Mario Ishii, the mayor of José C. Paz, discusses the impact of the coronavirus crisis on one of the poorest districts in Greater Buenos Aires. The social situation, he warns, could be about to explode.
Mario Ishii governs José C. Paz, one of the poorest districts in Greater Buenos Aires. He’s worried. He can see the number of coronavirus cases climbing exponentially and fears the social situation is about to explode.
The mayor, who previously served as a senator for Buenos Aires Province and was first elected mayor back in 1999, knows that there’s no hunger but says there's plenty of rage. And he says the freeing of convicts in light of the pandemic is related to an increase in crime.
How do you get a district like José C. Paz to comply with quarantine?
It’s not easy. We took the precaution of vaccinating over 140,000 people in our district as a preventive measure so that with the onset of winter we could avoid the problems arising from illnesses other than coronavirus. We vaccinated lots of people against flu and pneumonia, practically everybody in the risk groups. Thanks to that our hospitals are not full today. As for Covid-19, a month ago we had 70 to 80 cases and now already 800 percent more.
Are you estimating the peak for the end of this month?
Yes. At first I thought that it was something similar to pneumonia and that it would come on stronger in winter. We tried to get people to stay home. It’s crucial when the ambulances arrive at the houses that people do not move from their homes, respecting quarantine there.
Are people complying with this stricter phase of quarantine or are they starting to go out, given the need to work?
There are various stages. At first the worldwide fear induced people to stay home and respect quarantine. Then after the first 10 weeks people began to notice that there was not so much contagion among them and they started to go out gradually, We were able to open up although always telling shops to limit entry, use the protocols and attend customers with face-masks. We did that because our businesses were going under.
In José C. Paz I have only one factory but there are 6,500 shops. If they go broke, bang goes employment directly. We have no beaches or mountains, we really have a problem. And our people are working-class so that not working in the district implies going elsewhere to find work. This was complicating us. From City Hall we were handing out 15,000 to 18,000 food packs every month. To that we had to add sending food to the homes of those with a positive diagnosis so that they don’t go out. If we don’t do that, people want to go out to work. Many had odd jobs or worked in a factory which is now locked down.
At first I disagreed with giving a lot of money to so many people. There are 89,000 people collecting the 10,000 pesos (from the IFE emergency family benefit) plus 19,000 picking up 5,000 pesos from other assistance. At that point it seemed to me an excess because over half a billion pesos were entering the district but people could no longer go to work.
I thought then that it was out of place but today I have to say that the president [Alberto Fernández] was right. Without that, I don’t know what would have happened in this district or indeed the whole country. My outlook is always from where I am, from my district.
José C. Paz wasn’t founded so long ago as a district, in October, 1994. It was born as the second poorest district in Greater Buenos Aires, with many dirt roads. In that context you can monitor where keeping up the quarantine is hardest. What’s happening to those 6,500 shops you mentioned after well over 100 days?
The idea was to try and see if they could work with restricted entry without being so severe, neither harassing nor punishing them. If not, they would go under.
People needed at least the essential things. I was flexible at that stage. But looking at the map of my district, I can assure you that there is no specific point, for example no single shantytown agglutinating the problem. It’s generalised, you can see that the map is full of red zones.
How many of those 6,500 shops have closed down for good because they were going broke?
Some already have. The 6,500 is what I have now but over 1,500 must have closed, more than 20 percent. Around 8,000 were authorised. Many went broke and closed down, that is the reality. [Former president] Mauricio Macri extended his toll to the retail sector too. When President Alberto took over, there was already a crisis but now it has been accentuated with the coronavirus.
Are we going back to 2008, or to what year would we have to rewind to find the same number of shops lost as now with the coronavirus?
We still haven’t reached the peak, it must be said, the worst is yet to come. By late August we will be as we were in 2001 approximately. I’ve lived through two waves of looting and I think people are going to go back to 2001. The PyMES (small and medium-sized firms) won’t be able to make it, no matter how much they are helped. They have the same expenses as before and are going broke.
So the economic crisis could lead to the same situations as in 2001? What differences do you find with then?
Well, the difference is that if people are going out on the streets today, it is not because they are hungry but angry, unfortunately. There’s been a lot of crime in this past month. The motochorros [motorcycle thieves], who had faded away here, have reappeared. Banks were never robbed in José C. Paz before and now we have armed raids by 20 or 30 motorcyclists. We’re working hard on police operations because it’s getting out of hand and people are growing intolerant.
So without plans of contention then, there was hunger in 2001 and anger now?
Sure, the anger of people without work. Spending so much time confined at home is when the conflicts begin, that’s another factor now appearing. To which some react by going out enraged. The worst thing is that many people are in much greater need than in 2001 when the explosion then was due to hunger. They went out looting all the shops for food. Today I can assure you that food is not the problem. Those who say they need the ollas populares [soup kitchens] are lying because they are assisted by all levels of government.
So there are two kinds of people going out on the streets: the angry and the criminal. With the controls between districts now existing, it may be presumed that the thieves are robbing in their own neighbourhood.
That’s not true. So many convicts have been released that you notice them spreading around the streets. Without jobs they revert to crime. That’s a big problem we have alongside people staying at home during quarantine. The [provincial] police really are tackling this issue very forcefully with the necessary collaboration of the Federal Police, of whom still more is needed.
What is your opinion of the recent controversy between the national and provincial Security Ministers, Sabina Frederic and Sergio Berni?
Regrettable, that in a situation where both are needed, they should be so distanced with a lack of dialogue. The provincial and national authorities, the governor and the president, should end this problem by dumping them both or some other option, fix it somehow.,
And which of the two is dealing better with the problem?
I don’t know which of the two is displaying better leadership but the most visible is Sergio Berni because he’s out on the streets and very media-driven but perhaps in reality she is taking better care of the whole country. The central problem today lies in the outskirts of Rosario and Buenos Aires. They’re going to have to solve it because the police cannot keep up. Regrettably, the police have already been overtaken by events in some places. We’re doing all we can.
Do your mayoral colleagues from nearby districts comment on the same crime problems?
The whole outer ring of Greater Buenos Aires is like that. Moreno is worse than José C. Paz while Malvinas Argentinas is about the same. Moreno was previously mismanaged with no social contention and many shantytowns are spreading out to other districts from there. That’s also another big problem.
The [provincial] police are overstretched and the Federal Police must come in. The people keep going out and will continue to do so if you let them, you can’t stop them. If you did stop them, I think they’d be calmer but since nobody is restraining this, they keep coming out.
How much has crime grown in the last year?
Easily between 70 and 80 percent to give you a number.
Was the release of convicts from prison due to coronavirus a turning-point?
Yes, it started then. We were calmer before. We had the best statistics in the region, doing well, and now that achievement is falling apart. The same thing in other districts. It’s turning ugly.
Just as they were talking about a peak for late July, when will social discontent peak?
When the dead start piling up, when people see them, when patients go unattended in hospitals because they are overwhelmed. We might have a problem there. The idea is thus to work on the population staying home and observing quarantine there and not going to hospital on their own initiative if they have symptoms, in order not to overrun them.
You participated in the Buenos Aires provincial primaries, including as a gubernatorial hopeful, and you've been through various sectors of the Frente para la Victoria, How do you see provincial politics and the differences between the governor, the mayors and the President?
The governor basically is the most important. It was often said that [former governor] María Eugenia Vidal was a good administrator but she wasn’t and that’s plain to see. [Current governor] Axel Kicillof took over and took his time settling in. Only recently does he have some grasp because he ran into the pandemic and what followed was chaotic.
The inexperience of Kicillof and his team plus the pandemic represents a catastrophe. The governor, who also lacks manoeuvrability, has yet to find his feet and if the national government does not help him out, he could have severe problems.
If the provincial government stays afloat, it is because of national assistance. Otherwise we wouldn’t have an artificial respirator. We owe everything to the national government.
What’s your take on Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s role today?
Cristina works supporting Kicillof in the province and supposedly talking to Alberto. We don’t have much contact with Cristina. She phoned me when we took office but no more relationship after that. I have a lot of work to do and I’m not going to wait five or six hours or even days to see if she can attend me – I have too long a political career for that.
I respect her a lot. I worked with [late former president] Néstor Kirchner. Despite his errors, his was the best government without a doubt. There was US$52 billion [of Central Bank reserves] in the bank and in cash.
Do you see differences between the governments of Néstor and Cristina?
I do. As I said, Néstor ended up with US$52 billion in reserves and Cristina without them. The economy was mismanaged and much fuel had to be imported, harming the country.
Do you have more dialogue with Alberto Fernández?
Yes, I’ve had lunch with Alberto and afterwards dialogue two or three times. It’s a good relationship. It’s good with both of them but I think that in the difficult moments you have to appear more.
The media discuss whether the president manages all the power or whether he shares it or if the vice-president carries more weight. How will it end? Who will finally be number one?
Argentina has always been a presidential democracy. Cristina, in the period in which we conversed most, told me that she would not be staying on in politics because she was already too old and she said that while still president. She may well have already been preparing a new youth for the next elections. All of us who are a bit older should step aside and make way for the up and coming youngsters who will surely be much better than us. We have to teach them not to make so many mistakes.
Is Cristina preparing for the 2023 elections candidates other than herself and Alberto?
I’m not one for futurology. Alberto Fernández depends on himself, on how his presidency goes. If it goes badly, he will not earn popular approval. I disagree with the idea that presidencies should run eight years. The people remove you when you don’t do things right, that’s why neither Mauricio Macri nor María Eugenia Vida were re-elected, ditto for some mayors. You cannot tell people for whom to vote, you have to let them vote at election time.
If Cristina presents good bills and people want to vote for her, that will be their problem, whether it’s the right choice or not. But the essential thing is to allow Alberto Fernández to get to work. He has more than enough experience, having worked at Néstor Kirchner’s side.
Controversies like Vicentin have cropped up. Expropriation was a very brutal option, it would have been a bit better with just a trusteeship. National funds from the Banco Nación were locked up there and it was necessary to preserve them. It was hasty. These were measures taken by the president and one must respect them. What was lent to Vicentin almost equalled the social assistance for the entire population. A lot of money is owed to the country and also internationally. The gringos placed their harvests in Vicentin because it was safer than having them in the bank but it was a company subject to asset-stripping. Now the United States banks are claiming their money while Spain has been asked for credits. A trusteeship would have been good to see the numbers and what was done with the funds, as well as whether there was contraband with the grain. The firm handled 10 percent of Argentina’s exports and 30 percent of the grain going down the river and now Paraguay exports more than us. It’s a disgrace. Something which obviously did not happen at the sowing stage. The farmer should also bear in mind that if everybody paid their taxes, the burden would not exceed 25 percent [of Gross Domestic Product]. If you take all that into account, the problems appear.
How do you see the opposition for next year’s elections in the Province?
The opposition is divided but they could get together in three months. When the time comes, they will pull together to see if they can gain parliamentary immunity because many of them have judicial problems.
Do you see Mauricio Macri as a candidate in 2021?
As a candidate for Congress in order to acquire parliamentary immunity, sure thing. All the presidents have done it. The only president who didn’t need parliamentary immunity was Néstor Kirchner although afterwards he became a deputy anyway. This time I think they’ll all go looking for parliamentary immunity because they have problems. As for the espionage, we’ve all been spied on – it’s the flavour of the month. I was on a list to be spied on by the governor [Vidal]. Strange because she came to talk to me four or five times in order to ask me for help, which I gave her. Incomprehensible conduct.
What can be done to prevent Greater Buenos Aires from exploding and avert the situation you fear?
The Federal Police are needed in Greater Buenos Aires because the provincial force is overstretched. I’m on the ground the whole time. No quarantine for me, I’m out in the street. For the last two months I’ve been out on the health front, seeing the secretaries on the spot, because we have a severe problem there and we’re going to suffer it much more when the contagion peaks, everything will be overwhelmed.