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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 22-09-2023 05:50

Javier Milei, Luis Barrionuevo and the ‘casta sindical’

Restaurant worker chieftain Luis Barrionuevo, who has been meeting with libertarian presidential frontrunner Javier Milei, is perhaps the union leader with the greatest number of leaps and bounds in modern Argentine politics.

Even though culturally here, and in other latitudes, the concept of “caste” has already been imposed to attract votes, the double standards of libertarian Javier Milei to define who is in it and who is not is grabbing attention. In recent days he has given the umpteenth piece of evidence in terms of union leadership.

It was already somewhat curious that while accumulating miles of diatribe against a huge chunk of the political, corporate, cultural and scientific class (despite providing some of the candidates for La Libertad Avanza lists), and even Pope Francis, union leaders were excluded. Some archival footage was even found of him once marching next to the notorious teamster kingpinHugo Moyano.

Such neglect was clarified when it became known that Milei had met in secret with Gerardo Martínez, the head of the UOCRA construction workers’ union. Their agenda was the libertarian’s interest in the severance system in construction, an unemployment insurance different from the classic format.

More light was shed on the matter when he washed his hands on TV, before La Nación’s José del Río, of the eternal re-election of union leaders: “It’s a problem which must be solved by workers. I don’t have to break up an institution.” Quite striking, since his party’s electoral platform includes a union reform with a law to democratise the organisations and limit re-election.

Yet total, practically blinding clarity arrived when it was disclosed last week that this week Milei would meet with restaurant worker chieftain Luis Barrionuevo, perhaps the union leader with the greatest number of leaps and bounds in modern Argentine politics.

Even though his claim to fame was calling himself the “ultra-sycophant” of Carlos Menem all the way back to the 1988 Peronist primary with Antonio Cafiero, who grouped the most powerful unions, Barrionuevo had arrived at the cusp of his union in the middle of the 1976-1983 dictatorship, when many of his comrades were either kidnapped or exiled.

He had his moment of glory with Menem, since he was catapulted to the head of the ANSSAL administration, where funds for health insurance were distributed. There Barrionuevo ran up several cases which did not prosper in the courts.

In those days he launched his historic maxim in a television interview: “Here we have to stop stealing for two years”. His Freudian slip seemed like a magic formula towards development. It never materialised.

His unforgettable time in public service for Menem earned him fruitful connections. One of them was the Radical operator Enrique ‘Coti’ Nosiglia, who alongside him was accused of irregularities in the PAMI pensioners’ healthcare scheme during the government of Fernando de la Rúa.

The proceedings against him did not amount to anything, while he gained judicial ground against his enemies. In addition to good lawyers, he is said to have solid contacts with various members of the Judiciary. A name which stands out is María Romilda Servini de Cubría, the federal criminal and electoral judge.

A fierce anti-Kirchnerite, Barrionuevo tried to be governor of his native Catamarca in vain. In one such provincial election, he sent his followers to burn ballot-boxes. The union leader continued to mutate. He allied himself with Mauricio Macri and then distanced himself with the decline of Cambiemos. His somersaults then took yet another turn which lasted until June 24 this year, when he backed Eduardo ‘Wado’ de Pedro as the government’s presidential hopeful. The interior minister was side-lined in favour of Sergio Massa, but Barrionuevo once again showed that his principles can change.

His last pirouette, for now, happened after Milei’s triumph in the PASO primaries. During an interview, the union leader held that the libertarian reminded him of Menem and that he could win in the first round.

They met right away after that statement, besides the bridge he had built with Fátima Florez. The candidate’s brand-new partner performed often at the Hotel Sasso in Mar del Plata – which is owned by Barrionuevo’s union.

Apparently, their meeting was pleasant and they talked about the challenges of the modern labour world.

Milei was asked on television about that meeting with Barrionuevo, in a critical tone.

“At least he lives off the union caste,” was the libertarian candidate’s defence. A peculiar double standard.

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Javier Calvo

Javier Calvo


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