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ARGENTINA | 06-06-2024 20:51

Officials close ranks behind Pettovello as pressure builds

Leading figures in government close ranks behind embattled Human Capital Minister Sandra Pettovello; President Milei backs ‘best minister in history’ as foodstuffs scandal rumbles on.

Leading figures in Argentina’s government have closed ranks behind Sandra Pettovello, its embattled Human Capital minister, as the fallout from a scandal over the distribution of emergency food stocks rumbles on.

President Javier Milei and Presidential Spokesperson Manuel Adorni came out to defend Pettovello and her tenure this week as pressure ramped up.

Last week, the government was forced to admit that it had tonnes of food in storage, despite poverty affecting more than half of the population. After initially denying that some of the products had expiry dates, officials had to concede they were incorrect and that some of the food had been stored for months without plans for its distribution.

Following the exit of one of Pettovello’s top officials, Pablo de la Torre, and a subsequent criminal complaint over alleged “irregularities” in the handling of the food, the Human Capital minister has found herself coming under heavy pressure. It emerged Thursday that Pettovello has been summoned by Congress to respond to questioning.

President Milei, however, shows no sign of dismissing one of his closest friends and allies. He overzealously described the minister midweek as “the best minister in history” during an impromptu chat with journalists at the Casa Rosada.

“I defend Pettovello and she is the best minister in history. The corruption is in the hands of the Kirchnerites, because of the shady deals they made,” he declared.

Later, on the X social media network, the President responded to a post by another user by claiming that Pettovello was the victim of a “crass operation” from “journalists who call themselves serious.”

Presidential chief-of-staff Karina Milei, the head of state’s sister, also made a rare public statement in support of the minister.  “She is the best minister we have,” she said in comments reported by IP Noticias.

“We fully back minister Sandra Pettovello,” agreed Adorni, Milei’s chief spokesperson, after a week of speculation and rumour about the official’s future.

“In a few months of administration, she dismantled the putrid [welfare] system inherited from past governments,” said Adorni of the minister.

Cabinet Chief Guillermo Francos added his voice to the chorus late Thursday. “She [Pettovello] is going through a complicated moment,” he admitted, before going on to criticise the courts for intervening.

Pettovello has been asked to appear next Tuesday at the lower house Chamber of Deputies to provide answers to the Social Action and Public Health Committee.

The request to summon the Human Capital minister was pushed by a broad spectrum of opposition lawmakers, including deputies from Unión por la Patria, the UCR and a sector of Hacemos Coalición Federal caucus.

 

Judicial probes

Aid to Argentina’s plentiful soup kitchens and community canteens was frozen when Milei took office in December. His government justified the move by stating that an audit had revealed that many of the institutions were “phantom” and either did not exist or were no longer at their registered address.

The changes are part of the President’s ongoing plan to cut out the “middlemen” whom the government describes as “managers of poverty” and streamline the delivery of aid.

Yet the discovery of tons of food at government warehouses in Buenos Aires and Tucumán Provinces have raised questions over the management of food stocks and its desire to help the less fortunate.

The government initially argued that the stored food was intended for emergencies or disasters, but as the controversy grew, Pettovello’s portfolio acknowledged that the supplies had been mismanaged. 

Last week, she dismissed several officials due to malfeasance and announced that the Army and the private Fundación CONIN would help deliver perishable supplies to canteens.

She subsequently denounced De la Torre before the authorities for alleged irregular purchase agreements.

The courts have now intervened too, with Federal Judge Sebastián Cassanello ordering the authorities to file a report on its stocks and present a plan for distribution within 24 hours. The magistrate is also investigating if government officials failed in their duties.

In another complaint filed by an investigative journalist, senior staff of the Ministry were denounced for the alleged crimes of “abuse of authority, negotiations incompatible with public office, malfeasance, embezzlement, money-laundering and violation of treaties concluded with foreign nations.”

It emerged Thursday that a federal prosecutor Ramiro González has opened an investigation into alleged corruption at the Ministry involving contracts signed with the Ibero-American States Organization (OEI in its Spanish acronym).

On Thursday, a number of social organisations and picket groups took to the streets of Buenos Aires to demand the reinstatement of food supplies to soup kitchens. Many of the organisations involved were previously tasked with delivering assistance to the impoverished. 

A private study released last week found that 55 percent of Argentines were living below the poverty line in the first quarter of the year. 

Official data shows that the figure stood at 41.7 percent in the second half of 2023.

 

‘Take responsibility’

Peronist lawmaker Cecilia Moreau called on Pettovello to “show her face and take responsibility.” In his opinion, the food scandal “is a blow not only to the legitimacy of this government but also to the legitimacy of the policies it will adopt from now on.”

She said lawmakers expected Pettovello to show up and would re-organise the hearing around her schedule if she remained in her office.

Moreau also criticised the minister’s decision to partner with the Fundación CONIN for distribution of the food. 

“They gave the food to a guy [Abel Albino] who says that condoms do not protect against AIDS. A dinosaur, a beast who is also a friend of the De la Torre family in San Miguel. CONIN has its headquarters in San Miguel,” she said, referring to the former Secretary of Children’s Affairs, Pablo de la Torre, and his brother, San Miguel ex-mayor Joaquín de la Torre.

 

– TIMES/NA/PERFIL

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