The week started with a triple change in the Cabinet although as the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” The same thing, no doubt, but not the same gender this time – indeed that seems to have been the main criterion of the changes. The resignation of Women, Gender & Diversity Minister Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta the previous Thursday over the crackdown on the Mascardi Mapuche occupants not only rudely interrupted the presidential presence at the Escobar flower festival but confronted President Alberto Fernández with the anomaly of Health Minister Carla Vizzotti as the only female member of his “Cabinet of gender equality.”
In all fairness, at least two of the three changes were always going to plug that gap – obviously the Women Ministry (although still a surprise with the new youthful minister Ayelén Mazzina totally unknown to this columnist) but Victoria Tolosa Paz was also the absolute frontrunner for the Social Development Ministry as the presidential pet with no other ruling coalition faction especially keen on being the front line braving the pickets. Yet Raquel ‘Kelly’ Olmos, the totally unexpected choice to head the Labour Ministry, was not even a dark horse at over 70 years of age with zero background in labour law. This portfolio had been contested between Labour Secretary Marcelo Bellotti to maintain continuity with irreversibly eroded outgoing minister Claudio Moroni, Sergio Palazzo (the preference of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as the trade unionist clinching a 94.1 percent pay increase for his bank clerks late last month) and Carlos Tomada (who headed the Ministry throughout 12 years of Kirchnerite presidency between 2003 and 2015) as a sensible compromise stopgap to serve out the remaining 14 months of this administration although apparently preferring the comforts of the Argentine Embassy in Mexico City.
It would thus seem that President Fernández wished to make a completely unambiguous gender statement when at least two of these portfolios – Labour (with a wage-price race chasing an inflation entering three digits) and Social Development (with those below the poverty line close to outnumbering those above and with pickets snarling downtown traffic all too often) – cover ultra-sensitive areas calling for substance as the criterion for choosing officials, not image or faction. Or was this yet another case of women doing the thankless work of filling the vacancies in an administration adrift which no male would touch?
But true to its slug, this column will focus on past experience rather than an uncertain future.
With the exits of Gómez Alcorta and Moroni in the first half of this month, President Fernández has now parted company with fully three-quarters of his original 20-strong Cabinet – if we add the ministers presenting their resignations after last year’s midterm debacle to those actually leaving, only Public Works Minister Gabriel Katopodis and Tourism & Sports Minister Matías Lammens would be left. How does this compare with previous presidencies?
Rolling the clock back to 1983, Radical Raúl Alfonsín respected the constitutional limit of eight ministries prevailing since 1895 (five before then) along with other aspects of the Constitution but none of his octet went the distance through to mid-1989 although Foreign Minister Dante Caputo fell only six weeks short. Alfonsín ran through 31 ministers (with just Susana Ruiz Cerutti filling that six-week gap left by Caputo to break a male monopoly) – the Labour and Public Works Ministries had the highest turnover with five each.
Despite removing the cap in his 1994 constitutional reform, Peronist Carlos Menem never went beyond eight ministries during his decade in power – while creating a Justice Ministry (previously twinned with Education), he annexed Public Works to Economy when he did so. Although he governed Argentina for 125 months during his two terms as against 67 months of Alfonsín, Menem totalled 42 ministers as against the 31 of his predecessor (with only another Susana, Decibe heading education for 38 months, to break the male monopoly). No minister served the full decade or even a complete term. The biggest turnover corresponded to the Health & Welfare Ministry with seven different heads (of whom only the last was medically qualified), followed by Interior, Defence and Labour, all with six.
The Radical-led Alliance administration of Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001), Eduardo Duhalde’s 2002-2003 caretaker administration and the 2003-7 Néstor Kirchner presidency differed hugely but had in common 10 ministries each (apart from being briefly topped up to a full dozen in the last two months of De la Rúa). The troubled Alliance administration squeezed 27 ministers into just two years (almost as many as Alfonsín’s six) with only Foreign Minister Adalberto Rodríguez Giavarini managing to complete that short distance and Patricia Bullrich ironically described as “the only man in the government.” Duhalde went through 15 ministers in his 16 months of transition (including three female members, as many as in the previous two decades) with only half his original team lasting out that short period. Néstor Kirchner had just 17 ministers (three of them female, including his sister Alicia) with half the original team still there at the end of the term – Tomada and Federal Planning Minister Julio De Vido even continued through to 2015.
Ministerial inflation began under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (15 portfolios in her first term, 16 in her second with 31 ministers under six Cabinet chiefs in those eight years) and peaked at 21 ministries with 30 occupants under Mauricio Macri, who even split Economy. A grand total of 16 women among the 233 ministers of almost the last four decades, which makes three female ministers in just one day something of a milestone.