Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof’s fingerprints are everywhere. The speculation is that behind his actions lies the will of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, tilting the scales away from the moderation supposedly predicated by President Alberto Fernández.
The emergence of Kicillof and his worldview is part of an electoral strategy aimed at antagonising the opposition, particularly the figure of Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. It is also the theoretical baggage with which the government has decided to tackle the issue of inflation amid a “tsunami” of Covid-19 that has led to the imposition of a nocturnal lockdown in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA) and the closing of schools, which includes the districts led by none others than Kicillof and Rodríguez Larreta. Instilling fear through intimidation and provocation is a tactic that Kicillof knows all too well from his days at the Economy Ministry, when he teamed up with Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno to try and control inflation by putting a gun on the table and blaming the private sector. The results weren’t enticing. Now, Kicillof has managed to condition President Fernández, Education Minister Nicolás Trotta, Health Minister Carla Vizzoti, Economy Minister Martín Guzmán, Security Minister Sabina Frederic, and his main antagonist, Rodríguez Larreta.
Beginning with the latest measures announced by the government, Kicillof’s hardline position prevailed. The self-proclaimed Marxist was pushing for a hard lockdown to control the exponential growth of Covid-19 in Buenos Aires, where the health system is beginning to seriously feel the strain. That meant taking measures before having the actual data of the impact of the last set of measures taken a week before by Alberto. According to reports, initial meetings between the health ministers of the three major ministries — the national level, and those of City and Province of Buenos Aires — were marked by the ferocity of Kicillof’s envoys, which initially accused the nation’s capital of being the epicentre of cases which then spilled over to the province. They forced both Vizzoti and Trotta to eat their words, imposing the conditions for a lockdown and the closing of schools. According to the City government, they found out about the new measures on TV.
Elections are around the corner, and everyone has to play the game. Fernández went on the offensive, accusing Rodríguez Larreta of saying one thing in private and doing another in public. Then Kicillof picked up the glove: “Larreta cannot continue to lie to people to their face,” he said in a press conference the day after restrictions were announced. “Sometimes I feel as if it wouldn’t be better for [Mauricio] Macri to come and directly argue with us, we thought [Rodríguez] Larreta was different because he has the responsibility to govern, but in the end he is just the same as [Patricia] Bullrich and Macri,” he threw in for good measure. The City Mayor in turn accused the president of “breaking” with a methodology that had been effective previously: dialogue. Yet it was Kicillof’s incendiary rhetoric, together with the voracity of his ministers, which forced the situation.
Kicillof’s long arm is also apparent in economic policy, where he is believed to be in conflict with Minister Guzmán. After the successful sovereign debt restructuring with private bondholders, Guzmán had won the favour of none other than Cristina. He received a standing ovation from major CEOs and had the best figures in opinion polls among Alberto’s Cabinet. In Guzmán’s worldview, orthodox economic theories must be applied with the eyes of unorthodoxy, which meant a gradual move toward deficit reduction, while considering inflation to be a multi-causal phenomenon that is definitely impacted by money printing. His intention to reduce energy subsidies — which would raise public utility bills for the population during an electoral year — was vetoed by the Kirchnerite think-tank Instituto Patria. Changes in tax bills and emergency payments also put further pressure on the deficit. All of these impositions on Guzmán’s economic plans occur as the minister is on a whirlwind Eurotour to convince members of the G7 to back his negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. The contradictions between what Guzmán is telling the Paris Club and what the Kicillof-inspired policies have led Fund officials to say a restructuring with Argentina won’t happen until the ruling Frente de Todos figures it out internally. The agreement with the IMF is an integral part of Guzmán’s plan.
Apart from blocking his intention to reduce energy subsidies by raising prices, Team Kicillof is now looking to take over the fight against inflation. Price rises in March came in at a whopping 4.8 percent, generating tensions within the ruling coalition – some are calling out Guzmán. For Commerce Secretary Paula Español, the reason inflation is out of control is private-sector speculation. And the solution is price freezes, intense scrutiny of private sector practices, and fines. It must be said that several of the most important products in the consumption basket through which inflation is measured have been under some degree of restriction since the pandemic started – and still inflation soars.
According to journalist Marcelo Bonelli, Español and her second-in-command Laura Goldberg, have gone all out after being signalled out by a sector of the ruling coalition for being “soft.” In conversations with businessmen, they reportedly start meetings by going straight for the jugular: “What are you complaining about, if you made bank with Macri,” they reportedly said, “keep on crying, we’re going to crush you with resolutions and take over your business.” Español is leading the fight against inflation by accusing the private sector of speculatively raising prices, trying to set the relative prices of consumer goods by hand while trying to eliminate private sector profits. It’s part of a Marxist conception of economics that Kicillof shares.
The governor is the ideal political successor to Cristina, along with the former president’s son Máximo. He was born and raised politically by CFK, acting as her Economy minister, then main swordsman of the opposition in Congress during the Macri years, and now in the all-important Buenos Aires Province, where the largest electoral bounty is located. He’s rash, aggressive, and combative. He’s young and handsome, winning himself the nickname of “Kici-love,” and has a good standing amongst hardliners. Whether he’s acting out of his own volition, or directed explicitly by the boss, he is playing out the political will of Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner all the same.