THE WEEK IN CORONAVIRUS
At press time yesterday there was a total of 691,235 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 15,208 deaths, as compared to 613,658 cases and 12,656 deaths the previous Friday. Last weekend Mendoza reverted to the strictest phase of quarantine, thus reflecting the hinterland pandemic surge to account for half the most recent confirmed cases. Spring arrived on Monday with the traditional student park picnics reduced to an extremely sparse scale but also health worker protests (see below). The week also started with a record death toll of 429 but over 90 percent of this figure corresponds to updating since midyear. Tuesday’s death toll of 470 had the same statistical flaws of measuring backlog but at the same time the figures showed more people leaving hospital than entering on the same day in this City for the first time with the curve of contagion considered to be definitely on a downward path. Pressure for a return to classes mounted as a new battleground between government and opposition. Thursday saw Argentina overtake South Africa to move into ninth place in the world for confirmed cases.
DATA DOOM AND GLOOM
INDEC statistics bureau issued a steady stream of numerical gloom and doom from the pandemic last week, starting on Tuesday when it posted the worst economic plunge in Argentine history – minus 19.1 percent for the second quarter of this year (as against -14.1 percent in Chile, -11.4 percent in Brazil and -10.6 percent in Uruguay among Argentina’s main neighbours). The second quarter was also 16.2 percent worse than the first. Hotels and restaurants (minus 73.4 percent) and construction (-52.1 percent) were the sectors taking the heaviest punishment. The next day INDEC posted unemployment reaching 13.1 percent with a further 9.6 percent underemployed, affecting over 4.5 million workers. The shrinkage in the economy and the workforce was followed on Thursday by news of a falling trade volume – down 15.3 percent from the same month in 2019 to US$8.44 billion with a trade surplus of US$1.43 billion. Brazil regained its status as Argentina’s leading trade partner, which had been lost to China during quarantine – the trade volume totalled US$1.42 billion as against US$1.34 billion for the People’s Republic. Exports up to this month total US$37.23 billion and imports US$26.24 billion for the year, down 11.8 percent and 23.8 percent respectively from 2019.
Economy Minister Martín Guzmán duly presented the 2021 Budget to Congress on Tuesday in a tense financial week following the tighter currency controls imposed by the Central Bank, a context largely sidestepped by the minister. The main budget forecasts – 5.5 percent growth, 29 percent inflation and a primary fiscal deficit of 4.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product – had already been divulged the previous week. Calling it a “realistic” budget, Guzmán told the deputies that Argentina would not be taking on debt in foreign currency during the Alberto Fernández presidency and that 40 percent of the deficit would be funded by printing money while the rest would be supplied by the Central Bank. The minister singled out the recovery of international reserves (now at US$42.5 billion but perhaps as low as five billion in net liquid terms) as one of the most urgent problems.
MARKETS & EXCHANGE
The first full week after the tightening of currency controls saw the parallel “blue” dollar continue to climb from 140 pesos at the start of the week to 145 at the close yesterday, up 14 pesos from 10 days ago while country risk, which had soared from 1,108 to 1,237 points in the previous week, closed yesterday at 1,342 points after topping 1,400 points at times. The official exchange rate at Banco Nación inched up from 78.75 to 79.75 pesos but not only does the real cost for purchases amount to almost 132 pesos with the surcharges now totalling 65 percent but banks were paralysed from selling all week due to the lack of data to cross-check excluded categories.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Rosenkrantz on Tuesday convened an extraordinary session for next Tuesday to rule on the transfers of judges Leopoldo Bruglia, Pablo Bertuzzi and Germán Castelli (removed from their current benches by the Senate earlier this month). The cuts in the federal revenue-sharing funds corresponding to the City of Buenos Aires are also widely anticipated to form part of the agenda. There was plenty of verbal jockeying last week about government moves on the judiciary, a central target of opposition protests (with a nationwide “banderazo” last Saturday and a torchlight march outside the central courthouse on Wednesday evening), but the moment of truth will come next Tuesday. The Juntos por el Cambio opposition last week impugned the Senate’s virtual sessions. On Thursday the Supreme Court upheld the prison sentences for the 52-death 2012 Once rail disaster although the confirmation did not extend to the subsequent conviction of former Federal Planning Minister Julio De Vido.
The virtual sessions of the pandemic have added a new dimension to political scandal – Salta Frente de Todos deputy Juan Emilio Ameri distracted himself from Thursday’s debate to kiss and fondle the breasts of a woman on his lap, unaware that he was connected via Zoom. Ameri resigned his seat late that day.
UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY ADDRESS
Due to the pandemic President Alberto Fernández still has his maiden flight to New York City for the United Nations annual general assembly pending – the session marking the UN’s 75th anniversary was held virtually last week. Fernández used most of the 20 minutes of his UN debut to argue his position that no country can pay its debts at the cost of its people but he also called on Iran to co-operate in clarifying the 1994 terrorist bomb destruction of the AMIA Jewish community centre while reaffirming Argentine sovereignty over the Malvinas.
Following a protest march to the Plaza de Mayo by social organisations last Monday, the courts decided to postpone the deadline for evicting thousands of squatters occupying land in the Greater Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Guernica from last Wednesday to next Thursday.
Ex-president Mauricio Macri entered Otamendi hospital on Tuesday for colonic endoscopy for a polyp, which was immediately extracted. He was discharged on Wednesday with instructions to rest for the remainder of the week. His wife Juliana Awada, who accompanied him as an “improvised nurse,” said that the endoscopy had been programmed since March. Macri’s various minor ailments in the last few years include a benign pancreatic cyst in May, 2018.
SAN JUAN SPYING
AFI intelligence trustee Cristina Caamaño denounced on Wednesday illegal espionage during the Mauricio Macri administration on the families of the submarine ARA San Juan (which disappeared in late 2017 with the loss of its 44-strong crew), giving a press conference on the issue with Defence Minister Agustín Rossi to accuse not only the previous AFI helm of Gustavo Arribas and Silvia Majdalani but also Macri himself.
MULTITUDE OF MARCHES
The first day of spring at the start of the week also included scuffling around noon between metropolitan police and health workers protesting outside the City legislature to press for better working conditions and an expanded public hospital budget to fight the coronavirus pandemic. September 21 in Argentina is not only the first day of spring but also Students’ and Health Workers Day (the former occasion more subdued than usual this year with the authorities discouraging exuberant youngsters from picnicking in parks). The next day saw sex workers demonstrating for the right to work while denouncing police brutality in a situation of “extreme vulnerability.”