Life is not fair, we are always told, and far less this merciless coronavirus pandemic – no respect for the size of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s majority just four months ago tomorrow, for example, and none for ministerial reputations here in Argentina. In a Cabinet with several newcomers – which is basically a delicate political balancing-act between the wings of a coalition government – only three or four ministers have a solid technical grounding in their fields stretching back decades and it is precisely the two most qualified who have taken the hardest knocks from Covid-19 – first, Health Minister Ginés González García with his initial underestimation of the pandemic, and now Social Development Minister Daniel Arroyo with this week’s overpricing scandal.
Just as diplomats are almost always relieved after a few years because in that period they all too often evolve into representatives of the countries to which they are posted, so this series runs the risk of becoming the advocate of ministers after having examined 13 of the 20 (including today) but will nevertheless defend this duo. Quite apart from such varied benefits as champagne and penicillin having sprung from mistakes, there is no direct correlation between error and incompetence. Thus González García might not have seen this coming for all his expertise but last August virtually every pollster was forecasting a couple of points less for then President Mauricio Macri in the PASO primaries, not the 16 percent gap which transpired – does this throw all their professionalism out of the window?
But today’s subject is Arroyo, whose mishap reflects the state of the Argentine State more than the minister. Place a Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher or Juan Manuel Fangio inside, say, the Renault Clio famously used by Buenos Aires Governor Axel Kicillof in last year’s campaign and then see how many Grand Prix races they win – by the same token the best of ministers is hamstrung by a dysfunctional Argentine state apparatus (Macri might even have had the best ministerial team in the last 50 years, for all we know).
In the Albert Camus masterpiece La Peste (1947), now so many people’s Book of the Month with this pandemic, Dr Bernard Rieux observes: “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance” – this week’s scandal is a case study in the question of whether more harm arises from stupidity or evil. It takes the form of the Social Development Ministry agreeing to prices totalling 737 million pesos for food assistance packages of rice, lentils, spaghetti, sugar and cooking oil when the same quantities could have been purchased for around 300 million pesos less at the average supermarket price – not to mention the normal discount for bulk purchases.
Arroyo’s first line of defence was that he prioritised the urgency of hunger relief above haggling with the suppliers, who “dug in their heels” against any rebates with the virtual impossibility of earning elsewhere in this crisis plus arrears still pending from the Macri cutbacks. Incompetence was preferred to malfeasance as the next line of defence. Thus a process of Chinese whispers was reported for spaghetti whereby a price of 84 pesos was agreed without defining whether per kilo or package – with supermarkets averaging 52 pesos per half-kilo package, this would mean a 10-peso saving if understood as the former but more than 60 percent overpricing with the latter – and the suppliers gave themselves the benefit of the doubt with a similar margin of profit accruing in the case of cooking oil and not much less with the sugar. Yet official connivance may not have been so innocent, given Argentina’s sordid history of corruption – if overpricing in order to incorporate kickbacks was rife during the privatisations of Carlos Menem and the public works of the Kirchnerite years, why not in other sectors?
The 15 officials bounced last Tuesday (including a Greater Buenos Aires kingpin and a key henchman of teamster Hugo Moyano) are widely seen as scapegoats to save the minister and this may be so but Arroyo has a track record which should place him genuinely above all this, regardless of whether incompetence or dishonesty is the root of this scandal. Time to meet the minister.
Born in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Morón, Daniel Fernando Arroyo, 53, has made social policy his exclusive focus since starting his university studies (UBA) more than three decades ago. Post-graduate studies, university teaching (also in Europe) and NGO work (presiding Poder Ciudadano until 2013) preceded his entry into public life in 2003. There Arroyo made his mark far more at the provincial level (where he held his current title of Social Development Minister from 2007 to 2013) than at national – his main achievement was to channel welfare into individual savings accounts for the poor newly created for that purpose instead of as lump sums to neighbourhood puntero political bosses, thus undermining the power of the latter. This perception of the poor as people to be helped rather than electorally exploited increasingly estranged him from Kirchnerismo and in 2013 he joined Sergio Massa’s dissident Peronism, from which he split in turn in 2018 when as a national deputy (elected 2017), he co-founded with current Foreign Minister Felipe Solá the Red por Argentina breakaway caucus, which merged into Frente de Todos last year.
To give a potted history of the ministry, most people would guess it to be a Peronist creation and would guess wrong – Juan Domingo Perón saw his entire government as a social ministry with a Social Assistance Ministry arising from the military regime immediately after his overthrow in 1955. In 1966 it was renamed Social Welfare Ministry before being merged into the Health Ministry in 1983 until 1999 when it was revived under its current name. Of the 41 ministers since 1955, naval captain Francisco Manrique (1970-1972) was the most proactive as the founder of the PAMI pensioner healthcare scheme among other initiatives, the Triple A’s José López Rega (1973-1975) the most notorious and current Santa Cruz Governor Alicia Kirchner (the entire 2003-2015 period save for an eight-month break) the longest-lasting.
The huge challenges facing this ministry are in inverse proportion to the space remaining. Data shows that over a third of all households in Argentina depend directly on this ministry while social spending accounts for up to three-quarters of the budget (never less than 60 percent) and one peso of every seven in Argentina. But then there’s little point in delving into further details, if we have no idea what these and other figures are going to be after the pandemic.