Catamarca is historically the poorest of the three main oases lying in the generally arid stretch between Mendoza and Salta (along with San Juan and La Rioja).
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.
The last province in this series with under one percent of the national electorate, Catamarca rounds off the first leg of flyweights. It is perhaps interesting to note that although female governors are a small minority overall (four of the 23), they also form the majority of the five minimally populated provinces covered so far, Catamarca today joining the two southernmost provinces. The fourth – María Eugenia Vidal of Buenos Aires province – governs by far the biggest of them all.
Catamarca is historically the poorest of the three main oases lying in the generally arid stretch between Mendoza and Salta (along with San Juan and La Rioja), perhaps explaining why it started supplementing its agricultural produce (cattle, fruit and later cotton) with the most active handicrafts of the region (ponchos etc.) at a very early stage. Of the four provinces enjoying the tax and import duty breaks of the 1979-2012 industrial promotion scheme (along with its “fellow-oases” La Rioja and San Juan plus San Luis), it was probably the least successful in attracting any manufacturing. Mining is a more upbeat story – Bajo de la Alumbrera (where half the gold is pure) is an iconic name within the sector with none of the problems of Barrick’s Veladero (San Juan). Also copper, silver and uranium. Yet this Andes ore has not prevented Catamarca from having the nation’s highest percentage of provincial employees in the workforce (58 percent with a total of 69 percent in the public sector) – obviously a political factor of prime magnitude.
This factor also makes the provincial capital the only city of any size within a population now estimated at 397,000 – Greater Catamarca had 195,055 people according to the 2010 census. The only five-digit populations among the 16 departments and 32 municipal governments are colonial and hilly Belén, Andalgalá (founded as a fortress in 1658 and now a market gardening hub also notorious for its strong drinks), Recreo, the artisan apprenticeship centre of Santa María on the Tucumán border and the copper-mining township of Tinogasta in a lush green valley with Inca remains – each with 11-12,000 people (always according to 2010 data). The sparsely populated western third of the province has several peaks over 5,000 metres and some spectacular lunar landscapes.
One of the 13 original United Provinces of the River Plate in 1810 (severing its final links with Tucumán in 1821), Catamarca entered into the Spanish orbit even before under a century of Inca rule ended in 1555 with several settlements (including Londres, Argentina’s second-oldest town named in honour of Philip II’s English bride Mary Tudor) before the current capital San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca was founded in 1683 as a relative latecomer. The following three centuries of history have their interest (with Catamarca a veritable hotbed of resistance to central authority during the 1865-70 Paraguayan War under the legendary federalist caudillo Felipe Varela) but for space reasons we will fastforward to 1990.
That year saw the pioneer of high-profile femicides in Argentina – schoolgirl María Soledad Morales ended up dead after a jetset party which ran out of hand, sparking such indignation against the abuses of power that seven months of weekly candle-lit mass marches of silence headed by the nun Martha Pelloni in this traditionally religious province finally toppled the almighty Peronist Saadi dynasty (first ruling in 1949 under Vicente Saadi although not continuously, given Argentina’s coup-ridden history in those years). Although pro-Saadi as a fellow-Peronist from neighbouring La Rioja, then-president Carlos Menem saw no alternative to a federal trusteeship, ejecting Ramón Saadi eight months before the end of his second term in 1991.
This was the prelude to a new dynasty – Arnoldo Castillo (a Radical who had nevertheless been a military government trustee from 1981 to 1983) united the opposition into a Civic Front also including many Peronists and easily won the elections, serving out two terms before handing over to his son Oscar (1999-2003). A double term for fellow-Radical Eduardo Brizuela del Moral then rounded out two decades of Civic Front rule. It took that long for the indignation over María Soledad’s cruel death to subside and the erosion common to all governments to set in but Peronism finally returned to power in 2011 (the year of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner landslide) under Lucia Corpacci, who had been a Civic Front lieutenant-governor from 2007 to 2009. Catamarca’s first-ever female governor in almost two centuries might look like a supreme vindication of María Soledad but Corpacci’s mother was Vicente Saadi’s sister Teresa, thus making her Ramón’s cousin – she therefore also restored the dynasty widely held responsible for the schoolgirl’s poignant end. With no term limits in Catamarca, Corpacci will be perfectly free to seek a third term this October.
One continuous sideshow in Catamarca politics has been the antics of the controversial labour boss Luis Barrionuevo (who briefly seized control of the restaurant workers’ union at gunpoint in 1975 and has headed it more conventionally since 1983, also forming his own personal “Blue and White” CGT in 2008) – a judge’s curious choice for Justicialist Party national trustee last year. Barrionuevo has served his native province as both Peronist senator and deputy but his sporadic attempts to govern it have always failed – a bad loser, he set fire to the ballot-boxes when trailing in 2003.
Catamarca’s senators (Inés Blas and Dalmacio Mera for the Victory Front and ex-governor Oscar Castillo for the Civic and Social Front) are not up this year and thus need not concern us here beyond pointing out that Mera (lieutenant-governor in Corpacci’s first term and Salta Peronist Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey’s cousin) chairs the strategic Constitutional Issues Committee deciding such key questions as the eligibility of judges and legislators or electoral reform. Since only two of the five deputies (ex-governor Brizuela del Moral, Silvana Ginocchio, Verónica Mercado, Gustavo Saadi and Orieta Vera González) vacate their seats this year, namely Mercado and Vera González, an even split looks a foregone conclusion unless one list doubles the others but Catamarca politics is not so linear. Mercado has stayed Victory Front but Saadi (son of Vicente and Teresa’s brother Arnoldo and something of a loose cannon) and Ginocchio (originally a Radical but expelled from the party) belong to the 2017 “Elijo Catamarca“ breakaway responding to Corpacci’s bid to create her own parallel transversal Civic Front (Brizuela del Moral’s party) while Vera González belongs to Elisa Carrió’s Civic Coalition. Their voting does not always follow straight party lines.
But perhaps the main interest is whether Catamarca will remain one of the few provinces with a woman governor (and a majority of female deputies).
Electorate (2017): 310,579
Governor: Lucia Corpacci (Peronist)
Deputies: Five (2 Cambiemos, 1 Victory Front, 2 others)
Senators: Three (2 Victory Front, 1 Cambiemos)
On the ballot: Two of five deputies