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ARGENTINA | 27-03-2021 08:57

What we learned this week: March 20 to 27

The pick of the stories that caught our eye over the last seven days in Argentina.

 

THE WEEK IN CORONAVIRUS

There were 2,291,051 confirmed cases of coronavirus (hitting five digits yesterday) and 55,235 deaths at press time yesterday as against 2,234,913 cases and 54,476 deaths the previous Friday. On Monday President Alberto Fernández (who formally assumed the chairmanship of the Partido Justicialista, the main Peronist organ the same day) made a new promise to have all risk groups vaccinated before May Day. On Tuesday night City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta was hospitalised with heart murmurs believed to be the consequence of his encounter with Covid-19 early this year but he was released the next morning. Another well-known name hit by coronavirus was veteran C5N newsman Víctor Hugo Morales, who initially continued working but then had to enter an intensive therapy ward with double pneumonia. Flight restrictions (especially from Brazil, whose deaths reached the 300,000 mark in midweek) loomed all week with confirmed cases of contagion on the rise both at home and abroad. On Tuesday the government announced that returning travellers would have to pay for their coronavirus swabs as from this coming weekend in order to discourage flights abroad yet further with Easter week beginning tomorrow. On Thursday the government finally postponed flights from Brazil, Chile and Mexico indefinitely while ANMAT (the Argentine equivalent of the Food & Drug Administration) cleared China’s Sinopharm vaccine for those aged over 60 and Health Minister Carla Vizzotti spoke of skipping second doses for the next three months to vaccinate as many people as possible. Yesterday private health workers staged a three-day strike while Uruguay expelled Argentine citizen Adriano Sessa for organising a clandestine party for over 500 people in Punta del Este. Finally, the Human Rights Watch international organisation yesterday accused the Formosa provincial government of “abusive” methods in confronting the spread of Covid-19, also recommending that the Alberto Fernández government change its Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla. 

WEDNESDAY WHAMMY

Wednesday found Economy Minister Martín Guzmán in Washington with an unexpected domestic backdrop hitting his presence there with a double whammy – insults against the International Monetary Fund from Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner while the Foreign Ministry announced Argentina’s exit from the Lima Group seeking a democratic solution to Venezuela’s crisis. Unfortunate timing in both cases with Guzmán negotiating repayment of the 2018 stand-by with the IMF at the same time while the March 24 anniversary of the 1976 coup, as a sacred date for the human rights movement, was not the best day to quit a watchdog group overseeing a regime widely accused of human rights violations. The Vice-President (introduced as “President”) chose to pepper her speech marking the coup anniversary by accusing the IMF of backing that coup and the British side in the 1982 South Atlantic war as well as advancing the ruinously massive 2018 loan which (she insisted) Argentine could not pay because of its “unacceptable” and “impossible” conditions. Yet there were no undue upheavals on bond markets with the IMF describing their contacts with Guzmán as “constructive” while the minister spoke of “important advances” (although there is still no date for any final agreement) but on Tuesday creditors finally took the Buenos Aires provincial government to court in Manhattan over its reluctance to reach a debt settlement after more than a year. Meanwhile the Foreign Ministry’s statement insisted that “inclusive dialogue” was the only solution for Venezuela, not “isolation,” also deploring sanctions. 

MARCH 24 MARCH

Leftist groups marched on Plaza de Mayo last Wednesday to mark the 45th anniversary of the 1976 coup (a public holiday) but the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo opted to respect the coronavirus pandemic restrictions, contenting themselves with the tribute to them hosted by President Alberto Fernández at the Bicentennial Museum near the Casa Rosada on Tuesday evening. The Day of Memory, Truth and Justice was also the occasion of rare praise from Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta for marking the coup anniversary by recalling the kidnap of Horacio Rodríguez Larreta Senior (a militant in the MID party of 1958-1962 president Arturo Frondizi) under the military dictatorship. She hailed the fact that someone from his “space” would issue such an important message.

MERCOSUR’S UNHAPPY 30th

The Mercosur regional trade bloc celebrated its 30th anniversary yesterday under Argentina’s presidency with a virtual summit organised from Buenos Aires due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

ECONOMIC PLUNGE

Last month the anticipatory estimate of the INDEC statistics bureau had calculated double-digit economic shrinkage for the year 2020 but by last Tuesday the plunge had been tweaked into single digits for the final official figure although only just – minus 9.9 percent. It was still the worst meltdown in the region apart from Peru and Venezuela with less drastic falls in the other major economies – Brazil (minus four percent), Mexico (minus 8.5 percent), Colombia (minus 6.9 percent) and Chile (minus six percent). Investment and consumption plunged by almost identical margins (13 and 13.1 percent respectively) while exports were down 17.7 percent and imports 18.1 percent. Gross Domestic Product was calculated at 27 billion pesos or US$382 billion at the official exchange rate for a per capita annual income of around US$8,500 although with parallel exchange rates the GDP would be more like US$230 billion. The 2021 Budget forecasts 5.5 percent growth for this year but many analysts tip it to top six percent while Economy Minister Martín Guzmán is optimistic of seven percent. INDEC posted another gloomy figure on Thursday when it reported 11 percent unemployment at the end of last year or 2.2 million jobless (still an improvement on the second quarter of the year at the height of quarantine when 3.7 million people were without work).     

MARKET WATCH

After moving upwards for the first time all year the previous week, the parallel “blue” dollar was down again last week, dropping from 144 to 142 pesos. But the official exchange rate moved further ahead (if its 65 percent surcharges are added), up from 96.50 to 97.25 pesos according to Banco Nación, or 154.83 pesos for savers with the surcharges. Among the unofficial but legal exchange rates the CCL (contado con liquidación) fell from 149.75 to 145.40 pesos between yesterday and last Friday, its lowest level in a month, while the MEP (mercado electrónico de pagos) fell heavily, from 144 to 138.40 pesos, its lowest level in almost four months. Country risk was uncertain, fluctuating between 1,535 and 1574 points as against 1,537 the previous Friday with no final figure at press time yesterday. 

WEALTH TAX BLOCK?

Judge Cecilia Gilardi Madariaga de Negre of the Administrative Litigation Court on Monday ruled in favour of the injunction lodged by businessman Alejandro Scannapieco against the one-off wealth tax to counter the coronavirus pandemic among other government priorities. Nevertheless, the judge did not rule on the legality of the levy, simply suspending its application to the plaintiff and pointing out that a final judicial verdict on the tax’s validity was still pending. AFIP tax bureau have the right to appeal but are unlikely to be picking up any money from Scannapieco in the near future. On Wednesday the same judge issued a similar ruling in favour of Nicolás McLoughlin but the previous day Córdoba rural judge Sergio Pinto rejected the injunction against the tax lodged by José Luis Prado Lardizibál. 

ARA SAN JUAN COURT MARTIALS

The four-month court-martial of eight senior naval officers regarding their responsibility for the sinking of the ARA San Juan submarine in late 2017 ended last Monday with former Navy chief-of-staff Marcelo Srur placed under a strict arrest of 45 days for his “incomplete” briefing of the Defence Ministry while Captain Claudio Villamide, the then chief of the submarine force, was cashiered from the force altogether. Three other officers were also sentenced to strict confinement for periods ranging from 20 to 30 days while the remaining trio were acquitted. Many relatives of the 44 dead crew members expressed indignation over what they regarded as token sentences. Meanwhile the civilian judicial investigation of the sinking continues in Comodoro Rivadavia under judge Marta Yáñez. 

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