President Alberto Fernández inaugurated the 140th period of ordinary sessions of Congress at noon on Tuesday by saying as much what he would not do as what he would – Argentina will face "no tarifazos” (major utility bill increases), he said, with neither labour nor pension reforms included in the trailed agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
The most dramatic moments of the president’s speech lasting over 90 minutes came when Fernández let rip at the previous Mauricio Macri administration, saying it was responsible for Argentina’s multi-billion debt with the multilateral lender. Outraged by the accusation, which was admittedly hardly being voiced for the first time, many opposition deputies started walking out (those belonging to the PRO centre-right party, while those in the Radical and Civic Coalition wings of the Juntos por el Cambio opposition remained in their benches).
Yet if the PRO caucus walked out, Máximo Kirchner – the ruling Frente de Todos coalition’s caucus chief until last month – did not even show up, remaining far away in Patagonia. He blamed the beginning of the school year for his absence, though most saw it as a result of his decision to step down from his post due to his opposition to any deal with the IMF.
Little mention for Ukraine
Flanked by Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Chamber of Deputies Speaker Sergio Massa, President Fernández began with a brief mention of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, lumping it in with the other crises facing Argentina and the world (“We face a period of health, economic and war crises”) before deploring the strife ravaging Europe and calling for a minute of silence.
“Argentina cannot escape the context in which we are immersed," he told the chamber.
Many opposition deputies had a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag in front of them to press for a stronger stance against the Russian invasion from the government, which condemned “aggression” from Moscow before the United Nations in the following days.
The pandemic ("the consequences of Covid were multi-dimensional") and “multi-causal” inflation ("the main problem we Argentines have") were next on the president’s list. On the former he highlighted the rapidity of the vaccination campaign nationwide with Argentina receiving 112 million doses of vaccine from seven different countries, further claiming that only China and Spain had comparable percentages of vaccination.
“The worst is now behind us,” he declared, before taking aim at the opposition. “It might be tempting for some to politicise such a tragedy by blaming those of us who had the duty of governing at that moment of humanity but it is definitely unacceptable.”
Fernández did leave a little room for self-criticism though: “Absolutely everything I did fighting the pandemic had no other aim than to save as many lives as possible in a difficult and unpredictable context. I’m not infallible, I’m a human being. I’ve made mistakes on occasions but I have the inner calm that no inhabitant of our country has remained without health care.”
Addressing the economy, Fernández underlined the impact of strong state intervention ("with a weak state the powerful always win out and the majority of the people lose,") and hailed last year’s growth rate of 10.3 percent, far above forecasts and reverting the 2020 plunge caused by the pandemic. He singled out public works as central to this recovery: “We did not stop public works in the pandemic and we won’t in the future.”
Other examples of recovery which he highlighted were the PyMES (small and medium-sized firms), “generalised and federal and the highest in the last 20 years” and employment with unemployment down to 8.2 percent, “the lowest in over three years" while real wages picked up slightly last year “although less than we would like.”
“It’s time to register the activities of the popular economy with working cooperatives participating in public works," he continued, adding that it was essential to transform social plans into formal employment.
The Frente de Todos leader then ironically swiped at the opposition and tensions over this year’s budget bill: "They say we Peronists use Congress to rubberstamp laws but in almost 40 years Congress has only left Cristina in 2010 without a budget and me this year."
The president then moved onto the central issue of the IMF agreement, eventually triggering the opposition walkout.
Blasting the 2018 stand-by loan of US$57 billion borrowed by the Mauricio Macri presidency, Fernández said: “It did not leave us a single bridge or highway, just an unpayable foreign debt. We’re taking a new step with this IMF agreement, it’s an immense debt and without an agreement we cannot construct certainties in Argentina. The agreement we’ve reached with the IMF is the best which could be achieved and governing is an exercise of responsibility.”
“This new agreement reschedules existing debt. The payments will begin in 2026 and end in 2034,” he revealed.
“This agreement does not contemplate restrictions which affect our development … or double down our sovereignty," the president insisted, spelling out the absence of pension or labour reform.
Turning to the central aspect of public service pricing, he said: "There will be no more tarifazos in Argentina. We will segment the subsidies, aiming at preventing the 10 percent with the highest incomes from enjoying their benefit."
As for the remaining public service clients, the President said: “Let us be inspired by Law 27,443 (which pegged utility pricing increases to wage trends) voted in 2018 and vetoed by the then-president Mauricio Macri. What we will do is to use that same indicator but establishing that the evolution of public service pricing is clearly below wage trends.”
He concluded with another blast at the Macri Presidency: “Argentines have the right to know who were responsible for such folly.” In last year’s state-of-the-nation speech he instructed the Treasury Prosecutor to lodge a criminal lawsuit against those responsible for the 2018 debt.
Despite the walkout, Fernández called on lawmakers across the political spectrum to support the IMF agreement.
China deal, new policies
While on the subject of the IMF, President Fernández was able to announce that the expansion of the currency swap with China had been confirmed last Monday.
President Fernández then advanced to the legislative bills and government plans proposed for this year, including the expansion of public investment with the creation of 200,000 jobs (“It’s not about stabilising the economy to then grow, it’s about growing to stabilise”), a youth employment plan, reaching a nine-digit figure for exports, ’“decisive advances in the production of vaccines,” "industrialisation with a gender perspective,” boosting the Integral Sexual Health scheme, a 2030 science and technology plan and a series of investments to improve transport, education, rent legislation and access to housing, national highways, gas pipelines and connectivity.
While not occupying the same prominence as in last year’s state-of-the-nation speech, judicial reform was far from absent last Tuesday. While he did not omit to mention crime-fighting, President Fernández underlined: “The Supreme Court must also be the object of analysis and decisions in this legislative year.”
The president then blasted the use of the intelligence services for illegal espionage, persecution and extortion while adding: "We continue to hold the policies of memory, truth and justice to be the highest" with his concept of human rights also including the indigenous, the handicapped and the non-binary.
Towards the end of his speech he announced a bill to extend both paternity and maternity leave (with Argentina one of the Latin American countries most lagging with parental leave) while underlining his commitment to the struggle against climate change.
Among various opposition critiques following the state-of-the-nation speech, PRO deputy Gerardo Milman said that the Frente de Todos government would be leaving the country with the biggest debt increment in its history of US$90 billion after already printing over US$75 billion, also terming the IMF agreement a “time-bomb.”
Other deputies criticised the speech’s failure to make any mention of the fires ravaging Corrientes.