Sunday, June 23, 2024

ARGENTINA | 11-04-2020 11:33

Apr 6th-12th: What we learned this week

Stories that caught our eye in the last seven days.


At press time, officials confirmed 1,975 cases of coronavirus and 82 deaths in Argentina, as compared to 1,353 cases and 42 deaths the previous Friday. Last weekend the banks (unprecedentedly open on Saturday and Sunday to take care of March pensions) managed to avoid the chaotic crowds of the previous Friday. On Tuesday President Alberto Fernández – after visiting the ANLIS-Malbrán Institute – held a lengthy meeting with business and CGT trade union leaders which was preceded by speculation that he would be yielding to pressures for a cautious relaxation of quarantine for some sectors to give a stricken economy some relief although not for the very old or very young (schoolchildren). But on the day of the meeting, after contacting governors and consulting colleagues around the world, Fernández reportedly spoke of even tightening the lockdown in this metropolis, although the possibility of reopening factories and shopping centres with skeleton staffs and rotating shifts remained open. On Wednesday Fernández confirmed a tighter metropolitan quarantine and met with Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for the first time in almost a month. On Thursday, reports about the national lockdown became clearer, as the Peronist leader held a host of meetings and officials briefed that the mandatory quarantine would be extended and may even be “stricter” in urban centres. Yesterday (Scientific Researcher’s Day as well as Good Friday) President Fernández availed himself of the occasion to praise Argentine scientists, singling out the Malbrán Institute for “achieving a significant advance in the struggle against coronavirus.” As he prepared to speak to the nation and announce his final decision, President Fernández also found time for an interview with Perfil co-founder Jorge Fontevecchia (more on that in next week’s edition).


A Sunday night emergency decree rolled over until next year all dollar-denominated debt under local jurisdiction, a sum of around US$10 billion. The move qualifies as a technical default as a unilateral termination of a state contract with creditors and the three main ratings agencies had downgraded Argentina to “restricted/selective default” by Tuesday but the Fernández presidency was not treading new ground here – last September the Mauricio Macri administration likewise incurred in a technical default by postponing payments on a very similar sum in Treasury short-term bills of exchange with then Finance Minister Hernán Lacunza coining the word “reprofiling” to describe the manoeuvre. This time round almost half the total consists of Bonar 20 and 24 bonds, the main liabilities falling due this year with the first payments coming up later this month. Both capital and interest payments will be swapped for new bonds whose conditions have yet to be defined. It now remains to be seen whether the bonds under foreign jurisdiction falling due this year, some US$3.3 billion, will receive the same treatment. On Wednesday all three parties of Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition urged the government not to pay Paris Club debt.


A scandal erupted early last week when it emerged that the Social Development Ministry had made food purchases overpriced by 50 to 60 percent above official ceilings for the Plan Against Hunger programme. By Tuesday 15 Ministry officials had been fired and a full administrative investigation was launched, with the AntiCorruption Office also looking in. (See Pages 10 & 11)


Judge Daniel Obligado on Monday granted house arrest to former vice-president Amado Boudou, who until then had been serving a 70-month prison sentence for the irregular acquisition of Ciccone moneyprinting company while economy minister (2009-2011). The court made the concession on the grounds that his sentence (confirmed by the Federal Appeals Courts but then lodged with the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule) had not exhausted all appeals, as well as “the context of the worldwide sanitary emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” On Wednesday federal prosecutor Marcelo Colombo appealed what he called an “arbitrary” decision. Boudou’s lawyers claim that Cristina Fernández de Kircher’s vice-president is a victim of political persecution by the previous Mauricio Macri administration.


Buenos Aires Province Sergio Berni on Thursday suspended all the 300 or so Quilmes policemen who had used rubber bullets and truncheons to evict 250 workers from the Penta meat-packing plant, leaving many of them injured and hospitalised, denying that he had given any orders. The workers were protesting March wage arrears and a company announcement of mass dismissals (Penta later denied that they were firing anybody) but their violation of quarantine was enough for the police to move in. Quilmes Mayor Mayra Mendoza (a member of La Cámpora militant Kirchnerite grouping) published a municipal communiqué “repudiating the repression of the Penta workers” and social activist leader Juan Grabois expressed fury and disbelief.


In her first interview since returning from Cuba last month, Florencia Kirchner spoke of her relationship with her famous mother over the abortion issue, as well as the depression which kept her out of the country for over a year, which she blamed on her court cases, and her mother’s political career. If Cristina Fernández de Kirchner blocked abortion reform throughout her 2007-15 presidency and voted for it as senator in 2018, Florencia denied that changing her mind was her work alone. In her interview with Futurock, she further admitted to not having read her mother’s magnum opus Sinceramente. Ouch.


The Criminal Cassation Court of Buenos Aires Province has accepted a collective habeas corpus for prisoners falling into pandemic risk groups, thus clearing the way for their house arrest, although provincial attorney-general Julio Conte Grand clarified that highly dangerous convicts and those sentenced for major crimes would not be released, calculating that only 800 or so of the over 2,800 filing the class action would benefit from the ruling. Only those prisoners convicted for minor crimes who are aged over 65 or with health problems or pregnant will definitely qualify for house arrest.


The French mining group Eramet announced on Wednesday that it would be halting the construction of a lithium production plant in Argentina, due to the uncertainty sweeping the world economy with the Covid-19 pandemic leaving commodity prices especially vulnerable, even if the decision will cost the group 150 million euros. Nevertheless, Eramet clarified that the project had not been shelved for good.


A member of the Times team has a daughter now working in Britain as a paediatrician at a Luton hospital, who reports the birth of twins last weekend to an Indian couple, promptly named Corona and Covid. Yes, really.


The first trial for violating quarantine (which is to proceed via videoconference) has been requested in Córdoba after a young man aged 26 defiantly told local police: “Nobody bosses me around, I do what I like,” on the very first day of the lockdown (March 20). A further 581 persons were arrested on the eve of the long Easter weekend in the provincial capital for violating quarantine with 7,041 cars impounded. As Easter began, a total of 7,731 people had been arrested throughout the province of Córdoba for scorning the “compulsory, preventive social isolation” since it was decreed nationwide three weeks ago.

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