but the Mar del Plata’s eight-page ruling stressed that it was Ramos Padilla who had arrested and indicted the pseudo-lawyer Marcelo D’Alessio, the original suspect of the alleged extortion and espionage ring also involving Stornelli, further raiding D’Alessio’s home where he found information on journalists and businessman. Ramos Padilla reportedly informed parliamentarians about that material in a second Congress appearance before a bicameral intelligence committee on Thursday although little else emerged about the three-hour session behind closed doors. The week started with the government formally presenting its demand for the removal of Ramos Padilla from the bench on the grounds of malfeasance to the Council of Magistrates via Council member Juan Bautista Mahiques.

THE WEEK IN CORRUPTION...

Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returned from Cuba yesterday to find herself off the hook in the money-laundering trial where ex-tycoon Lázaro Báez is the chief defendant. The Federal Appeals Court ruled on Wednesday that there was insufficient evidence of the ex-president’s direct participation in these moneylaundering transactions either to convict or acquit her. But the senator still faces 10 other trials, in five of which the judge has requested that she be remanded in custody. Wednesday’s respite was preceded by two more indictments – for the fraudulent import of increasingly overpriced LNG (liquid natural gas) on Monday and over the distribution of transport subsidies on Tuesday. Just before leaving Cuba, the ex-president (who met with both Cuban Communist Party chairman Raúl Castro and President Miguel DiazCanel in the course of her Caribbean week visiting her sick daughter Florencia) released her offspring’s medical records, at her daughter’s request.

STRIKING ABSENCES IN SUPREME COURT

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Rosenkrantz formally opened the judicial year last Tuesday with a half-hour speech describing the legitimacy of the legal system as in crisis and urging a true separation of powers without fear or favour towards the government. But perhaps more attention was given to the renewal of court funds for Dolores Federal Judge Alejo Ramos (whose removal has been requested by President Mauricio Macri). Also striking was the absence of nine of the 12 Comodoro Py federal judges with only Sebastián Casanello and Daniel Rafecas sitting through the entire event. (See Page 6 for more.)

IMF GIVES GOVENRMENT SOME SLACK ON SPENDING

After approving last week’s tighter monetary policies the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cut Argentina some slack over social spending on Monday, edging up this year’s permitted increases from 0.2 to 0.3 percent of GDP, or some 60 billion pesos. But the IMF also warned that more spending cuts would be needed to achieve zero deficit in the light of adverse revenue trends.

NUMBER-CRUNCHING

Last year, 2018, closed with an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent in its last quarter, the INDEC national statistics bureau announced on Thursday, thus undershooting widespread expectations of double digits. The figure was also lower than the 9.6 percent posted in mid-2018 as well as, in a more distant past, the double-digit employment prevailing between 1994 and 2005 (with double severance paid between 2001 and 2005 for that reason). Yet there was no cause for celebration because unemployment was steeply higher than the 7.2 percent posted at the end of the positive growth year of 2017. Youth unemployment rose even more sharply from 11.4 to 15.4 percent while underemployment climbed from 10.2 to 12 percent. Over a third of jobs (35.3 percent) are informal. The CGT’s immediate reaction to these figures was to call a march for April 4. At the start of this week Production and Labour Minister Dante Sica said that there would be no floors or ceilings in this year’s collective wage bargaining (for the first time in years). Trade unions are already pushing for 35-40 percent wage increases. But the unemployment data was not the only gloom published by INDEC on Thursday. The economy shrank 2.5 percent in 2018, it was confirmed, thus wiping out almost all the 2.7 percent growth in 2017 and assuring President Mauricio Macri that he would conclude his 2015-19 term with overall negative growth. The agricultural sector plunged 15.1 percent, thus reflecting last summer’s drought. Manufacturing industry and commerce fared little better, slumping 4.8 and 4.5 percent respectively, but construction rose 1.2 percent, largely due to double-digit growth in the first quarter. The World Bank is forecasting a negative growth rate of -1.7 percent for Argentina this year. Finally, hopes that this month’s inflation might be lower than February’s 3.8 percent are fading due to steep increases in such basic foods as meat, dairy produce and bread rather than regulated prices (except transport).

DOLLAR EDGES TOWARD 43

The dollar rose two percent yesterday to close the week at 42.86 pesos. However, the 84-cent surge was not only the result of purely local factors but also a general greenback advance on emerging markets. Country risk was 760 points.

IRANIANS AND ISRAELIS

The dominant media theme in the first half of the week was the ease with which an Iranian couple passed through immigration controls with forged Israeli passports, especially since they arrived a few days before last Monday’s ceremony marking the 27th anniversary of the terrorist bomb destruction of the Israeli Embassy (March 17, 1992, which Iran is suspected of having masterminded), attended by several national authorities. Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said she would be requesting data on the Iranians from Interpol but insisted that she attributed the Immigration Department’s blunder to “human error” rather than complicity. The couple, who entered the country on March 12 and were arrested last Saturday after an orange alert, pleaded that they were fleeing the Islamic Republic’s strict moral codes but sophisticated technology in their possession has drawn suspicion that they could be a sleeper cell at the very least.

THE ROYAL TREAMENT

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark visited Argentina between Sunday and Wednesday last week with her official activities centred on Monday (meetings with President Mauricio Macri) and Tuesday (a business seminar in conjunction with the trade delegation of 30 Danish companies in tow). The prime aim of the visit was to bolster bilateral trade but environmental and human rights issues, such as renewable energies, were also on the agenda. (For more see Page 10.)

OSVALDO RAFFO FOUND DEAD

Osvaldo Raffo, 84, the nation’s most famous forensic scientist ever, was found dead in his San Martín home on Monday morning with a bullet in his head – the same cause of death as perhaps his highest-profile case, special AMIA prosecutor Alberto Nisman in early 2015 (which Raffo concluded to be murder). But this was just one of over 20,000 autopsies, involving (just in the last three decades) such top news stories as the Catamarca schoolgirl María Soledad Morales, the Neuquén conscript Omar Carrasco (leading to the abolition of compulsory military service), Alicia Muñiz (murdered by her husband world boxing champion Carlos Monzón), high society figure María Marta García Belsunce and Noticias photographer José Luis Cabezas.

LOOK SOUTH

President Mauricio Macri last Wednesday inaugurated the II High-Level United Nations Conference on South-South Co-operation, appealing for “inclusive development.” The event was held amid tight security resembling last year’s G20 summit. On Tuesday Macri met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

FAMILY FORTUNES

President Mauricio Macri made the rather startling admission during a Sunday evening that his late father Franco (who passed away early this month) had been guilty of “crimes” in paying bribes to advance his business interests, although he added that his father had little choice within a “Kircherite system of extortion” obliging him to pay up in order to work. The next day Luis Conde, an ex-lawyer of Franco Macri during five years of his later career, responded: “I never saw Franco paying bribes,” adding that it was not the late tycoon “who ran everything” in the SOCMA Macri family holding but his son Mauricio. Meanwhile social activist Juan Grabois and former Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández were among the opposition voices arguing that the president should be applying his recent asset recovery decree to his own family while outgoing Senator Fernando “Pino” Solanas remarked: “Now we know what Macri is talking about when he blames his inheritance.

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