The pressure is on: Argentina is reporting on average over 20,000 Covid-19 cases a day.
President Alberto Fernández addressed the nation on Wednesday to announce a stricter nighttime (8pm to 6am) curfew. Federal security forces will be deployed to enforce the restrictions in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (Buenos Aires City, plus Greater Buenos Aires). The Peronist leader late last week had announced a laxer curfew to tackle the second wave of Covid cases, but almost immediately the national government was plunged into a serious bout of internal debate with Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof – a key Kirchnerite member of the president's ruling coalition – warning the health system is on the verge of collapse and that a stricter lockdown was necessary.
The meetings triggered a wave of rumours that culminated in the president's speech on Wednesday evening. The ultimate surprise was that Fernández announced that schools in the metropolitan area would close for 15 days, starting Monday. The president's decision came only hours after Education Minister Nicolás Trotta had implied that classes would continue as normal, despite pressure from the teachers unions. The real fear for many families is that schools will be closed for more than a fortnight, with the measure extended for more weeks to come.
All eyes were immediately on Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a key leader in the centre-right Juntos x el Cambio coalition, who earlier this year campaigned for schools to remain open. The opposition leader, a potential presidential candidate in 2023, had until now had strived to work with the president to agree on policies to tackle the pandemic. But Fernández, who last year said the mayor was his “friend” on Thursday morning revealed he did not discuss his decision beforehand, as he knew Rodríguez Larreta disagreed.
Wednesday's announcement also triggered rumours about Trotta’s potential resignation. Political conflict is always latent because the metropolitan area (Buenos Aires City plus Greater Buenos Aires) is ruled by Rodríguez Larreta and Kicillof, who belong to rival coalitions and clearly disagree on the extent of the restrictions, especially when it comes to schools.
The president on Wednesday called on provincial governors to embrace the new nighttime restrictions. But at press time, regional governments in Córdoba, Santa Fe, Tucumán and Mendoza were waiting to take a closer read of the new rules. Such reluctance could be used by the opposition to say the president has little authority.
The school issue also threatens to prompt a major legal dispute between Fernández and Rodríguez Larreta over Buenos Aires City’s autonomy. The president has implied that the mayor has no choice but to heed a presidential decree, but the nation’s capital is an autonomous district. Fernández and Rodríguez Larreta last year navigated the pandemic on friendly terms, often sharing press conferences with Kicillof. As the City Hall leader said in a press conference on Thursday, those days are over.
Rodríguez Larreta will also now have to deal with a confrontational wing of the opposition coalition, headed by Mauricio Macri. Sure enough, the former president on Thursday complained about “improvisation” and said Buenos Aires City should reassert its autonomy. “Schools must stay open,” he declared. An interesting note: Macri spoke before Rodrgíguez Larreta announced any formal reaction about schools.
The mayor portrays himself as a moderate, but can he afford not to defy the president's new decree? He will be keen not to lose the support of many hardcore centre-right voters. The national government meanwhile is exasperated by what it says is Rodríguez Larreta’s sluggish reaction to the pandemic. Interior Minister Eduardo de Pedro had said the metropolitan area now risks dealing with a “Buenos Aires variant” of Covid, should things continue as they are.
Fernández’s decision to use federal forces to control the new nighttime curfew is also an issue, because it means technically the Buenos Aires City Police, which operates from under Rodríguez Larreta’s wing, is left out. The Federal Police and the Border Guards take orders from the president. The Army has also been given an emergency sanitary role in fighting the pandemic, though Fernández underlined in his speech that the Armed Forces “are not here for internal security.”
The president on Thursday confirmed a bonus payment of 15,000 pesos for families on welfare. The government last year offered an emergency family income payment during the lockdown – now, the money is limited to only 15 days.
Rodríguez Larreta on Thursday called a press conference. “Cooperation” had been his main goal for a year during the pandemic, as he sought “dialogue” and “consensus” with Fernández and Kicillof, the mayor said. Instead, the president had “broken” that approach by not discussing the school issue with him before making the announcement, he declared. The president had unilaterally decided to alter the restrictions that were announced with consensus only six days ago, argued the mayor.
The opposition leader thanked health workers, saying they had “not relaxed a minute” during the pandemic – it was a subtle jab at the president who in his speech on Wednesday said the private health system had “relaxed” when the number of Covid cases had dropped, allowing the treatment of patients with postponable problems.
The City mayor accused the national government of increasing restrictions because it had failed to carry out its Covid vaccination plan because it is running short of jabs. He also said he rejected the use of federal forces and the Army to patrol the City.
Then the mayor fired back with his main criticism: kids must go to school on Monday in the capital. The City government will file a Supreme Court injunction against the decision to close schools, he confirmed. It is thus seeking a legal order from the Supreme Court to immediately freeze the president's decision to lockdown schools in the capital. Nevertheless, City all will still try to reopen talks with the president to reach an agreement, Rodríguez Larreta said. At the time of writing, the duo are set for a face-to-face meeting at the Olivos presidential residence on Friday morning.
The Supreme Court is now in a tight spot over a political feud. The Kirchnerite wing of the ruling coalition has accused the judicial branch of constantly working in league with opposition leaders and ruling against the national government. If the Supreme Court agrees to freeze the decision to hear the City's case, it will again be accused by the ruling coalition of meddling in political affairs in favour of the centre-right camp.
Fernández and Rodríguez Larreta, much to the dismay of the hawks in both coalitions, gave moderation a shot. Now the rift is back. They are on different sides. The constant agitation has engulfed them.