President Alberto Fernández reiterated his call for broad judicial reform in Monday’s annual state-of-the-nation address to open Congress but more aggressively than last year, branding the Judiciary as privileged and politicised.
The Peronist leader had a lot of ground to cover, given the events of the previous year. He addressed the economy, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, his legislative goals and Argentina's debt restructuring efforts, using the latter to attack the "inheritance" left behind by his predecessor, Mauricio Macri – not least the record 2018 International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan of US$57 billion, of which the former president drew US$44 billion which “all went up in smoke,” Fernández alleged.
But the president’s strongest words were saved for the courts, underlining that the efforts to reform the Judiciary that began last year and were delayed by the pandemic, would still go ahead.
"The reform of the Judiciary in its broadest dimension is also an urgent demand from society as a whole," declared Fernández, who presented a bill to reform the federal courts last year, which is still awaiting debate in the lower house Chamber of Deputies.
The Frente de Todos leader, who was flanked to his left by Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as he delivered his speech, said that his reform effort was not intended to favour his political allies but was in fact a result of his experience as a lawyer.
"I would like my criticisms of the judicial system not to be seen by anybody as resentment or the desire to favour someone. I speak as who I am, a man who has grown up in the world of law," he declared.
Opposition lawmakers strongly reject that claim. They say that the attempt to reform the Judiciary is a favour to Fernández de Kirchner, who faces nine corruption cases against her in the courts. The vice-president, who serves as president of the Senate and did not wear a face mask during the address, claims she is a victim of “political and judicial persecution” (often dubbed “lawfare”) and rejects the allegations.
"We’re living in times of the judicialisation of politics and the politicisation of justice, which end up damaging democracy and public trust, because everything is disrupted," he declared.
"Some members of this Congress knew of the visits by judges from the Cassation Court to then-president Macri, just days before sentences were handed down to opposition politicians and only one isolated voice from the court dared to ask for explanations. The rest of you maintained a veil of silence," he thundered.
Moving on to propose that jury trials be established for the most serious crimes, the president asked Congress to support his efforts to reform the Judiciary and said a series of bills to reform the Prosecutor’s Office and the Supreme Court would be submitted.
Inheritance and IMF talks
Fernández defended his government’s record in the speech, saying its plans had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, which had dealt a devastating blow to the economy.
He also let rip at Macri, saying that Argentina’s last government had left the nation “on its knees and plunged into the abyss of inequality and poverty."
Noting that the country had faced an unprecedented global crisis on his watch, he accused Macri tof "mortgaging the country." Underlining that borrowing was "not free," he said he had asked the "permanent authorities" to "formally initiate a criminal complaint" into Argentina's indebtedness under the former presidency, claiming that the record 2018 IMF bailout had been "fraudulent" and had been taken “to facilitate the outflow of speculative capital.”
Addressing the Fund’s officials, the president vowed that ongoing talks would be undertaken with "a full conscience and with the firmness that we have always shown." He said Argentina "did not want to rush – our government's only hurry is to put production on its feet."
Fernández ruled out the chances of Argentina accepting any deal that would require "recessive austerity," given the challenges already facing the country.
If in no hurry to reach a deal with the IMF, Fernández was equally in no hurry to lift the freeze on gas and electricity billing, saying that he would submit a bill to declare public services in a state of emergency, while working out a system to adjust their pricing to peso salaries (with segmentation, according to level of income).
On the legislative front, he said his government would submit two bills that would raise tax floors for workers and the self-employed. The president also vowed to tackle inflation, saying it was "a priority for 2021." He acknowledged the "structural challenges" that lie ahead, "inflation is the main evidence of our deficiencies."
Economic pain, virus crisis
Unsurprisingly, a large part of the president’s speech addressed the coronavirus pandemic, with the first 25 minutes of the total 108 minutes dedicated to the topic.
Fernández defended the battery of economic measures his administration had introduced to soften the blow of the virus crisis and the economic turmoil that accompanied it. The president noted, however, that the country's poverty rate had increased by 5.4 points to 40.9 percent amid the virus crisis (while also pointing out that the increase had been almost double under Macri’s presidency) and said it was "a serious situation that we are going to reverse."
To face this menace the Frente de Todos government had only the “collapsed and discriminatory health system” bequeathed by Macri, the president complained, but they had shored it up, increasing the 8,500 intensive care beds by some 4,000 or 47 percent, for example.
The former Cabinet chief also took time to reference the 'VIP vaccines' scandal, saying that the resignation of his disgraced health minister Ginés González García had caused him "a lot of pain" personally, but that it had been the right thing to do.
"In this plan there are very clear priorities: the rules must be followed. If mistakes are made, the will of this president is to recognise them and correct them immediately," he said.
Fernández referenced criticism from the opposition on the matter and said that he was stunned by the “malicious” nature of it.
"No government can not make mistakes, but every sensible government must correct those mistakes to banish any hint of privilege," he said, slamming the opposition’s “verbal pyrotechnics.”
The Peronist leader faced a hostile opposition as he delivered his speech, marking the opening of the 139th ordinary sessions of Congress, with angry interjections from Juntos por el Cambio opposition lawmakers including Waldo Wolff and Fernando Iglesias. There was strong criticism, for example, of the vaccine scandal, with the opposition denouncing the government’s vaccination of allies, mid-level officials and family members out of turn.
Fernández clashed with opposition deputies several times during his speech, at one point directly responding to Iglesias, who interrupted several times to heckle the Frente de Todos leader.
"You had four years to speak, why won't you let me speak?," the president responded.