President Alberto Fernández reiterated his call for broad judicial reform on Monday, branding the Judiciary as privileged and politicised as he delivered an annual state of the nation address.
The Peronist leader faced a hostile opposition as he delivered a speech marking the opening of the 139th ordinary sessions of Congress, with angry interjections from Juntos por el Cambio lawmakers including Waldo Wolff and Fernando Iglesias. There was strong criticism, for example, of the recent ‘VIP vaccine’ scandal, with the opposition denouncing the government’s vaccination of allies, mid-level officials and family members out of turn.
Fernández had a lot 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, former president Mauricio Macri.
But his strongest words were saved for the the courts, as he indicated that the efforts to reform the Judiciary that began last year and that 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," said Fernández, who presented a bill to reform the federal courts last year, which is still waiting to be debated in the lower house Chamber of Deputies.
The Frente de Todos leader, who was flanked by his powerful Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (who noticeably did not wear a face mask during the president's speech) as he addressed lawmakers, 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 that in my criticisms of the judicial system, no-one sees resentment or the will 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, Argentina’s former president from 2007 to 2015, who faces nine corruption cases against her in the courts. The vice-president, who serves as president of the Senate, claims she is a victim of “political and judicial persecution” and rejects the allegations.
Fernández criticised those who he alleged knew of that the courts were being used politically to target opponents.
"We’re living in times with 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 dated to ask for explanations. The rest of you maintained a veil of silence," he alleged.
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 the last government had left Argentina “on its knees and plunged into the well of inequality and poverty."
Observing that the country had faced an unprecedented global crisis on his watch, he accused Macri of "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 president’s watch, claiming that the record 2018 bailout from the International Monetary Fund had been "fraudulent" and had been taken “to facilitate the outflow of speculative capital.”
Macri had left the country in “a scenario of extreme weakness, with a squalid and indebted economy as it never had been before," he claimed.
The government is hoping to renegotiate repayments on a US$44-billion loan granted to the Mauricio Macri administration by the Fund in 2018. The credit line was originally meant to be US$57 billion, but Fernández halted disbursements when he took office in December 2019. The first repayments are due in September 2021.
The president vowed that ongoing talks to restructure debt payments that fall this year 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 a "recessive adjustment" given the challenges already facing the country.
"The renegotiation of the conditions of the agreement with the International Monetary Fund will incorporate new macroeconomic perspectives and a common understanding of the specific needs of the local economy," said the president.
On the legislative front, he said his government would submit two bills that would adjust income tax and self-employed workers. He also vowed to tackle inflation, saying it was "a priority for 2021." He acknowledged that of the "structural challenges" that lie ahead, "inflation is the main evidence of our deficiencies."
Economic pain, virus crisis
In the other sections of his speech, Fernández defended the battery of economic measures his administration had introduced to soften the blow of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic turmoil that accompanied it. He hailed that 99.5 percent of companies assisted through his government's various schemes were small to medium sized firms (PyMES)and underlined that workers, families and various citizens had benefitted from welfare payments. He noted, however, that the country's poverty rate had increased by 5.4 points to 40.9 percent amid the virus crisis and said it was "a serious situation that we are going to reverse."
He 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.
"We have started the largest vaccination operation in Argentine history. 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.
The president 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.
“The verbal pyrotechnics only stun us. Some sectors have made an effort to generate uncertainty and discouragement. They accused us of infection, blasphemed against the vaccine and even criminally accused us of poisoning the population," remarked the head of state.
Fernández clashed with opposition lawmakers several times during his speech, at one point responding to opposition deputy Fernando Iglesias, who interrupted several times to heckle the Frente de Todos leader.
"He had four years to speak, why won't he let me speak," the president responded.