Sunday, February 25, 2024

ARGENTINA | 17-10-2020 10:05

What we learned this week: October 10 to 17

A round-up of stories that caught our eye over the last seven days in Argentina.



At press time yesterday there was a total of 965,609 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 25,723 deaths, as compared to 871,468 cases and 23,225 deaths the previous Friday. Buenos Aires City continued to slip in the confirmed cases rankings, topped by no less than five provinces. On Tuesday, City Hall authorised the re-opening of shopping centres with strict protocols while the Buenos Aires provincial government announced that schoolchildren could return to classrooms in 24 of the province’s 135 districts (mostly rural, with Chascomús and Chivilcoy the only towns of any size). On Wednesday Argentina overtook Colombia to enter the world’s top five for confirmed cases of coronavirus. Thursday saw a new daily record for confirmed cases (17,096) as the crisis continues.  



Ministers Mario Meoni (Transport) and Matías Lammens (Tourism and Sports) announced on Wednesday the return of domestic flights and long-distance buses after seven months of suspension but ruled out their use for tourism. The conditions for flights were detailed by Resolution 221/2020 the following day but there was no immediate word regarding buses.   



Monday’s Columbus Day public holiday was accompanied by nationwide “banderazo” protests against quarantine and other government policies, whose impact was predictably downplayed by the government and magnified by the opposition. The main demonstration was at the Obelisk but neither Olivos presidential residence nor the home of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner were spared. The Obelisk was the focus of attention with at least 30,000 demonstrators according to reports, but there were significant numbers in other cities (10,000 in the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata, for example). Ahead of the demonstration the government decided to shelve for now the judicial reform bill and related initiatives, one of the main targets of the protest.



Argentina refused to sign a Group of Lima communiqué last Tuesday condemning human rights violations in Venezuela on the grounds that the first of the document’s seven points "supports Acting President Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly as legitimate and democratically elected authorities," as well as leaving the door open for foreign intervention. On those grounds Argentina rejected the communiqué while expressing itself in favour of condemning the violations as documented by the United Nations and requiring the Nicolás Maduro government to investigate, try and punish them. The Foreign Ministry interpreted the final point of the document calling for “a common response of the international community to defend human rights in Venezuela and urgently restore democracy” as an invitation to foreign intervention, entrusting the solution of Venezuela’s crisis to the Venezuelan people. Argentina said that it understood the dimensions of humanitarian crisis as “the recipient of an important influx of Venezuelan emigrants” but condemned once again all blockades and sanctions as complicating that crisis. Mexico and Uruguay (with Venezuela represented by Guaidó) were the only other Latin American countries to withhold support.



Last month’s inflation was 2.8 percent for a total of 22.3 percent in the first three quarters of the year and an annual inflation rate of 36.6 percent, INDEC statistics bureau announced on Wednesday. Price freezes, exchange rate lag and recession (with the IMF forecasting 11.8 percent economic shrinkage for Argentina this year on Tuesday) all combine to tame prices.



Argentina wants energy firms to invest some US$5 billion to boost hydrocarbon production and generate jobs in the country’s prized Vaca Muerta shale deposits, as well as to bring in much-needed foreign currency. The plan unveiled by President Alberto Fernández on the spot in Neuquén on Thursday aims to substitute natural gas production for imports, savings some US$5.6 billion while netting some US$2.5 billion in tax revenue, welcome relief in the light of the 12 percent economic contraction forecast for this year. Vaca Muerta, one of the world’s largest reserves of shale oil and gas, has languished over the past year with Fernández blaming his predecessor Mauricio Macri for the shortfalls although annual gas output grew from 42.9 to 49.35 billion cubic metres between 2015 and 2019. The plan will permit exports beyond winter if justified by lower domestic gas demand, as well as more flexible pricing without actually announcing an increase.



The main parallel exchange rate, the “blue” dollar, again surged last week to 178 pesos yesterday from 167 the previous Friday while other alternatives based on bond or share transactions ranged from 152 to 167 pesos. The official exchange rate at the Banco Nación edged down from 83 to 82.50 pesos but remained scarcely available even with the new surcharges of 65 percent. Country risk climbed from 1,337 points the previous Friday to close yesterday just below the 1,400 mark at 1,397 points. 



The government will hike the minimum wage by 28 percent (12 percent this month, 10 percent at the end of the year and a further six percent in March), thus taking it from 16,875 to 21,600 pesos over the next six months. The CGT trade union grouping had been pushing for 40 percent, more in line with inflation. The minimum wage had remained static for the last 13 months.



The 56th IDEA Colloquium (and the first virtual version of this annual business huddle) was addressed by President Alberto Fernández, who asked businessmen for confidence while ruling out devaluation or a state grab of bank deposits. But many IDEA participants privately said that the lack of an economic plan, volatile money markets and judicial reform proposals made it difficult to extend confidence, thus leading to fears of what the president had denied. 



As the week closed tension mounted over the Guernica site occupied by squatters with the Buenos Aires provincial government headed by Governor Axel Kicillof declaring: "Time’s up for negotiating" and eviction considered imminent. During the course of this month hundreds of squatters have agreed to leave but others have moved in. 



Last weekend business tycoon Jorge Neuss, 73, head of a conglomerate built out of fruit juice, shot his wife Silvia Saravia, 69, dead before taking his own life at their home in the gated community of Martindale. Speculation buzzed all week as to the motives for the crime which remained a mystery.



Ex-president Mauricio Macri has denounced the Comodoro Py federal judges and the Lomas de Zamora prosecutors for abuse of authority and malfeasance in advancing the illegal espionage case against his 2015-19 administration, accusing them of leaking personal information of both himself and his private secretary Darío Nieto. Macri dismisses the entire case as a smear campaign against him.



Federal prosecutor Carlos Stornelli yesterday called for Audiovisual Communications ombudsman Miriam Lewin to answer in court for possible abuse of authority and malfeasance in creating the media observatory NODIO, as well as filing an injunction to block that entity. According to Stornelli, NODIO threatens freedom of expression and of the press. The prosecutor was responding to charges lodged by 11 Juntos por el Cambio deputies.



Almost quarter of a century after the event, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (whose headquarters are in the Costa Rica capital of San José) on Wednesday condemned Argentina for the "illegal, arbitrary and discriminatory" arrest of Afro-Uruguayan José Delfín Acosta and his death in police custody. In the small hours of April 5, 1996, Acosta was arrested when leaving a Buenos Aires disco "completely drunk," according to the police, and badly beaten up, expiring in an ambulance on the way to hospital. The Court attributed Acosta’s arrest to racial stereotyping, thus making it "discriminatory and hence arbitrary." The Argentine state has always accepted its responsibility for the events leading up to Acosta’s death. In the way of reparations, the San José court ordered Argentina to train its police forces against discriminatory racial stereotyping and compile a register of arbitrary arrests on that basis, especially where those of African descent are concerned.



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