Tuesday, February 27, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-11-2020 00:01

The week: All eyes on America, with Argentina no exception

The world is watching aghast at the wild way in which the US presidential elections are unfolding. Argentina, part of a pandemic-stricken world waiting to see what will happen, is no different.

The world is watching agape and aghast at the wild way in which the US presidential elections are unfolding. Argentina is naturally part of that pandemic-stricken world waiting to see what will happen. 

The general impression here is that Argentina's centre-left Peronist government would feel more comfortable if Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, ends up defeating US President Donald Trump. Regions, after all, change. Bolivia recently voted a leftist government back into power after a year of upheaval following the ousting of Evo Morales as president. In another progressive shift, Chile meanwhile has massively voted in a referendum to scrap its dictatorship-era constitution.

Argentina recently had a tussle with the Trump administration over the appointment of the new head of the Inter-American Development Bank. The Republican leader eventually got his way over Argentina’s position; today, the bank is headed by Mauricio Claver-Carone, who is fiercely critical of Cuba and Venezuela. Back up north, Trump won the elections in Florida, but that might not suffice. 

There are plenty of well-fed pundits out there to help you figure out how the electoral mess in the United States will play out. There is one key issue: as mayhem rages in the United States, Argentina finds itself locked in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reschedule the payment of a US$44-billion credit-line granted during the centre-right presidency of Mauricio Macri, which ended last year. 

Again the impression here is that Argentina would receive no special support for an IMF deal from Trump if he is re-elected. The IMF is subtly requesting a road map from Economy Minister Martin Guzmán, the young US-trained economist who might also be inclined to think that he has good contacts in Biden's inner circle and knows how the United States works. “Trump and Biden are not the same thing,” Guzmán said rather obviously on Thursday.

Regions change fast and so do countries. Argentina last week was rattled when Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner issued a written statement that called for a sweeping agreement between politicians, business leaders, and media moguls to tackle the perpetual pulverisation of the peso. Almost immediately Guzmán summoned the leaders of the powerful AEA business lobby to a meeting at the Economy Ministry to discuss the situation (with a Jesuit priest also in attendance). The AEA delegation notably included the top executive of the Clarin media group, which for years has been fiercely criticised by Fernández de Kirchner for its news coverage. 

Guzmán is reportedly vowing to control the nation's fiscal deficit by cutting back on the state assistance dished out during the coronavirus pandemic. Business leaders also backed the idea of moving fast to clinch an agreement with the IMF. The news here really is the meeting itself (including some of the vice-president's historic arch-rivals) rather than its predictable content, which inevitably included calls for devaluation by some of the moguls. The minister said the meeting was all very well, while emphasisng that "we are in charge."

The economy minister is currently battling with relative short term success to control the black-market ‘blue’ dollar after recently clashing with the Central Bank over how to best deal with it. Guzmán had opposed the monetary authority’s September decision to tighten regulations for purchasing dollars through financial markets and has since removed them. The minister’s ultimate goal is to avoid a drastic devaluation of the national currency against the dollar in the official market. Guzmán said on Thursday he aims to build a “bridge of stability” for 90 days and to then submit to Congress long-term policies for approval.

Where is President Alberto Fernández in all of this? Well, it was the president who said recently that Guzmán has the last word on economic policies. Fernández cut his teeth as a Peronist backroom operative who can't afford to anger anybody for too long. He now seems to be going about presidential matters in the same fashion. 

CFK's statement included thinly-veiled criticism of the Cabinet's performance. But the president did not react, instead choosing to take Fernández de Kirchner up on her unexpected call for consensus with the opposition and big business leaders. The president's approach with the former president and in general, seems to be that of an affable bureaucrat who never ends up on the wrong side of people by half-heartedly doing what others expect of him, before standing back and watching how things play out. There thus might be a method to Fernández's apparent mishandling. 

The president's latest shimmy? Fernández dropped the news, almost in the form of a passing remark, that Argentina plans to purchase Russia’s coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year. The comment prompted a massive wave of speculation. Effectively nothing has happened yet with the Russian vaccine here apart from Health Ministry officials flying to Moscow to check it out, but the president managed to dominate the national conversation by anticipating some potentially good news. (It does though make you wonder what a Joe Biden administration might make of Argentina purchasing a Putin-made vaccine...)

The president has also managed to tread carefully enough during the nomination of a new attorney-general, Daniel Rafecas, managing in the process to divide the opposition. The Rafecas nomination has now unexpectedly gained the support of some prominent centre-right opposition leaders, including former lawmaker Elisa Carrió. But it's not clear if the Civic Coalition leader, who is now openly at odds with Macri after enthusiastically backing his failed re-election bid last year, has enough sway over the opposition senators to influence the vote on Rafecas’ confirmation. 

Still the nomination has to be approved by the Senate, which is headed by Fernández de Kirchner herself. What could now be an obstacle is Rafecas' decision not to accept the nomination if the required two-third majority vote rule in the Senate is changed. Some senators in the ruling coalition have also complained about Rafecas “conditioning” his appointment by saying in public that he does not want the job if a reform is pushed through by the Peronist-controlled Senate to lower the majority needed to appoint the attorney general. Effectively, the issue has the potential to splinter both the ruling party and the opposition.   

All is never quiet on the judicial front – especially because Fernández de Kirchner has a number of corruption cases pending. The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled on a complaint filed by three judges, who were appointed to key courts by a Macri decree during his presidency, against the Senate's decision to remove them from their posts. The nation’s highest tribunal ruled that two of the judges can only continue in their current positions temporarily, until new candidates are selected by the Magistrates Council. The judges claim that their transfer to a federal appeals court by Macri was legal while Fernández de Kirchner argued that they could not keep their jobs without mandatory Senate approval. A decision on a third judge was pending.

Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta


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