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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 15-02-2020 11:29

Transport taken off the fast track

As a Radical backed by one of the last entries into the Frente de Todos coalition, Mario Meoni seems to lack the political momentum to make any footprint, while the fiscal pressures from the debt crisis dominating the agenda are already making themselves felt.

Throughout the past century (and not completely extinct today) “the man on the Clapham omnibus” was a stock phrase in British legal parlance for the norms of everyday life and common sense against which the crimes and criminals on trial in court might be measured.

For all the changes since that phrase was first used in 1903, bus transport seemingly retains as central a place as ever in day-to-day existence in this century – last Tuesday’s wildcat strike had a much more immediate impact for countless commuters than the Congress debate on debt overhang commanding far more news coverage, while the downtown transport hassles caused by Wednesday’s demonstration against the International Monetary Fund team in town will have riled far more people than the deeper issues at stake with the IMF mission. For those reasons the Transport Ministry is the choice for today’s “Ministry Positions” column (even if the strike as such is the Labour Ministry’s problem).

Revived by the Mauricio Macri presidency in 2015, the Transport Ministry’s title has survived intact both the downsizing of September, 2018 (when the national Cabinet shrank from its original 22 portfolios to just 10 ministries) and the overhaul within the newly expanded Cabinet of President Alberto Fernández but its real importance has changed drastically. Although never a core area in all the years when the Cabinet was constitutionally limited to eight ministries (1898-1949 and 1957-94), Transport survived the 2018 hatchet because its minister Guillermo Dietrich was a stellar figure within the Macri administration. By way of contrast since the change of government this portfolio has been a consolation prize tossed out to parliamentary Speaker Sergio Massa, very much a junior partner in the current ruling coalition if a partner at all.

Much has been made of the emergence of Ricardo Alfonsín as the new ambassador to Madrid as the first major Radical recruitment but (quite apart from the Radical origins of the likes of 2003 UCR presidential candidate Leopoldo Moreau or Santiago del Estero Governor Gerardo Zamora) the Frente de Todos Cabinet has at least one member with decades of Radical militancy under his belt – Transport Minister Mario Andrés Meoni, 55, who previously served as mayor of Junín from 2003 to 2015.

Elected mayor under the UCR label in 2003, Meoni was already one of the numerous “K Radicals” co-opted by the Kirchner presidencies when he sought his 2007 re-election (running under the Concertación Plural ticket created for such allies rather than the mainstream Victory Front) – the recruitment of these Radicals was not so much the work of the Kirchner presidential couple as their Cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández. But then-vice-president Julio Cobos, sabotaging the steep grain export duty hikes sought by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was not the best advertisement for Concertación Plural (Fernández also left the government at that time for similar reasons) and Meoni soon joined the cluster of Buenos Aires Province mayors forming the backbone of Massa’s dissident Renewal Front as from 2013, where he remained until following Massa into the Frente de Todos coalition in mid-2019.

Meoni’s appointment is easier to explain as part of the political balancing-act within the coalition than for his technical qualifications but he does have a couple of tangential credentials – his father was a Highways Board employee while his home town of Junín was a hub of Argentina’s now decimated railway system in the past century, housing the immense marshalling yards of the San Martín line.

Within his limitations Meoni has two hard acts to follow – Florencio Randazzo and Dietrich. Transport spent most of the Kirchner years under the wing of the scandal-ridden Federal Planning Ministry (with the first transport secretary, Ricardo Jaime, jailed for corruption in 2009) but after the Once rail tragedy eight years ago next Saturday Cristina Fernández de Kirchner felt obliged to transfer the department to Interior Minister Randazzo, then something of a crown prince, with the mandate to modernise the railways and a generous budget towards that end (which, unlike with all too many Federal Planning Ministry projects, was used to good effect). Born into a car dealer dynasty (founded in 1964), Dietrich ended up making a bigger mark on air than ground transport with his “aviation revolution” based on the advent of low-cost carriers and upgrading airports.

That revolution is now looking stillborn with President Fernández promising Aerolíneas Argentinas free rein to call the shots. Even a strong minister like Dietrich had no say in defining transport fares (far more a function of the public opinion pressures for subsidies along with the capacity of the national and provincial governments to pay those subsidies) while only having a limited role in transport infrastructure shared with the Interior Ministry. Road construction was meagre (Macri boasted 7,600 kilometres but less than 500 kilometres of new highway was actually built with a further 6,000 repaved) and trickled to a complete halt after Macri turned to the IMF in mid-2018. Good intentions with respect to rail freight were never able to surmount the political clout of teamster resistance, while the Belgrano Plan to upgrade northern infrastructure (where it was most needed) with a strong emphasis on transport was a failure.

As a Radical backed by one of the last entries into the Frente de Todos coalition, Meoni seems to lack the political momentum to make any footprint while the fiscal pressures from the debt crisis dominating the agenda are already making themselves felt.

Before 2015 the Transport Ministry has a brief pre-history – from 1949 to 1958. Juan Domingo Perón created the ministry at a time when transport issues enjoyed a certain importance – these were years when the railways had just been nationalised from British hands (1948) with Ezeiza International Airport inaugurated that same year (1949) and when trams were starting to be phased out (“El ultimo tranvía” of the María Elena Walsh song was in 1963 in this metropolis and in 1966 nationwide). There were five ministers in that period (three Peronists and two military appointees) with Peronists Juan Francisco Castro (39 months) and Juan Eugenio Maggi (36 months) and Sadi Bonnet (30 months) the most durable. Dietrich and Meoni now take the grand total up to seven (or eight if interior and transport minister Randazzo is included).

Transport might look like a sideshow in Argentina today with the IMF and the foreign debt occupying centre stage but from the way Chile’s turbulence as from last spring mushroomed out of a five-cent subway fare increase, who knows whether some such hike or a proliferation of this week’s disruptions in bus services or some terrible accident (with last year’s road deaths provisionally estimated at 6,627) might not prove to be a key catalyst here?

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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