Tomorrow might be Saint Patrick’s Day but this column is in part dedicated to Ireland’s rugby rivals in today’s big Six Nations title showdown – namely the Welsh, due to their pioneering role in Chubut (the province now falling due in this series on the basis of ascending order of electorate magnitude).
It would be insulting the original Tehuelche/Tsonk inhabitants to say that the Welsh came first (there was even a shortlived Camarones settlement as early as 1530 and a Spanish fort in the Valdés peninsula in the last three decades of colonial rule) but a prime attraction for the passengers of the Mimosa in 1865 was the absence of any other European language to compete with a Welsh tongue increasingly threatened within the Britain of the Industrial Revolution.
Chubut will be holding its PASO primaries tomorrow, prior to the provincial elections on May 19. Given that its Patagonian neighbour Neuquén voted last Sunday, any lessons there? Primarily the strength of incumbents, with Governor Omar Gutiérrez of the Neuquén Popular Movement securing re-election so comfortably, despite the natural erosion from almost six decades of his party’s regime and despite the rival candidacy of ex-governor Jorge Sobisch almost reaching two digits (with the MPN thus effectively claiming half the vote). Yet if this incumbent strength draws heavily from the captive votes of provincial employees, this factor applies less to Chubut with the lowest public-sector percentage outside the major provinces (38 percent).
Beyond the unique MPN phenomenon, the Neuquén result was considerably influenced by last-minute tactical voting – if the vote was split 39- 26-15 between the MPN, Peronists and Cambiemos (Let’s Change) as against the 31-27-23 of the last opinion polls, it would seem that Radical provincial capital mayor Horacio “Pechi” Quiroga’s candidacy was subordinated to the priority of blocking any Peronist momentum, as well as suffering from the tensions with Radicals within the ruling coalition and recent oil and gas production subsidy cuts by the national government.
Mariano Arcioni, governor of Chubut for the last 17 months after succeeding the late Mario Das Neves as his lieutenant-governor, is up against an electoral history with more alternation than most provinces. The first two decades after 1983 were mostly Radical, interrupted only in 1987 by Peronist Néstor Perl (Argentina’s first Jewish provincial governor despite the spurious claims of Tucumán’s José Alperovich subsequently), who ran afoul of an embezzlement scandal in 1990. Atilio Viglione provincially echoed Raúl Alfonsín’s national triumph in 1983 while three more Radical terms (1991-2003) followed Perl, the first two served by Carlos Maestro. Das Neves was the game-changer for Peronism in 2003, serving two terms before seeking continuity in the person of Comodoro Rivadavia mayor Martín Buzzi, who defeated the Victory Front’s Carlos Eliceche by a razor-thin margin against the tide of the 2011 Kirchnerite landslide, only to turn even more ultra-Kirchnerite himself. Das Neves then returned in 2015 for a third term, cut short by cancer.
This year Arcioni’s gubernatorial bid might be challenged by Victory Front Senator Mario País (with Buzzi more interested to returning to Comodoro’s City Hall) while the Cambiemos alternative is almost certain to be Radical deputy Gustavo Menna in a polarised race. At national level this province is unlikely to offer President Mauricio Macri much joy since it gave his Peronist rival Daniel Scioli 15-20 percent margins in the two rounds of 2015 presidential voting.
Three of the five deputies (Anna María Llanos Massa and Santiago Igon for the Victory Front and Jorge Taboada supporting Arcioni’s Chubut Somos Todos with Menna and Rosa Rosario Muñoz representing a Das Neves strand of Peronism staying in the Lower House for now unless Menna makes it to governor) vacate their seats this year. There could be three main contenders for the three seats – Kirchnerism, traditional Peronism and Cambiemos – yet a simple three-way split here is far from automatic. If there is a winner and runner-up with the third force left empty-handed, the destination of these seats will depend on whether polarisation follows national lines or the battle between Kirchnerite and anti-Kirchnerite Peronism. The three senators (País and Nancy González for the Victory Front, and Alfredo Luenzo for Chubut Somos Todos) do not face renewal until 2021. It might be noted that seven of these eight legislators are Peronists of some kind (with the Radical Menna the exception) – this province definitely does not seem a happy hunting-ground for Macri.
Let us now resume the history of Chubut from the arrival of the Welsh in 1865. The province has obviously changed hugely from the “New South Wales” of then but the tradition remains alive with the tell-tale surnames, tea-houses, eisteddfods (festivals of literature, music and performance), 18 chapels and around 5,000 Welsh-speakers still – there was even a local Plaid Cymru heckler during the 1995 visit of Princess Diana of Wales.
In 1884, Chubut became a national territory with the famous explorer Luis Jorge Fontana as its first governor until 1894. The next important immigration came as from 1902 – Afrikaners from South Africa fleeing British rule after their defeat in the Boer War. Their arrival was soon followed by the province’s next milestone, the discovery of oil in 1907. Displaced from their original veldt due to the gold and diamonds lying underneath, these poor Boers started new farms around Comodoro Rivadavia, only to be kicked off their land again almost immediately to start drilling its oil – a cynic might argue that the easiest route to mineral wealth is to explore the land farmed by South African Boers.
In 1955 (29 governors and trustees after Fontana) Chubut was made a province although there was no provincial government until the 1958 elections – nobody of any note among the 22 top names up to Viglione in 1983 with all elected governors sharing the party of the national presidency.
Argentina’s third-largest province, Chubut had just over half a million people (506,668) in the 2010 census with 70 percent of that population concentrated into just three cities, none of them the provincial capital of Rawson – Comodoro Rivadavia with almost 200,000 people and a third of Argentina’s conventional oil production with the original Welsh centre of Trelew and Puerto Madryn (with the big Aluar aluminium plant on an overhanging bluff) both reaching six digits. Esquel, Rawson and Sarmiento house the only other five-digit populations with virtually every town except Comodoro Rivadavia founded by the Welsh. Beyond the Comodoro oil belt, the Chubut River valley, the western Andean towns (the ski centre of Esquel and Welsh Trevelin) and the tourist centres of the Valdés peninsula with their whale-viewing and penguin colonies, the province is almost empty.
Electorate (2017): 435,077
Governor: Mariano Arcioni (Chubut Somos Todos, Peronist)
Senators: Three (2 Victory Front, 1 Chubut Somos Todos)
Deputies: Five (2 Victory Front, 2 other Peronists, 1 Radical)
On the ballot: Three of five deputies