After a week of back and forth over the future of Justice Minister Germán Garavano – veering between seeking his immediate resignation and eventual impeachment, before trying to tone down the confrontation as “her little joke” – deputy Elisa Carrió closed the week by finalising her stance (at least for now) as presenting an impeachment request against the minister at a less difficult moment.
Carrió – the leader of the Civic Coalition, one of the three pillars of the ruling Cambiemos (Let’s Change) alliance – also backtracked on an outlandish threat not to meet with Mauricio Macri while Garavano remained in the Cabinet, and nor did she repeat last weekend’s outburst that she had lost confidence in the president.
Interior Minister Rogelio Frigerio was quick to offer peace after a week of tension, arguing that governance had not been affected and that President Macri is a “guarantee” of the fight against corruption and impunity so dear to Carrió’s heart. Nonetheless, the clashes emphasised increased tensions in the Cambiemos coalition.
Every deputy had the right to express their opinions, Frigerio said, adding that he respected Carrió’s work as a co-founder of the Cambiemos coalition – nor did he like to comment on other branches of government. His statements were made at a press conference to launch an expanded National Housing Plan.
Senator Humberto Schiavoni (Misiones), the Upper House government whip, also claimed that neither governance nor investments had been affected but was more critical of the firebrand deputy.
“Carrió said that she was going to postpone the impeachment of Garavano and then that it was all a joke. It’s her modus operandi, which should not be blown up” by those not understanding that the Cambiemos coalition is “a unique political construction.”
But Deputy Waldo Wolff (City-PRO) also extended some criticism to Garavano, saying that such statements as “it’s bad for a country to have expresidents in prison” – the comments which first sparked Carrió’s fiery reaction – had been “unfortunate.” Nonetheless, he rejected Carrió’s interpretation that Garavano was trying to save ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from trial for corruption because she was the electoral rival against whom Macri had the best run-off chances.
“Just Carrió’s style,” Wolff concluded.
BEHIND THE HEADLINES
Yet the clashes over the last week were not merely verbal. Carrió’s eruption over losing confidence in the president did not so much stem from anything Garavano said as the dismissal of six senior AFIP tax bureau officials, of whom at least half had served as key sources for the crusading deputy’s war on corruption.
Carrió reportedly saw this move as dismantling the probe into the Sarmiento rail underpass, where Macri’s cousin Ángelo Calcaterra was a partner of Brazil’s notorious construction giant Odebrecht, and limiting his judicial problems to bribes paid during the Kirchner era, charges facing numerous businessmen. That story was broken by Perfil last weekend with a front-page splash.
Furthermore, Carrió’s problems with the judicial sector are by no means limited to Garavano. Her running battles with Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti are far from being ended by the latter’s resignation from the Supreme Court helm as from this month. She also deeply mistrusts Daniel Angelici (Macri’s strongman in the Boca Juniors football club presidency) as a dodgy judicial operator.
Angelici, who made his fortune from state-issued gambling licences to run casinos and bingos, appeared on television throughout the week to refute Carrió’s accusations, only to publicly show up at the all-important Magistrates’ Court election this week, in what appeared to be a thinly-veiled message for the deputy.
Carrió holds pivotal importance within Macri’s coalition, in large part thanks to her popularity with voters, which rivals that of Buenos Aires province Governor María Eugenia Vidal (whose image is already beginning to suffer the effects of the crisis) – she is virtually the only politician approved by almost a majority of the electorate amid the deep discredit of the political class.
This popularity in turn stems from a long track record of battling corruption, particularly during the peak of Kirchnerite power when, many times, Carrió was all alone. ‘Lilita,’ as she calls herself, is extremely popular among urban middle classes, which makes her particularly relevant to Cambiemos from an electoral standpoint.
Born into a staunchly Radical family in the Chaco provincial capital of Resistencia on Boxing Day, 1956, Elisa María Avelina Carrió was a beauty queen in her youth – which has not prevented teamster Pablo Moyano from claiming that she was a 1976-1983 military dictatorship official at a tender age.
She was named a state prosecutor in 1978 just before completing her university studies as a law graduate – some human rights groups have questioned her inactivity in investigating the Margarita Belén massacre of late 1976.
In the first decade of democracy she was a law professor and only entered politics as a Radical delegate for Chaco in the 1994 Constituent Assembly. This experience was followed by two terms as a Radical deputy for Chaco (1995-2003) but she lost faith in the Fernando de la Rúa presidency even before its collapse, leaving the traditional party in 2001.
Forming her own party, Argentines for a Republic of Equals (ARI, today Civic Coalition-ARI), Carrió soon raised her level of ambition, running as a presidential candidate or at least primary hopeful in every election since 2003 with mixed fortunes (improving from 16 percent in 2003 to being runnerup with 23 percent in 2007 but slumping below two percent in 2011 and losing the PASO primary to Macri in 2015). Ever since her Chaco term ended in 2003, she has been a deputy for the Federal Capital.
Carrió’s main claim to fame this century has been as one of the first voices denouncing Kirchnerite corruption (as early as 2004) but her criticisms of the Supreme Court also date back to the beginnings of ARI. She also presented the bill to propose AUH child benefits but before it could be debated in Congress, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner decreed the scheme into existence in 2009. On other social issues, the devoutly Catholic Carrió opposes abortion and abstained over the gay marriage law.
Carrió’s Civic Coalition is a key part of the unified front that became Cambiemos. While she antagonises with her former colleagues at the Radical Civic Union, Lilita gains traction among similar social groups, particularly in Buenos Aires City. Indeed, in the 2017 midterm elections, Carrió won her seat at the Chamber of Deputies with 51 percent of the vote, beating out the Kirchnerite Daniel Filmus by nearly 30 percentage points.
Those results helped grow Lilita’s profile even further, to the distaste of Ernesto Sanz, a Radical who is a sort of counterpart among the “political table” of Cambiemos. Carrió has always been outspoken, commenting on almost any issue colloquially, from the country’s macroeconomic issues to the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado. Her outbursts, both on national television and on Twitter, are unexpected both by her allies and enemies.
Macri knows that he needs Carrió both to keep Cambiemos together and to show the electorate he is serious about the fight against corruption. He also knows that means he and his ministers could fall prey to the fiery deputy’s outbursts at any moment. Yet while she is unpredictable, Carrió isn’t crazy or illogical. There’s method to her madness. Her feud with Lorenzetti is tied to the judiciary’s selective investigations during the Kirchnerite years, while her most recent battle with Garavano has to do with occupying key political spaces controlled by the Justice Ministry, particularly those tied to federal prosecutors. Carrió is also leading a proxy war with Macri himself, after the head of the AFIP tax agency, Leandro Cuccioli, dismissed investigators that were looking into a kickback scheme that was commanded by highranking employees of Iecsa, the construction company owned by Calcaterra.
For now, Carrió appears to be stepping down. She understands the power of messages – as does the president’s entourage.