Saturday, December 9, 2023

OP-ED | 29-05-2021 10:36

Now is the winter of our discontent

There's still three weeks to go for winter but in every way except the weather it is already here.

If in Europe the Radical precursors of Argentina’s most venerable party were historically often nicknamed “radishes” (not only because the two words sound alike but also because they resembled that root vegetable in political terms as being red outside and white inside), might not something similar be said about the here and now of our current government?

On the one hand, the accelerated retreat from condemning human rights violations in Venezuela, following the exit from the Lima Group earlier this year, in conjunction with voting at the United Nations for placing the spotlight on Israel for the Gaza Strip turmoil, mark a definite trend towards more radical foreign policy stances. But the radish metaphor also applies to domestic economic policy which might seem red enough on the outside in various aspects such as fierce anti-debt rhetoric from one wing of the governing coalition, the beef export ban and the insistent overspending on subsidies (more or less funded by the commodity boom) but yet the inner fiscal core is increasingly white – or rather black in the sense of moving budget accounts away from the red and into the black. In the first third of the year state employee pay, pensions and social benefits have all been raised by little more than half of inflation while almost no money has been printed this year in contrast to well over two trillion pesos in 2020.

And yet the current situation is not red and white any more than it is black and white – it is both more complex and unstable than that. Starting with foreign policy, the drift away from the Western world, as reflected in the clear bias toward Sino-Russian vaccines, is not accompanied by overt confrontation with the United States as in previous years of default.

The key vaccine issue (with last year’s Pfizer negotiations belatedly becoming a hot topic again this week) reflects this ambiguity. Argentina is more than willing to accept the donation of surplus US vaccines but at the same time is insisting on their transportation by Aerolíneas Argentinas to disguise their origin. Meanwhile President Alberto Fernández was trapped into some harsh words against Pfizer by PRO chair Patricia Bullrich’s impetuous claim that the government had tried to squeeze bribes out of a vaccine contract (later retracted to insistence on a crony middleman) while other opposition and media critics maintained that the government had thrown away the opportunity to have 14 million doses already last November (a debatable contention, given the worldwide delays). Fernández advanced the more amicable explanation that Pfizer had deliberately set unacceptable conditions because they foresaw that an upcoming US vaccine export ban would make any contract impossible to honour but his words were lost under distinctly more hostile headlines. In general, critics of vaccine management should first consult a complex global context (thus it is surprising to read that Australia has lower vaccination percentages than here although they have admittedly needed it less until now) but this does not exempt the government from offering a more complete explanation of the Pfizer deadlock than the single word “negligence” in the Congress law.

Turning to the fiscal orthodoxy prevailing thus far under cover of some extremist rhetoric, this might well not be sustainable in the face of two formidable factors – the second wave of the pandemic and increasingly negative opinion polls. There are midterms in a few months (a fact which this government would be the last people to ignore) and increasing state pay, pensions and social benefits at only half the pace of inflation is bound to hurt popularity, even if counting on a regular sum at the end of the month is no small mercy, given the horrific uncertainty facing so many others – a nationwide opinion poll this week has shown 72 percent disapproval of the government (topping 70 percent across the class spectrum). Recovery in the private sector might compensate but this has been cut short by the second wave which is sure to boost public spending.

Quasi-quarantine ends tomorrow but the short period chosen conspires against the credibility of the strategy, given the lag between restrictions and results (which can only increase with the descending average age of coronavirus patients keeping intensive care beds occupied longer) – this makes for a week of tight restrictions being accompanied by dire data, as we have just seen, with quite possibly vice versa to follow. Still three weeks to go for winter but in every way except the weather it is already here.


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