For the sixth time since 2017 the Buenos Aires Times herewith presents a complete week-by-week account of the news and trends in the old year, compiled exclusively from material from this newspaper. Even without an election and with coronavirus in full retreat, it remained an eventful year as this narrative will endeavour to show. So without any further ado, here goes:
WEEK 1. The coronavirus pandemic (whose death toll stood at 117,169 at the start of the year) is far from over with confirmed cases of the Omicron variant reaching Argentina in the closing weeks of 2021 entering six digits as the first week draws to a close – summer holiday crowds with vacationers seeking to catch up on two lost years do not help. This third wave is “extraordinarily contagious” (Health Minister Carla Vizzotti dixit) but far less lethal than its predecessors amid a mostly vaccinated population. Explaining negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provincial governors, Economy Minister Martín Guzmán indulges in some grandstanding, disavowing any austerity (although inflation is also backdoor austerity from the way it boosts state revenues and dilutes public spending while battering real wages and pensions). But beyond that audience, Guzmán fails to impress money markets, mindful that only the Turkish lira outpaced the Argentine peso in 2021. With the ruling Frente de Todos coalition still not able to bite the bullet on updating public service billing and transport fares, Guzmán uses the IMF criterion of cross-party consensus to procrastinate. Meanwhile, Central Bank reserves are perilously low with Guzmán’s strategy of shifting dollar debt to peso bonds leading to a dangerously snowballing quasi-fiscal deficit. The government starts the year by extending a seven-month export ban on seven popular beef cuts all the way through to the end of 2023. President Alberto Fernández lays claim to a diplomatic success when Argentina succeeds Mexico in the pro-tempore presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC in its Spanish acronym) for the entire year against the opposition of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who shuns the proceedings. President Fernández also jumps on opposition discomfort from a leaked video of a 2017 meeting held by officials of María Eugenia Vidal’s Buenos Aires provincial government to accelerate legal proceedings against the controversial La Plata construction workers’ union leader Juan Pablo ‘Pata’ Medina (tagged as “lawfare” by the government) in which the then provincial labour minister exclaims: “If I could have a Gestapo, a shock force to finish off all trade unions, I’d go ahead.” Newly elected libertarian deputy Javier Milei raffles off his first monthly salary of over 200,000 pesos.
W2. The third wave of coronavirus is joined by a heat wave (temperatures topping 40 degrees), making for a relatively slow week. The resulting massive power cuts (with home office decreed for the last two days of the week) bring frozen utility billing under fire once more (the government responds by referring to the even bigger Father’s Day blackout of 2019 during the Mauricio Macri presidency but this also followed a public service billing freeze). Some government circles start floating segmentation. The INDEC national statistics bureau issues the final 2021 inflation figure, 50.9 percent, as the government launches its ‘Precios Cuidados’ price control scheme covering 1,321 products “of primary need” for the first quarter of the year. Abroad the complacent presence of Argentine Ambassador to Managua Daniel Capitanich alongside a suspected Iranian suspect of the 1994 AMIA Jewish community centre terrorist bomb attack, causing 85 deaths, at the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (re-elected after jailing most of his rivals) stirs controversy, eventually obliging the Foreign Ministry to complain.
W3. Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero meets his United States counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Washington. The meeting as such is more important than the content of their talks with Blinken flying to Kyiv immediately afterwards – repudiating the Iranian presence at the Nicaraguan inauguration is their main point of agreement. Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner claims that the “Macri pandemic” cost the country more than the Covid-19 pandemic (whose death toll reaches 118,171 in this week). President Alberto Fernández orders extraordinary sessions of Congress in order to revamp the Council of Magistrates before Easter when it would otherwise have to revert to its original 1998 format after a Supreme Court ruling declaring the 2006 reform illegal – the economic agenda is limited to the 2022 Fiscal Consensus releasing the provinces from the tax constraints of Macri’s 2017 fiscal pact but at least the government can announce that the 2020 primary fiscal deficit of 6.5 percent of gross domestic product was halved to three percent in 2021, aided by the wealth tax. The two sides of Argentina’s grieta political rift respectively highlight the sixth anniversary of Túpac Amaru indigenous leader Milagro Sala’s arrest and the seventh anniversary of special AMIA prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s death with the former visited by two government ministers.
W4. The month closes explosively with Frente de Todos lower house caucus chairman Máximo Kirchner resigning on its last day in protest against the IMF agreement which President Alberto Fernández had announced three days previously just before the weekend (a favourite time for trying to bury hot potatoes) in Argentina’s track record – the La Cámpora leader argues an inability to persuade government deputies to back an “austerity package” with which he himself does not agree (although his move might have been aimed at the unity rather than disunity of the ruling coalition as gesture politics to keep its left wing on board without sacrificing ideological purity while the agreement goes ahead). The presidential announcement had been in different terms, describing it as a low-intensity agreement with a soft landing, pledging a slow reduction of the fiscal deficit and no capital repayments on the debt for over four years nor any insistence on structural reforms – fuller details remain pending but the news nevertheless serves to knock back the “blue” dollar almost 10 pesos. On the same day a major interest payment to the IMF takes Central Bank reserves down by almost half to nine digits from 11 when Frente de Todos took office. Incipient drought plus the absence of various fiscally positive 2021 factors (the wealth tax, the double-digit growth rebounding from the pandemic and the US$4.3 billion of special drawing rights from the IMF) also stack up the odds against complying with a new agreement – the pledge to positive interest rates outrunning inflation also threaten to send a quasi-fiscal deficit of some five trillion pesos (Leliq bonds etc.) even further out of control. Earlier in the week the coronavirus pandemic reaches the milestones of eight million cases and 120,000 deaths. The 25th anniversary of the murder of news photographer José Luis Cabezas is marked – curiously enough the home of courier businessman Oscar Andreani (whose Pinamar home was the last time Cabezas was seen alive by anybody but his killers) is robbed the weekend before the anniversary. Marc Stanley presents his credentials as the new US ambassador. Argentina drops into the bottom half of the 180 countries measured by the Transparency International index of corruption perceptions (from 78th to 96th place).
W5. The first night of the month sees President Fernández embarking on a superpower swing of Russia, China and Barbados (well, maybe not the latter). His first stop is the Kremlin where on the 170th anniversary of the battle of Caseros he seeks to take Argentine history in an opposite direction away from the west – in an overkill of his typical personal trait of trying to ingratiate himself with his immediate company, he effusively tells Vladimir Putin that Argentina must stop depending on the IMF and the United States, also offering his country to Russia as a “gateway” into South America for good measure and thanking his host for the Sputnik vaccines “when the rest of the world did not help us” (or rather was not allowed). Incredibly stupid, one might think, knowing in hindsight what Putin was going to do later that month but it was bad timing even then – the huge Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian frontier since the previous October had been jacking up world oil and gas prices for some time (as reflected by YPF’s nine percent fuel price hike at the start of the month). But the negative impact of his remark on Washington can also be exaggerated – the White House has too many pressing problems both at home and abroad to take much note of the chronic verbal exuberance of Alberto Fernández. Back home the first day of the month sees a Kirchnerite protest outside the Supreme Court accusing it of being “at the service of lawfare and impunity” but the week’s most dramatic news is the death of at least 23 people in north-western Greater Buenos Aires suburbs from lethally laced cocaine.
W6. The highlight of the presidential visit to China is to make Argentina another of the 146 countries signing up for the Belt and Road Initiative aka Silk Road since the global infrastructural development programme was launched in 2013 – President Fernández estimates the potential Silk Road investments at US$23.7 billion and becomes very excited about joining BRICS. Otherwise little enough to comment beyond the nominal purpose of attending the inauguration of the Winter Olympics (unlike many countries boycotting the ceremony due to China’s human rights violations against its Muslim minorities) and President Fernández telling his host colleague Xi Jinping: “If you were Argentine, you’d be Peronist” – for all of China’s superpower dimensions (a complex partner for Argentina as both its main export market and biggest trade deficit), it has the feel of just another state visit. In the final Barbados leg of the swing the Caribbean presence of Environment Minister Juan Cabandié leads to questions as to why he is not back home fighting the fires ravaging Corrientes. President Fernández then returns home to find the IMF agreement comfortably on course with more than enough mainstream support from his Frente de Todos coalition plus the Juntos por el Cambio opposition to avert the spectre of default, despite Máximo Kirchner’s walkout. The national government withdraws subsidies from the 32 City bus lines operating solely within the Federal Capital. Otherwise a relatively calm summer week.
W7. The summer is more torrid than ever with bumper tourism but at least 20 forest fires ravaging almost 800,000 hectares of Corrientes. A week bereft of major news. The coronavirus death toll (with weekly fatalities still in four digits for the last time) tops 125,000. INDEC statistics bureau posts January inflation as 3.9 percent with annual inflation over 50 percent. President Fernández appears in court to insist that they were no irregularities in Santa Cruz highway contracts while he was Cabinet chief between 2003 and 2008. Calm before the storm of a war erupting some 13,000 kilometres away but also redefining the rest of Argentina’s year, not least inflation.
W8. Following a four-month build-up Russian tanks cross the Ukrainian border (F23) and head towards the capital of Kyiv. In Argentine eyes this is (in Neville Chamberlain’s words about Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938) “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we nothing” but it ends up transforming the year also here. Ignorance is not limited to Argentina – the world at large suddenly awakes to this trouble-spot when Putin has been occupying the Crimea since 2014 with a Kremlin-backed civil war in Russophone eastern Ukraine claiming at least 15,000 lives since then. The might of the Russian juggernaut is overrated while their motivation is underestimated. The world’s largest country nevertheless has a smaller economy than Brazil while its obsolete army and rust-bucket navy are soon shown up in the following months (although massive nuclear armament lurks behind them). Yet the strength of Russian feeling is generally not understood – Kyiv is the umbilical cord of Russian nationhood as the cradle of the Russian Orthodox Church and the first Russian state (Rus) alike and thus almost akin to Jerusalem for Zionism, not easily negotiable yet never justifying the horrors of war, of course. But Putin miscalculates badly when he imagines a corrupt and divided Ukraine to be easy prey – the country magically rallies to become the world’s heroes under the inspired leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who now becomes extremely serious. The reactions here are repudiation virtually across the board with minor differences in tone – the official government statement “firmly rejects the use of armed force” with only Congress Speaker Sergio Massa “condemning” the invasion. Not much news on the strictly domestic front. The school year starts in this city at least. The 10th anniversary of the 52-death Once rail disaster is marked on the eve of the Russian invasion. On the same day INDEC reports a growth rate of 10.3 percent for the pandemic rebound year of 2021.
W9. This month invariably begins with the presidential state-of-the-nation speech to open Congress and this year is no exception. With Russia invading Ukraine just five days previously, President Fernández might have been expected both to update and globalise his 100-minute speech but no – the focus is on the upcoming draft agreement with the IMF (sent to Congress three days later), a sensitive subject since heaping all the blame on the preceding Macri administration prompts a PRO walkout while Máximo Kirchner does not even show up (the indignant opposition deputies might have considered that Macri-bashing could be the price of keeping Kirchnerism on board). Far from offering any overdue structural reforms within this agreement, President Fernández boasts of having eluded any such thing in the negotiations: “There will be no pension reform. There will be no labour reform,” glossing over such aspects as reducing the primary fiscal deficit to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product this year and 1.9 percent next. Just to give one very specific example of the fallout for Argentine from Putin’s increasingly brutal invasion, the surge in world gas prices rising sevenfold almost overnight jacks up the cost of liquefied natural gas imports by 50 percent to an estimated US$5.5 billion, way beyond Central Bank net reserves – yet the only presidential response is to express lukewarm regret of the war (with opposition benches brandishing blue and yellow flags) after a minute of silence and to announce segmented gas and electricity billing after years of frozen public service pricing. Nevertheless, Argentina escalates its repudiation of the invasion to join the United Nations condemnation in the UN General Assembly the next day. Otherwise the state-of-the-nation speech contains plenty of self-congratulation over a growing economy and an efficient state presence including a rapid vaccination campaign along with some self-pity over the pandemic (and the Macri heritage). School starts in most of the country but other news is not on the scale of Ukraine or the race against default with the IMF agreement.
W10. The IMF deal heads to the Senate after receiving lower house approval by a 202-37 vote at the end of the week (with Máximo Kirchner showing up to vote against at the last minute) – a payment of US$2.9 billion falling due to the IMF on M22 and possibly beyond Central Bank net reserves adds urgency to the proceedings. Outside Congress there are violent protests, which include smashing the windows of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Senate office (taken very personally by the veep although apparently not the intended target with videos uploaded claiming to show that the attack was carefully planned) . Following passage of this crucial bill President Fernández races across the Andes for the inauguration of his new leftist Chilean colleague Gabriel Boric the same day, taking office in a drastically different world just a fortnight after the invasion of Ukraine. The controversial IMF agreement even divides feminist waters with International Women’s Day marked by two marches, one mainstream and the other insisting on including a repudiation of the IMF deal. Again Ukraine and the IMF combine to crowd out the other news from prominence.
W11. The Senate’s turn to approve the US$45-billion agreement with the IMF (the 22nd in the country’s history), just five days before the IMF payment deadline, by a 56-13 vote with all 72 senators present and all the votes against coming from Frente de Todos benches (indications of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner losing ground even within her own Senate bastion if only 13 senators share her rejection of the agreement). The global fallout from the Ukraine war in many ways make the agreement and its targets a dead letter even ahead of approval. INDEC posts a February inflation figure of 4.7 percent, by far the highest in Latin America with even Venezuela registering 2.9 percent. President Fernández immediately reacts by declaring a “war on inflation” without giving much detail on his proposed strategy – a shift in his priorities from the judicial to the economic sphere with warfare replacing lawfare, it could be said. The combination of the spiralling inflation figure and final approval of the IMF agreement in some ways makes Guzmán the victim of his own success because the former means a far more uphill battle than the latter with debt agreements very much his comfort zone. If Putin’s disruptive invasion is pumping up inflation worldwide, what chance does Argentina have? The 30th anniversary of the terrorist bomb destruction of the Israeli Embassy (sadly coinciding with Saint Patrick’s Day) is marked. The Minimum Wage Council announces a 45 percent increase in the pay floor for the rest of the year, taking it up to 47,850 pesos by Christmas (when it ended up being 61,953 pesos).
W12. The M22 IMF payment deadline of US$2.9 billion is met comfortably enough with the IMF immediately transferring US$9.65 billion in the wake of aid package approval – the fact that Argentina will be receiving more money from the IMF than it pays out during virtually the remainder of the Frente de Todos administration would seem to take the wind out of the sails of government critics of the deal. In midweek Guzmán gains more debt relief when he spins out the negotiations over a payment of US$2 billion to the Paris Club for a further three months at least. Commemoration of the 1976 coup is marked by three different rallies, of which the official headed by President Fernández is the smallest – the tensions within the Frente de Todos coalition stemming from their divided vote on the IMF deal continue. La Cámpora militants stage a massive march from the former Navy Mechanics School ESMA concentration camp, mingling the customary coup commemoration with hostile opposition to the IMF agreement while Máximo Kirchner provocatively accuses Federal Capital citizens of voting for politicians sympathising with the 1976-1983 dictatorship. The leftist march, also converging on Plaza de Mayo, is almost as numerous and even more critical of economic policy. In all three rallies the human rights agenda underlying Memory Day is almost forgotten. The “war on inflation” begins with Domestic Trade Secretary Roberto Feletti rolling back the prices of 580 products by a fortnight while the Central Bank hikes interest rates by two percent. Feletti is also in the news for provocatively accusing farmers protesting the export duty hike on soy oil and flour (from 31 to 33 percent) of wanting to buy more apartments in Miami. INDEC chimes in with some more upbeat data – unemployment down to seven percent at the end of 2021 from 11 percent at the end of 2020 and a February trade surplus of US$809 million. The powerful UOM metal workers’ union has only its second change of helm in half a century when Antonio Caló, 75, the successor of Lorenzo Miguel (1972-2004), is voted out as secretary-general in favour of the more Kirchnerite Abel Furlán. Finally, schoolchildren are exempted from face-masks with the coronavirus pandemic in full retreat over the past month.
W13. INDEC can report poverty down to 37.3 percent of the population at the end of 2021 from 42 percent at the end of the pandemic year of 2020 with hopes that the improvement can be sustained this year. Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner breaks new ground by meeting up with US Ambassador Stanley in his third month here and running past him her idea of whitewashing undeclared assets abroad (much of which is presumed to be in Delaware) and taxing them by up to 35 percent with the proceeds earmarked for paying off the IMF. The presidential “war on inflation” now takes the form of meeting up with trade unionists and industrialists but no wage-price agreement or socio-economic pact results as world food prices hit all-time highs as a result of Russia taking out the agricultural powerhouse Ukraine. Authoritarian twitches from some government officials (Strategic Affairs Secretary Gustavo Beliz floating the regulation of social media and Interior Minister Eduardo ‘Wado’ de Pedro proposing the election of judges by popular vote) make the opposition edgy. The World Cup draw in Qatar places Argentina with Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland in Group C.
W14. The second day of the month is the 40th anniversary of the South Atlantic War. The Argentine government reasserts its Malvinas sovereignty claims on territorial grounds while rubbishing the rights to self-determination of an “implanted population” (although only the tiniest percentage of Argentines have roots predating 1833 while some Mapuches would consider everybody else “implanted” with they themselves only crossing the Andes about two centuries ago). But mistakes carry consequences (as Putin has been discovering this year) and Leopoldo Galtieri’s disastrous decision to invade has made it almost impossible for any British government to hand over the islands, whether the ruling Conservatives with the Margaret Thatcher heritage or their opposition vulnerable to charges of a Labour sell-out. That day also happens to be the 63rd birthday of President Fernández and in her parallel commemoration of the 40th anniversary Fernández de Kirchner seems more interested in bashing her nominal boss than British imperialism, giving him as an ironic birthday present a book on the economic woes of the 1983-1989 Radical administration (shared by the current economic team, she implies). The main innovation from previous anniversaries is that from now on public transport must carry logos reading: “Las Islas Malvinas son argentinas.” Argentina is one of 93 countries voting in the UN General Assembly to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council (chaired by Argentine diplomat Federico Villegas) amid widespread indignation over reports of the Bucha massacre. Two neighbouring presidents visit in the same week – Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Bolivia’s Luis Arce, who makes a timely pledge to maintain last year’s levels of gas deliveries while giving Argentina priority for any extra production. Argentine Ambassador to Israel Sergio Urribarri is obliged to resign after being sentenced to eight years for the misallocation of US$9 million of provincial funds to pursue presidential ambitions at the end of his two terms as Entre Ríos governor (2007-2015). The Senate approves a minor reform of the Council of Magistrates by a 37-33 vote in order to beat the Supreme Court’s Easter deadline for reinstating the pre-2006 Council with a far lower political component if no alternative is offered. Last but not least, City Hall starts losing its patience with the pickets, pressing the national government to strip all welfare benefits from social plan recipients guilty of the “extortion” of blocking streets. Possibly feeling the pressure from the hawks of his own PRO party and libertarians, City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta seeks to cut the vicious circle whereby the bigger the protests, the more money dished out to appease them, feeding even bigger marches causing downtown traffic havoc and creating new vested interests with the picket leaders. Viewed as a public menace when usually the victims of social injustice, the pickets become their own worst enemies when they thus nix the solidarity of the citizenry paying for their plans, which come into question if poverty only rises as they grow – would not the money be better invested in job training and education, it might be asked? Yet this social assistance is only five percent of the budget while almost a third is earmarked for pensions.
W15. Easter week is both Christmas and Calvary all in one for President Fernández, starting with the nativity of his second son Francisco (A11 and 27 years younger than his brother) and ending in the shadow of the 6.7 percent March inflation announced in midweek, the highest jump in two decades, with no resurrection in sight, given the updating of the exchange rate and public service pricing inked into the IMF agreement. Those trillions of pesos printed for last year’s “plan platita” midterm electioneering are thus coming home to roost, making nonsense of Feletti’s price controls over the previous six months. Guzmán flies up to Washington on Sunday with the global turbulence from Putin’s war his only defence although this problem also offers the solution via the soaring commodity prices for the food and fuel which Argentina potentially has in abundance, even if the government’s instinct is to curb exports in order to ensure supplying the domestic market. Nevertheless, another bumper week for tourism, even if only consumer-led growth. Fernández de Kirchner congratulates the president on the birth of his son but only two days later tells him via a speech to European and Latin American legislators: “Being given the presidential baton does not mean that you have power.” The day of Francisco’s birth also sees Argentina formally enter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, raising hopes of sharing Beijing’s special drawing rights from the IMF. Disruptive midweek picket protests in a week also including strikes by hauliers (over diesel fuel shortages) and City doctors. The government fires Luis Puenzo, director of the Oscar-winning La Historia Oficial (1984), as head of the INCAA film institute.
W16. Guzmán talks tough at the IMF-World Bank Spring Meeting in Washington, telling IMF staff that Argentina will “continue to prioritise social spending.” President Fernández announces the tender for the construction of the Néstor Kirchner gas mega-pipeline (A21) from Neuquén to western Buenos Aires province – whether this will prove a game-changer will remain to be seen in the year ahead and, if so, will likely accrue to the next government. All lying in the future but as so often, this week’s spotlight falls on the judicial sphere with Vice-President Fernández de Kirchner calling the shots as usual. The Good Friday deadline for an alternative parliamentary reform of the Council of Magistrates having expired, an Entre Ríos magistrate makes an absurd bid to overrule the Supreme Court over return to the Council’s original 1998 format, a challenge brushed aside by the highest tribunal. With two Frente de Todos councillors, one PRO and one Radical lined up from each house, the veep moves that same evening to lay claim to three of the Senate’s four representatives by splitting Frente de Todos into two caucuses between 21 mainstream Peronists in a Bloque Nacional y Popular and 14 of her ultra-loyalists in a revival of the 2017 label of Unidad Ciudadana with the latter squeezing out the nine PRO senators for the second minority. This manoeuvre naturally sparks opposition outrage and effectively deadlocks the Council for the rest of the year with a third of the country’s judicial benches vacant (and others unworthily filled by venal judges). This deadlock does not necessarily favour Fernández de Kirchner since it maintains many judges likely to rule against her. Pundits also start asking whether the split in the ruling coalition’s Senate caucus is only over judicial issues. President Fernández and Guzmán start the week by announcing bonuses for the informally employed and the retired with less than two minimum pensions, to be financed by a windfall tax on “unexpected income” (from the war) with its details and Congress approval still pending and with farmers protesting in advance. Ecuador’s centre-right President Guillermo Lasso pays a state visit but he and President Fernández have little to say to each other beyond the visitor congratulating his “very brave” host on having a son earlier that month.
W17. In the week celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II, one of the year’s quieter weeks here. The parallel “blue” dollar hits the round number of 200 pesos, feeding economic gloom and doom amid a persistent consumer boom fed by the trillions of pesos pumped into the economy (although purchasing-power does not stretch to longer-term acquisitions such as housing or cars nor travel abroad). Fernández de Kirchner greets US four-star general Laura Richardson, the first female chief of the Southern Command, in a shift of her usual international alignments. In a week without major political news more attention is paid to underlying problems such as the drug-related violence reaching critical levels in Rosario. The Book Fair returns after a two-year absence.
W18. This month obviously begins with May Day or International Workers’ Day, downplayed this year as falling on a Sunday. Government supporters and the leftist (mostly Trotskyist) opposition hold marches while the CGT umbrella labour grouping and ultra-Kirchnerites refrain. Kirchnerism snipes away at economic policy throughout the week without spelling out what it would do differently while denying any rift, despite the two wings of the ruling coalition flapping away against each other. But President Fernández stubbornly refuses to blame internal criticism for the economic difficulties, shying away from confrontation. Meanwhile the opposition is not offering much alternative either, divided over whether reforms need consensus or shock to click, while the libertarian Javier Milei starts moving into the resulting vacuum (having prompted a Juntos por el Cambio huddle in the previous week on his challenge, which divides rather than unites the coalition, unlike Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s) – is he making his run too early? For its part, the government can at least argue continued growth. The Chamber of Deputies passes a bill to introduce the single ballot by a 132-114 vote but with scant chance of Senate approval while recent father President Fernández sends Congress a bill to extend maternity leave from 90 to 126 days and paternity leave from two days to 15. Tucumán ex-governor and ex-senator José Alperovich is formally indicted on charges of raping his niece.
W19. Pressured by rising social protests in the wake of INDEC’s announcement of six percent inflation for April (the downside of the consumer-led growth which he constantly hails) and with his approval ratings below 30 percent, President Fernández finally hits back at his veep from the comfortable distance of Berlin some 12,000 kilometres away, challenging her economic and electoral pessimism, picking holes in her 2007-2015 presidency and threatening the ejection of any official guilty of “obstructionism.” In his swing through Spain, Germany and France meeting with the top government figures of those countries, the president seeks to flag Argentina as a food and energy supplier for a war-stricken Europe while quick to blame April’s six percent inflation (with core inflation of 6.7 percent) on the Ukraine war. Fernández does not win friends among his European hosts by questioning the economic sanctions against Russia. YPF’s nine-percent hike of fuel prices starts a week in which thousands of Federal March demonstrators from all corners of the country converge on Plaza de Mayo to demand job creation and pay hikes on the same Thursday April’s inflation is being announced.
W20. The 2020 census (delayed by the coronavirus pandemic) is held in midweek with a preliminary figure of 47,327,407 (52.83 percent female and 47.05 percent male) given the next day – a surprisingly strong surge from the 40,117,096 inhabitants of the 2010 census (memorable for Néstor Kirchner dying on the same day), given a 34 percent plunge in the birth rate in the last eight years and complaints by some census-takers about certain no-go areas in Greater Buenos Aires. Various governors and mayors are suspected of padding the figures in order to increase their per capita funding. The San Isidro federal prosecutor agrees to drop quarantine violation charges against President Fernández and First Lady Fabiola Yáñez over the celebration of the latter’s 39th birthday in mid-2020 in return for hospital donations totalling three million pesos from the couple – some critics regard this as an alarming precedent offering impunity for sale. On that subject, new cases of coronavirus contagion almost double to nearly 34,000 although only 47 people die, taking the total death toll up to 128,776. The Book Fair closes on the first day of the week with a record attendance of 1.32 million visitors over its 19 days. In the absence of major political or economic news such background problems as drug-trafficking come to the fore with the Supreme Court eloquently switching its venue to the drug mafia hotspot of Rosario – given half-empty judicial benches and criminal prosecutors at half strength in Santa Fe Province, why is all the attention in the legal sphere falling on the Council of Magistrates and the veep’s corruption trials?
W21. Frustrated by spiralling inflation after six months of price controls (a failure which he blames on his limited macroeconomic empowerment but which have failed throughout almost four millennia since the Babylonian Hammurabi), Feletti resigns as Domestic Trade secretary at the start of the week and is briefly replaced by Central Bank director Guillermo Hang – Guzmán thus appears to tighten his grip on economic management although Feletti’s exit is also symptomatic of a Kirchnerite strategy of shedding responsibility for government policy with the “war on inflation” declared 10 weeks beforehand irretrievably lost. The real problem for price controls in Argentina is that “whatever the market will bear” is far too flexible with an inflationary currency. Guzmán takes advantage of his advance to ease access to foreign currency for companies involved in the development of the Vaca Muerta shale formation. But despite keeping the IMF happy, the minister is starting to lose control of domestic peso debt with the Central Bank’s quasi-fiscal deficit hitting its highest levels since the 2001-2002 meltdown – a vicious circle with more bonds needed to “sterilise” the pesos printed to service the ever steeper Leliq interest rates. The country is also approaching that time of the year when the harvest export dollars start to recede and the energy import bills mount. The president has ambitious plans for celebrating M25 public holiday marking the birth of nationhood (which bisects the week) in the Antarctic with his entire Cabinet, presumably as a South Atlantic sovereignty stunt to highlight the 40th anniversary of the 1982 war, but finally settles for the more standard venue of the downtown cathedral. On the last day of the month Urribarri is finally removed from the Argentine Embassy in Jerusalem, almost two months after being convicted for corruption with an eight-year prison sentence. The month closes with sub-zero temperatures.
W22. Almost no news in this week as such with most eyes on the following week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. President Fernández and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner enter into their fourth month without speaking to each other. The government rolls over capital payments on its Paris Club debt until 2024 and offers software companies an underwhelming lure to halt their brain drain by liberating access to exchange markets for half their export gains over the previous year as long as it is earmarked to salaries while independent workers in the sector will be allowed to earn the princely sum of up to a monthly US$1,000 without being obliged to cash this sum at the official exchange rate. In an exceptionally cold week British rock band Coldplay announce their plans for nine (eventually 10) concerts at the Monumental in October and November amid truly massive demand.
W23. The Summit of the Americas is stillborn with none of the presidents of the biggest four Latin American summits meaningfully present – Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) does not go at all despite Los Angeles being only 200 kilometres away from his frontier and despite half a trillion dollars of Mexican exports crossing that border, Alberto Fernández (ambiguous in his stance on Russia) basically attends to protest the exclusion of Cuba and Venezuela, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (who took six weeks to recognise summit host Joe Biden’s victory in 2020) is already being regarded as a lame duck and far more Colombia’s Iván Duque just two weekends away from the run-off (between the leftist Gustavo Petro and the populist Rodolfo Hernández squeezing out his preference Federico Gutiérrez). Among other presidents Peru’s Pedro Castillo is already lurching from impeachment to impeachment and Chile’s Gabriel Boric is only slightly more secure amid slumping popularity while Bolivia’s Luis Arce joins AMLO in shunning the summit. This leaves just Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay with presidents both relatively comfortable at home and ready for constructive engagement in the summit but they account for less than nine percent of South American trade between them. Scant gratitude to Biden for hosting this summit after Donald Trump skipped Lima in 2018 and also scant progress in countering the penetration of China (now the region’s leading trade partner) into Latin America. Just before flying off to Los Angeles, President Fernández is forced to dump Productive Development Minister Matías Kulfas (his choice for Economy minister until six weeks before his inauguration but now left stranded), the 12th and thus far the most important change in his 20-strong Cabinet. Infighting reaches new dimensions when the two wings of the ruling coalition accuse each other of the same crime – namely, favouring the multinational Techint for the metal tubing of the Néstor Kirchner gas pipeline when there was no other candidate in sight. Vice-President Fernández de Kirchner deplores the lack of a more “national and popular” supplier (does she have some crony capitalism in mind or is she even trying to sabotage a pipeline more likely to benefit the next government than this?), to which Kulfas clumsily replies with some “off-the-record” comments which somehow managed to go on the record as to the veep’s own people in the Energy Department corruptly steering the tender Techint’s way – the arguments of both sides are littered with technical errors. Kulfas is replaced by Ambassador to Brazil Daniel Scioli (a former two-term Buenos Aires Province governor and the 2015 Peronist presidential candidate), closer to the presidential than the vice-presidential wing of the coalition. The crisis is followed by a massive midweek run on CER index-linked bonds, by state agencies more than private investors, oddly enough – the beginning of the end for Guzmán? The first IMF review of its March agreement with Argentina confirms approval, clearing the way for US$4 billion of fresh funds. The government proposes windfall taxation on companies making profits of a billion pesos or more out of the impact of the Ukraine war on food and other prices. The Chamber of Deputies insist on their bill of early May to introduce a single ballot with a 132-104 vote but this must still clear the Frente de Todos majority in the Senate before facing a likely presidential veto. For its past the Senate presents a bill to expand the Supreme Court to 25 justices (including one for each province) with the approval of 16 of the 23 provincial governors. Pickets make for yet another Thursday of downtown traffic chaos.
W24. Mystery deepens during the week of this newspaper’s 250th edition over a Venezuelan Mahan/Emtrasur freight aircraft with five Iranians among its oversized 19-strong crew grounded at Ezeiza International Airport the previous weekend. The incident immediately triggers a storm of opposition criticism of the Frente de Todos government’s questionable choice of friends such as the dictatorial Nicolás Maduro and the Islamic Republic of Iran, hard upon President Fernández playing party-pooper in Los Angeles with his obsessive insistence on the absence of three undemocratic countries and after flirting with Russia earlier in the year. Former defence minister Agustín Rossi, only five days on the job as AFI intelligence trustee, quickly shoots himself in the foot by suggesting that this shady flight is nothing more than an Iranian pilot training class – are cargo planes normal vehicles for flight instruction and is it necessary to fly the over 7,000 kilometres from Mexico to teach flying skills? The graft accusations over the Techint metal tubing contract for the Néstor Kirchner gas pipeline are quickly dismissed by federal judge Daniel Rafecas, who rules within 10 days. INDEC registers 5.1 percent inflation for May, down from the previous month but nevertheless the highest annual inflation in 30 years at over 60 percent (as against interest rates of 52 percent). Bitcoin runs into problems. Auditor-General Miguel Angel Pichetto, Macri’s 2015 running-mate, tosses his hat into the ring as an opposition presidential hopeful.
W25. The week begins with Flag Day and a fiery speech by Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in which she denounces “a festival of imports” (a symptom of exchange rate disarray rather than its cause with winter fuel shortages poised to compound the problem) and blames inflation on the foreign debt of Macri and the IMF – presidential spokesperson Gabriela Cerruti retorts that the imports are due to 22 straight months of growth requiring more inputs. But the most unexpected target of CFK’s tongue-lashing turns out to be the pickets – she deplores the “outsourcing” of social plans to picket leaders in tones hardly differing in tone from the “slush fund” accusations coming from the likes of PRO chair Patricia Bullrich, insisting on the distribution of welfare benefits reverting to the state (the difference between the two women, of course, is that one has a maximalist concept of the state while the other is minimalist). This new vice-presidential line is not without its electoral dividends because it proposes draining from the leftist challenge to the core Kirchnerite constituency of the Greater Buenos Aires masses while wooing middle-class voters. Yet with formal private-sector employment stuck at around six million for decades, Kirchnerism is thus not giving any answers to the excluded majority. In midweek Guzmán betrays fiscal pressures when he calls for a peso debt bond swap to dilute payments of almost 600 billion pesos falling due at the end of the month. During the previous weekend Petro edges Hernández in the Colombian run-off to become the Caribbean nation’s first leftist president in a clash of extremes against an anti-system rival who had been widely tipped to win. Here Milei, the closest local equivalent to Hernández, loses ground by expressing imprudently eccentric views on organ donation and unrestricted gun possession (issues which in any case have little to do with his core message), also warmly praising Margaret Thatcher during the 40th anniversary year of the South Atlantic war (Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero takes Argentina’s Malvinas sovereignty claims to the United Nations in the same week).
W26. Midyear finds President Fernández on the move, hobnobbing with G7 leaders (including Britain’s Boris Johnson) in a Bavarian castle at one moment and rushing to the hospital bedside of jailed Jujuy indigenous activist Milagro Sala at another, reproaching the Supreme Court for not facilitating her release. Johnson expresses interest in Argentina’s grain output in the context of the Ukraine war, which is finally “condemned” by Fernández while calling for an end to protectionism and reiterating Malvinas sovereignty claims. In response to his vice-president’s attack on the “festival of imports,” the Central Bank tightens capital controls while the “blue” dollar hits 232 pesos with country risk topping 2,500 points. Paraguayan Casilda Benegas, the world’s second-oldest Covid-19 survivor two years ago, dies in Mar del Plata at the age of 115.
W27. On exactly the middle day of the year (182 days beforehand and 182 still to go) Guzmán resigns very much in ad hominem (or rather ad feminam since the timing is very much aimed at stealing thunder from a vice-presidential speech) style and is replaced by a former Buenos Aires provincial economy minister Silvina Batakis (Interior Ministry Provinces secretary at the time of her appointment) – from Gooseman to Batgirl – after various alternative names come and go. This move is intended to be accompanied by shifting Congress Speaker Sergio Massa to Cabinet chief to give the lightweight Batakis more political muscle but this fails to happen (presumably because of a vice-presidential veto). Guzmán seeks to package his exit as political frustration with the ruling coalition’s ultra-Kirchnerite wing but he is also finding the renewal of peso debt increasingly uphill after having put IMF debt to bed – nor are even his debt hardball, haircuts and rollover with the IMF an unmitigated success since they give potential creditors the impression of a country unwilling rather than unable to pay. At this stage Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s main hobbyhorse is some form of universal basic income, thus potentially turning a sea of fiscal red ink into an ocean. Something which fails to bother the veep who sees fiscal deficits almost everywhere in the post-pandemic world but she forgets that other governments can pass much of this deficit to the future by borrowing abroad – something denied Argentina with a country risk closer to 3,000 points than 2,000. Meanwhile President Fernández shrugs off the lack of dollars as a problem of growth. Here the diagnosis of the new minister blames tourist spending, affirming: “The right to travel collides with the right to a job,” to which the Central Bank responds by prohibiting duty-free dollar purchases in instalments. Pickets pick up the vice-presidential enthusiasm for a universal basic income with massive protests on their favourite day of Thursday, calling for the Potenciar Trabajo job assistance scheme to cover everybody and warning Batakis against any “continuation” of Guzmán’s policies. On the same day as Guzmán’s resignation, Miguel Etchecolatz, Buenos Aires provincial police deputy chief during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and a leading candidate to be the “dirtiest warrior,” dies at the age of 93 while serving several life sentences and three days later iconic radio announcer Jorge ‘Cacho’ Fontana (real name Norberto Palese) dies at 90, one day after his ex-wife. Over in Britain clownfall as Boris Johnson’s time is up (his premiership, not his life).
W28. One week after taking office, Batakis makes her first policy announcements – a freeze on state employment as part of a general reduction of public spending, the segmentation of public service billing, pegging interest rates ahead of inflation to encourage saving, the revaluation of property assessment for tax purposes and the creation of a single account for state companies under the umbrella of the Economy Ministry (a total nominal surplus of 664 billion pesos which will help her confront the problem of peso debt renewal which had demoralised Guzmán, further securing a Central Bank guarantee that they would buy the renewed bonds at face value should they fall below par, even if this would only swell the quasi-fiscal deficit). Economic analysts start asking whether this semi-orthodox Plan B (for Batakis) will stand its ground against Plan C (for Cristina) since offering banks higher interest rates for their bond placements might look too much like privileging financial speculation in Kirchnerite eyes. Batakis also continues her crusade against tourism abroad, upping the tax on tourist dollar purchases from 35 to 45 percent. She faces a further challenge from the June inflation figure of 5.3 percent, slightly up on May for 36.2 percent in the first half of the year and an annual inflation of 64 percent, keeping Argentina on track for its worst inflation in three years. A farm strike is held in midweek to protest not only agricultural grievances but also Supreme Court expansion, runaway public spending and even the “unprecedented political vacuum” of the Frente de Todos government. This is followed the next day by the now almost weekly mass picket protest with one of their leaders Juan Grabois expressing “tremendous disappointment” with the government, frustrated by its lack of interest in a universal basic income – Guzmán, he opines, showed the mistake of recruiting “blond, tall and blue-eyed men from the establishment.” A peeved Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta challenges the pickets to form their own party and compete in elections rather than cause weekly downtown traffic havoc.
W29. The Batakis economic team decides that sticks for outgoing tourism are not enough – carrots for incoming tourists are needed, offering to exchange up to US$5,000 per visitor at the MEP or “dólar Bolsa” rate (within a few pesos of the “blue” greenback). But the subsequent response is meagre. A relatively quiet winter holiday week even if Grabois starts talking about “blood on the streets” – all-time records for tourism are broken as people cannot spend money fast enough. A surly Mercosur summit is held in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, marred by the absence of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Uruguay’s unilateral enthusiasm for negotiating bilateral free trade agreements with China – while there, President Fernández suffers a further blow when his US counterpart Joe Biden’s testing positive for Covid-19 dooms his promised White House meeting. The 28th anniversary of the terrorist car-bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre is given a new context by the suspicious Venezuelan aircraft with its partly Iranian crew grounded at Ezeiza. Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner rants against the judicial system yet again. The balance of trade is in the red for the first time in 18 months, even if a relatively mild winter is trimming the energy import bill. The Rural Society’s annual farm exhibition at the Palermo showgrounds opens after a three-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic.
W30. Batakis is dumped just when she is presenting herself in Washington as Argentina’s economic voice assuring government commitment to austerity policies (without the planned presidential accompaniment due to Biden’s coronavirus isolation) – similar to former Foreign Minister Felipe Solá, ditched last year while flying to Mexico. She is replaced by Congress Speaker Sergio Massa (relatively young at 50), who becomes not just a minister but a super-minister amid high hopes stemming from his strong ties with the private sector and the United States – the Productive Development and Agriculture, Livestock & Fisheries Ministries are merged into his portfolio with Kulfas replacement Scioli making a rapid return to the Brasilia Embassy while Julián Domínguez is out of a job (during the Palermo farm show, which is also menaced by picket protests) – from Batgirl to Superman? The Cabinet shuffle includes the resignation of Gustavo Beliz as Strategic Affairs secretary, replaced by AFIP tax bureau chief Mercedes Marcó del Pont with her vacancy filled by Carlos Castagneto (close to La Cámpora). Deputy Cecilia Moreau from Massa’s Renewal Front wing of the Frente de Todos coalition becomes the new Congress Speaker. Finally, Batakis now heads up Banco Nación. The original rumours of a shuffle also had Massa as top gun but in the post of Cabinet chief with Juan Manzur returning to Tucumán politics – the latter stays put. The Cabinet changes do nothing to blunt the picket protests on the same day. The Central Bank has its first stab at a “soy dollar,” offering to pay farmers on the same terms as required of savers purchasing up to US$200 (the official exchange rate plus a 65 percent tax increment) but the sector responds that this only takes 15 percent off the fourfold difference between parallel exchange rates and the official rate after deducting export duties. The 70th anniversary of the death of Eva Perón receives universal but fragmented recognition from Peronism – President Fernández inaugurates a mass tourism hotel in Chapadmalal to mark the occasion while his vice-president limits herself to a five-word tweet with the rival CGT and CTA labour umbrellas commemorating the anniversary in separate events. Blizzards in the Andes. The Rural Society’s Palermo farm show with some 1.3 million visitors ends with the month.
W31. Massa (formally economy minister as from A3) hits the ground running as both president and vice-president take a back seat, the latter obliged to hear eight hours of charges of “extraordinary corruption” in the award of Santa Cruz highway contracts (almost exclusively to crony capitalist Lázaro Báez) as federal prosecutor Diego Luciani reads out his “J’accuse” on the first day of the month – her veto powers are thus dormant for now. The economic czar makes a great start with parallel exchange rates dropping from the brink of 350 pesos to under 300 while country risk falls from almost 3,000 points to under 2,400 as the advent of a minister with political muscle fills some of the black hole left by Guzmán’s exit (is the economy too important to be left to the economists?) – Massa exudes optimism, feeling that opportunity knocks for him with any improvement from the July crisis, although the drainage of Central Bank reserves despite record exports continues. The new super-minister starts naming his team with Secretaries Matías Tombolini (Commerce) and Juan José Bahillo (Agriculture) among the main names but he is unable either to impose Gabriel Rubinstein as his deputy minister nor purge the Energy Department during his first week. Massa lays down the broad lines of his policies such as meeting the targets of the IMF agreement and upholding the state employment freeze previously ordered by Batakis while going one better with the segmentation of public service billing subsidies, not only withdrawing them from high-income brackets but also in all sectors beyond a certain level of consumption – he further pledges more encouragement for exports to stack up scarce dollars. Yet the “petty opportunist” also faces suspicions that his objectives could be as much political (i.e. presidential) as economic, being widely assumed to model himself on Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who advanced from economy minister to two-term president via success against inflation). The month also starts with public transport being hiked 40 percent with substantial price increases for other items such as prepaid health schemes and apartment expenses.
W32. The fears from a chaotic month with three ministers are confirmed as July inflation is measured at 7.4 percent, the worst in two decades, with analysts starting to warn of a three-digit annual figure. Despite this grim heritage, Massa has a generally good week, notching up a success on the domestic debt front with his dual bond (index-linked or dollar-linked) issue rolling over 85 percent of the 2.42 trillion pesos owed in local currency for a year (although also running the risk of a credit squeeze dangerously close to the elections) while finally taking control of the Energy Department, replacing Secretary Darío Martínez with Flavia Royón (close to Salta Governor Gustavo Sáenz, Massa’s 2015 running-mate). He also pressures companies to advance 15-25 percent of next year’s taxation – a gamble to narrow the fiscal deficit and credibility gap immediately while having less money to grease an election year. Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tries to nix the Santa Cruz highway trial by challenging both Luciani and one of the judges on the grounds that they played weekend football at Macri-owned premises. Tensions mount in Patagonia with the Environment Ministry’s controversial recognition of Mount Lanín as a “sacred” Mapuche site – reversed within 24 hours following the heated protests of Neuquén Governor Omar Gutiérrez (a politician gung-ho on Vaca Muerta shale) and opposition politicians. Picket marches, both during the weekend (Saint Cajetan’s Day) and the week.
W33. Massa starts knocking on the door of the real world by biting the bullet on utility subsidies, announcing their removal for up to 400,000 of the country’s upper-class households and their reduction for a further four million homes, aiming to thus save over US$3 billion next year. City Hall takes control of the crane service towing away illegally parked cars following media exposure of the absurd monthly licence fee of 55,000 pesos paid by private companies for a business worth an annual half billion pesos – repeated efforts since 2013 to update the fee to inflation have foundered on court injunctions (could that be a model for blocking Massa’s utility bill hikes?) but only now does the issue come to light. The CGT stage their first march against the Frente de Todos administration to protest inflation and to defend collective bargaining against lump-sum bonuses mainly benefitting the lowest-paid. Cafiero is mercilessly ribbed by the opposition for greeting the new Swiss Ambassador Hans-Ruedi Bortis with a Danish flag. Smoke gets in your nose as well as eyes as pungent fumes from the traditional farming practice of burning Paraná Delta scrubland to fertilise the soil reach this city – wetland clearances by real estate developers are also suspected.
W34. For the last 10 days of this month one small dot in this city’s map – Juncal y Uruguay, the address of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Recoleta flat – is the exclusive focus of the news after Luciani wraps up his presentation of the charges by requesting a 12-year prison sentence for the veep (also for Báez) and a lifelong ban from office, prompting a fiery 90-minute rebuttal from the super-defendant which brings her supporters thronging to that neighbourhood to express their support but also some detractors, which leads to continual tension and some jostling. The vice-president (with the prefix of that word now given a new meaning) shuns a presidential pardon in favour of a trial which can only establish her innocence – if not from acquittal by the judges, then by history which has already absolved her and by a citizenry which has elected her (although opinion polls now differ hugely from 2019 with two-thirds thinking she should go to jail). Nevertheless, she has a point when she says that she has no monopoly on the charges against her with crony capitalism the name of the game in public works nationwide. Public and media opinion is highly polarised – precious few analysts have the equilibrium of our columnist Agustino Fontevecchia, who defines CFK as both politically persecuted by a flexible judicial system and a crook. Many people confuse the case for the prosecution with a conviction. President Fernández expresses the hope that Luciani does not commit suicide like Alberto Nisman. Judicial priorities remain the original sin of the Frente de Todos administration – Massa can take advantage of the distraction to land Rubinstein finally as his deputy minister and continue his baby steps towards austerity. The new economic czar is a win-win situation for the veep because if he succeeds, he saves the day and if he fails, a dangerous rival self-destructs.
W35. The month starts with an extremely dramatic event which does strangely little to change the course of the year – in its first evening (half an hour after this newspaper had gone to press, leading to a hasty supplement the next day) one Fernando André Sabag Montiel, of mixed nationality, otherwise mixed-up and a misfit who misfires, points a pistol within inches of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returning to her Recoleta flat amid the vigil of a waiting crowd but without any bullet leaving the gun. The lumpenproletariat, long as good a way of describing the Peronist voter base as any single word, is now ineptly trying to bump off its erstwhile idol, at least in the form of the so-called “candy floss gang.” President Alberto Fernández immediately declares the following day a public holiday the same night, calling the assassination attempt “the most serious event” since the return of democracy in 1983 (ignoring the major loss of life in the terrorist attacks of 1992 and 1994 or the La Tablada bloodbath of 1989, though political violence has indeed been extremely rare in the last four decades). The attack is condemned almost across the political spectrum (only Milei stays quiet) as well as by various world leaders and huge crowds flood the Plaza de Mayo the following day “to defend democracy” but a united stand quickly crumbles – from the start President Fernández blames the hate speech of political and media discourse for the attack while in the following days various opinion polls show a majority (as high as 62 percent in one survey) to believe the whole incident to have been fabricated to gain sympathy, suspicious of Fernández de Kirchner’s claim to martyrdom without actually being a martyr. The presidential spin is a deplorable display of political opportunism dividing rather than uniting a stunned nation but while it is something of a stretch to trace this deranged attack to the “discourses of hatred,” this might have had a positive effect if it had led to the opposition replacing its constant criticism with some constructive alternatives but no. The first news items of the month during the month is the launch of yet another exchange rate, the dólar tecno, which is quickly overshadowed that evening.
W36. The death of Elizabeth II in the 96th year of her life and the 70th of her reign is obviously the biggest news worldwide but the aftermath of the unsuccessful assassination attempt against the local queen dominates the media here. The police dragnet adds more names to Sabag Montiel, notably his girl-friend Brenda Uliarte. Such initiatives as pushing legislation against hate speech (which is arguably a lesser evil as providing an outlet substituting actual violence) and Senate Majority Leader José Mayans proposing that all trials against the vice-president be suspended do more to antagonise than unite public opinion. The government prefers scoring points over the opposition, media and judiciary to seeking the democratic unity displayed against the Easter military rising of 1987, as also reflected by the film Argentina, 1985 premiered at the end of that month – Fernández thus loses the chance to become the president he both wanted and was expected to be. There is no follow-up to the huge Plaza de Mayo crowds the day after the attack with fresh rallies and even a general strike called to express solidarity but coming to nothing. Massa spends the entire week in Washington with some success, collecting a couple of billion in loans from international financial institutions but nets far more greenbacks at home with the “soy dollar” launched at the start of the week. This is the big story of the week although entirely overshadowed by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – an immediate success in swelling Central Bank reserves although also its quasi-fiscal deficit via buying soy export dollars at 200 pesos apiece and selling them for 140-150 pesos while also bringing forward rather than increasing grain export earnings. Iconic radio journalist Magadalena Ruiz Guiñazú (a member of the CONADEP truth commission back in 1984) dies at the age of 91.
W37. More arrests made in the investigation of the attack on the vice-president (whose origin is now traced to the “candy floss gang” rather than the assailant with Uliarte considered the main instigator) and more magnification of the magnicide with Cristina “I’m alive because of God and the Virgin Mary” Fernández de Kirchner leading the way while some see the conspiracy of the mainstream opposition, the judicial system and the media also including the United States. Yet random magnicides can and do happen, as shown by the assassination of Shinzo Abe, who had been Japan’s longest-serving premier, by a loonie Moonie only eight weeks before the Recoleta attack. Nor are potential anti-system assailants thin on the ground among an alienated, resentful youth denied social mobility – the ni ni (those who neither study nor work) alone number over 1.5 million. Massa’s first month in the Economy Ministry reduces August inflation only fractionally from July to seven percent but he has a good start to the week in Washington with strong IMF endorsement of his policies while the “soy dollar” continues to bring in billions. The first dozen of the 19-strong crew of the Venezuelan freight plane grounded at Ezeiza Airport since early June are finally released but only one of the five Iranians. President Fernández marks 1,000 days in office with a decree to quash the dollarized contracts leasing this city’s Northern and Western highway access routes. Editorial Perfil co-founder Alberto Fontevecchia passes away at the age of 93.
W38. The United Nations annual general assembly brings President Fernández to New York (his maiden appearance at that forum due to the coronavirus pandemic). The attack on his veep is too fresh a memory to give pride of place to international issues (he fulminates against “fascist violence disguised as republicanism” and hate speech placing “humanity at risk”) but he also calls for an “end to hostilities” in Ukraine (impossible to ignore as this year’s elephant in the room) while offering Argentina as an ample source of food and energy, as well as asserting Malvinas sovereignty claims against “anachronistic colonialism” and deploring the “blockades” against Venezuela and Cuba. President Fernández then heads to Houston to meet 30 top Texan oil companies with a view to wooing investments for Vaca Muerta shale, offering them lower export duties and the right to repatriate dollars, before returning home. The “soy dollar” continues to boost exports (with sales of some US$3.5 billion by mid-month with US$2.3 billion accruing to reserves), despite tension from an abrupt Central Bank resolution banning programme beneficiaries from any further participation on exchange markets – some suspect deliberate sabotage of a strategy obliging half a trillion pesos to be printed to bridge the difference between buying dollars dear and selling them cheap with the quasi-fiscal deficit now sevenfold the levels left by the Macri administration. In the investigation of the assassination attempt both Sabag Montiel and Uliarte are formally indicted and remanded in custody. To the government’s dismay the attack is not proving a game-changer, as hoped – an opinion poll shows four times more people subsequently increasing their dislike of its target than increasing their sympathy. Neither does a raft of positive macro-economic indicators (including growth of almost seven percent in the second quarter but obviously not inflation) serve to reverse slumping popularity. The Health Ministry marks Spring Day with a resolution lifting the obligation to use face-masks after a sustained fall in coronavirus cases with 82.5 percent of the population vaccinated. At least three workers perish when an explosion ignites a crude oil storage tank at a Neuquén refinery.
W39. Secondary school students square off against City Hall, occupying most of this city’s public schools to protest the quality of their buildings, work experience and snacks (curiously enough, educational standards which one might imagine to be the core of any school protest are never the issue when solid state schooling is central to developing countries becoming developed, especially in Asia). Buenos Aires City Education Minister Soledad Acuña threatens to hold parents responsible for the estimated daily cost of six million pesos, perhaps finding them the path of least resistance when compared to the teacher unions and perhaps also needing to be hawkish in order to balance City Hall’s generally dovish image. It might also be asked if public schooling really is uniquely flawed in this city and perfect elsewhere. Tyre production remains deadlocked as a strike persists through 30 rounds of negotiation with its Trotskyist-led trade union insisting on double pay over weekends and their 66 percent wage increase obtained earlier in the year being topped up by more than the 38 percent offered by companies. Massa presents his first budget including overall spending of almost 29 trillion pesos and forecasting two percent growth, 60 percent inflation and a fiscal deficit of 1.9 percent of GDP for 2023 with an official exchange rate of 218.90 pesos by the end of that year. Mapuche activists return to the warpath, burning a Border Guard hut in the Villa Mascardi area and driving away Federal Police officers. The indictment of CFK for the misuse of presidential aircraft to transport items ranging from newspapers to furniture for the family’s Patagonian hotel chain is confirmed but her former Army chief-of-staff César Milani is more fortunate, being acquitted of embezzlement.
W40. Federal security forces recapture the Villa Mascardi zone from the Lafken Winkul Mapu, finding only a dozen women and children there when they do so – their treatment prompts the resignation of Women, Gender and Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta (with a long track record of defending the indigenous, including Jujuy activist Milagro Sala) at the end of the week in protest against human rights violations including the detention of the women (one of them eight months pregnant) over 1,500 kilometres away from their homeland. The wave of City school occupations fades out in midweek. The new segmentation scheme for trimming public service bill subsidies is delayed a month. The dólar tecno to boost hi tech, permitting the sector to exchange freely 30 percent of any increased export earnings with a further 20 percent if there is investment, kicks in. Milei makes his first major inland foray, teaming up with far-right local politician Ricardo Bussi (son of a former military governor) in Tucumán with Madrid his following stop. The Moyano teamster clan loses control of the Avellaneda football club Independiente, finishing third in club elections. Veteran Telenoche newscaster César Mascetti dies at the age of 80. Brazil’s elections in the first weekend of the month surprise almost everybody as Lula fails to clinch the expected first-round victory, finishing just five percent ahead of Bolsonaro in highly polarised voting and forced into a runoff with poor parliamentary and gubernatorial results. A football match between Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata and Boca Juniors is chaotically suspended with tear gas and the death of a fan.
W41. Gómez Alcorta’s abrupt resignation triggers a broader Cabinet shuffle clearly aimed at improving the gender balance of a ministerial team reduced to just one female face (Health Minister Vizzotti) in the 10 weeks since Batakis left. Two ministers in ultra-sensitive portfolios with one foot already out of the door – Social Development Minister Juan Zabaleta anxious to regain control of his Hurlingham turf and an ailing and harassed Labour Minister Claudio Moroni – now take the other foot out and are respectively replaced by Victoria Tolosa Paz and Raquel “Kelly” Olmos with Ayelén Mazzina replacing Gómez Alcorta completing the trio of “militant women” who are all personal presidential choices. Tolosa Paz was always the clear frontrunner to replace Zabaleta with nobody keen on braving the pickets but the other two are complete surprises. Three strong candidates for the Labour portfolio (Moroni’s second-in-command, Cristina Fernández Kirchner’s favourite trade unionist Sergio Palazzo from the bank clerks and Carlos Tomada with 12 years’ prior experience in the job) are displaced by the ageing Olmos (70) with zero experience in labour law and a public service record mostly dating back to the last century, the 1989-1999 Carlos Menem presidency. The youthful San Luis feminist Mazzina is at least the right gender but completely unknown. Only five ministers of the original 20-strong Cabinet of 2019 now remain. On the last day of the week a September inflation of 6.2 percent is announced, well below expectations and continuing a downward path but government will to end inflation seems lacking since it is the easiest answer to the fiscal deficit causing it by boosting nominal revenues and eroding liabilities while also seen as the price of growth (with the excess printing of money resulting in approximately one percent of genuine growth for every 20 percent more of annual inflation although most people losing the wage-price race take more notice of the latter) – nor do the monetarist solutions urged by the orthodox apply here because inflation is not only the volume of the money supply but the velocity of circulation. New currency controls arise. The soy and tech dollars are now joined by their Qatar and Coldplay cousins, special exchange rates for respectively tourism (a new surcharge of 25 percent on top of the previous surcharges of 30 and 45 percent on all credit spending abroad over US$300 with an initial 314 pesos per greenback) and concerts by foreign performers here (which just adds a 30 percent tax). Massa is back in Washington attending the Spring Assembly of the IMF and World Bank. City Mayor Rodríguez Larreta comes clean about the new love in his life, City Hall social official Milagros Maylin (age 36). Argentina joins the general UN rejection of Russia’s “illegal annexation” of four Ukrainian territories.
W42. Peronist Loyalty Day is marked in separate events by four strands of the movement (the presidential, mainstream organised labour, the more militant trade unions and the pickets) with announcement of a bonus of 45,000 pesos to be paid to the destitute between November and December to meet soaring food prices the main counterbalance offered by a centre-left administration to Massa’s fiscal tightening while Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof adds an extra 20 percent pay increase for the last quarter of the year for an overall 90 percent. Massa raises the income tax floor to 330,000 pesos to the benefit of almost 400,000 Argentines while replacing the former SIMI import vetting system with SIRA which supposedly makes dollar access for importers tighter but also more predictable with fixed dates (although if economic data include the auto industry requiring US$6.6 billion of imports for US$5.3 billion of exports, the whole model of industrial protection and import substitution might be questioned). In court news, the last five crew members of the Venezuelan freight plane held in Ezeiza Airport hangars for over four months are finally allowed to leave the country while Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is accepted as a plaintiff in the attempt on her life where there are more arrests. World mayors convene for the C40 climate summit in this city. River Plate fans say farewell to their coach Marcelo Gallardo whose eight years have brought 14 titles. Abroad Liz Truss quits as British prime minister after only six weeks in office.
W43. The 2023 Budget clears the Chamber of Deputies with a comfortable 180-22 majority (padded out by the Radicals). Dozens of amendments often favouring special interests but the two most controversial articles (blanket taxation of the judiciary and allowing export duties to be upped) are axed with the former in particular a red herring for the opposition even if it was Macri who first started taxing judges in 2016 – the budget itself, including undershooting 2023 inflation at 60 percent and thus presumably allowing the government vast extra revenues for an election year, is hardly touched in the endless debate. Not much other news here – Macri presents his second book Para Qué, the teamsters finally settle for a 107 percent pay hike plus a 100,000-peso bonus, Coldplay perform their first gig to over 60,000 screaming fans at River stadium with the noise heard for miles around, the murder of wealthy businessman Andrés Blaquier by motorcycle thieves is one of the year’s highest-profile crimes and Boca Juniors clinch the First Division championship. Abroad Rishi Sunak (42) becomes Britain’s fifth Conservative prime minister in six years while Lula squeaks through in Brazil’s run-off with just over 60 million votes as against almost 58 million for the unexpected comeback kid Bolsonaro (an even slimmer percentage margin than Macri’s in 2015) – President Fernández is so delighted that he jets to Sao Paulo the next day (Halloween) to congratulate a Lula wearing a “CFK 2023” cap, also seeking a short cut into BRICS.
W44. The Economy Ministry seeks to coax out of incoming foreign tourists a billion or so dollars for faltering Central Bank reserves by offering them the MEP (Mercado Electrónico de Pagos) exchange rate, around 90 percent superior to the official exchange rate previously applied. Suspects continue to go in and out of jail in connection with the assassination attempt against Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
W45. The Supreme Court rules that the overnight division of the Frente de Todos Senate caucus last April in order to have an extra member on the Council of Magistrates was sharp practice, quashing the appointment of Senator Martín Doñate (Unidad Ciudadana Río-Negro) in favour of Luis Juez (Pro-Córdoba). The Senate immediately declares the ruling a conflict of powers between the judicial and legislative branches of government. But quite apart from Council of Magistrates deadlock not favouring a vice-president intent on judicial reform, defiance of the Supreme Court is dangerous even if she is right about the self-definition of a parliamentary caucus being nobody else’s business because defying the rule of law when right also entitles a government to do so when wrong if claiming to be right, thus opening the way to any type of abuse. President Fernández orders Congress to extend the rest of the year with extraordinary sessions before heading out to the G20 summit on Indonesian island of Bali via France while the COP27 climate change conference in Egypt has no significant Argentine presence. Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner demands the removal of federal judge María Eugenia Capuchetti from the investigation of the attempt on her life on the grounds that she was ignoring testimony (presented three weeks after the attack) attributing foreknowledge of the crime to PRO deputy Gerardo Milman (Patricia Bullrich’s campaign manager until then). Massa formally launches the Precios Justos programme, four months of price controls over some 1,400 products as from December – nevertheless, cost-push inflation has its own momentum which could end up forcing businesses to buy dear and sell cheap. The pickets are out in force to demand extension of the 45,000-peso bonus to all below the poverty line. Presidential spokesperson Gabriela Cerruti controversially tells a visiting Spanish minister that the Plaza de Mayo stones in tribute to Covid-19 victims had been “placed by the right.”
W46. An attack of gastritis and low blood pressure reduce the presidential presence at the G20 summit in Bali to the barest minimum with his agenda slashed to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a meeting dedicated to coaxing a US$5-billion currency swap pledge to bolster Central Bank reserves, and the IMF’s Kristalina Georgieva to obtain a waiver on interest rate surcharges (no joy ultimately). The October inflation rate of 6.3 percent (the worst in the region, even topping Venezuela) interrupts a three-month downward trend with economic consultants continuing to forecast three digits for this year. Despite Massa’s intentions of imposing a restrictive monetary policy, the sheer volume of the bonds needed to keep the Treasury afloat is forcing the Central Bank to print money – almost a quarter trillion pesos for the latest batch of Leliqs alone. Amid continued deadlock over its Council of Magistrates representation triggering an opposition walkout, the Senate passes the 2023 Budget by a 37-0 vote almost without debate, Argentina’s first budget in two years. City health workers hold an impressively massive torchlight march to demand improvements in pay and infrastructure, the culmination of nine weeks of protest including 19 days of strikes – the next day City Hall ups its basic pay offer to a monthly 200,000 pesos.
W47. The World Cup in Qatar (the tournament’s most controversial venue ever since the choice of this tiny sheikdom with its zero football traditions and adverse climate disrupting the global sporting calendar is widely assumed to have been oiled with petrodollars although Macri hails the country as a model) gets off to the worst possible start with a shock 2-1 defeat against Saudi Arabia (local fans take comfort in 2010 champs Spain also losing their first match, against Switzerland). Hebe de Bonafini, the iconic but controversial co-founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, dies just a fortnight short of turning 94 – President Fernández orders three days of national mourning. The “soy dollar” is revived since its anticipated haul of US$3 billion is considered crucial for reaching the IMF target for Central Bank reserve levels at the end of the year – exporters are given 230 pesos per dollar as against 200 pesos in September. Argentina has its first death from mpox (known as monkeypox to the politically incorrect) and the minimum wage is to be hiked 20 percent to reach 69,500 pesos by March but overall the World Cup is crowding out other news.
W48. In Qatar Argentina is back in business and into the second round with consecutive 2-0 wins over Mexico and Poland. Vice-President Cristina Kirchner has her “last words” ahead of the following week’s verdict in the Santa Cruz highway contract corruption trial – listing “20 lies” in the case for the prosecution, she also seeks to link it to the attempt on her life by accusing the “firing-squad” prosecutors of “inventing things, lying and twisting the facts until finally on September 1 a man tried to kill me.” She further pleads Congress approval of all the highway contracts on trial, arguing that the concentration of public works is a nationwide phenomenon. Meanwhile Federal Appeals Court judge Leopoldo Bruglia upholds Capuchetti as the judge investigating the attempted magnicide. Transport Minister Alexis Guerrera resigns on health grounds and is replaced by his deputy minister Diego Giuliano.
W49. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is sentenced to six years in prison for corruption (half the sentence requested by the prosecution since convicted for fraud but not heading an illicit association with scant chances of going to jail due to both the immunity of her current post and numerous avenues of appeal while only two months away from the 70th birthday entitling her to house arrest) and banned from political office for life – her immediate reaction is to rule herself out of any candidacy next year with the jury still out on whether she means it or not. Báez is also sentenced to six years as the chief beneficiary of the fraudulent Santa Cruz highway contracts, seven co-defendants receive prison terms ranging from 39 months to six years and four are acquitted, including former Federal Planning Minister Julio De Vido. These acquittals and, even more, the conviction of a supremely powerful politician while still in power bespeak a triumph for the rule of law, institutional health and the basic integrity of a seriously flawed judicial system. Nevertheless, that triumph is not complete because a shady meeting between judges, City Hall officials and CIarín executives in the Patagonian Lago Escondido retreat of British billionaire Joe Lewis dating back to mid-October is dug up by President Fernández and made the subject of an impromptu nationwide broadcast on the eve of the verdict in the belief that he has found a smoking gun for lawfare – nevertheless knowledge of this meeting apparently emerging from the illegal espionage of which he accuses Macri makes this broadcast a potential boomerang. The opposition celebrates the verdict while trying to ignore the imprudent Lago Escondido meeting but Patricia Bullrich wants all the money returned. A tense Mercosur summit is held in Montevideo on the day of the verdict, ending in neither peace nor war – President Fernández accuses Uruguayan host colleague Luis Lacalle Pou of breaking Mercosur rules by unilaterally seeking entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), urging instead a common bloc Central Bank to pool reserves (of which Brazil has over US$350 billion). IMF approval of its third quarterly review (with Massa’s team clearly making progress with austerity while never admitting it) clears the release of US$6 billion for later in the month, offering some relief on the latter front. Massa signs an agreement with US Ambassador Stanley to exchange tax information between the two countries but the pact stands to come into effect in 2024 with limited scope even then. Rodríguez Larreta heads for Washington. Prolonged drought prompts Governor Kicillof to declare a state of emergency in 33 of Buenos Aires Province’s 135 districts. A fourfold increase in cases of coronavirus contagion but deaths remain in single digits. The purchase of a Tango 01 presidential aircraft is finally authorised with an allocation of US$22.23 million. Abroad left-wing populist Peruvian President Pedro Castillo is removed from office by the Congress he previously tried to close down, thus pressing a self-destruct button. Last but very far from least, Argentina reaches the World Cup semi-finals by the weekend, first moving past Australia 2-1 in the second round and then winning a penalty shootout against the Netherlands who counter a comfortable Albiceleste lead of 2-0 with a 100th minute equaliser.
W50. The World Cup semi-finals prove to be the easiest match of the tournament with a 3-0 win over Croatia and Argentina is into the finals against defending champions France. November inflation, which the government had been hoping would be below six percent, is registered at 4.9 percent – nevertheless, few experts express suspicion of INDEC statistics bureau because slumping meat prices (due to the increased slaughter of cattle with drought denying them pasture) contribute mightily to food and beverages only rising 3.5 percent, as do price controls (always initially successful). The government decrees an extra Christmas bonus of 24,000 pesos to be paid to all workers earning less than a monthly 180,000 pesos to be paid by their employers while themselves advancing 13,500 pesos to all beneficiaries of the Potenciar Trabajo job assistance scheme (dismissed by the pickets as pitifully inadequate). After some hesitation Argentina joins Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia (with Venezuela strangely reticent) in backing Peru’s deposed Castillo. On another international front Argentina is one of 29 countries voting to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
W51. Argentina wins its third World Cup in a penalty shootout (4-2) after two hours of thrilling football against France ends in a 3-3 draw, returning home on a Tuesday declared a public holiday by President Fernández. It was a tumultuous welcome, with up to five million people making any downtown celebration impossible (Qatar catharsis, one might say) – this memory should be still too fresh for any further detail to be needed. The Supreme Court starts their own ball rolling when they rule an injunction in favour of Buenos Aires City against the national government, ordering the latter to pay as a provisional compromise the former 2.95 percent of federal revenue-sharing funds, an allocation reduced from 3.5 to 1.4 percent in 2020 to transfer the difference to a Buenos Aires Province then facing a police mutiny. President Fernández openly defies the Supreme Court ruling and summons the provincial governors to give a federalist varnish to his stance that compliance with the ruling is impossible on the grounds that the budget (which is tweaked every other day) has already been defined – 14 of the 23 governors (of whom only three respond to the opposition, all Radical) show up with the federalism questionable, given that Buenos Aires Province has been virtually the sole beneficiary of the transfer. Plenty of noise around a ruling which is not final with the January court holiday just around the corner – it is not an institutional coup, as the opposition claims (the government is working within the legal system in its own devious way with in extremis appeals and moves to take the case elsewhere) but it is a default whose defiance of the top court and the rule of law sets a most alarming precedent for anybody doing or not doing anything they like.
W52. Responding to business jitters about the negative impact for investment from this blow to legal security (apparently taken on board by his Economy Ministry), President Fernández backs down and proposes paying in bonds falling due in nine years (as paid to Santa Fe in an earlier settlement) – in the course of the week the government even contemplates direct cash payment via applying at national level the same taxes introduced by City Mayor Rodríguez Larreta to plug the gap. With City Hall holding out for its original 3.5 percent of federal revenue-sharing, this issue is sure to drag out well beyond the January court holiday. Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner breaks surface in Avellaneda with a typically vehement speech rephrasing her earlier withdrawal from any candidacy into a spurious claim that she has been banned. The “blue” parallel dollar shoots up from a mid-December 320 pesos to new nominal records well over 350 but still little over 70 percent for the year, well behind inflation – Christmas bonuses (swollen by the extra 24,000-peso bond) and the money printed to buy soy dollars provide the pesos to feed demand while foreign tourists being given more reasonable terms on legal markets reduces the supply and the elevated exchange rate of the “dólar Qatar” raises the bar, quite apart from the political fireworks. The last domestic bond renewal of the year is successful, luring almost 700 billion pesos. Grabois erupts into Lago Escondido, camping on the lakeside in front of the mansion with 80 followers, but apparently chose the wrong time of year to stay long. What better way to wind up 2022 than to report that the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo restored their 132nd grandchild illegally adopted during the 1976-83 dictatorship to rightful identity last Wednesday (known here as Día de los Inocentes) before mourning Pelé while celebrating the World Cup and on that note wishing a Happy New Year to all readers?