Monday, February 26, 2024

OP-ED | 27-03-2021 09:01

Method in the madness or madness as method?

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner stole the show this week with her explosive dismissal of repaying the International Monetary Fund as “unacceptable” and “impossible” – shooting her mouth again or deliberate sabotage?

Questioning the sanity of an elected government should never be undertaken lightly – least of all in the same week as the anniversary of a military coup launching the most murderous madness of them all. And yet the government’s bizarre accompaniment of that midweek anniversary makes that question unavoidable – the only alternatives are a technicolour incompetence of the most amateurish kind or malice aforethought aimed against one of the saner ministers.

As always, Vice-President (or “President,” according to the announcer and also Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof, immediately correcting himself) Cristina Fernández de Kirchner stole the show this week with her explosive dismissal of repaying the International Monetary Fund as “unacceptable” and “impossible” with Economy Minister Martín Guzmán in Washington simultaneously sitting down with the IMF to negotiate repayment amicably – shooting her mouth again or deliberate sabotage?

And yet the more serious damage probably came from a smaller headline the same day – namely, Argentina’s exit from the Lima Group seeking a democratic solution to Venezuela’s woes. After all, neither Argentine politicians saying one thing while doing another, nor the vice-presidential outburst, are anything new but departure from the Lima Group was a concrete government action, not the mere rhetoric of an individual (however important).

If the Lima Group was such a non-starter seeking to “isolate” Venezuela instead of exploring “inclusive dialogue,” as the Foreign Ministry asserted last Wednesday, why has the Frente de Todos administration taken 16 months to find this out? And why choose a day so laden with symbolism as the 45th anniversary of the coup to take this belated decision? The government insists that it still takes the charges of human rights violations against the Nicolás Maduro régime seriously while refraining from calling it a dictatorship (unlike much of an outside world formally denouncing these charges at both hemispheric and international level) but if so, why choose such a sacred day for the human rights movement to let Maduro off the hook?

But in any case both the vice-presidential rhetoric and the Foreign Ministry’s move converge in giving Guzman in Washington a rough time. Any respite for Maduro is bound to annoy the United States, a decisive voice on the IMF board as its leading shareholder. The Foreign Ministry cannot possibly be ignorant of this basic fact – is there such a total lack of communication between the different ministries or is some plot afoot to torpedo Guzmán?

Baffling as all this is, there was yet another departure from any normal logic the following day commanding less attention. The Frente de Todos government pulled out all stops to scupper a Congress session to extend the biofuels bill, launched by the late Néstor Kirchner in 2006 with its continuation recently rubberstamped by the Senate dominated by his widow. Why should the government devote such energy to frustrating its own legislation? But here at least sheer lunacy need not be the only explanation – political gamesmanship and solid economic interests offer further clues. In part the idea was to deny a political victory to the Juntos por el Cambio opposition calling Thursday’s session but, as so often, it basically comes down to oil. Biofuels have been displaced in government eyes by a burning faith in Vaca Muerta shale as the magical way out of a chronic crisis compounded by the coronavirus pandemic – for a political dynasty whose original funding came from Santa Cruz oil royalties, old habits die hard. On the pretext of favouring small and medium-sized companies (PyMEs) the government proposes new legislation to restrict the eco-friendlier biofuels to an artisan scale while fully a quarter of the wealth tax allegedly against the pandemic is earmarked for giving oil giants incentives to develop Vaca Muerta. The rivalry between oil and biofuels crosses party lines – over 20 opposition deputies (including several from oil-rich province) also shunned Thursday’s session.

If the government so patently has no answers to the crisis, it would be almost natural to jump to the opposite extreme and assume that the opposition has them all but unfortunately not – thus quite apart from predictable government rage, ex-president Mauricio Macri’s recent book launch also drew friendly fire for its defence of gradualism and his continued blind faith that populism will die on its feet to be replaced by the “cultural change” to a market economy. Both sides play the blame game for ills long preceding them but the truth is that neither is either the problem or the solution.

Meanwhile a grounded nation can only stay baffled.   



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