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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 05-09-2020 09:15

A new low for the Lower House

Monday was a big day for Alberto Fernández’s Peronist government, as it heralded its debt deal with foreign creditors. But the joy lasted only a day and celebrations were all but buried by news in Congress.

Monday was a big day for the centre-left Peronist government. President Alberto Fernández headed a gathering of top officials – which included Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the man of the hour, Economy Martin Guzmán – to formally trumpet that acceptance of its US$66-billion debt restructuring deal had been nearly unanimous. 

The setting was grand. The officials looked triumphant. If you ask a government supporter, this was the opening that the Peronist administration is waiting for in order to relaunch the nation. Once the pandemic is over, Argentina will be able to concentrate on getting the economy back on track with the debt burden sorted out, the president argued.

The debt talks aren’t over, however. The government is now gearing up to formally engage in talks with the International Monetary Fund to reschedule a bailout loan of US$44 billion dollars, injected into the country during the centre-right presidency of Mauricio Macri (2015-2019). Guzmán said he expects the negotiations with the IMF to take a long time – the president has said in public that Argentina will not accept austerity policies.

Bring on the positive headlines. But the joy only lasted a day. If you ask the centre-right opposition and its supporters, who have staged noisy anti-government protests during the pandemic, there was plenty to complain about the next day.

On Tuesday, Juntos por el Cambio took its complaints to Congress and celebrations about the debt deal were all but buried by the news. Some 90 opposition lawmakers of Macri's centre-right coalition attended a lower house session on Tuesday in person, defying coronavirus restrictions. A small group of people brandishing Argentine flags demonstrated outside.

Effectively, the opposition lawmakers were defying the use of remote congressional sessions introduced during the epidemic. The opposition argued that a standing agreement by consensus to hold remote sessions in the Chamber of Deputies had expired on August 7. Leaders from Juntos por el Cambio say that they fear that the ruling coalition will use the remote sessions to approve the judicial reform bill already passed by the Senate, pension amendments and a wealth tax bill, railroading them through.

On Tuesday it felt like two sessions were going on at the same time in the lower house, because other lawmakers were attending via Zoom. Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa, a key member of the ruling coalition, said the opposition lawmakers in their seats could not be counted as present because they refused to log in via the online system. Juntos por el Cambio responded by saying they would take their case to court, arguing that remote sessions breach the house rules if there is no consensus over the holding of them. Meanwhile, the other parties present approved the continuation of remote sessions in the Chamber of Deputies, which is not controlled by the ruling coalition. The ultimate result on the day was parliamentary uproar. It is part of the opposition's relentless agitation. New street demonstrations have been called for later this month. 

President Fernández, during a long television interview on Wednesday night, blamed the opposition for the mess in the Lower House. He also dismissed allegations that the reform of the court system is designed to spare Fernández de Kirchner from the multiple corruption allegations she’s facing in court.

Fernández said he was concerned about the growing number of coronavirus cases, but he added that there is no longer a “quarantine” in Argentina. Lockdown restrictions will again be tightened if the situation worsens, he said. The president's sudden allergy to the word ‘quarantine,’ formally in place with different levels of severity since March 20, is a sign that popular support for the restrictions is waning. The pandemic is raging (10,933 cases were reported on Wednesday). As well as hitting the metropolitan area (Buenos Aires City plus Greater Buenos Aires), it’s also spreading to all other provinces (3,000 cases a day on average) and areas with weaker infrastructure. Health worker associations have warned that they and the system are under extreme stress.

There is no shortage of other thorny issues to ask the president about either. Authorities on Wednesday confirmed that part of a body found in Buenos Aires Province earlier this month was that of Facundo Astudillo Castro, a 22 year-old missing since April 30. Fernández said that he had met with the young man's mother and wanted to get to the bottom of the case. Officers from the Buenos Aires Province police force are under investigation, while relatives of Astudillo Castro have criticised provincial Security Minister Sergio Berni, a fiery Kirchnerite official who performs well in public opinion polls by preaching law and order.

Berni, who is said to ambitions of higher office, is also entangled in another controversy the opposition is fuming about: the occupation of land in the southern province of Río Negro by Mapuche indigenous communities and a similar land grab in Buenos Aires Province by groups of homeless people. 

The minister has condemned the occupations and defended the right to private property. National Security Minister Sabina Frederic initially was less adamant and had tried to call for a negotiated solution, though her rhetoric has since sharpened. The move by the squatters in Río Negro, who claim they have a legitimate ancestral right to the land, sparked counter-protests by angry residents. Frederic has since stated that land occupation is illegal and that security forces will take action when court orders are issued.

Berni, who is constantly saying that his only political boss is Fernández de Kirchner, is now in a tight spot over the suspicious death of a missing youth and the action by squatters. The provincial security minister has even accused Peronist groups, who belong to the ruling coalition, of organising the land grab in Buenos Aires Province, a Kirchnerite bastion ruled by Governor Axel Kicillof. There are differing stances in the coalition on the issue – Massa said this week that the squatters will be denied welfare payments from the national government during the pandemic.

Both Fernández and Kicillof have vowed to get to the bottom of the Facundo Castro case, which could turn out to be a crime of institutional proportions, if it is proved that the provincial police (which has a terrible human rights record and can be unpredictable under pressure) played a role in his disappearance and subsequently sought to cover it up. Cristina Castro, the late man’s mother, has called for Berni's resignation and says she will not let up in the fight for justice. The political consequences of the case now hinge on the outcome of the investigation backed by Fernández and Kicillof.

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Martín Gambarotta

Martín Gambarotta

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