Argentina’s very first city (founded from Peru on July 24-25, 1553), Santiago del Estero has been slipping in the national rankings ever since. Statistically, it is Argentina’s poorest province with a per capita annual income of US$ 770 or so on a par with the poorer African countries – one peso for every 14 earned in this metropolis. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) likewise places Santiago del Estero behind all other Argentine provinces according to its sustainable development indices (which combine economic growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability).
Perhaps Santiago del Estero might escape being rockbottom in institutional terms – political subtlety seems in even shorter supply in Formosa, for example – but the province has produced an iconic strongman unrivalled for “autumn of the patriarch” longevity. Carlos Juárez (1917-2010) was first elected in 1949 – when the likes of Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin and Clement Atlee were in power at somewhat higher levels elsewhere in the world with China only just going red and Konrad Adenauer starting off in Germany – and in the first years of this century he was still governor of Santiago del Estero in his eighth term (even if not continuous, being rudely interrupted by military coups on several occasions, and even if his wife, Mercedes Aragonés, ended up serving the last two years of his final term until 2003). Yet current Governor Gerardo Zamora – in power since 2005 (if we include the 2013- 2017 term of his wife Claudia Ledesma Abdala) – shows every sign of chasing the Juárez record. Not that the governorship is now at stake – Santiago del Estero is one of the two provinces (the other is Corrientes) which will not be electing a governor this year because the normal sequence was thrown out of whack by the Pablo Lanusse trusteeship finally terminating the Juárez dynasty by ousting Aragonés in 2004 (those were the early years of Kirchnerism when the new president Néstor Kirchner with Gustavo Beliz as his Justice minister and priding himself on the independence of his Supreme Court choices still claimed to be institutionally correct). Zamora is still midway through his third term.
No gubernatorial voting, then, but a double dose at national Congress level since Santiago del Estero will be one of the eight districts renewing its senators this year. Apart from his wife as occasional surrogate governor, Zamora has two more women representing his Civic Front in the Senate – Ada Iturrez de Cappellini and Blanca Porcel de Riccobelli. Since no party can win more than two of the three Senate seats, Zamora (still nominally Radical but a highly flexible politician on excellent terms with Kirchnerism and more recently cosy enough with the Macri administration) fixed up a parallel Popular Front list headed by Peronist trade unionist Gerardo Montenegro to ensure Kirchnerism all three senators back in 2013 – Montenegro is the other senator. No final word on how Zamora will be shuffling the deck this year.
At the same time most of Santiago del Estero’s seven deputies will be facing the voters this year – Mariana Morales, Graciela Navarro, Estela Neder and Mirta Pastoriza are to vacate their seats in October while Norma Abdala de Matarazzo, Bernardo Herrera and ex-governor Claudia Zamora have a further two years. All of these deputies except Morales (elected on Sergio Massa’s UNA list in 2015 with the spa town of Río Hondo an isolated Massa stronghold in Santiago del Estero until recently) respond to Zamora’s Civic Front since the governor is accustomed to manufacturing huge majorities via patronage – thus he delivered 63 and 72 percent of the vote to Peronist Daniel Scioli in the two rounds of 2015 on the mistaken assumption that he would be the next president. Also note that six of these seven deputies are women – this would suggest that there is no absolute correlation between high female representation and political modernisation (especially when governor’s wives are included in the equation).
Quickly displaced by Tucumán after 1565 as the main northern base, Santiago del Estero (with an original population of just 103 Spaniards when founded by Francisco de Aguirre in 1553) stagnated in colonial times but still rates as one of the 13 United Provinces of the River Plate in 1810 (and the most populous then after Buenos Aires and Córdoba), finally freeing itself from Tucumán control in 1820 under Felipe Ibarra, who dominated the province until his death in 1851. Ibarra was very much the pro-Rosas strongman of his times but soon after his death the province had its first constitution in 1857 (amended eight times since, the most recently in 2009) – this attempted a primitive form of parliamentary democracy by limiting the governor’s term to two years, extended to the current four years in 1903. But political life was always turbulent with chronic civil strife from the likes of the Taboada clan (relations and heirs of Ibarra) and Lanusse in 2004 was far from being the first federal government trustee – there were no less than 20 “interventions” from the first in 1860 with the last trustee of the 20th century being current Córdoba Governor Juan Schiaretti following the ‘Santiagazo’ riots of late 1993. A total of 36 trustees as against 49 more or less constitutional governors after 1857. Finally, political violence of a different kind was also born in Santiago del Estero – the far left ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo) guerrillas founded in 1970 by the Santucho brothers with deep roots in the province.
With a population of 896,461 according to the 2010 census, Santiago del Estero must have around a million by now despite steady emigration with an estimated further million born in the province now living beyond its borders. That exodus helps to explain the unemployment rate of 4.3 percent (the lowest in the country after La Rioja) – job creation by the public sector (accounting for 60 percent of the workforce, including 48 percent provincial employees, the fifth-highest level in Argentina) also helps to keep unemployment down. The population is one of the most rural in Argentina – the provincial capital atypically houses little more than a third of the population (327,974 according to the 2010 census) with only six other towns reaching five digits among the 27 departments. These include the spa resort of Termas de Río Hondo (27,838 inhabitants), Frías (25,405) and the farming centre of Añatuya (20,261, all 2010 figures).
The inhabitants of this semi-tropical province with extended salt flats and lagoons (hence the “Estero” in its name) have a nationwide (and not always deserved) reputation for being lazy with long siestas and numerous festivals which keep a lively folklore going. A life beyond electoral or business cycles.
#13 Santiago del Estero
Electorate (2017): 735,480
Governor: Gerardo Zamora (nominally Radical)
Senators: Three (2 Civic Front, 1 Popular Front)
Deputies: Seven (6 Civic Front, 1 UNA)
On the ballot: Three senators, four of seven deputies