Of all the 20 ministers named by then president-elect Alberto Fernández last December 6, only two had prior experience of the portfolio – Health Minister Ginés González García and Defence Minister Agustín Oscar Rossi, 60, today’s choice for the Ministry Positions column.
Rossi thus returns to the Ministry which he had already previously headed between 2013 and 2015. This familiarity with the post might seem reason enough for the appointment within a Cabinet where such experience is in relatively short supply, but the real aim of this move might well have been to ease him out of a position where he has far more years under his belt – at the time of last year’s Frente de Todos electoral triumph he had been the Kirchnerite caucus leader in the Chamber of Deputies for fully a decade between his pre-ministerial years (2005-13) and as from 2017, making him a natural candidate to continue.
But the Frente de Todos caucus chairmanship had already been earmarked for Máximo Kirchner, the next president according to both halves of the Frente de Todos presidential ticket – last November 13, then president-elect Fernández said: “I hope Máximo Kirchner becomes president, he’s a marvellous kid,” while his mother’s feelings should not need to be expressed (although she does also have a soft spot for Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof). Hence the urgency of removing Rossi from Congress, in order not to overshadow the crown prince’s new stardom with any previous leader.
Rossi has always had a bigger impact on national politics than in his native province of Santa Fe. Entering politics soon after graduating in civil engineering from Rosario University, he has fought numerous elections at municipal, provincial and national level but never topping them although always garnering enough votes to win a seat – he served two terms on Rosario’s municipal council prior to his time in national Congress. Two unsuccessful gubernatorial bids in 2007 and 2011 figure among his local failures. Always on the left of Peronism, even dropping out of politics altogether between 1991 and 2002 in disgust over the neo-conservative policies of Carlos Menem, he has never been in sync with Santa Fe’s important farming sector unlike some local Peronists (such as the new Governor Omar Perotti or Senator and two-term ex-governor Carlos Reutemann, whose family bred pigs). His nickname of Chivo (“goat”) – partly due to the facial hair which he has since shed but mostly stemming from his notorious irritability – may help to explain his limited electoral charisma.
Becoming Defence minister in mid-2013 at the tail end of an eroded Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration with military spending rock-bottom as a priority might not sound very auspicious, but nor was Rossi a complete lame duck. Above all, he took a major step towards a possible redefinition of the future military role by redeploying 4,500 troops both for northern frontier vigilance (traditionally the preserve of the Border Guard) and aiding against natural disasters. He also commissioned four new warships (all given names evocative of the Malvinas islands). In 2015 he was given a budget of 930 million pesos beyond such running costs as salaries, pensions, etc., most of which he spent on revamping the vehicle fleet of the Armed Forces.
Rossi’s second bite of the cherry looks even less promising with the fiscal constraints imposed by the overwhelming centrality of debt negotiations on a government which would still like to be populist. One of his main priorities is to carry on from where he left off with re-equipment – not just as an end in itself but also as a contribution towards industrial revival via related plant (Fabricaciones Militares munitions, naval dockyards, FADEA aviation etc.), hopefully boosting defence spending beyond the current two percent of the budget. His other big priority is to restore the complete subordination of the Armed Forces to civilian leadership (partially relaxed under the Mauricio Macri presidency) – among other things this will entail a complete overhaul in the helm of all four branches (Army, Navy, Air Force and Joint Chiefs-of-Staff) in the next few weeks, something for which an intensely busy President Fernández has yet to find time.
This ministry is one of only five dating back to the first formal and constitutional Cabinet of 1854 (the others were Economy, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Justice & Public Education) although not under its present name – for almost a century it was called the War Ministry in times when international conflict was not the remote contingency it has become. Strictly speaking, it was the War and Navy Ministry from 1854 to 1898, while the Navy had a ministry all to itself for six decades (1898-1958). It was not until 1949 that Juan Domingo Perón conferred the present name of Defence Ministry although stripped of all military control since short-lived Army and Air Force Ministries (1949-58) were simultaneously created, joining the Navy – divide and rule? But as from 1958 the Defence (National Defence until 1981) Ministry has had its present structure.
Rossi thus has numerous predecessors – to be precise, 42 Defence ministers, 36 War-War/Navy ministers, 25 Navy ministers, seven Air Force ministers and four Army ministers. The list features no less than six future presidents, including Perón. Perhaps the most historically important was General Pablo Riccheri (1900-1904) who introduced the conscription prevailing throughout almost all the 20th century until abolished by Menem in 1994, while General Humberto Sosa Molina, both the last War minister and the first Defence minister, was by far the most durable, serving a full decade (1945-1955). Generals Juan Andrés Gelly y Obes and Luis María Campos (three short stints) have given their names to the street housing the British Embassy residence and an important avenue in Palermo and Belgrano respectively, while the Ministro Carranza subway station honours Radical heavyweight Roque Carranza.
In an Argentina now in its 37th consecutive year of democratic government, with its Armed Forces halved in strength from over 154,000 at the time of the 1982 South Atlantic war to 77,000 in 2015 (although increased again to 83,000 under Macri), Defence hardly rates as one of the five core ministries. Undoubtedly Rossi’s biggest headache today is maintaining a payroll of over 107,000 (including Defence Ministry employees) – to which might perhaps be added pensions, given the way that retirement benefits across the board are now up in the air. But never rule out the power of the unexpected – such as the disappearance of the submarine ARA San Juan in late 2017 – to bring this ministry back to centre stage.