During her election campaign, Governor María Eugenia Vidal vowed to tackle the problem, but she is finding that lengthy licences and pushback from the racing industry have stacked the odds against her.
Mar del Plata, the country’s bestknown seaside city, has it all: beaches, sweeping coastlines, churros, its own film festival… and seven gaming halls.
No printing mistake here. There are four bingo halls and three casinos that stay open well past the summer tourist season, drawing in thousands of the city’s 700,000 inhabitants, with the inevitable result that more than a fair few become addicted to gambling.
One thing is clear: the number of gambling options on offer in Buenos Aires province is completely out of control. At the beginning of 2018, the country’s largest province had 46 bingo halls and 12 casinos, most of them located in coastal towns and the poorest areas of Greater Buenos Aires. The district has a whopping 22,400 slot machines — that’s twice the number than in the entirety of Chile.
Since taking office in late 2015, Buenos Aires province Governor María Eugenia Vidal, of the ruling Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition, has vowed to tackle this issue.
“Not a single new gaming hall” was her motto, and soon after she began leading the nation’s largest and most populous province (after some initial doubts) she thwarted an attempt to set up a new bingo hall in Puente La Noria, a key intersection of the workingclass districts of Lomas de Zamora and La Matanza.
Now she’s moved on to phase two of her plan. On January 10, Vidal announced her decision to close down one private bingo hall and three state-run casinos.
“Gambling has become a problem in the province. It has grown relentlessly for too long,” she announced at a press conference in the provincial capital of La Plata. “Many political leaders knew about it but couldn’t – or wouldn’t – stop its growth.”
However, that same day, she announced a call for tender to run 3,300 slot machines in seven casinos, a move that some in the opposition saw as at odds with her “anti-gambling crusade.”
Vidal’s strategy is to close down “problematic” gambling facilities as soon as their licence expires, since closing them down earlier could lead to legal and financial trouble, since companies could claim fair compensation. This has forced the governor to move very slowly, as some of the business licences awarded to bingo halls under the administration of Daniel Scioli (2007-2015) are valid until 2027.
The ruling party’s attempts to bring some order to the chaotic lottery system inherited from the previous government included a judicial battle that’s shaping up in Buenos Aires City courts, a bid to collect four billion pesos of unpaid gross income taxes from gaming czar Cristóbal López, the owner of the Puerto Madero casino and the gaming halls at Hipódromo de Palermo.
Leading this battle is lawyer Fabián Rodríguez Simón, one of Macri’s operators within the judicial system. Curiously enough, the other major judicial operator who is known to be a friend of the president is Boca Juniors club president Daniel Angelici — a long-time owner of bingo halls and a living proof of Cambiemos’ ambivalent relationship with the gambling world.
In December, López (a powerful businessman, especially during the Kirchnerite administrations) was arrested on a separate tax evasion case.
WHO’S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES
Last month, Vidal doubled down (no pun intended) and announced the province would nix existing subsidies for racetracks, starting this year with a 25-percent decrease in the amount of state funds used to finance the activity.
“This year they should be receiving 1.3 billion pesos, but instead they will get 1.05 billion,” Matías Lanusse, the head of the IPLyC local lottery institute, told the Times, in an interview. “Our goal is to reduce the availability of gambling.”
Concretely, the province will start by cutting racecourse subsidies to the minimum set by law. Later, Governor Vidal will send a bill to the BA provincial Legislature to reduce subsidies to zero, at some point yet to be defined in the future. The current recipients of those funds are racecourses located in San Isidro, La Plata and Tandil.
Racehorse owners are not happy. Hours after the initial announcement, they claimed that as many as 70,000 jobs were being put at risk (the provincial government says the real number is actually half of that, based on estimations by local horse breeders).
“No measure affecting the horse-racing industry should be taken before reaching an agreement with us,” said horse owners, breeders, racecourse owners and union leaders who vowed to join forces in order to “resist” the move.
Sources inside the provincial government say they want to force the people behind the horseracing business to find other “genuine sources of income” to replace the decreasing subsidies. For instance, they would allow a lottery ticket linked to horse-racing, called “Pingazo,” to be sold in lottery agencies across the province or to let racecourses sell the TV rights to their races to other countries such as Chile or France — money that would then flow directly to racecourses (the lottery institute intends to oversee the whole process so no third paries get a stake that would hit earnings.).
But as is typical of the gamling industry, not everything can be taken at face value. Top officials inside the IPLyC have also suggested that “shady dealings” were taking place during the administration of Melitón López, a man linked to Angelici who served as Vidal’s first IPLyC president, suggesting practices of illegal betting at the Hipódromo de la Plata, a venue that holds 15,000 people, may have taken place.
The officials failed to provide proof of their claims but insisted that these acts appear to have taken place with the acquiescence of racetrack owners. Officials also said they received bogus invoices from racecourses when they asked them for appropriate expense documentation to account for past subsidies.
“Now it’s time for the horse racing industry to clean up the house,” one official who asked to remain anonymous said.
“It’s a positive move,” said Walter Martello, the province’s Assistant Ombudsman and author of No va más, a book that deals with the explosion of gambling in the province during the Peronist governments of 1987-2015. “The revenues from the lottery and gambling tax should go to those less-off. Horse racing will have to adapt to the new scenario.”
Martello, however, also believes the Vidal administration could and should do more to tackle gambling addiction.
There are now gaming halls in 38 districts, but only of them have 10 Gambling Addiction Treatment Centres. This means that many addicts who are prepared to enter rehab have to travel hundreds of kilometres to treat their problems. The provincial government has refused to open new ones and instead has voiced its intention to adapt the scarcely funded Addiction Prevention Centres (CPA) to receive gambling addicts too.
Débora Blanca, a psychologist who specialises in gambling addiction, is opposed to the provincial government’s strategy, saying the ideal move would be to open more “specific treatment centres” instead of placing all addicts under the same bracket, sending them to the CPAs. It is hard enough for people with betting troubles to admit they have a problem, Blanca says, and in her experience many gambling addicts refuse to go to the same institutions as people with drug problems.
Then there is the question of specific funds. Martello told the Times that this year’s budget allocation for programmes fighting gambling addiction in the province is just 6.34 million pesos (some US$305,000). While that’s a rise on last year’s figure of 6.2 million pesos, clearly the budget has failed to keep pace with inflation.
“There should be more efforts and resources to this issue,” Martello said.
As the discussion on gambling heats up, the Vidal government has at least fulfilled its New-Year promise to close sites. Bingo Temperley in southern Greater Buenos Aires and three coastal casinos in Necochea, Mar de Ajó and Valeria del Mar have all been shuttered recently.
Mar del Plata, however, still has those seven gaming halls — the same number as Atlantic City.