Alberto Fernández’s government is playing damage control after a photo of the president hosting a birthday party for his longtime partner during the country’s strictest phase of Covid lockdown last year surfaced.
The photo taken in July 2020 and published Thursday by a local TV channel shows Fernandez with First Lady Fabiola Yáñez at the Olivos presidential residence on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, along with several friends in celebration mode. No-one in the photo is wearing a face mask.
The revelation piles pressure on the president and his ruling Frente de Todos coalition just a month before the PASO primaries. Argentines will go to the polls for midterm elections on November 14.
Faced with the barrage of criticism from his opponents, and some of his coalition allies, the president offered a public mea culpa on Friday during a speech at an event in Olavarría, Buenos Aires Province.
"I regret what happened and it will not happen again," said Fernández, explaining that Olivos had acted as the government’s centre of operations when Covid restrictions were at their strictest.
"I have the need to say it. I never wanted to stop showing my face when I had to do so and I never want to hide when I had to face myself," he said.
Claiming that he and his partner were living through a time “in great vertigo," the president said hundreds of people had passed through the grounds of the presidential residence.
"We are ordinary men and women with important responsibilities. All those months I stayed working at Olivos on the recommendation of the doctors and Olivos became almost a city," he said.
"I have nothing to hide from my personal life. In this context, on July 14, my dear Fabiola's birthday, [she] called a meeting with her friends, which should not have taken place and I am sorry that it happened,” he declared to applause from his allies and supporters.
"In retrospect, I should have taken more care that obviously I did not. I am sorry for what happened,” added Fernández.
Coverage and criticism
The president’s comments came amid a flurry of media coverage and criticism.
PRO party leader Patricia Bullrich said the president owed Argentines an apology. "you must explain to the Argentine people why you violated the norms that you issued yourself. If you do not have any explanation, you must submit to the same penal consequences that you imposed on the DNU [decree]," she wrote on Twitter.
Opposition lawmakers said on social networks that a rally had been called in downtown Buenos Aires for 4pm on Saturday to protest the revelations.
Not all anger was directed at the president, however. Veteran Peronist Aníbal Fernández sought to excuse the president by pointing the finger at the first lady.
"The birthday was organised by Fabiola Yáñez and the only option the husband had was to participate. If she organised a birthday in contravention of health regulations, it is her problem, which does not concern the public function," he said.
Firebrand opposition politician Elisa Carrió said the blame was firmly with at Fernández’s door.
“I cannot blame Fabiola because entrances to Olivos are authorised by the president, it is not a private house, it is a public house. This is the Argentina of corruption and privilege,” said the Civic Coalition leader.
Earlier Wednesday, Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero had admitted that “a mistake” had clearly been made.
“Clearly, there was some neglect, he made a mistake, it shouldn’t have happened, it was wrong,” Cafiero said Friday morning in a radio interview, stopping short of apologising on Fernández’s behalf.
"It is also worth clarifying that at that time Olivos functioned as the pandemic operations centre. Many people came and went, there were meetings with ministers, sectors and epidemiological experts. And on one occasion there was a social event that should not have happened," he argued.
Nevertheless, opposition leaders are now threatening to start an impeachment process in Congress, arguing the president breached the very regulations he established to contain the virus from spreading.
While an impeachment is very unlikely to advance given the ruling Frente de Todos coalition’s capacity to block it at the lower house, the request comes just three months before midterm elections.
A draft resolution looked set to be filed late Friday, accusing the president of "poor performance and possible commission of the crime of non-compliance with the duties of a public official in the exercise of his functions." According to reports, it is signed by at least 12 opposition deputies.
It also emerged close to press time that Federal Prosecutor Ramiro González had filed a request with military authorities at the Olivos presidential residence seeking the list of those who had entered and exited the property on June 14, 2020.
According to media reports, at least nine others were in attendance at the party along with Fernández and Yáñez, all of whom entered between 9.30pm and 10pm, leaving at 1.45am the next morning.
The prosecutor has asked the authorities to report if the individuals in question were exempted from the presidential decree enforcing Covid-19 restrictions or not.
Fernández imposed one of the world’s harshest lockdowns starting in March 2020, closing off public parks, suspending almost all domestic and international travel and not allowing any type of social gathering.
The strategy failed to contain the coronavirus and Argentina now is one of the countries most affected by Covid, with over 108,000 people having died from the disease and more than five million confirmed cases.
The president’s approval rating has fallen to about 34 percent from a peak of 57 percent at the beginning of Argentina’s lockdown, according to a poll published August 8 by consulting firm Management & Fit.
Argentina, with 45 million inhabitants, has to date vaccinated 26.5 million people with one dose, of which 9.6 million have completed their inoculation scheme.