Covid has changed many things – but it can't change everything. March 1 each year is the slated day on which the president delivers a speech to open the ordinary sessions in Congress. It was no different this year. Wait, there was a slight difference... the number of lawmakers in attendance to listen to President Alberto Fernández’s address on Monday was limited. Still, there was some heckling by opposition lawmakers including shouts directed at Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for, among other reasons, not wearing a face mask.
There was special anticipation about this specific speech by the president because only days prior to his congressional address, Fernández was forced to fire his high-profile health minister over the ‘VIP vaccination’ scandal, involving, amongst others, a pro-government journalist, a former president and lawmakers. The opposition called a demonstration in Plaza de Mayo last Saturday, ahead of the presidential address, after news of the scandal broke. But the turnout was not impressive and opposition leaders were forced to condemn a symbolic protest with mock body bags labelled with the name of government officials and human rights activists who organisers claimed had robbed the public of the vaccines. The body bags were supposed to represent those who had died waiting for the shots instead given to government cronies, the organisers decried. But a protest is not effective if you have to explain it.
Fernández unsurprisingly blasted the symbolic body bags, which were dumped outside Government House, on Twitter. The fake corpses made many opposition leaders cringe. Even former security minister Patricia Bullrich, a prominent supporter of the Plaza de Mayo protest, said she “didn't like it.” Bullrich, a left-wing Peronist agitator in her youth, is now emerging as the leader of the confrontational wing of the centre-right opposition coalition Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) that remains loyal to former president Mauricio Macri.
The JxC moderates are headed by Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, a potential presidential candidate in 2023 who has avoided direct confrontation with the national government during the pandemic. Rodríguez Larreta insists he is not interested in intensifying the fierce political rift that has dominated Argentine politics for years. The mayor could now argue that the low turnout on Saturday and the body bags gaffe show that his moderation makes sense. The president also showed his moderate political reflexes by urging supporters of his centre-left Peronist coalition not to rally outside Congress on March 1. An anti-government pot-banging protest was held on Monday night in Buenos Aires City after Fernández’s speech. These protests are not especially loud now, but they could get louder and bigger if the national government makes more fumbles. Rodríguez Larreta’s municipal government will meanwhile be tested because demand for the vaccines is growing and his administration is lacking them. The City government argues it should get a bigger share of the shots because Buenos Aires has a proportionally larger population of senior citizens than the rest of the country.
Fernández on Monday offered a mild apology and some self-criticism over the VIP vaccination scandal to Congress. Firing his health minister, the president said, was “painful” but it had to be done after Horacio Verbitsky, the veteran pro-government journalist, admitted he jumped the line and got his shot at the Health Ministry building. Questions are also being asked about the special vaccination rights dispensed to Economy Minister Martín Guzmán and his young team of advisors. Guzmán claims that he needed the jab to travel on official business, including those upcoming talks with the International Monetary Fund over the small matter of US$44 billion of debt.
The president’s speech was not all about Covid, however. Fernández drove home the message – with the five members of the Supreme Court looking on from a remote screen – that he is not satisfied with the performance of the judicial branch. The president said a bicameral congressional committee must assemble to monitor the court system. He also floated a proposal to establish a new “guarantees tribunal” which would take some power away from the Supreme Court.
The president's calls for reform come after businessman Lázaro Báez was recently sentenced to 12 years in jail for money-laundering, having allegedly bagged giant public works contracts in Patagonia thanks to his ties to the Kirchner family. Investigators could now probe if Báez’s massive fortune is somehow connected to Fernández de Kirchner, who is facing other corruption allegations against her in the courts.
The former president argues she is being framed with cases fabricated by conservative court officials in league with Macri’s opposition coalition. The president formally called for sweeping reforms of the court system, but it's not clear whether the ruling party has the muscle in Congress to approve the reforms. The justice minister downplayed the significance of the bicameral committee, underlining it will not have the power to throw out judges and prosecutors.
The opposition claims the president is being prodded into announcing court system reforms by Fernández de Kirchner in a bid to kill the corruption allegations against her currently latent in court. The vice-president on Thursday testified as a suspect accused of fraud involving dollar futures when she was in office. Again, she insisted that she is the victim of systematic fabrications for her political stances. The vice-president’s fiery testimony was carried live on television and she turned her video-call court appearance into a high-profile public defence of her record. She directly accused the judicial branch of supporting the country's neoliberal “economic powers,” like the last military dictatorship did.
Fernández also threw some judicial punches of his own in Congress directed at the Macri administration (2015-2019). The president told lawmakers that the government will press criminal charges against the former president and his officials for their management of the record US$57-billion loan granted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during his presidency. The Fernández administration is currently in talks with the IMF to reschedule payments for the US$44 billion the Fund has injected into the country so far (all of it during Macri’s presidency, the president refused the remaining tranches). Critics say the IMF was pushed into approving the unprecedented massive loan by then-US president Donald Trump who was reportedly interested in rescuing Macri’s neoconservative government for political reasons. Fernández de Kirchner said on Thursday that Macri’s management of the loan was “criminal,” while defending her own dollar futures policies.
Despite all this, it looks like vaccines and the economy will dominate this year's midterm elections. The president on Monday announced significant income tax breaks for workers and vowed rhetorically that utility rates will not suffer painful hikes (the catch is that they will indeed be increased). The government also needs to curb inflation, especially food prices, for its recipe to stand a chance of working after the economy dropped 10 percent in 2020. Also pending are salary negotiations. Plenty of food for thought.