Economic turmoil, poverty soars, the peso plunges. The IMF, inflation, post-PASO meltdown. A presidential campaign decided by its trial run. Protests, Peronism unites and Massa returns to the fold. Alberto wins, but does Cristina call the shots? And what about Mauricio? Here's a round-up of the biggest stories in Argentina over the last 12 months.
Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.
This traditional annual summary (based entirely on the contents of this newspaper, for better or worse) is now completing its third edition and entering its second presidency. Without any further ado here goes.
– JANUARY –
Nothing in the first week of 2019 in Argentina carries the potential significance of New Year in Brazil with the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro, although neither the best nor the worst of the far-right leader’s message are translated into reality – no economic take-off from the confidence shock of his pro-market policies (any more than with Mauricio Macri) which might help Argentina out of recession, but no real institutional damage from his authoritarian impulses either. Macri finds the middle ground too important in an election year to risk being linked to such a figure and skips the inauguration in Argentina’s most important neighbour – a short-sighted snub?
Back home, economic experts cautiously forecast modest growth for the infant year, even if the first INDEC statistics of 2019 report a continuing industrial slump. Ex-president Fernando de la Rúa falls gravely ill but manages to survive into 2019, unlike former Foreign minister Héctor Timerman, who succumbs to cancer in the closing days of 2018. Outgoing three-term Salta Peronist Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey tosses his hat into the presidential ring. A Swedish tourist loses a leg after being shot in a San Telmo mugging.
With Macri on vacation in La Angostura outside Bariloche, the next week is even quieter. The government moves to place security on the electoral agenda by announcing a bill to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 15 (which would only induce the criminal gangs exploiting this loophole to recruit their children even younger and in any case murders by the under-aged do not even reach five percent of total homicides). But what perhaps will ultimately prove a more decisive electoral issue is also a feature of the week – continuing protests against utility bill hikes even though YPF trims fuel prices.
In the silly season perhaps the most telling political commentary comes from the fashion police – former economy minister Roberto Lavagna (then heavily tipped as the best bet for breaking the unwelcome but seemingly inevitable polarisation between the current and previous presidents) is widely ridiculed for combining socks and sandals. Macri has no problems in being on the same page as Bolsonaro during a courtesy visit but nothing specific emerges beyond an extradition agreement. Airline pilots (overpaid and underworked in most eyes) act up causing airport chaos but the government passes up the opportunity to add union-bashing to its electoral platform. The fourth anniversary of the death of special AMIA prosecutor Alberto Nisman is marked with no new answers as to whether it was murder or suicide. The hantavirus claims a dozen victims in Chubut.
Returning from his summer vacation (not pure holiday since there was some thinly disguised campaigning around Patagonia), Macri now moves to place corruption on the electoral agenda by presenting an emergency asset recovery decree to reclaim state funds lost to illegal activities such as graft or drug-trafficking, in the process bypassing Congress and the need for a legal conviction by retroactively inverting the burden of proof.
In the same week, Macri recognises the self-proclamation of Venezuelan National Assembly Speaker Juan Guaidó as the country’s new president in place of Nicolás Maduro. Macri has no time for the Davos Forum where Argentina is represented by a low-profile delegation headed by Economy Minister Nicolás Dujovne.
Yet nothing in either politics or economics has as much impact as the tragic end of footballer Emiliano Sala in mid-Channel flight to his transfer destination Cardiff on J21 although his body was not recovered until 12 days later – his father Horacio survives him by just 12 weeks.
After speculation throughout the month Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal finally decides on J29 not to bring forward elections in her mega-district (which now looks like a fatal error in hindsight). Just four months after backtracking on all-out support for agriculture by restoring export duties, fiscal constraints also oblige the Macri administration to pull the plug on the energy sector by redefining the subsidies for Vaca Muerta shale – in future only up to the original estimates rather than actual output which is often double.
At the other end of the country there is a Morales versus Morales clash between Jujuy’s Gerardo and Bolivia’s Evo over the latter’s lack of healthcare reciprocity while La Rioja Governor Sergio Casas seeks to dodge the legal barriers to his re-election by hastily calling and winning a J27 plebiscite.
– FEBRUARY –
President Macri turns 60 on F8 but it is not exactly a Diamond Jubilee as the same week includes INDEC statistics bureau reporting a 2018 slump of 14.7 percent for manufacturing industry (20.5 percent for construction) – later in the month an opinion poll shows 71 percent of Argentines as seeing his government to be on the wrong path.
The Techint multinational challenges the Vaca Muerta subsidy cuts in court as breach of contract. Chubut bans the entry of any foreigner convicted of any crime, even when the sentence is still under appeal.
The election year’s first scheduled voting is held with F17 PASO provincial primaries in La Pampa and Neuquén with comfortable wins for the incumbent local governments, thus setting a trend – the former province offers a rare example of a contested primary for the nationally ruling Cambiemos coalition at least as its PRO and Radical pillars square off with victory going to the latter.
Also the year’s first major protest F13 when around 200,000 picketers totally block the Avenida 9 de Julio thoroughfare. A January inflation figure of 2.9 percent already dents the hopes at the start of the year of an annual inflation of 30 percent or less.
With corruption trials a constant backdrop once the court year resumes, the red-letter day of F26 for Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner entering the dock is postponed (with some suspecting the government of stretching this trial out for electoral reasons since their strategy hinges on her negative image) but other stories steal the news – the death of starlet Natacha Jaitt, 41, the queen of verbal and other excesses, in the last weekend of the month with traces of cocaine on her nude body and (of rather more political significance) the antics of pseudo-lawyer Marcelo D’Alessio, caught extorting businessmen supposedly on behalf of Carlos Stornelli, the main prosecutor in the’ Cuadernos’ trials of Kirchnerite graft who is henceforth under pressure to withdraw from the cases.
Closing out February, the Supreme Court orders the national government to pay a 15-billion-peso debt to San Luis, the first of various rulings favouring the provinces. The penultimate day of the month officially posts minus 2.6 percent negative growth for 2018.
And the very last day of the month sees acquittals outnumber convictions as the four-year trial investigating the cover-up of the 1994 terrorist bomb destruction of the AMIA Jewish community centre finally concludes – Senator Carlos Menem (then president), former Federal Police chief Jorge “Fino” Palacios and former DAIA Jewish associations umbrella chairman Rubén Beraja are among the five acquittals while ex-judge Juan José Galeano, former SIDE intelligence chief Hugo Anzorreguy and car dealer Carlos Telleldín are among the eight sentenced to prison (three days before the verdict Argentina’s Chief Rabbi Gabriel Davidovich is assaulted).
– MARCH –
The first day of this month invariably sees the parliamentary year opened by a state-of-the-nation address from the president and 2019 is no exception. A peevish Macri visibly irked by the frequent heckling in a turbulent session insists there is no turning back and tries to convince Argentines that they are really better off than four years ago despite “everything costing more,” resting his case on a letter from a Greater Buenos Aires woman who had been unable to afford a summer holiday this year but had sewage and running water for the first time in her life. Foreign policy (the then recent G20 summit), the tourist boom and state modernisation are the main claims to success while a faltering economy is attributed to tighter credit on international capital markets, the 2018 drought and business demoralisation from the “Cuadernos” graft trials (thus presenting a negative aspect of the crusade against corruption for the first time). Criticism tends to focus on the presidential body language but more serious is the lack of any road map for a difficult year with no bill submitted to Congress and only one specific announcement (a family benefit hike). The night after the address, the president’s business tycoon father Franco Macri dies in his 89th year.
M8 sees International Women's Day marked in force with countless green headscarves pressing the case for abortion reform (a cause which ends up being crowded out by an electoral year) – the numbers are swollen by the day falling within a three-day teacher strike.
Following the example of La Rioja, Río Negro Governor Alberto Weretilneck bypasses the constitutional ban on a third consecutive candidacy on a gubernatorial ticket via a provincial supreme court ruling. Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli defies the first of many summonses by Dolores Federal Judge Alejo Ramos Padilla in the “Spygate” case based on D’Alessio’s extortion allegations, a contempt of court promptly raised in Congress while the government seeks to remove Ramos Padilla from the bench with Macri himself taking the lead. Economic news remains bleak with the January manufacturing index slumping 10.8 percent and the dollar topping 43 pesos.
In the year’s first voting on the second Sunday of the month Neuquén Popular Movement (MPN) Governor Omar Gutiérrez is re-elected with almost 40 percent of the vote, thus stretching the MPN’s unbeaten electoral streak to 57 years – a disappointment for both national contenders with 26 percent for Peronist ex-picket leader and mayor Ramón Rioseco and 15 percent for Radical provincial capital Mayor Héctor “Pechi” Quiroga (who dies seven months later) representing Macri. On M13, 65 relatives of the 1982 war dead make an emotional trip to the Malvinas islands to pay their respects at 22 newly identified graves in Darwin Cemetery where the Argentine flag is unfurled for the first time.
In mid-month Florencia Kirchner’s health becomes a public issue as her tearful mother makes the first of several trips to Cuba after obtaining permission from the courts trying the ex-president for graft. Economy Minister Nicolás Dujovne clears the use of US$9.6 billion of International Monetary Fund remittances to defend the currency and INDEC posts 3.8 percent inflation for February. Two veteran Peronists toss their hat into the presidential ring – two-term Buenos Aires Province governor and 2015 runner-up Daniel Scioli and long-standing Senate majority leader Miguel Ángel Pichetto.
The third week of March features a royal visit by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark highlighting the “green transition” of sustainable development, unemployment moving ever closer to double digits at 9.1 percent for the last quarter of 2018 and the Supreme Court crushing the re-election hopes of both Casas and Weretilneck – their frustration does not prevent San Juan incumbent Sergio Uñac from notching a landslide PASO primary win of over 58 percent on the last day of the month. Osvaldo Raffo, 84, the country’s most famous forensic scientist ever, is found mysteriously dead on M18 with a bullet in his head – just like his most famous case, Nisman.
The next week also features a royal visit to boost Macri’s international prestige, this time Argentina’s mother country – Spanish King Felipe and Queen Letizia. Also attending the VIII International (Spanish) Language Congress in Córdoba, the Bourbon monarch misnames Argentina’s most famous writer as José (not Jorge) Luis Borges.
The government submits a new Criminal Code to Congress with harsher punishments for terrorism, corruption and drug-trafficking, also incorporating crimes against humanity and raising environmental offences to criminal status, while the Supreme Court rules to exempt all pensions from income tax.
The weekend of M24 sees two massive march drawing hundreds of thousands – a pro-life rally in answer to the green headscarves of M8 in one case and marking the anniversary of the 1976 military coup in the other. A month starting with a petulant state-of-the-nation speech ends with Macri slipping steadily in the opinion polls amid continuously negative data such as INDEC confirming 32 percent as living below the poverty line and a 5.7 percent slump between the first months of 2018 and 2019. Agustino Fontevecchia’s M30 column in this newspaper is prophetically headlined: “What if Cristina doesn’t run?”
– APRIL –
Amid continuing exchange rate volatility, the IMF approves disbursement of a US$10.87-billion tranche, thus leaving only US$17 billion of the US$ 56 billion agreed in mid-2018 yet to pay.
After some hesitation Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa (a strong third in 2015 with over 21 percent of the vote) launches his presidential bid on the patriotic April 2 date, marking the start of the 1982 South Atlantic War – Massa’s new version of “third way” is far removed from the middle of the road with a blanket anti-Macri bias and nor does he offer any road map. Meanwhile the presidential launch of dark horse Lavagna (he of the summer sandals furore) is delayed by his insistence on pre-primary consensus – he becomes the first to propose renegotiating the IMF agreement.
A turbulent week for social protest with trade unions and pickets combining forces to stage a huge A4 march downtown, even blocking Metrobus until deep into the night but at least the Buenos Aires Province teacher strike is settled when Governor María Eugenia Vidal agrees to update pay to inflation plus 15.6 percent compensation for lost 2018 purchasing-power. Five weeks into the parliamentary year Congress finally finds quorum to session but not to debate any legislation.
The month’s first Sunday (A7) sees provincial history made as Arabela Carreras, the tourism minister standing in for the disqualified Weretilneck, is elected Río Negro’s first woman governor with an absolute majority (52.5 percent) – again a disappointment for Peronism (as in Neuquén), which had fancied its chances with Martín Soria (35 percent), the son of a previous governor, while Macri’s Cambiemos coalition, wholly at sea in Patagonia, trails dismally with 5.7 percent.
In Washington the Donald Trump administration hands over 5,600 declassified files from the 1976-83 military dictatorship era. Meat tycoon Alberto Samid is extradited from Belize on tax evasion charges and sentenced to four years in prison within the same month. Judge Roberto Gallardo rules the illegality of fastfood delivery services in this city. INDEC quantifies idle industrial capacity at 43.4 percent for the close of 2018. The arrest of Australian WikiLeaks hacker Julian Assange in London (A11) also has implications for criminalising journalism here.
As Easter approaches, the Macri government starts concluding in the light of dwindling popularity ratings that the electorate has sacrificed enough and makes a further sacrifice of its own market creed with a utility rate and transport fare freeze for the rest of the year plus a price restraint agreement with supermarkets freezing the prices of some 60 essential food items for at least six months along with various discounts for retirement and family benefit and social plan recipients as well as mortgage subsidies and export duty exemptions for all exporters improving their 2018 performance. March inflation of 4.7 percent is a catalyst for these price controls, which are aimed more at recovering middle-class support than gaining lower – Vidal announces a similar package for Buenos Aires Province the following week.
Opinion polls make gloomy reading for the government as the Entre Ríos PASO primary on Palm Sunday sees Peronist Governor Gustavo Bordet rout Radical Atilio Benedetti by 58 to 33 percent – who would then have imagined that Macri would actually win that province in the October 27 general elections?
Techint CEO Paolo Rocca becomes the first businessman to be let off the hook in the “Cuadernos” graft investigation when the Federal Appeals Court overturns his trial on A16. Peruvian ex-president Alan García, also facing corruption charges but within the Odebrecht scandal spanning the region, is less fortunate, killing himself the next day.
Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner cancels yet another trip to Cuba when her mother Ofelia Wilhelm, 89, passes away on Good Friday.
Easter is followed by a volatile week seeing the dollar push well beyond 45 pesos. The Book Fair is inaugurated amid protests on A25 with its main event at the other end – the book launch of Sinceramente by Fernández de Kirchner (seen as a major factor in the market uncertainty, given the growing chances of her return to power) who meanwhile faces five new counts of graft from Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio. Macri’s strategy of magnifying Kirchnerite populism in order to present himself as the only alternative while at the same not spooking the markets is starting to fall apart at both ends as the first polls to show Fernández de Kirchner beating Macri in a run-off beyond the margin of error appear. Defending the currency carries an enormous cost – the massive reserves thanks to the IMF only add fuel to the flames by magnifying a relatively tiny market out of all proportion while interest rates of up to 70 percent swell both ends of stagflation, feeding obscene financial bicycles while strangling credit for the rest of the economy. All of which turns market fears of a populist comeback into a selffulfilling prophesy.
Meanwhile, former Buenos Aires Province governor Felipe Solá joins his successor Scioli in throwing his hat into the Peronist presidential ring. Bolivian President Evo Morales visits, touching base with Macri but spending far more time at Greater Buenos Aires Peronist rallies. In Santa Fe former socialist governor Antonio Bonfatti (29 percent) tops the PASO provincial primary on the last Sunday of the month but trails the combined vote of rival Peronists Senator Omar Perotti (26.3 percent) and María Eugenia Bielsa (13.5 percent) – another bad result for Macri represented by Radical provincial capital mayor José Corral (18.3 percent), but Cambiemos also stands poised to end three decades of socialism in Rosario thanks to the Civic Coalition’s Pablo Javkin.
The rest of the month is wiped out by back-to-back transport and CTA umbrella labour grouping strikes leading up to May Day, accompanied by demonstrations over the latest Venezuelan crisis.
– MAY –
The month begins with consensus paradoxically becoming the campaign’s new battleground – Macri, Lavagna and Massa each present conflicting 10 points for cross-party consensus (which does not even seem to include Kirchnerismo in Macri’s case). Macri’s 10 points (including a balanced budget, Central Bank independence, export-led growth, labour and tax reforms and foreign debt payment, among others) are core policies in most Latin American countries but Massa rejects them for lacking a social dimension and neglecting education. On May 8, an IMF monitoring team arrives in town to see if Argentina qualifies for its fourth tranche of US$5.6 billion – an issue still not resolved almost eight months later. The steady stream of bad news from INDEC continues – year-on-year slumps of 13.4 and 12.3 percent for manufacturing industry and construction respectively are posted for March (although the overall shrinkage in economic activity is 6.8 percent when agriculture and mining are included).
Offering a “social contract” rather than 10 points, Senator Fernández de Kirchner preaches to the converted at her May 9 Book Fair presentation of her magnum opus (on the 44th anniversary of her wedding to the late Néstor Kirchner and just two days after the centenary of Eva Perón’s birth) – widely billed as a back-door presidential launch but she credits the inspiration for the book to her (previously estranged) former Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández sitting in the front row. Dressed immaculately in white for the occasion, Cristina nevertheless cannot escape her black swans.
On the morning of the presentation La Rioja Radical deputy Héctor Olivares is mortally wounded (dying three days later) and a provincial public works official accompanying him (who turns out to be the real target of the bizarre attack by a gang) shot dead just outside Congress, with some ultra-Kirchnerites like Luis D’Elía convinced that the outrage is the work of government intelligence agents in order to steal their idol’s show. And the evening of the presentation sees one of the most torrential downpours of the year. Although the speech is short and somewhat vapid by her standards, there are few concessions to the middle ground (“Neutrality is for the Swiss”), reaffirming her faith in a closed economy while praising Donald Trump’s protectionism.
On M14 the Unidad Ciudadana senator follows up the book launch by attending her first Justicialist Party (PJ) meeting in 15 years. A week after the presentation, the Supreme Court confirms that the ex-president’s trial for the misallocation of over 50 public works contracts to crony capitalist Lázaro Báez will begin on M21 after initially seeking yet another delay by requesting the files, thus prompting a furious public protest against impunity. Meanwhile the trial of her Army chief-of-staff César Milani for crimes against humanity begins on M17.
The second Sunday of the month sees Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti notch a landmark triumph for moderate “republican” Peronism with a landslide re-election – except there is to be no follow-up after the political earthquake the next weekend. The chronicle of a result foretold (although the loss of Córdoba city to Peronism for the first time since 1973 is less expected) – since neither of the province’s Radical heavyweights (outgoing provincial capital mayor Ramón Mestre and Lower House Cambiemos caucus leader Mario Negri) would step down and nor would the national government permit a PASO primary to define the candidacy. But even a united opposition might not have stood much chance since Schiaretti tops a million votes at 57.3 percent while the two Radical challengers barely clear 30 percent between them. Curiously enough, this catastrophic performance of his Radical allies does not prevent Macri from winning both the August primary and the October 27 general elections with extreme comfort in Córdoba at national level.
Meanwhile the economic data finally give the government a break with April inflation slowing to 3.4 percent. M18 is arguably the most decisive day of the year, turning the entire election year on its head, when Fernández de Kirchner drops her bombshell by relinquishing the presidential candidacy in favour of the ultra-pragmatic Alberto Fernández – a historically unique case of the bottom half of the ticket announcing the top. The campaign thus simultaneously becomes less ideologically and more electorally polarised. This political masterstroke (as it proves to be) does not save the self-demoted vice-presidential candidate from appearing in the dock the following Tuesday (with Alberto Fernández quickly implying that such court appearances could soon be numbered should their brand-new ticket triumph). Peronism celebrates the ‘Fernández-Fernández’ ticket with a resounding victory in La Pampa the next day – governorelect Sergio Ziliotto falls just short of an absolute majority (49.93 percent) with a margin of almost 20 points while the provincial capital of Santa Rosa is grasped from Radical hands.
Not too much happens in the final third of the month including the M25 public holiday for the birth of nationhood and a M29 general strike (if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all). The abuse of women and children (a problem drawing increasing awareness in Argentina) hits a new low on the penultimate day of the month when the immunology chief of the Garrahan Hospital for children is arrested as part of a global child porn bust. In party politics the Radical national convention on M27 votes to continue within Macri’s coalition although urging expansion while the completion of Peronist reunification is on hold pending Massa’s decision but the Buenos Aires gubernatorial candidacy of former economy minister Axel Kicillof is confirmed.
Just two days before the general strike halting the country via a complete transport stoppage, Macri sends an opposite message by inaugurating Paseo del Bajo, a veritable breakthrough for intercity motorists.
– JUNE –
The provincial elections in San Juan and Misiones confirm the general trend favouring incumbent governments – Uñac only slightly undershoots his PASO performance to secure an effortless re-election while current Misiones Lieutenant-Governor Oscar Herrera Ahuad soars to the top job with 73.1 percent as against a feeble 17.4 percent for PRO national party chairman Senator Humberto Schiavoni.
The 75th anniversary of DDay sees Bolsonaro pay his first state visit here – his ideological affinities with Macri do not produce much of a common agenda beyond the European Union-Mercosur agreement (still very much a work in progress) and talk of a common currency (a classic case of running before you can walk, given the imperfections of the Mercosur customs union). After mulling his decision all year Lavagna finally formalises his presidential bid on J5 but his candidacy is stillborn against a Fernández-Fernández ticket potentially unifying most of the opposition and appealing to the middle ground.
The second weekend of the month sees heavy voting involving fully a seventh of the electorate with a clean sweep for four incumbent governors – Peronists Juan Luis Manzur in Tucumán, Bordet in Entre Ríos and Mariano Arcioni in Chubut (despite being on the brink of crisis) together with Radical Gerardo Morales in Jujuy – while in Mendoza the ruling Radicals win the PASO provincial primary (virtually the only genuine primary with internal competition in both main forces). Bordet is the only governor to gain an absolute majority (58 percent) with Manzur falling just short despite giving each voter an election-eve “social emergency aid” of 3,000 pesos (former three-term governor Senator José Alperovich, protagonist of the recent scandal, makes a comeback bid but only polls 11 percent). Morales loses a quarter of his 2015 vote of 58 percent but with Cambiemos wins so few and far between this year nobody in the government is complaining. Arcioni is the only governor with a single-digit margin, fighting off a stiff Kirchnerite challenge 37 to 31 percent.
In response to the 'Fernández-Fernández' game-changer Macri has to come up with something out of the box and he does – choosing for his running-mate on Argentina’s main anti-Peronist ticket not just any Peronist but decade-long Senate majority leader Pichetto on J11 on the eve of the deadline for registering electoral fronts. Left almost alone in the moderate Peronist field by Pichetto’s desertion apart from the isolationist Schiaretti, Urtubey promptly becomes Lavagna’s running-mate. A total of seven fronts – two mainstream, two on the left, two on the right and one aiming for the middle (Lavagna) – are registered with all save leftist Manuela Castañeira (the only female presidential hopeful) eventually clearing the PASO threshold to participate in the presidential debates and October 27 elections. Amid exchange rate calm (with Macri’s potential support broadened by the recruitment of Pichetto), inflation stays on a downward trend with 3.1 percent for May. In other news, former Public Works secretary José López receives a six-year prison sentence for tossing US$9 million dollars over a convent wall in mid-2016 and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo recover their 130th child.
The third Father’s Day weekend of the month sees four more provinces go to the polls (for a total of 10 thus far in June) and this time the streak favouring incumbents is finally snapped with half of these provinces changing course, including the most important. Three terms of Socialist rule in Santa Fe Province are ended by the Peronist Perotti, while Tierra del Fuego Peronist Governor Rosana Bertone is denied re-election by Kirchnerite-backed Radical Río Grande Mayor Gustavo Melella, who narrowly clinches an absolute majority (50.9 percent) in the first round and who will be Argentina’s first openly gay governor. But two Peronist dinosaurs are re-elected – Formosa’s Gildo Insfrán wins a seventh term with over 70 percent of the vote while San Luis Governor Alberto Rodrígeuz Saá fights off strong challenges from both his predecessor (Claudio Poggi, switching to Cambiemos) and brother (Senator Adolfo) to secure a fourth term by seven points. An almost nationwide blackout all Sunday morning (J16) complicates voting in three of these four provinces with Tierra del Fuego the exception.
In the following week, unemployment hit double digits for the first time since 2006 at 10.1 percent (J19) and the next day sees President Macri and Fernández de Kirchner both heading to Rosario for Flag Day, the former to make an electorally charged speech blasting “the mafias destroying growth” and the latter to launch Sinceramente. Comedian Dady Brieva makes the controversial proposal of “a Conadep of journalism” along the lines of the 1983-1985 National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons to try journalists for allegedly inventing the “fake news” of Kirchnerite corruption (he does not seem to have been joking) – various Frente de Todos leaders including Alberto Fernández disassociate themselves from this idea. A wave of air strikes in the latter half of the week.
The next weekend sees the J22 deadline for registering all candidacies for August’s PASO primaries and October’s general elections expire with two last-minute entries into Frente de Todos, Massa as their top lower house candidate in Buenos Aires Province (and presumably the next Speaker) and San Lorenzo football club President Matías Lammens as City mayoral candidate, as the main new developments. Such startling shifts as a Kirchnerite list not being headed by a Kirchner for the first time (although the Fernández surname survives) or the addition of a Peronist wing to the main antiPeronist alliance have done surprisingly little to change the course of the campaign but the two reloaded main tickets now look capable of breaking the 40 percent and even 45 percent barriers for averting a run-off by bringing forward the polarisation – although there is also speculation whether the vice-presidential tail will not end up wagging the presidential dog in both cases (with Pichetto as the tip of a Peronist iceberg), along with other potential Trojan horses such as Massa or Radical/Evolution deputy Martín Lousteau, now a City senatorial candidate for Macri.
The first half of the year closes on a triumphant note for Macri as he is able to announce conclusion of a “historic” European Union-Mercosur trade agreement at the G20 summit in Osaka after two decades of rocky negotiations – even if ratification is still pending on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention plenty of protectionist noises here. The IMF team in town talks to the main opposition presidential candidates. Pichetto is replaced as Senate Federal Peronist caucus leader by Senator Carlos Caserio from staunchly anti-Kirchnerite Córdoba. This year’s trade surplus tops US$4.5 billion for up to May. Sex symbol Isabel Sarli dies a fortnight before her 90th birthday (J25).
– JULY –
The second half of the year starts ominously with a 15-death bus crash in Tucumán on the first day of the month and a rare total solar eclipse on the second turning night into day amid below-zero temperatures. Argentine football is also plunged into darkness as its Copa América dream is shattered on the day of the eclipse by a 2-0 semi-final defeat against tournament hosts Brazil. In the process of changing its helm, the IMF gives the latest tranche of US$ 5.4 billion for Argentina a green light. Frente de Todos presidential candidate Alberto Fernández visits Brazil’s Lula in jail on US Independence Day.
Argentina’s Independence Day begins with the death of Fernando de la Rúa (1937-2019) – the luckless president during Argentina’s passage from one millennium to another (1999- 2001) – but in the previous weekend this newspaper loses a founding father, Andrew Graham-Yooll (1944-2019), more known for being a pillar of the late Buenos Aires Herald (whose September 15 anniversary coincided with De la Rúa’s birthday), his innumerable books including a defining history of the Anglo-Argentine community and his international journalistic career. The carapintada Army mutineer Aldo Rico is a controversial presence at the Independence Day parade. In a week abbreviated by Independence Day opinion polls point to a tight and polarised presidential race with Macri’s odds improving as the run-up to the PASO primary moves into its final month.
The 100th edition of this newspaper in the third weekend of the month is devoted entirely to the memory of Andrew Graham-Yooll. We had already anticipated that the 25th anniversary of the 1994 terrorist bomb destruction of the AMIA Jewish community centre would be attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (J18). The winter vacations (somewhat harassed by air strikes) are accompanied by a vacuum in a vacuous campaign debate as the build-up to the PASO primary enters its final fortnight. The government receives almost its first encouraging news of the year from INDEC as a growth rate of 2.6 percent is posted for May as compared to the same month of 2018, thanks to a bumper harvest. Alberto Fernández rattles markets (J29) when he says he would halt interest payments on Leliq bonds in order to improve pensions and is obliged to backtrack. An opinion poll shows three-quarters of Argentines to hold a positive view of China. In Britain Boris Johnson finally reaches Downing Street (J24) but does not get his, ahem, 'BoJo' working immediately.
– AUGUST –
With all mainstream polls continually pointing to a tight PASO primary race, Macri attempts to tip the scales in his favour by restoring his Agriculture Department to ministerial status (A2) as the Rural Society’s farm show in Palermo draws to a close, rewarding the bumper harvest. But his government is not helped by other productive sectors like construction and manufacturing industry whose positive data for April and May turn negative for June, INDEC inconveniently reports just five days before PASO voting.
In closing rallies Macri asks the electorate to “vote for the future” while Fernández promises “an Argentina everyone deserves.” Opinion polls stay even-steven (Fernández- Fernández always slightly ahead with more momentum for Macri) but both domestic and international analysts warn that if Macri trails by over five percent, there will be blood or at least market turmoil. Pre-PASO turbulence pushes the dollar beyond 46 pesos but country risk is still in three digits at 872 points. Meanwhile, Milani is acquitted in his first trial for crimes against humanity on the very eve of PASO (A9).
The PASO primary (A11) is anything but the close race so widely forecast, leaving Alberto Fernández prematurely president-elect. Nationwide the Frente de Todos landslide is 16 points (47.8 to 31.8 percent or 12-plus million votes to just over eight million) but beyond the central belt most favourable to Macri, the margin tops 20 percent and peaking beyond 30 percent in nine provinces (including Pichetto’s Río Negro) – unlike the real thing in October, Greater Buenos Aires (with Kicillof 18 percent ahead in BA province) does not make the difference with Fernández-Fernández claiming an absolute majority in no less than 14 provinces. Even if winning big in both, Macri has only the Federal Capital (where Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta all but seals reelection with a 14 percent lead) and Córdoba to his name. In retrospect, an accident waiting to happen with all the grim economic data all year long but this chronicle of a death unforetold proves a total shock to the system. An extremely basic backlash against rigid monetarism crushes any post-modern illusion that big data could somehow make Macri competitive.
The first day of the rest of the year but the day after is no less momentous as the markets run amok with the virtual certainty of a populist comeback instead of the expected indecisive curtain-raiser. A dollar closing at 46.20 pesos on the previous Friday soars over 65 pesos on the other side of the weekend even if closing the week at 57 while country risk brushes the 2,000-point mark in midweek although finishing the week at 1,656 points. This does not stop many (perhaps most) pundits from tying themselves up in knots to claim that two and two do not make four and that the market panic has nothing to do with the PASO result, rejecting a Macri past rather than a populist future.
Macri somehow finds the wrong way of making the glaringly obvious correlation between the PASO vote and market meltdown in a tetchy press conference the day after, thus sinking even deeper. In this context both the main candidates have reason to think “the worse, the better” (Alberto Fernández to intensify the disenchantment with Macri and the latter to panic the electorate into a return to the pre-PASO status quo) but both make the opposite reading of their political self-interest, holding a civilised telephone conversation in midweek (A14).
This convergence takes the two men in opposite policy directions with Fernández almost overacting his disavowals of default and economic pragmatism while Macri announces a raft of blatantly electioneering measures more typical of a populist platform but as much aimed at the middle as the lower classes – raising the income tax floor, freezing petrol prices for three months, hiking the minimum wage alongside bonuses for state employees and family benefits among other things – with more to follow the next day (A15), scrapping IVA value-added taxation on basic food items and freezing UVA mortgages for the rest of the year. Neither of these two packages is announced by Dujovne, who is deafeningly silent over these departures from economic orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, the other half of the Fernández-Fernández ticket celebrates by requesting and gaining court permission to spend almost the rest of the month in Cuba. INDEC announces the lowest inflation of the year for July at 2.2 percent but with the ferocious inflation underway, it is sure to remain the lowest.
With the blazes in the Amazon rainforest shocking the planet (the Brazilian Embassy here is also the scene of demonstrations), Fernández broadens his outlook from domestic to regional policy in the second week after his triumph although not especially over that issue (even if criticising Bolsonaro comes naturally to him) – instead he advocates a softer line towards Venezuela than the Lima Group intransigence favoured by Macri.
Dujovne is replaced at the economic helm (A20) by his Buenos Aires provincial counterpart Hernán Lacunza with Vidal now even more of a lame duck than Macri. Lacunza’s most immediate priority is to keep the dollar at or below 60 pesos.
Meanwhile, the electoral package triggering the change of ministers also runs into resistance from provincial governors – despite Peronist insistence on lower food prices to give the poor a break, the governors object in particular to the IVA cuts for depriving them of funds as a levy subject to federal revenue-sharing, taking their objections to the Supreme Court with all 19 opposition governors joining forces (although this logic sets a potential precedent for any tax cut being unconstitutional).
Not the week’s only news on the judicial front as courtrooms show signs of adjusting to the new post-PASO scenario within 10 days of the shock upset – the Federal Appeals Court overturns the Sarmiento rail underpass graft trial probing Kirchnerite corruption for lack of evidence while at the same time calling for a continued investigation of the debts left by the Macri family while running the Post Office (1997- 2003). July trade figures give both good news and bad news – a surplus of almost a billion dollars with US$12.5 billion projected for the year but also the result of a sharp recession with imports falling by over 20 percent. Following general and teacher strikes over pay arrears throughout the month tensions escalate in the Patagonian province of Chubut as bullets are fired at the provincial Cabinet chief’s car.
In the last week of the month the word “reprofiling” enters the country’s economic vocabulary when Lacunza announces (A28) that only 15 percent of short-term local bonds to the tune of US$7 billion will be paid on schedule with a further 25 percent after three months and the remaining 60 percent in six – a move promptly defined as “selective default” by Standard & Poor’s as country risk surges from 1,809 to over 2,500 points. Just two days later, banks are ordered to seek Central Bank permission before making remittances abroad but exchange markets end the month totally free, which seems to be asking for trouble.
Fighting fire with fire is always a dangerous game. Central Bank reserves close the month at US$54 billion, sharply down from pre-PASO levels of US$66.3 billion from sales to defend the currency, and the latest IMF tranche of US$5.4 billion is very much on hold with Fernández telling IMF emissaries that their money is all going on capital flight.
Conflicting messages from the streets – a spontaneous pro-Macri rally organised by the social networks brings out thousands of citizens to urge an embattled president to fight on (A24) but in midweek a picket protest drawing hundreds of thousands completely blocks Av. 9 de Julio. Church leaders react by urging Macri to boost food assistance for the poor.
The month concludes with the final official PASO results totalling only valid ballots, which give Frente de Todos almost half the vote at 49.5 percent as against 32.9 percent for Macri-Pichetto.
– SEPTEMBER –
With Alberto Fernández spending the first week of this month in the Iberian Peninsula basking in the sun and his recent victory, a relative calm prevails. Fernández meets the socialist premiers of both Iberian countries but also Banco Santander CEO Ana Botín and disturbingly opines that there is no point in Argentina developing its oil if the multinationals are going to take it all.
The calm is bolstered in the very first hours of the month by new capital controls limiting monthly dollar purchases to US$10,000 while interest rates hit 85 percent – this does the trick for now with the dollar exchange rate down from 63.50 to 56.01 pesos at the end of the week and country risk down from over 2,500 to 2,059 points. But pickets again block off 9 de Julio in midweek pressing for a “national food emergency,” teachers strike nationwide S5 in solidarity with the protests of their colleagues in strife-ridden Chubut and social leader Juan Grabois makes a controversial land reform proposal (anachronistic if the pools operate by renting smallholdings rather than in large estates).
The 40th anniversary of the historic visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to verify thousands of disappearances under the 1976-83 military dictatorship is marked S6. Ex-superstar Diego Maradona makes his latest news splash by becoming the new coach of relegation-threatened Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata football club, drawing large crowds. Last and perhaps least, Ivanka Trump pays a flying visit to Jujuy.
In response to escalating social protests, the Chamber of Deputies unanimously passes a food emergency bill S12, doubling the budget allocation of 10 billion pesos for school and other canteens. The velocity of passage prevents any serious debate on the real dimensions of the hunger problem in Argentina to define it between the extremes of denialism and demagogy (a debate which would do well to factor in the wild variations of food prices in a volatile economy and the fact that obesity is now fivefold malnutrition worldwide). On the same day INDEC posts four percent inflation for August, just a fraction of recent devaluation (although the dollar stays below 60 pesos all month). The Commercial Appeals Court places the Post Office under trusteeship, accusing its previous Macri Group owners of asset-stripping after a mid-2016 Communications Ministry evaluation downscaled debts estimated at an updated 50 billion pesos to 300 million pesos, to be repaid over 15 years. Senator Cristina Kirchner makes another “urgent” flight to Cuba to visit her ailing daughter. At the World Cup in China Argentina’s basketball team goes all the way to the final in mid-month but is outclassed by Spain.
The election campaign is increasingly what might be called a convergent polarisation between two walking contradictions – in complete role reversal a pro-market Macri administration increasingly prone to populist electioneering, even welshing on local bonds of his own issuance (a first even for serial defaulter Argentina), as against Alberto Fernández, the pragmatic head of an ideologically driven coalition, who finds time to talk to farming lobbies, the Clarín Group and ultra-orthodox economist Carlos Melconian, thus violating Kirchnerite taboos. One side wants to “renegotiate” public debt and the other side “reprofile” it while moving in opposite directions. No credible alternative for an election still some weeks away while the markets vote every day.
The Senate unanimously approves the Food Emergency Law two days before spring begins. Unemployment rises to 10.6 percent for the second quarter of the year, the highest figure since 2006, with worse sure to come in the wake of the crisis raging since mid-August. The day before spring Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio closes his probe into the public works graft exposed by the “Cuadernos” and sends Senator Cristina Kirchner to trial among others. A new escalation of Chubut’s crisis when two teachers returning from a protest against pay arrears die in a car crash S17 – a previous dollar bond with preferred creditor status to finance a chronic deficit leaves the provincial government almost without cash to pay its employees, whose protests prevent the nation’s leading oil producer from producing. The next day the government relaxes its fuel price freeze with a four percent increase while the Central Bank ends a 15-month freeze of the money supply by printing some 38 billion pesos. Alberto Fernández starts talking about the 2003 Uruguay or the 2015 Ukraine bond swaps as the formula for paying foreign debt while reportedly looking to China as a last resort (against which he is publicly warned by airport magnate Eduardo Eurnekian). The Pumas begin their World Cup campaign in Japan on Spring Day but a 21-23 defeat against France already destroys their chances of advancing beyond Group C.
The United Nations General Assembly in the last week of the month sees Macri in Manhattan for less than half a day where he defends multilateralism in an increasingly protectionist world as last year’s G20 host (even if Argentina remains one of the world’s most closed economies), chipping in his usual criticisms of Iran and Venezuela as well as asserting Argentina’s perennial Malvinas sovereignty claims. While in New York neither Macri nor Lacunza can induce the IMF to release the tranche of US$5.4 billion. His running-mate Pichetto’s trip abroad is to Brasilia for a cosy chat with Bolsonaro (S27). The May syndrome of positive growth thanks solely to agriculture is repeated for July as against the same month in 2018 but the economy is still down 2.1 percent for the year. The latest electoral goodie is a 5,000-peso bonus for all private-sector workers. Fernández de Kirchner, recently indicted, flies off to Cuba yet again.
Thousands protest climate change S27. The final weekend of the month sees Macri begin in Belgrano his “#SíSePuede” ("Yes, we can") campaign of 30 daily marches in 30 cities around the country with a surprisingly large turnout. The next day is even better for him as his Radical allies in Mendoza clinch an absolute majority in the provincial elections, promoting Mendoza City Mayor Rodolfo Suárez to governor-elect with a 15-point margin over ultra-Kirchnerite Senator Anabel Fernández Sagasti, exceeding all forecasts by doubling the Radical margin in the PASO primary. But the month ends with a downer as INDEC reports poverty climbing to 35.4 percent in the first half of the year with all the impact of the post-PASO crisis yet to be felt while Federal Appeals Prosecutor Germán Moldes retires.
– OCTOBER –
Alberto Fernández continues to enjoy a relatively favourable press, arousing more hopes (ranging from the expectation that a change of government will magically improve things, as with Macri in 2015, to reliance on Argentina’s past history of bouncing back from disasters such as the 1989 hyperinflation and the 2001-2 meltdown) than fears. Especially after playing the hero to convince pilots to call off their strike for the first weekend of the month at the very last minute (even if the government also makes some concessions with a pay agreement finally reached O9). The previous day he had attended a reunification of the labour movement which is more apparent than real (one splinter of the CTA labour umbrella refuses to return until the more conservative trade unionists are displaced from the CGT helm). More than one opinion poll shows Frente de Todos with over half the vote while Macri is stuck on a third. On the very first day of the month the Supreme Court rules 3-1 against the government’s post-PASO package of tax cuts insofar as provincial revenues are affected (namely, the elimination of IVA on basic food items and lowering the income tax floor) – this intangibility of federal revenue-sharing is almost tantamount to ruling any tax cuts unconstitutional. The tax cuts are actually unconstitutional on the more basic grounds of being decreed and thus bypassing Congress. But this episode is politically important as showing the provincial governors as clearly opposed to Macri for almost the first time in his presidency (since his parliamentary minority forced him into federalist generosity).
The dollar finally creeps past the psychological 60-peso barrier, closing the first week of the month at 60.09 pesos while country risk is 2,144 points and Central Bank reserves are down to US$ 48.3 billion.
As the first presidential debate (O13) approaches, opinion polls show the Frente de Todos lead stretching to over 20 points with Macri almost halfway through his #SíSePuede rallies where he continues to draw large crowds and talk tough. But Macri receives a further inland boost from the Salta primary (O6) where his coalition lends support to both the rivals of Frente de Todos – Salta City Mayor Gustavo Sáenz (Massa’s 2015 running-mate) and maverick conservative Alfredo Olmedo – who respectively gain 43 and 20 percent of the vote against 32 percent for Frente de Todos (now including Massa). Alberto Fernández promises “zero interference” from his running-mate and country risk falls below 2,000 to 1,877 points. Rodríguez Larreta and Lammens hold a fairly amicable low-key mayoral debate with two rivals (O10). The World Cup in Japan ends O9 for the Pumas whose two wins and two defeats are not enough to take them beyond Group C.
The presidential debate proves to be a misnomer thanks to a rigid format preventing any real exchange of opinion. A frontrunner on the offensive is the main novelty as Alberto Fernández successfully seizes the initiative from a confused Macri but may have sacrificed some of his carefully fostered moderate image with his aggressive approach. Lavagna’s lacklustre performance (according to all observers) ends his last chance of halting polarisation. The three other participants (José Luis Espert and Juan José Gómez Centurión on the right and FIT’s Nicolás Del Caño on the left) all have equal time and make the most of it yet the debate is anything but a game-changer. On the same day former Cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich is elected to a third gubernatorial term with 47.6 percent of the vote.
Not much news in the week between the two debates, especially with heavy rainfall leaving much of Greater Buenos Aires waterlogged and leading to the usual political blame game at the height of the campaign. INDEC posts 5.9 percent inflation for September, the year’s highest so far despite the elimination of IVA on basic food products – September is the first month to reflect throughout the full impact of post-PASO devaluation. Otherwise the main news concerns campaign rallies – Peronist Loyalty Day in La Pampa (O17) and the grand finale of SíSePuede at the Obelisk (O19) where Macri fails to reach his target of a million people present but well into six digits. The IDEA business symposium in Mar del Plata in the latter half of the week is a low-key event with Vidal and Lavagna the only guest speakers of any importance.
The second debate (O20) goes very much more Macri’s way as he heeds the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle with a one-track onslaught on Kirchnerite corruption which knocks Alberto Fernández off balance. But the economic data in the final run-up to the elections do not help – even with the US$10,000-cap, a couple of billion are sucked out of reserves in the final pre-electoral week alone with US$5.2 billion pulled out of dollar deposits in the month up to voting, taking Central Bank reserves down to US$43.5 billion. Unlike July, farming and mining fail to give August positive growth with the Argentine economy contracting 3.8 percent as against the same month of 2018 and 2.3 percent for the year so far, according to INDEC (O24). The crisis in Chile (on the boil all month over a subway fare increase) is at its worst at exactly the worst time for Macri with a million marching in Santiago on the eve of the election here (and of Uruguay) – South America’s most successful example of Macri’s beloved market model falls inexplicably into crisis. But there are also problems on the other side of the regional spectrum – Bolivia’s Evo Morales fails to make a dodgy electoral process the previous Sunday (O20) stick and loses power three Sundays later. Thanks to the British Embassy, the proximity of elections does not prevent a warm tribute to our Andrew Graham-Yooll (O23).
And so to the elections whose result is a certainty for almost everybody and everything else uncertainty – even those certain of the next president’s name have no way of knowing whether he will be a Cristina puppet or a Carlos Menem revisited or what, while should Macri pull off a miracle, would the second Macri necessarily be the same as the first (especially looking nervously across the Andes at Chile)?
Election night (O27) finally arrives and even that one certainty cannot escape surprise. The winner’s name remains the same but his margin shrinks to half his PASO landslide with 48 percent for Frente de Todos as against 40 percent for Juntos por el Cambio – even if Fernández-Fernández increase their PASO vote by 700,000, Macri expands his August support by fully a third to garner 10.8 million votes and add four more provinces (Santa Fe with Rosario one of the main victims of recession, Mendoza, Entre Ríos and eternally Peronist San Luis) to Córdoba and this capital, thus making a complete yellow band right across the middle of the country between the northern and Patagonian blues for a striking resemblance to a Boca Juniors shirt. This surge leaves Juntos por el Cambio as the biggest caucus in the lower house Chamber of Deputies on paper with 120 deputies while Frente de Todos falls short of an overall Senate majority pending Peronist reunification – only two of the 72 senators and 17 of the 257 deputies elude the polarisation. The results seem to leave everybody happy – Alberto Fernández is formally president-elect at last but Macri has saved a lot of face. The next steps come quick: drastically tighter capital controls capping monthly dollar withdrawals at US$200 the day after the election underlines the extremity of the crisis of confidence. Nor does a taut political situation offer more solidity despite the polarisation with two precarious coalitions (Civic Coalition leader Elisa Carrió promptly calls it quits, retiring from politics) – hard to tell if undershooting PASO expectations weakens Alberto Fernández by giving him less votes he can call his own (with CFK the presumed magnet of a third of the electorate) or strengthens him since the constant negotiations required by a hung Congress are far more his style than his running-mate’s. Where this supreme pragmatist with his ideological following will now move still leaves everybody guessing.
The rest of the month sees Argentine diplomat Rafael Grossi emerge as the new director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency after IAEA voting in Vienn a (O29) and the last day of the month sees petrol prices increase five percent but still far behind international levels with Alberto Fernández reportedly sweet-talking oil giants in order to lure investments into Vaca Muerta shale.
– NOVEMBER –
The month begins with a congratulatory call from Trump to the election winner, who then proceeds to spend the first week of the month in Mexico with whom he proclaims a “strategic allegiance” and unveils a vision of Latin American unity based on the new Puebla rather than Lima Group (the former a progressive combo of past, present and future presidents) – not really on the same page as Trump.
Plenty of speculation as to the future Cabinet but cards stay close to the chest with factional balance and approval from both halves of the presidential ticket essential requirements. Apart from growing tensions between the recent election rivals both playing the blame game, this reluctance to name the next ministers alone dooms transition. Even before the future government has taken off, Flybondi low cost airline founder Julian Cook decides that he has had enough, describing Peronism as a “cancer” and announcing his return to Britain. Ricardo Russo, former head of immunology at the Garrahan Children’s Hospital, is handed a 10-year prison sentence on child pornography charges (N6). The end of the month’s first full week sees mixed messages from a confused region – the release of self-styled “lawfare” victim Brazilian ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva from prison (N8) is hailed as a progressive victory but at the other end of the weekend Evo Morales is obliged to flee Bolivia (N10).
That Bolivian crisis deepens Argentina’s rift beyond all the semantics over whether there was a coup with transition dead in the water before it is off the ground (pardon the mixed metaphor) as the day or two of post-electoral cordiality starts becoming a distant memory. A Peronist bill “repudiating the coup d’état in Bolivia” clears both houses of Congress on the same day (N13) although not unanimously in the Senate where there is a 29- 8 vote while all Cambiemos deputies but one abstain. Inflation slows down to 3.3. percent in October from September’s 5.9 percent with capital controls stabilising the exchange rate.
Colombia becomes the fifth South American republic to enter into major social and/or political turbulence in less than two months even if at the end of that third week of the month Uruguay provides an example of a civilised change of government despite a minimal run-off difference of 30,000 votes which would be so easy to dispute. Chile and Bolivia both grew four percent last year and Colombia 2.7 percent with 3.4 percent projected for this year but all three are in deep trouble – this raises the bar for Argentina’s incoming government facing a spiral of negative growth heading into its third year plus a formidable debt overhang in a country where picket marches are part of the daily landscape.
Congress is defined as the venue for the inauguration of Alberto Fernández (N20). A new political scandal erupts when Tucumán Peronist Senator and former three-term governor José Alperovich is accused of sexual abuse by a relative and former aide.
The outgoing Macri administration blunders into an embarrassing U-turn when it revokes a protocol updating the guidelines for non-indictable abortions to World Health Organisation standards only a few hours after publication in the Official Gazette on the grounds that Health Secretary Adolfo Rubinstein had not consulted his superior Social Development Minister Carolina Stanley – Rubinstein (a Radical) resigns two days later. Alberto Fernández frenetically consults his running-mate to define his future Cabinet immediately after her return from Cuba (N18).
The last week of the month starts with the conviction of two priests to prison sentences of over 40 years for the sexual abuse of deaf-mute children at the Antonio Próvolo Institute in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza. Fernández confirms that he will not be seeking that IMF tranche of US$5.4 billion or any of the US$ 11 billion remaining from the package of US$57 billion negotiated by Macri in mid-2018. The new Senate is sworn in (N27) when it is revealed that in the intervening month the Victory Front (FpV) and Federal Peronist caucuses have merged into a single Frente de Todos grouping with a solid majority of 41 of the 72 senators under José Mayans from the dinosaur Peronist province of Formosa – in the same session Alperovich is granted leave of absence. On the penultimate day of the month Milani is acquitted over charges concerning the 1976 disappearance of a conscript. Various protests and marches during the week.
– DECEMBER –
The first week of the month begins with an explosive four-hour court appearance by the future vice-president and ends with the future president presenting his Cabinet. “I’m not interested, I don’t care (about the legal proceedings … because) history has already acquitted me,” Fernández de Kirchner yells at the judges trying her for Santa Cruz public works corruption, telling them that they are the ones who should be answering questions about her “political persecution” now presumably ended by her electoral triumph – she also places Alberto Fernández (Cabinet chief from 2003 to 2008) in the dock by asking the judges why they are not probing the official ultimately responsible for budget spending.
Trump also complicates Macri’s last full week in office from the start by restoring tariffs on Argentine steel and aluminium exports on the grounds that this year’s major devaluations confer an unfair advantage – the D4-5 Mercosur summit in Brazil (also affected) fails to produce a response with the Bolivian crisis and Bolsonaro’s resisted proposal to lower the bloc’s Common External Tariff (CET) already crowding the agenda. The next day three PRO deputies bolt the Juntos por el Cambio caucus on the eve of the new lower house members swearing in (D4), thus promoting Frente de Todos to first bloc at the last minute.
Macri treats himself to not one but two swan songs – a rare nationwide broadcast (D5) and a Plaza de Mayo farewell rally (D7) – to defend his record but the former is undermined by UCA Catholic University posting third-quarter poverty of 40.8 percent earlier in the day. The future 21-strong Cabinet almost doubles Macri’s in size with the creation of new portfolios like housing and gender equality. Factional balance is fairly even with, for example, Felipe Solá (ex-Massa) as Foreign minister while La Cámpora’s Eduardo “Wado” de Pedro as Interior minister is a Cristina watchdog over the provinces but Joseph Stiglitz pupil Martín Guzmán in Economy (no czar with no less than five economic ministries) is very much the last-minute choice of Alberto Fernández. Plenty more could be said on the Cabinet, but space precludes us a little in this case.
A handful of days after his Cabinet is unveiled, Argentina’s new president has an inauguration that’s overloaded with symbolism – Fernández droves himself from his apartment in Puerto Madero to Congress, where his new vice-president watches on as he delivered a speech full of rhetoric but light on detail. All eyes were certainly on Cristina, who couldn’t hide her disgust for Macri as the two ‘greeted’ each other inside Congress. Afterwards, at a huge rally and popular festival in the Plaza de Mayo, before the Casa Rosada, it was Fernández de Kirchner’s turn to take the spotlight for a speech in which she defended her record, denounced the actions of the Macri administration’s, reiterated her claims of “political persecution” and warned her new boss of the problems ahead should be forget the people who put him there. The Fernández administration then got quickly into gear, pushing out a new protocol for nonpunishable abortions and planning out a series of economic measures to tackle the crisis. The new president says Argentina is in a “virtual default” and new Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof warns the region cannot pay its debts.
Other high-profile stories drew headlines too – including the arrest and extradition of Mario Sandoval, a former police officer who had been living in France for years and who the authorities believe committed human rights violations during the dark days of last military dictatorship.
Meanwhile, ousted Bolivia leader Evo Morales arrives in Buenos Aires seeking asylum and to settle. He continues to draw attention in the weeks ahead much to the chagrin of the interim government that has replaced him in La Paz. British tourist Martin Gibbard and his stepson are attacked by thieves in Puerto Madero, with the former succumbing to his injuries on the way to hospital.
The penultimate week of the year arrives with Congress firmly at the heart of the action, as President Fernández and his Peronist coalition seek to push through an economic and social solidarity package, which will deliver tax hikes, freeze tariffs, slap a 30-percent tax on purchaes on dollars and financial transactions overseas, and deliver enhanced powers for the Executive. It clears both lower and upper houses and is signed into law shortly after.
Leaving out Diego Maradona at the Casa Rosada, it’s Mendoza that delivers the final big story of the year as huge protests denounce alterations to Law 7722, which had previously restricted the use of dangerous chemicals in mining operations. With tensions escalating, Governor Rodolfo Suárez calls for “dialogue” and says he will suspend the new rules for now.
No doubt that this one – like so many other things – is “to be continued.”