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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-07-2022 09:48

Resignation, transition, succession: Inside Guzmán's last days and Batakis' first

The economy minister’s decision to step down, the reaction to it and how the government found a replacement – inside a momentous week in Argentina.

Alberto Fernández swears that he did not expect the call that caused a tsunami in his government and that, above all, ended up collapsing the idea of his own political project.

When Martín Guzmán told him that he was going to make his resignation public that same day, the president became angry, even angrier than he had been with other officials he had clashed with who also ended up leaving the government. It shows: Guzmán, Joseph’s Stiglitz's disciple, is the only one of the 14 ministers who have left their posts over the course of the administration whom the president neither thanked nor mentioned when he swore-in his eventual replacement.

When he learnt of the resignation, the president was at the home of his friend Fabián De Sousa, the businessman and partner of Cristóbal López, who had invited him to lunch. During that meal, when the conversation casually turned to Guzmán, Fernández told his host that he had just had a fight with the minister. "He must still be angry about yesterday's conversation," he said, in a premonitory way. Soon after, his phone rang: it was Guzmán telling the president of his irreversible decision to leave.

Sources say that in those first hours, the president – who was also soon to be more than angered by the missiles that his vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was throwing at him from her speech at an event in Ensenada – did not manage to react. Fernández did not understand the seriousness of what was happening, and that is why he did not even manage to get up from De Souza’s table. The weight of reality hit him only when he returned to the Quinta de Olivos presidential residence around late afternoon or early evening.

The residence in Olivos had been the scene of the last face-to-face meeting – perhaps the last for many years – between Guzmán and Alberto Fernández. It happened on the Thursday before the bombshell, at midday. The then-minister, with no margin of error amid a galloping inflation rate – which promises to rise again due to the massive issuance being made by the Central Bank (to buy bonds in pesos), according to private estimates from influential consultancy firms, some of which estimate that one trillion pesos were printed over the last 30 days – arrived with a clear request.

In truth, it was more like a slap in the face: Guzmán asked for control of the Central Bank, led by Miguel Pesce, and the energy portfolio led by his political enemies, Darío Martínez and Federico Basualdo. The president's response was as blunt as it was devastating: "Martín, do you think I am in a position to kick Basualdo out?" – the president couldn’t eject the Kirchnerite politician, whose attempted expulsion had already caused a shake-up in the ruling Frente de Todos coalition back in April 2021.

Up to this part of the story, all the versions circulating from sources coincide, though the conclusions differ. Those close to the president – the Albertistas – swear that Guzmán never said that these requests were conditions he required in order to continue and that he never said that without them he would leave office; much less that he would do so only two days later. Nor, they say, did he anticipate his move in a subsequent telephone conversation between the president and then-minister the following evening.

Those close to the economist, however, say the opposite is true. "Without this I can't go on," they claim the then-civil servant told his boss. It’s a debate for history, although there is one thing that is striking: why would the man from La Plata think that Alberto was now in a position to dispose of those in charge of the energy portfolio, if when they had tried to do so in the past, he had been unable to do so? Did Guzmán think that something had changed or was it the beginning of the construction of an excuse for his departure?

The almost quarrelsome act of presenting his resignation – at the very moment when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was starting her speech – gives the impression of a politician who was already out of his depth and tired. "Power gives me peace of mind" was a motto he reportedly repeated in the days before his resignation, a sign of the Zen style he had but which, as evidenced in his rant, he lost at some point during his term in office.

The economist spent much of Sunday and Monday getting his things together at the Economy Ministry and sorting out the transition. They were his last at the offices, during which he personally said goodbye to each of the employees on the fifth floor. The next day his secretaries and allies did the same, resigning along with him. Wednesday was the last day in which Guzmanism stepped foot in the Economy Ministry: his communication team joined together with Batakis' new spokespersons to oversee the transition.

The new minister, Silvina Batakis, for now is still finalising her team (she already has a commerce secretary and finance secretary, both of whom have a past with Daniel Scioli) and defining her economic course. Last Wednesday she made statements that earned him the first reproach from those close to Cristina, when she put a cold compress on the possibility of creating a Universal Basic Wage. "Batakis supported it when she was not a minister and now she doesn't," agreed social leader Juan Grabois.

On Sunday night, a long-delayed and much-anticipated conversation between Alberto and Cristina, president and vice-president, finally took place. It was a half-hour chat in which reproaches and crossed accusations abounded, rather than a search for solutions. The escalation reached an impasse: Cristina insisted that Emmanuel Álvarez Agis should be Guzmán's successor, while Alberto maintained that he had already been sounded out and that it was the economist who had serious doubts about accepting the invitation. 

"Well, you call him if you don't believe me", said the president, before agreeing to talk again later and hanging up. This version was confirmed by CFK when she sent an emissary to feel out the economist. Cristina also thought – and told Alberto when he proposed Batakis – that the now brand-new minister lacked political volume, a backbone and connections.

The tale is not only worthwhile for the anecdote, but also for the questions it raises. The vice-president did not want to impose Augusto Costa, Axel Kicillof or Hernán Letcher – her favourite economists – but a figure that was closer to the establishment, whose closest clients include men like businessman and ex-government minister José Luis Manzano. 

Why did she not push for a minister of her own? The answer cannot be the correlation of forces within the coalition: the president's authority is at a historic low, a fact that even his own people admit with frustration. Does Cristina not want to be stuck with the economic course ahead, while the government enters its last quarter of its term in office?

Juan Luis González

Juan Luis González

Periodista de política.

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