Alone among the 23 provinces, Chaco has yet to fix its election date and the floods recently ravaging this northeastern province will certainly not speed up a definition. With 472 millimetres of rainfall in just the first month of the year (almost 19 inches or close to half the annual total in the fertile pampas) and three-digit daily downpours of up to 212 millimetres in much of last month, politics is not everything – Chaco has other priorities.
The weather is a cyclical setback but Chaco also has structural problems. Resistencia is Argentina’s poorest provincial capital after Corrientes (on the other side of the Paraná River) with 41.4 percent below the poverty line. Inland the situation is even worse with Chaco’s famous cotton fields in crisis for the last two years at least and other primary products (soy, beef and timber, although the legendary quebracho is long depleted) hit by their costly distance from the sea.
The floods prevented Chaco Peronist Governor Domingo Peppo from attending last Tuesday’s Justicialist Party (PJ) meeting welcoming back Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner so exuberantly, thus preserving his equidistance between Kirchnerism and traditional Peronism – one of only four of the 19 non-Cambiemos governors expected at the huddle, he was nevertheless another of the 16 not attending. In an interview six weeks ago h e said that Peronism would be better off without CFK running but that he would support her if she did. The staunch Kirchnerism of his twoterm predecessor and current Resistencia Mayor Jorge Capitanich (who was Cristina’s Cabinet chief from 2013-15) inclines him both for and against the authoress of Sinceramente, with also a strong interest in a Roberto Lavagna candidacy.
Corrientes-born Peppo is equally equidistant in his relationship with President Mauricio Macri – he appreciates the improvement in provincial finances (Chaco is one of the four provinces still in the red, but at least has moved into primary surplus) but blames austerity policies for his province’s growing poverty. Yet at the same time Peppo blames teacher overpopulation (nearly 24,000 teachers for just 215,000 schoolchildren) rather than underinvestment for the province’s failure to start classes until the end of March.
Whenever Chaco does vote (skipping the PASO primaries to save money, according to the provincial government’s plans), Peppo should be pretty confident of re-election for various reasons. Firstly, the invincibility of local ruling parties so far this election year. Secondly, the number of voters directly employed by the governor (the provincial payroll outnumbers the entire private sector by 46 to 42 percent of the workforce), which only compounds this advantage. Thirdly, opposition chances are further weakened by the corruption charges surrounding their main standard-bearer Aida Ayala (stemming from alleged irregularities in municipal garbage collection contracts during her three Resistencia mayoral terms between 2003 and 2015), the Radical deputy on the brink of expulsion from the Lower House. Rather than any announced gubernatorial hopeful, Peppo’s main worry would be a Capitanich comeback bid (the ex-governor’s brother Daniel Capitanich is Peppo’s lieutenantgovernor).
Prior to Capitanich provincial voting was more pluralistic (as we shall see below) but little joy for Macri at presidential level – Chaco’s only deviation from Peronism since 1983 was the Radical-led Alliance in 1999 (although it did prefer Carlos Menem over Néstor Kirchner in 2003).
Chaco is one of the eight provinces which will be renewing seats in both Houses of Congress this year. The outgoing senators are Eduardo Aguilar (who harbours gubernatorial ambitions) and María Inés Pilatti Vergara for the Victory Front and 1995-2003 Radical ex-governor Angel Rozas, a Cambiemos heavyweight in the Senate where his party label is Union for Chaco. Three seats will likewise be vacated in the Lower House this year – the Radical Horacio Goicoechea along with Lucila Masin and Analía Rach Quiroga for the Victory Front. The Radical Ayala (if she can stay out of trouble) and Alicia Terada for the Civic Coalition (both Cambiemos) along with the Peronists Juan Mosqueda and Elde Pertile retain their seats until 2021. The almost inevitable outcome of the October voting will be one Macri legislator and two opposition seats in both Houses.
This province is also the last in this series not belonging to the original United Provinces of the River Plate but one of the nine Patagonian or northern territories gaining provincial status in the second half of the 20th century. The province is around 40 percent of the Grand Chaco, a tri-national semi-tropical region alternating scrub and swamp and the origin of the 1932-1935 Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay.
In tribute to indigenous roots dating back over five millennia, Chaco is one of only two Argentine provinces (in common with Corrientes just across the river) to have native tongues – Qom, Wichi and Mocovi – alongside Spanish as official languages. European penetration dates back to 1585 but there was little settlement until the Paraguayan war (1865-70), which prompted the rapid creation of a national territory in 1872 in order to ensure the land remained Argentine and including Formosa until 1884 when Resistencia (founded by mostly Italian immigrants six years previously) was made the capital. Mass immigration then followed, among which (unlike in most provinces) those from Mediterranean countries were outnumbered by others – mostly from Eastern Europe, including possibly the biggest inland Jewish community outside Entre Ríos (now largely dispersed). The indigenous suffered greatly in that period, culminating in a savagely suppressed uprising in 1924.
There were 12 territorial governors appointed by Buenos Aires from 1884 to 1930, followed by 15 trustees through to 1953. The province started life with the name President Perón in 1951 but that obviously lasted only as long as the Peronist regime. Between then and the permanent return of democracy in 1983 trustees outnumbered elected governors 20 to 3 (the veteran Peronist Deolindo Felipe Bittel won three elections in that unstable period). Pre-Capitanich governors included the Peronists Florencio Tenev (1983-7) and Danilo Baroni (1987- 91), followed by Rolando Tauginas of the provincial Acción Chaqueña party (founded by the popular military trustee José Ruiz Palacios) and a period of Radical domination with twoterm Rozas and Roy Nikisch (2003-7). Note the frequency of such non-Mediterranean names as Bittel (Belgian), Tenev (Bulgarian), Tauginas (Lithuanian), Nikisch (Croatian) and Capitanich (Montenegrin).
With nearly 1.2 million people (1,055,259 in the 2010 census), Chaco has one of Argentina’s least urban populations with Resistencia (385,726) followed by centrally located Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña (89,882), southern Villa Angela (41,403, all 2010 data) and six other towns with over 20,000 inhabitants in its 25 departments – thus well over a third of the population is rural or semi-rural. The countryside includes the El Impenetrable national park, today’s tourist tip.
For now, let’s see when Chaco votes, rather than how.
Electorate (2017): 912,052
Governor: Domingo Peppo (Peronist)
Senators: Three (2 Victory Front, 1 Radical)
Deputies: 7 (2 Peronist, 2 Victory Front, 3 Cambiemos including 2 Radicals and 1 Civic Coalition)
On the ballot: 3 of 7 deputies