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ARGENTINA | 01-02-2020 10:15

Jan 27th-Feb 2nd: What We Learned This Week

Stories that caught our eye in the last seven days.

DEBT RISES UP THE AGENDA

Last Wednesday, even ahead of this month’s extraordinary sessions, the Chamber of Deputies passed almost unanimously (224-2 votes) a bill to greenlight debt restructuring, for which the Economy Ministry revealed its timetable on the same day. The dissenting votes came from FIT leftists, whose supporters demonstrated outside Congress that evening. An International Monetary Fund mission is due in town this month, after Martín Guzmán held “productive talks” with Fund officials in New York (see full story on Pages 4 and 5).

KICILLOF EXTENDS BOND DEADLINE

As yesterday’s deadline for creditor assent for delayed debt repayment expired, Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof rolled it over until next Monday or effectively February 13 including a 10- day grace period. Last Monday Kicillof was obliged to sweeten his offer to bondholders after Economy Minister Martín Guzmán had revealed in New York the same day that only 26 percent of creditors had agreed to defer debt repayment until May when 75 percent is required to avert default. The sweetener took the form of offering to bring forward interest payments (amounting to US$7.2 million) if the bondholders agreed to roll over the capital of around USS 250 million until May. The outcome of the BP21 bond is widely considered decisive for the national debt restructuring process as a whole.

FUEL FREEZE EXTENDED TOO

Fuel prices are to remain frozen throughout this month, Decree 118/2020 ruled on Thursday, in a bid to tame inflation. Projected tax increases will also be postponed for that period. Fuel prices rose 41.8 percent last year, thus leaving service stations a dozen points behind inflation while lagging 15-16 percent taking in other factors.

BANK STRIKE

Banks will be closed between 10am and noon on Monday due to a strike protesting the killing of a bank clerk during a La Matanza hold-up of a Banco Nación branch yesterday.

POPE & THE PRESIDENT

President Alberto Fernández met up with Pope Francis in Rome yesterday morning with conflicting reports as to whether abortion reform had been part of the conversation (see Page 10).

NEW VATICAN ENVOY

María Fernanda Silva, originally from the Cape Verde islands off West Africa, will be the Argentine ambassador to the Vatican, it was decided before the departure of President Alberto Fernández for yesterday’s meeting with Pope Francis in Rome. Silva already knows the Vatican embassy from the time she seconded Eduardo Valdés there after entering the foreign service in 2003 when Rafael Bielsa headed the ministry. Unlike the original nominee, the divorced Luis Bellando, Silva had her marriage annulled by the Church since her then husband decided to become a priest. She now becomes Argentina’s first envoy of African descent – curiously enough, there was the first African in the opposite direction just two years ago when Congo’s Léon Kalenga was made papal nuncio here but he died last June.

STEEL BREAK

The Donald Trump administration has decided to leave Argentina out of a revived 25 percent import tariff on steel and aluminium, Foreign Minister Felipe Solá announced last weekend. The Argentine Industrial Union (UIA) had expressed concern about the returning tariffs, which Trump had announced via Twitter on December 2.

ASSETS (OR LIABILITIES?)

Austerity has come home to current government officials if their statements of assets to the Anti-Corruption Office are to be believed. President Alberto Fernández declared just below 4.5 million pesos and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner 3.7 million with the entire 20-strong Cabinet reporting just under 230 million (topped by Sports and Tourism Minister Matías Lammens with 36.6 million), all totalling less than ex-president Mauricio Macri’s declared 273.2 million.

ANÍBAL LECTURER’S BACK

After more than two years in the wilderness, former Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández made a political comeback when his namesake President Alberto Fernández signed a decree last Wednesday appointing him as the trustee of the Río Turbio coal mine in Santa Cruz. Fernández replaces the trustee appointed by the previous Mauricio Macri administration, Omar Zeidán. Frente de Todos parliamentary caucus leader Máximo Kirchner (who was raised in the Patagonian province) was among those at the meeting deciding the appointment. Aníbal Fernández, known for his somewhat brutish approach to politics, was erased from politics after becoming the first Peronist gubernatorial candidate in 32 years to lose the stronghold of Buenos Aires Province in 2015 and his first attempt at a political comeback was thwarted last year when he lost the Pinamar Peronist mayoral primary. But Santa Cruz provincial authorities hailed the presence of such a senior politician (he was Interior and Justice minister as well as twice Cabinet chief among other posts) as the new Río Turbio trustee.

CRISTINA RAISES EYEBROWS WITH RUTA COMPLAINT

Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on Tuesday visited the Condor Cliff hydroelectric dam (which she assured will be renamed Néstor Kirchner) in Santa Cruz together with her sister-in-law, Santa Cruz Governor Alicia Kirchner, and businessman Gerardo Ferreyra, one of her co-defendants in corruption trials centring on that Patagonian province. Those trials, in conjunction with problems in Chinese financing, had led to work on the dam being paralysed. The vicepresident raised eyebrows when she complained of the lack of a road to Calafate, saying that she had paid for it.

DURÁN BARBA RAISES EYEBROWS WITH PRAISE

Ex-president Mauricio Macri’s spin doctor Jaime Durán Barba stirred up a hornet’s nest in Cambiemos opposition ranks when he described Vice-President Cristina Kirchner as “the most brilliant woman in Argentine history” in statements expressing repentance for having polarised the election campaign against her. “He should go looking for a job in Instituto Patria (the ex- president’s think tank)”, was the response of Córdoba Radical Mario Negri, who heads the lower house Cambiemos caucus. Almost as controversial was Macri’s first public appearance of the year while vacationing in La Angostura (near Bariloche) where he said that he had warned his officials against running up debt and going to the International Monetary Fund, fearing what might (and did) happen. Radical party chairman Alfredo Cornejo commented: “Mauricio Macri should shut up,” also dismissing Durán Barba as “useless.”

FIFA RAISES EYEBROWNS WITH MACRI’S NEW JOB

Ex-president Mau r icio Macri’s unemployment has come to a rapid end even before his summer vacation was over – last Tuesday he was announced as the future president of FIFA Foundation by the international football association’s chief Gianni Infantino. Such club presidents as River Plate’s Rodolfo D’Onofrio, San Lorenzo’s Marcelo Tinelli and even Jorge Amor Ameal from Boca Juniors (which Macri headed for a dozen years) all criticised the surprise move.

OFFICIALS PLAY DOWN VIRUS THREAT

Reating to the news that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared that the outbreak of the coronavirus in China “has become a public health emergency of international importance,” Health Minister Ginés González García said at a press conference this week that “there are no cases in Argentina,” adding that the country was “in constant contact with the WHO.” He said preparations had been made for a potential diagnosis of someone carrying the virus, and that Customs, Immigration and the Foreign Ministry had held meetings on the subject.

‘LOS RUGBIERS’ CONTINUE TO DOMINATE NEWS AGENDA

The seaside slaying of Fernando Báez Sosa in Villa Gesell last month continued to command prominent news space with the parents of the jailed rugby players accused of the crime taking some of the limelight – the father of one insisted that the slaying was unintentional while the mother of another resigned from her Zárate town council seat.

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