It's not nice to take a look back at 2020, the horrible pandemic year. But if you do turn your head to take a glance you will run into some commentary in this newspaper about how the national government’s political standing depended, at least in part, on how it managed the upcoming vaccination programme.
All right, now it is 2021. Keep on reading. The vaccines are arriving. The opposition had scoffed at Sputnik V, the Russian-made vaccine. But it turns out that Sputnik V is very effective, according to most reviews. The national government then seemed to be riding a wave of credibility because it had placed its confidence on the Russian jab from the start. President Alberto Fernández and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner were both photographed getting a shot as the debate about its effectiveness raged on. Early on, one opposition leader had called the Russian vaccine “a poison” – that all changed when Sputnik V cleared all (or most) hurdles of international scrutiny in the Western world. Suddenly there were a lot of people, especially in Buenos Aires, who were eager to be inoculated. Too eager, it turns out, to wait in line like an everyday citizen.
Thus begins the government's huge vaccination fumble, on what was supposed to be a sleepy Carnival week. Horacio Verbitsky, the leftist pro-government journalist and human rights activist, last Friday (February 18) admitted that he received his first Sputnik V dose at the Health Ministry. Verbitsky, who is pushing 80, tried to laugh off the queue-jumping by declaring during a radio station interview that he has been pals with Health Minister Ginés González García for years and that he had planned to get his jab at a state-run Greater Buenos Aires hospital, but that he ended up being vaccinated at the Ministry instead after getting a call from his friend’s office. You could almost hear the entire pro-government camp cringe as Verbitsky spoke. Cutting corners, contacting cronies for dodgy favours and jumping lines is almost a national sport in Argentina. Here was a leftist icon doing some flagrant pushing in of his own when the queue for the vaccine in Argentina is 44 million-people long.
Verbitsky was effectively trying to kill a scoop by admitting that he had jumped the line (along with a select group including a lawmaker and a senator). But his comments immediately unleashed a crisis. González García, a veteran Peronist doctor who until this scandal was revered by practically everybody, was forced to resign on the president’s orders. The new minister is Doctor Carla Vizzotti, the outgoing minister’s deputy who was heavily involved in negotiating the first vaccine shipments from Moscow. The opposition is livid. It has also criticised Vizzotti, claiming that she could not have ignored what was going on. The new minister released a list of 70 people who were vaccinated without going through the normal channels, including former caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde. Also vaccinated was Treasury Attorney Carlos Zannini, a prominent member of CFK’s inner circle.
Verbitsky, a legendary journalist-activist who for years has had the ear of Fernández de Kirchner, has apologised and taken leave as head of the CELS human rights organisation. He is not a government official, but he was listed as “strategic” personnel in order to get his Sputnik V dose faster. The uproar has prompted a court investigation. There is no telling what more could surface.
Despite the scandal, the president went ahead with business as usual and was off to visit Mexico (riding on Lionel Messi’s private jet no less, rented by the government) to meet with his regional ally President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Fernández said in Mexico that the scandal had been dealt with. But he also dismissively called the court investigation a “clown act.” His Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero, meanwhile, also downplayed the scandal by defending officials like Zannini.
Things are not about to calm down. Fernández is scheduled to deliver his State of the Nation speech in Congress on Monday. The government must control the damage from this huge embarrassment and the president's speech will be crucial. Before all this, the government had some good news to plug because it has announced significant income tax breaks for employees. But now the huge vaccination gaffe could dominate the national conversation in an election year. The government is trying to move on by announcing that one million shots of a Chinese-made vaccine will be used on teachers, but the scandal has given the opposition, which is divided, a lot to work with ahead of the elections. There will be agitation and discontent about the privilege enjoyed by what some pundits are calling a “political oligarchy.”
Both the administrations of Buenos Aires City (centre-right) and Buenos Aires Province (Kirchnerite) have survived the uproar relatively unscathed to date. But the Posadas Hospital, the giant state-run premise where Verbitsky was supposed to go to receive his jab, is based in Greater Buenos Aires. The head of the hospital has been questioned in court. Officials in City Hall, meanwhile, have been forced to answer questions about the decision to channel state-purchased vaccines through expensive private health insurance hospitals and union-run healthcare schemes (a decision which has also prompted a court probe).
The difficult questions about fast-tracked vaccinations will not go away. It will continue all year. Still, the opposition, especially the centre-right Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) coalition, must also sort out its internal differences between supporters of the moderate Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and a hawkish wing headed by former president Mauricio Macri and former security minister Patricia Bullrich. The City health’s minister called the VIP vaccine scandal “a mistake” – Bullrich calls it corruption. JxC is also under pressure from maverick rightwing libertarians, including the economist José Luis Espert, who are expected to run for Congress this year and are constantly bashing Macri’s 2015-2019 presidency, accusing it of failing to deliver on neoliberal economic reforms.
There’s more. The agitation now also includes a 12 -year prison sentence for money-laundering handed down to businessman Lázaro Báez, who amassed a fortune during the Kirchnerite years by bagging massive public works contracts, especially in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz (home of the Kirchner family). Fernández de Kirchner is also facing corruption charges in court and investigators could seek to find a connection between Báez’s fortune and the vice-president. Fernández de Kirchner claims that the allegations against her are a fabrication orchestrated by a continental right-wing conspiracy which includes judges in connivence with former Macri administration officials.