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ARGENTINA | 03-03-2023 10:30

President raises stakes, reignites feud with Judiciary

Alberto Fernández delivered the traditional state-of-the-nation speech to the legislative assembly on Wednesday, marking the beginning of the congressional year. Defending his administration and pretending all is well with his vice-president, the president trained his ire on the Supreme Court and the justice system, ramping up tensions in a crunch election year.

President Alberto Fernández reignited his feud with the Supreme Court on Wednesday as he used a landmark speech to Argentina’s Congress to defend his government, attack the Judiciary and highlight the "persecution" of his vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Delivering the final state-of-the-nation address of his term in office, the Peronist leader escalated his criticism of the Supreme Court and called for support in his bid to "make the necessary adjustments to the judicial system."

Fernández went on to defend his term in office, now entering its fourth year, and highlight the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war on Argentina's economy, which is struggling from a severe drought and runaway inflation, among other problems.

The Peronist leader, who has unsuccessfully attempted to reform Argentina’s justice system during his time in office, slammed a recent Supreme Court ruling regarding federal revenue-sharing funds that favoured the Buenos Aires City government over the national government and accused judges of seeking Fernández de Kirchner’s “political disqualification” in a campaign of “persecution.”

Argentina’s vice-president was found guilty of corruption offences late last year, though the verdict has not been confirmed by higher courts. She retains immunity from jail due to her position.

The Judiciary "crowned its actions with a conviction in the first instance of the Vice-President of the Nation,” declared Fernández, as he criticised “a trial in which the minimum forms of due process were disregarded and accusations bordering on legal absurdity were formulated in order to disqualify her from politics.”

Fernández also referenced the failed shooting attack against his vice-president last year, calling on the Judiciary to deepen its investigation into the perpetrators of the attack.

"I once again demand that the judiciary deepen the investigation. I ask them to act with the same haste with which they file cases against judges and powerful businessmen,” declared the president.

As Fernández spoke, two of the four Supreme Court justices, Horacio Rosatti and Carlos Rosenkrantz, watched on with grim faces. The ruling Frente de Todos coalition is currently seeking the impeachment of the nation’s highest tribunal.

The most interesting rhetorical note of the speech came when the president sought to challenge the critical members of his own coalition who have dubbed him "lukewarm" and want him to stand aside in the coming elections.

"It was me, with my moderation, who guaranteed a vaccine for all Argentines," said the president, referencing the Covid-19 pandemic. 

"It was I who stood by [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] and Evo Morales. It was I who stood by Cristina when she was unjustly persecuted," Fernández responded, referencing his political allies.

Unsurprisingly, the president talked up the impact of his government, hailing advances in gas production, science, education, infant mortality, gender violence, economic growth and unemployment data. Some of his claims were met with jeers and boos from critics.

Most eyes however were on Fernández de Kirchner. The address marked the first time that the president and his vice-president had shared main billing at a public event in nine months. The previous time the duo met in public was last June 2, when they shared an event at Tecnópolis to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of state energy firm YPF. Hours later, productive development minister Matías Kulfas announced his decision to resign from the Cabinet.

The relationship between Argentina’s top two leaders deteriorated further in the following months, especially in the weeks surrounding then-economy minister Martín Guzmán’s resignation a month later. 

 

Lengthy speech

The president arrived at Congress at around 11am and was greeted by a host of officials and lawmakers, including Fernández de Kirchner, who was in charge of the formal ceremony of the act, and lower house Speaker, Cecilia Moreau. He spoke to a full house, with Máximo Kirchner the only deputy missing.

The speech itself (by far the longest of the four under his presidency) spanned exactly two hours from 11.36am to 1.36pm. The critique of the Judiciary was left for the last as the rousing climax, with Fernández raising the tone of his voice while drawing the loudest applause and boos from the two sides of Congress.

The president began by placing last year within a global context of the end of the pandemic being so rapidly followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine with all its repercussions before making a tribute to 40 consecutive years of sustained democracy his first theme.

This was followed by deploring the assassination attempt against Fernández de Kirchner, accompanied by the call for a speedier and deeper investigation.

Describing his speech as meeting the need of the Argentine people to know what their government was doing, the president began by complaining that this need was not being met by “systematic disinformation” regarding his government’s policies by “the concentrated media” who abused an “absolute freedom of press” and zero censorship to conceal or twist information and to sow hate speech.

Insisting that the quality of life had improved over the last three years, outweighing any inevitable errors, Fernández then hit back at critics, saying he had always sought to serve the people without enriching himself and that he had done the groundwork for the “great country of which we dream.”

While assuring the country that he was not blind to the problems of poverty, inflation, crime and sagging real wages, the Peronist leader said that he also wanted to relate what was going well, which was being “hidden by those who try to create discontent,” insisting that inclusive development was the only way out.

In keeping with a speech starting with the global context, President Fernández made international relations his first policy area. He took pride in “Argentina recovering a place in the concert of nations” with an active participation in “CELAC, Mercosur, the Summit of the Americas, the G20 and the G7 while aspiring to BRICS,” always defending peace and human rights. The President regarded the relationship with Brazil as the core of Argentina’s permanent interests.

The 40th anniversary of the South Atlantic war last April marked the occasion for an innovation of this year’s state-of-the-nation speech – pointing out an individual citizen in the gallery in order to give a human face to an issue or area of government.

War veteran Juan José Fernández replaced President Fernández on the television screen, to be followed at various intervals by biotech entrepreneur Guillermo Battolla, Daniela Parra Fuentes with a new home in Parque Patricios, female construction worker Gisela Segovia, mental health doctor Silvina Aguilar, university chancellors Alicia Borhem (Misiones) and Antonio Lidia Blanco (Patagonia), biologist Juliana Cassataro (the daughter of missing parents) and biochemist Gabriel Rabinovich to represent scientific research, before closing the speech with popular economy worker Belén (no surname).

After presenting his military namesake, the president described the Malvinas as a “national cause,” closing that segment of his speech with the stock phrase “Las Malvinas fueron, son y serán argentinas.

 

Economic review

Turning to the economy, President Fernández spoke of an inheritance of debt and capital flight, claiming to speak for a majority against poverty and social injustice while seeking more jobs and better pensions.

The economy grew 5.4 percent last year, one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, he said, and was on track for three consecutive years of growth for the first time since 2008. The head of state insisted that there was nothing to distribute without growth although it had to be balanced.

Industrial activity grew 4.5 percent last year with 15 straight months of growth and industrial employment reaching its highest peak since mid-2018. 

Fernández then reeled off a series of growth rates for various manufacturing sectors (the auto industry up 23.4 percent for the highest level since 2015). Agriculture was not so lucky with the drought but even so there were record farm exports last year from a harvest of 142 million tons with 42 million hectares sown. The sectoral analysis concluded with warm praise for the knowledge economy as the country’s third export sector.

On the fiscal side, the president thanked Sergio Massa (who received loud applause)for moving from being Congress speaker to take over the Economy Ministry last year and hailed the reduction of the tax deficit to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product, in part due to 29 consecutive months of revenue growth in real terms.

Following on from a stream of positive economic data, the president went on to admit: “The high inflation is a central factor in disorganising our economy” but here fell short of any data or policy proposals, describing it as “a structural problem of Argentina going back decades” and “no simple task.”

“We don’t need the IMF to tell us that we must balance our budget … or increase exports,” he said defiantly.

Criticising those who “try to sow uncertainty … and announce exploding bombs,” he sought to refute them with the figure that investment grew 14.6 percent in the third quarter of last year as against the same period of 2021 and 27.3 percent as against the same period of 2019.

As for commerce, there was a trade surplus of US$7 billion last year with record levels for both exports and imports, among which manufactured exports grew 15.8 percent for the highest total in 10 years, representing more added value.

Turning to energy within a world in transition, President Fernández proudly announced the inauguration of the Néstor Kirchner pipeline as on schedule for midyear, the biggest gas transport development in four decades to continue expanding Vaca Muerta shale production and thus helping to reverse last year’s US$5 billion increase in fuel imports, one of the main causes of inflation. He contrasted this with the failure of the previous government’s pipeline tender, launched in mid-2019 as a PPP (public-private partnership).

Despite the import surge, fuel exports also rose to US$8.4 billion last year, 59 percent more than last year and 92 percent more than 2019. Highlighting last August’s agreement with Petronas, Fernández hailed last May’s centenary of YPF state oil company, claiming that its share value had quadrupled “recently.”

Moving onto mining (a 19 percent increase of exports last year over 2021 for a total value of US$3.83 billion), the President hailed lithium in particular – here the ABC countries (Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) have 60 percent of global reserves but it was imperative to add value.

 

Moving on

This state-of-the-nation speech dedicated more time to transport than most predecessors – more rail freight, the Magdalena canal, less road deaths and modernised aviation (with 33 million passengers last year) were among the highlights of the detailed presidential report.

Mention of Aerolíneas Argentinas saw the Frente de Todos leader springing to the defence of state companies against privatisation to spurious business interests. The loss-making airline halved its need for state assistance from US$644 to US$350 million last year, he pointed out, while performing an invaluable service in connecting the country. His praise for state companies extended to the technological prowess of ARSAT in fibre optics and INVAP in nuclear reactors as well as AySA (expanding the water network by 4,000 kilometres in the last three years).

The next ministerial area in turn was tourism where the President praised the PREVIAJE programme (paying half the advance costs of holidays for six million people) and describing a bumper vacation season so far this summer with 95 percent hotel occupancy and 22 million people going on holiday in January, followed by 13 million last month.

Culture was given relatively short shrift – three million people visiting the Tecnópolis science fair and 1.8 million the Centro Cultural Kirchner were the main figures read out here.

Public works (3,000 projects completed since 2019, thanks also to “dialogue and consensus, reaching agreement with all governors and mayors across party lines”) proved to be one of the lengthiest chapters in an extremely long speech. The Frente de Todos leader was at pains to stress that public works spending had been halved under the previous presidency of Mauricio Macri. Over 140,000 housing starts were underway with 85 families daily receiving a new home during his term (this is where Daniela Parra Fuentes was introduced). This in turn enabled a workforce of over 450,000 construction workers for the highest levels of employment since mid-2015.

This detail dovetailed into the work of the Labour Ministry. Here Fernández boasted of creating 1.5 million jobs (a third of them formal, up 4.1 percent since 2019) whereas the previous administration had reduced the formally employed by 220,000. There was full employment in 21 provinces, free collective bargaining and a good relationship with trade unions.

The sensitive issue of pensions was given three paragraphs in the speech with Fernández proclaiming that the minimum pension had risen 107 percent last year, 12 percent ahead of inflation.

The president then spoke at some length on the popular economy, including the Potenciar Trabajo programme with over a million beneficiaries (two-thirds of them female) – he quoted Eva Perón as to “where there is a need, there is a right.” Soup kitchens have been provided for the five million people living in barrios populares (low-income neighbourhoods) with 272,000 jobs found for them. Overall social spending had been doubled from the previous administration.

President Fernández then hailed the work of the Women, Gender & Diversity Ministry against gender violence and in favour of equal opportunity before moving onto “our banner” of human rights where he described the continuing trials of crimes against humanity in the 1976-1983 dictatorship and called for the ESMA Museum (a former concentration camp) to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Against the global challenge of climate change, the president had relatively little to offer – more national parks, a firefighting budget of 14 billion pesos (70 times more than in 2019) and wetlands legislation.

On the health front with the coronavirus pandemic on the back foot, he cited infant mortality at its lowest ever (eight deaths per 1,000 births) and maternal deaths from abortions 40 percent down (a direct result of legalising the practice, he underlined). When introducing Dr Silvina Aguilar, he also spoke about mental health at some length while pointing out that 90 percent of those in the PAMI state healthcare scheme for the elderly were receiving their medicine free.

 

Targeted areas

Described by the president as a key area, education was also one of the lengthier chapters. Among his government’s contributions in this area he listed adding an hour of class to each day of school last year, the Becas Progresar scholarship programme with 1.7 million recipients and a budget of 120 billion pesos (going up to 130 billion this year) and Internet for seven million schoolchildren, of whom 1.2 million were given computers. He proposed a law to take public spending on education up from six to eight percent of GDP by 2032.

Taking pride in his alma mater the University of Buenos Aires “created 203 years ago” (actually 202) and producing five Nobel Prizes, Fernández urged Congress to approve a law to create five new universities in Buenos Aires Province.

Science and technology was the natural companion of education with a 16 percent increase in public investment in real terms last year and more spending on the CONICET scientific research council. Here President Fernández pointed out that for the first time in history, this spending was “profoundly federal” – whereas 80 percent had been spent in and around Buenos Aires before, 80 percent was now going inland. He also hailed growing coordination with the private sector.

Next came the turn of his Defence and Security Ministries. The Armed Forces needed upgrading, Fernández said, to defend sovereignty (including and especially in the South Atlantic and Antarctica). On the security front he mentioned planned action against organised crime and cybercrime with few details beyond sending 1,000 Border Guards to Rosario.

Efforts to construct a “true federalism” via the Interior Ministry (with 33.575 billion pesos transferred to provincial governments and 7.6 billion pesos to municipal governments last year) quickly led to last December’s ultra-controversial Supreme Court federal revenue-sharing ruling “in favour of the most opulent city in the country” according to the subsequent presidential tirade with the decibels rising sharply on all sides and the data coming to a halt in midstream.

President Fernández described the judicial intervention in this issue as “definitely inadmissible,” arguing that the City of Buenos Aires did not form part of federal revenue-sharing as not being a province and therefore had no rights at all.

Claiming that the judicial system had lost all public confidence with its dubious rulings and injunctions, the Peronist leader accused certain judges of conspiring with the mainstream media and opposition politicians in a reference to the mid-October Lago Escondido meeting with no specific mention of it - this was unconstitutional not his actions, he argued, insisting: “There is no attack here against justice.”

Fernández then went on to hold the Supreme Court responsible for the carnage in Rosario by screwing up the Magistrates Council with its interventions and thus preventing Santa Fe Province from having the judges and prosecutors to fight organised crime.  

The president also slammed the judicial system over last December’s corruption conviction of his vice-president, saying: “They simulated a trial without observing the minimal forms of legal process, making accusations bordering on legal absurdity in seeking to disqualify her politically.” Without actually using the word “proscripción (ban),” he thus pointed in the same direction.

Needing to bring his speech to an end after nearly two hours, the Frente de Todos leader expressed the hope that the uproar over his confrontation with the Supreme Court would not prevent Congress from passing valuable legislation with the people the main losers. 

He then reiterated key objectives such as increasing jobs and exports and bolstering the PyME small and medium-sized companies (which create three-quarters of jobs). 

Fernández then referred to this year’s elections with advance voting in some provinces, warning Argentines: “Can anybody really believe that there is a better future with austerity and the concentration of income?” 

He then delivered his punch line: “Forty years ago our utopia was democracy; I propose to you that today’s utopia be equality,” which did not prevent him from continuing for another 24 paragraphs (including his presentation of Belén), before finally announcing: “Having said that, I declared inaugurated the 141st period of ordinary sessions of the Congress of the Nation. Many thanks, everybody.”

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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