President Alberto Fernández delivered his ‘State of the Nation’ speech on Sunday, opening congressional sessions for the year.
There was a lot of anticipation about the address, but ultimately it’s a routine designed for the president to dish out his vision without any interruptions. The novelty here is that it was the president’s first speech since his inauguration, when he took over from Mauricio Macri, his centre-right predecessor.
The neoliberal spin of the Macri presidency, which was dominant in the press and amplified on social media, is now being demolished. Now you must hear out the ruling Frente de Todos coalition, which accuses the Cambiemos leader of irresponsibly amassing debt and sinking the country in a quagmire of inflation and economic depression. Macri’s camp might get the chance to answer back, but not immediately. The problem for the centre-right opposition he left behind, Juntos por el Cambio, is that with the debt renegotiations making all the headlines, they have very little room to launch an attack.
Macri, speaking at a neoconservative conference in Central America, has now likened the ruling populists to the coronavirus, which reached Argentina this week. The former head of state has been mostly absent since losing the election and his creative coronavirus simile came out of the blue (reportedly even bewildering his own lieutenants).
Another problem for the opposition is that the stage, and the speeches, are now dominated by the new ruling coalition. Fernández’s speech in Congress was packed with announcements about submitting a bill to legalise abortion, a reform of the court system, and the decision to ban secret agents from taking part in local judicial investigations (the government will also abolish most of its confidential funds).
It made for riveting viewing. State television coverage showed that there is a nascent presidential inner circle without any apparent ties to the vote-getting Kirchnerite wing of the coalition commanded by Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The cameras zoomed in on Gustavo
Beliz, now a state reform official, a number of times during the address, implying that he was the speechwriter. Beliz served briefly as Justice minister during Néstor Kirchner’s 2003-2007 presidency, when Fernández was Cabinet chief. His own ambitious court and secret service reform, back in 2004, was scrapped when he locked into a fierce power struggle with all-powerful state intelligence agents. Beliz was banished. Now he is back to destroy, if you believe the government, what the president has called the “dungeons of democracy,” dark backroom dens where judges, secret agents and the likes do the dirty work for the politicians in power.
The presidential inner circle also includes Vilma Ibarra, the president’s legal secretary. Beliz and Ibarra, who enjoy direct access to the president, currently have clout and influence without reporting to the vice-president. This new reform of the court system is designed to water down the power of the 12 federal judges who, if you believe the president, are the chiefs of the “dungeon.”
The current context, however, is the release of Julio De Vido, the former Kirchnerite federal planning minister, who is under investigation for corruption. De Vido denies the charges against him and claims that he should not have been held in custody while his court appeals are heard. There are also growing calls for the release of Milagro Sala, the Jujuy Province indigenous and Kirchnerite activist, who claims they are irregularities in the charges that triggered her detention.
Yet the subtleties about the president’s inner circle – and a possible tussle with the Kirchnerite wing about the court system reform – will only make sense and be of any lasting interest if Fernández’s presidency, now heading for its first 100 days, gathers momentum. He needs to be able to show the public some palpable victories on the economic front. The speech, the work of Beliz’s monastic pen, was all very well but what transpires at the end of the day is the president’s growing frustration about inflation. Technically inflation, which clocked in at an annual rate of over 50 percent last year, can be blamed on Macri’s recipes. With fuel prices and utility rates frozen, it is slowing down, but food prices are still rocketing. The president chided that industry’s leaders at a business conference on Wednesday, warning that spiralling food price hikes must stop. But will they?
March is the most crucial month. Come April, the government needs to have successfully renegotiated its mammoth debt with private bondholders and controlled food prices, in order to gain some street credibility to then hit a long-term stride. The president chose not to directly pick a fight with the farmers during his congressional address. But effectively soybean export duties have been increased from 30 percent to 33 percent. The government, in a bid to avoid a stand-off similar to the one in 2008 that marked the first term of Fernández de Kirchner’s presidency, has sat the farmers down at a negotiating table and offered a complex breaks and compensation system for most. But the grassroots continue to call for a protest in the farm sector and road demonstrations are being planned.
Time is not necessarily on the government’s side – even
though the president made a point of declaring on Sunday
that he was only celebrating his 81st day in office.