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OP-ED | 12-12-2020 09:08

The first year of the rest of a presidency

A bigger game-changer than coronavirus could hardly be imagined, but Argentina remains very much the same country behind the face-masks.

A year of the Alberto Fernández presidency (or 368 days, to be exact) has now passed and in that period everything has changed while leaving a broadly similar outlook. Optimists might point to the renewed momentum of commodity prices and vaccination, pessimists to a tenser political climate and the terrifying overhang of pandemic fallout still waiting down the pipeline but although a bigger game-changer than coronavirus could hardly be imagined, it still remains very much the same country behind the face-masks.

Much the same country but also entirely different from the land of hope and glory promised in last year’s successful presidential campaign. The manifold contradictions of Alberto Fernández have been amply chronicled by some media (the president is perhaps right when he says that he does not lie because his rhetoric covers so many positions that the truth must lurk somewhere) but his erratic discourse should not hide the fact that he has stuck to his chosen course with some constancy, whether for better or (often) for worse. Thus Fernández said during his electoral campaign that he would slash the City’s federal revenue-sharing funds (thus making a massive contribution to the resounding re-election of Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta) and now he has, following a prolonged delay due to the pandemic. His state-of-the-nation speech to inaugurate Congress last March heavily flagged both judicial and abortion reform and we can now see that eight months of pandemic with its overwhelming health and economic urgencies have done surprisingly little to dislodge these priorities.

The coronavirus pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster, first and foremost the over 40,000 lives lost but also disrupting everybody’s lives, and yet it would not be entirely far-fetched to argue that it has been almost as much a blessing as a curse for the Fernández presidency. At its height at its outset the pandemic catapulted the president to record approval ratings ranging from 79 to 84 percent as the nation rallied around its leader. Not surprisingly, this failed to last but the economic benefits (for the government, of course, not for a country facing a possibly double-digit shrinkage of its economy this year) have been more durable. For a start the perfect excuse for any economic shortcomings after the famous Hundred Days (all but one of the only 101 days of this presidency free from any lockdown) also produced persistently negative data. An ideology of state intervention received global vindication from even the world’s market-friendliest governments pumping sometimes trillions of public money into their stricken economies (an extremely limited option for Argentina). Amateurishly handled and gratuitously prolonged foreign debt negotiations were nevertheless “condemned to success” (to use ex-president Eduardo Duhalde’s phrase) because a few dozen billion dollars became so extremely relative amid the colossal sums being lost (and printed) worldwide – undoubtedly this administration’s biggest plus because the vista of an entire presidency without any serious debt payments (pending agreement with the International Monetary Fund) is an enormous boon for any government. The trillions of pesos printed also fuels the current bond festival maintaining the precarious stability of money markets with the full inflationary impact still lying ahead. Indeed, it becomes almost necessary to go down to the horrendous bottom line of the pandemic to start seeing the drawbacks.

A strange and entirely atypical year is drawing to its close yet even at the best of times no government can be judged by its first year. Now is not the time nor does space permit going into specific legislation or individual ministries (all of which remained unchanged save Housing) – which should in no way be understood as passively awaiting the close of this presidency while relaxing vigilance over alarming policies and institutional tendencies, of which there are already plenty of signs. 

This editorial is reaching its conclusion without any mention of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who sought with much success to steal the show this week with her explosive outburst against the Supreme Court. Nice try, veep, but this omission is quite deliberate – we’re staying with the first anniversary of the Alberto Fernández presidency.     

 

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