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ARGENTINA | 30-03-2019 11:52

March 25th-31st: What We Learned This Week

What has happened the last seven days?

POOR DATA

The latest poverty figures were the lead story in Friday’s newspapers across the political spectrum – on Thursday, the INDEC national statistics bureau announced that there were almost 13 million people below the poverty line or 32 percent in the second half of 2018 as against 25.7 percent in the second half of 2017. These figures (including some 2.7 million people destitute) were worse than the anticipatory (and multi-dimensional) data announced by UCA Catholic University at the start of the week – 31.3 percent or 12.7 million below the poverty line at the end of last year, 4.5 percent worse than 2017. Poverty levels differed sharply across the country from 12.6 percent in this city to a peak of 49.3 percent in Corrientes. The government blamed these figures on last year’s crisis causing stagflation and recession which INDEC quantified the same day as a 5.6 percent economic contraction year-on-year in January (although a modest 0.6 percent up on the previous month). A Production and Labour Ministry survey simultaneously reported the loss of 262,400 jobs between the first months of last year and this. The one bright spot of last week’s economic news was a February trade surplus (US$ 460 million) for the sixth month running, although more due to imports falling (down 22.9 percent) than exports rising (up 3.7 percent).

NO INCOME TAX FOR PENSIONERS

The Supreme Court voted 4-1 on Tuesday to exempt all pensioners from income tax with the only dissenting voice coming from Chief Justice Carlos Rosenkrantz. Hitherto all pensioners above a monthly tax floor of 62,462 pesos (sixfold the minimum pension) were liable but the Supreme Court majority ruled that the levy constituted double taxation since its targets had paid social security deductions from their incomes all their working lives. The fiscal cost is around five billion pesos but the government downplayed the ruling by saying that it only applied to the plaintiff María Isabel García, rather than all 300,000 taxable pensioners out of a total universe of about seven million. Tuesday’s proceedings also included what was widely interpreted as a minor coup against Rosenkrantz when his three male colleagues voted to strip him of control of the Judicial Information Centre website.

THIS WEEK IN CORRUPTION...

Former vice-president Amado Boudou was indicted last Tuesday for fiddling his travel expenses while Economy minister in 2010-11, the fourth time he must face trial (with Federal Judge Ariel Lijo on the bench this time round). Last August Boudou was sentenced to 70 months imprisonment for the irregular purchase of Ciccone money-printing company. The court trying the money-laundering case involving the Patagonian hotel Los Sauces last Tuesday gave Florencia Kirchner 15 days to return to Argentina while effectively shortening the deadline to April 4 by giving her a week to present full medical records within two days of her return. The daughter of Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (also indicted in the same trial together with Florencia’s brother Máximo, outgoing deputy for Santa Cruz) had asked for 45 days. Her lawyer Carlos Beraldi said yesterday that his client would not be returning from Cuba until given full clearance by her doctors. Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio on Thursday indicted Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner yet again, this time for misusing the presidential air fleet to fly her in metropolitan newspapers hot off the presses to her Patagonian retreat in Calafate while governing Argentina between 2007 and 2015. But this time Bonadio did not demand that she be remanded in custody, contenting himself with slapping a half-million-peso lien on her assets. Former president Carlos Menem and his economy minister Domingo Cavallo were convicted on Wednesday 27 years after the event for selling the Palermo exhibition grounds to the Rural Society in 1992 for less than a quarter of its market value of almost US$132 million (US$30 million with a down payment of US$3 million) although the Rural Society authorities at the time were acquitted.

OFFICIALS EYE SMOOTH CRIMINAL CODE PASSAGE

On Monday the government sent Congress a draft bill of its new Criminal Code stiffening punishments for drug-trafficking, corruption and terrorism (including its financing) while also incorporating crimes against humanity, as well as elevating serious environmental offences to criminal status. But though the government is seeking smooth passage of its reform package, the initiative is widely expected to trip up over its abortion clauses, which only allow the current exceptional circumstances for interrupting pregnancy. One concession to feminism is to define gender violence as an aggravating circumstance in any crime while granting judges less discretion in such cases. The Code also denies conditional freedom to murderers, drug-traffickers and paedophiles among other serious crime categories.

IN CONTEMPT OF ONE COURT – BUT ALL’S FINE IN ANOTHER

Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli was declared in contempt of court by Federal Judge Alejo Ramos Padilla on Wednesday when he failed to show up in the latter’s Dolores courtroom the previous day, thus defying a third consecutive summons. Stornelli argues that he is under no obligation to appear until there is a decision on his challenge against the judge as “biased” – in any event he also disputes Ramos Padilla’s jurisdiction since the Dolores venue is based on a Pinamar meeting between the prosecutor and central extortion suspect Marcelo D’Alessio when the alleged extortion occurred in the Federal Capital according to both Stornelli and Federal Judge Julián Ercolini who is claiming jurisdiction. The importance of this case derives from Stornelli being the prosecutor in the key corruption trials against ex-president and Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Yesterday Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio in charge of these trials firmly defended Stornelli’s continuity in this role.

AIR TRAGEDY TRIAL

Next Tuesday Argentina’s worst air tragedy – the 1997 Austral air crash near the Uruguayan border with 74 deaths – goes on trial with 35 defendants, mostly former airline executives accused of gross negligence and facing prison sentences of 10-25 years.

TOP DOLLAR

The dollar closed the week at 44.39 pesos, retreating further from its Wednesday peak on the brink of the 45-pesos at 44.92 after rising for seven straight days from around 41 pesos early the previous week.

JOSÉ BORGES AND THE PURE-BLOOD KING (AND QUEEN)

For the second week running President Mauricio Macri hosted a royal visit from Europe – this time from Argentina’s “mother country.” Spanish King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia were here combining a state visit with the VIII International (Spanish) Language Congress in Córdoba. The Spanish monarch gave his host undisguised backing, saying: “We support all the programmes of reform” and warning against “protectionist temptations.” At Wednesday’s Córdoba Congress coinciding with the 83rd birthday of Peruvian Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa (who was present), the eloquent speeches were interjected with a royal gaffe when King Felipe named Argentina’s most famous author as José (not Jorge) Luis Borges.

JUDGE SUMMONS FORMER SPANISH MINISTER

Former Spanish Labour minister Rodolfo Martín Villa, 84, has been summoned by Federal Judge María Romilda Servini de Cubría to testify in her court regarding the deaths of five strikers at the hands of security forces repressing worker protests in the Basque city of Vitoria in March, 1976. Villa said yesterday that he would heed the summons while insisting on his innocence. At the request of Spanish families the Argentine judge is trying the cases of illegal executions preceding the 1977 amnesty which cannot be prosecuted in Spain due to the terms of that pardon.

A TALE OF TWO MARCHES

Two massive marches on both days of last weekend – on Saturday a pro-life march sought to anticipate renewed attempts to reform abortion legislation this year while Sunday’s Day of Memory, Truth and Justice recalling the 43rd anniversary of the 1976 coup was forcefully marked by an equally huge crowd in and beyond Plaza de Mayo not only repudiating the military dictatorship then taking power but also criticising the current Mauricio Macri administration for its “political prisoners.” Pro-life march organisers calculated their numbers at 300,000 downtown and over two million nationwide while opposition media estimated attendance at Sunday’s rallies as “in the millions nationwide.

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