Buenos Aires Times

opinion and analysis ON NATIONAL POLITICS

Argentina: Pretty vacant

Few things signal unreliability as clearly as physical and verbal aggression within Congress coupled with a battlefield in the streets, reminiscent of the darkest days of the 2001 political crisis that imploded in then- President Fernando De La Rúa’s hands like a grenade.

Saturday 16 December, 2017
Lawmakers huddle around speaker Emilio Monzó in the middle of a scandalous session of Congress over the ruling Cambiemos coalition's pension reform package.
Lawmakers huddle around speaker Emilio Monzó in the middle of a scandalous session of Congress over the ruling Cambiemos coalition's pension reform package. Foto:Télam

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Once again Argentina must face up to a cultural and political failure that is systemic, one which this time led to political violence within the Chamber of Deputies and in the streets. Few things signal unreliability as clearly as physical and verbal aggression within Congress coupled with a battlefield in the streets, reminiscent of the darkest days of the 2001 political crisis that imploded in then-President Fernando De La Rúa’s hands like a grenade.

And once again, almost all the parties involved are to blame, from President Mauricio Macri to the Kirchnerites, from the brutal security forces to the leftist political organisations that led the week’s protests. And, as usual, instead of debating the merits of the so-called “reforma previsional” that seeks to slash public spending by cutting pensioners’disbursements, we are left with broken dishes.

Empowered by a series of electoral and legislative victories, Macri’s ruling Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition suffered a painful political setback after being forced to call off an extraordinary session in the Chamber of Deputies where it sough to pass a key piece of legislation. Macri’s reform agenda — based on a fiscal compact, tax and labour reform, and a new federal deal with provincial governors to line up their coffers with fresh funds in exchange for political support — is based on the premise of deficit reduction, which in turn rests on spending cuts. As Cambiemos’ godmother Elisa Carrió made clear while calling off the session, they are a minority government, which in turn requires skillful alliance-building and legislative math.

Cambiemos’ legislative frailty became explicitly clear as they struggled to build a quorum on Thursday. It was physically illustrated by the stand-off between Emilio Monzó, president of the chamber and the mastermind behind Cambiemos’ legislative strategy, and a group of opposition lawmakers led by Leopoldo Moreau where punches and objects were thrown. Monzó is generally known as a master negotiator; clearly, anxiety got to him. Tellingly, the verbally belligerent Carrió was the one to call for order, consuming political capital to call off the session while pointing the finger at others, both within Cambiemos and the opposition.

Estimates suggest the previsional reform would slash anywhere between 60 and 100 billion pesos from the budget deficit, while the new formula to calculate disbursements would limit what pensioners receive, cutting the purchasing power of the most vulnerable. While the Macri administration seriously considered passing the controversial reform through a Presidential decree — objected to by Carrió and the CGT umbrella union grouping — reason prevailed: they called for a new extraordinary session on Monday while announcing a one-time payoff to pensioners to compensate the pay cuts after negotiating with Peronist governors. It’s expected to cost four billion pesos. Money, sometimes, can buy happiness. Or at least peace.

Cambiemos’ failed legislative math was upended by its inordinate application of the supposedly legitimate use of physical force. The militarisation of the streets leading up to Congress is reported to have counted with 1,000 to 1,500 men responding to the questioned Gendarmerie (Border Guard), Prefecture, and the Federal and City Police. While there can be no doubts that sectors of the opposition sought to generate a violent engagement with the forces responding to Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, their response was overwhelming. “It’s unheard of in 34 years of democracy that seven deputies have been injured because of the deployment of security forces in Congress,” said Agustín Rossi, head of the Kirchnerite faction in the Chamber of Deputies. Videos and pictures showed deputies trying to push their way through barricades, many of them failing to make into the congressional building. Kirchnerite Matías Rodríguez was knocked out from a riot shield hit to the head, while Mayra Mendoza, also of the Victory Front, was pepper sprayed at point blanc range. Reporters at the scene, including two of Perfil’s photojournalists, were attacked with rubber bullets and water cannons despite identifying themselves as members of the press. There was a clear intention to violently repress by the trigger happy security forces. According to Clarin’s Marcelo Bonelli, the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) led by the controversial Gustavo Arribas wasn’t aware of the presence of “inadmisible violent factions” in the streets, a statement that is hard to believe given the level of deployment and the violence with which security forces acted.

Starting the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, and the death of Rafael Nahuel in the midst of a violent dispersion by the Prefecture, the Macri administration has proven it believes in using the iron fist of the state. While Minister Bullrich is the executing arm, the final responsibility lies with the president. By now, it’s not surprising that Macri hasn’t pronounced himself publicly about the violence. Even informally, Perfil received no calls asking about our photojournalists’ health.

That’s not to say the opposition is free of sin. No one is, and much less in the murky world of Argentine politics. Cristina was fond of telling her political opponents to create a party and win an election. And while that’s exactly what happened, CFK and her followers have demonstrated they are sore losers. Throughout the fateful special session in Congress, the Kirchnerites muddied the legislative waters with heated rhetoric and physical violence. Cambiemos’ aspirations for quorum were razor thin, but the Kirchnerites, allied with opportunists like Sergio Massa’s Renovation Front and the extreme-left, lost all decorum in the chamber.

Outside, clearly organised political columns marched on Congress, many of them covering their faces while holding sticks. Footage shows groups with hammers breaking the sidewalks and throwing rocks. Groups stormed the barricades, while the resistance lasted six hours. Violence is never justified, no matter what side you’re on.
Vacant ideologies, just extreme pragmatism and no answers. It all reminds me of a song released in 1977 by the provocative Sex Pistols titled “Pretty Vacant,” famous for how Johnny Rotten pronounced the second word. “There’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply, oh just remember I don’t decide, I got no reason it’s all too much, you’ll always find us, out to lunch,” it said, and carried on: “Don’t ask us to attend ‘cos we’re not all there, oh don’t pretend ‘cos I don’t care, I don’t believe illusions ‘cos too much is real, so stop you’re cheap comments ‘cos we know what we feel.” Pretty vacant, is how we should feel. 

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