Security Minister Aníbal Fernández says he is being more moderate nowadays because “I’ve learnt my lesson.” Even so, the Quilmes-born 64-year-old recognises everything he says in public is what he thinks and the often provocative and shocking tone he deploys also serves to change the agenda.
In a feature interview, the political veteran – a former mayor, senator and cabinet chief who has served as a government minister on four occasions (Production, Interior, Justice, Security) – argues that the government is beginning a new stage with a newly empowered Alberto Fernández, with the promise of economic improvement to come over the next two years.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s last letter came just after her acquittal in the Hotesur case. Many link the two facts – that she gave Alberto Fernández greater autonomy because she felt happy about the cases against her being favourably resolved.
In history there have been any number of men and women in politics who have made a custom of writing letters – nothing novel about that. Some people talk nineteen to the dozen but Cristina hasn’t been much that way in recent times. She has written four letters which say a lot and oblige people to pay attention. Everybody talks about those letters and indeed, we’re doing so in this interview after several days of articles on them. What she proposes is highly useful. No Argentine can be so crazy as to think there could be a default. We’re talking seriously about an agreement which does not jeopardise growth. Néstor Kirchner said that dead men pay no debts. Growth may not be jeopardised in order to be able to bring together the necessary to pay. I’m convinced that we’ll reach a point in common which helps everybody.
That letter came two days after.
I don’t attach any relation to that. The letter has more to do with Argentine policy.
But why was the linkage plausible for an important part of Argentine society?
That this gives greater executive freedom to Alberto Fernández.
Cristina is the most important political cadre Argentina has. She doesn’t need a gesture of that kind. Why many agree with that linkage is a matter of conjecture. Not for me to judge.
On Twitter you present yourself as “an unconditional follower of Alberto and Cristina.” Is that order dictated by protocol?
It’s because he’s the president and because I’ll be accompanying him as best I can. I don’t know how many ministers in this country have served as many presidents as I have. I believe in the presidency and I believe strongly in respecting it, accompanying it and working relentlessly to strengthen their public policy decisions. But that does not stop me from recognising that Cristina is almost family for me. A micron of that construction belongs to me. I made her.
By bringing Alberto and Cristina together?
I learned all about political fronts from Juan Perón, that construction has to continue in existence.
You said that “Cristina’s candidate will be Alberto in 2023.” Why?
The worst for Alberto has happened. He found an economically devastated country in bits and pieces with debt payments falling due every year through to 2023. He had to resolve the issue of private creditors and afterwards the Paris Club dating back to 1957 when the firing-squad revolution took a loan of US$700 million on the pretext of paying it off with what it would generate. Just the same as now with the International Monetary Fund.
You also said: “The machinery is up and running and until it overheats, will make a difference with times of positive results, which were missing before the election and the president has made use of at least a bit of that.”
The president had an advantage which others did not have – he could see what was happening beforehand in Europe with the pandemic, analysing the decisions in political terms with the newspaper of the day after. Some of that he had been applying patiently. The things they were saying about the agreements with the holdouts were incredible. But one day [Economy Minister] Martín Guzmán showed up saying: “Let’s lower it by US$37.7 billion.”
Would it have been better to reach an agreement with the IMF before the elections?
Depends on the agreement. Not at any price, no. That wouldn’t have helped. You must always strive for a reasonable and intelligent agreement which permits Argentines to live to pay.
Would an agreement with the characteristics you describe have added votes?
There has been a new Cabinet chief since the PASO primaries, Juan Manzur. You occupied that post twice.
I think I was also the only one to do that.
That’s a post created in the mid-1990s.
1994, as part of the Olivos Pact.
Manzur could represent a league of governors, as in 2002. But at the same time there crops up another governor, Córdoba’s Juan Schiaretti, to also present a kind of governors’ club beyond Frente de Todos. Are the projects of Manzur and Schiaretti in conflict?
The relationship is very good, as is the relationship of the president and ministers with the governors and the relationship of Manzur with the governors. Schiaretti is showing himself to be what he always was. When I was Cabinet chief, Cristina called me up to sit down with Schiaretti to try and find something we had in common for a way out. After arguing for three or four hours, there was nothing to be done. It’s the vision he always had. He’s within his rights, I don’t object to that. But what he’s doing now is what he has always done.
Won’t the governors follow that route?
That’s not so easy.
What is the role of the Greater Buenos Aires mayors, so important in the November comeback?
You’re making an invalid comparison between the PASO primaries and the midterms, like comparing a game of water polo and basketball – nothing in common. PASO is the acronym for “primarias, abiertas, simultáneas y obligatorias.” This meant that in many places with multiple differences we had only one candidate. Many felt that it was an insipid election. When we rang bells and told people that we needed them, they could have reacted in two different ways – answering yes or saying that they would think about it. Then they went and voted. In Quilmes, for example, we lost by seven points.
You’ve been the mayor of Quilmes, you know it.
The mayor [Mayra Mendoza] ended up winning by 3,500 votes. We rang bells and they accompanied her because they saw the job she’d been doing until now.
Do the mayors carry as much weight as a governor?
There are 30 Greater Buenos Aires mayors, mostly Frente de Todos. There is a good relationship with all of them and their work is multiplying. The presence of Martín Insaurralde as provincial Cabinet chief gives muscle to that indispensable politics. There’s a lot of work to be done in these next two years. Alberto has only recently started on the upward end of the curve. That’s why I was talking of “making use of a bit” but it’s still very small. We’re starting to see an Argentina on the path of growth. The budget says 5.5 percent but it will be 10.5 percent.
Double the growth and double the inflation too.
But you also have to add that the reserves are not going down and we have 30 percent more investment – real investment, not financial. Exports, industry and jobs are all improving.
So in economic terms are you optimistic about the last two years?
Highly so. Alberto will reap all the development which was possible during the pandemic.
Has the president been empowered within the specific weight of the coalition?
Yes but he was never stripped of power. It might seem that having a vice-president with two presidential terms to her name would condition her situation but no. The president is showing a different game from what everybody was predicting for him.
Would you agree that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner represents 20 percent of the total votes?
She does represent a part of the hard core.
And to win, would the other 25 percent contributed by Peronism be needed?
That’s an old concept of Néstor Kirchner: “With Peronism there’s not enough and without Peronism it would not be possible.”
That would be twice over – with Cristina and with Peronism.
The switch must be made. With Cristina there’s not enough and without Cristina it would not be possible. There’s all of a job to be done and I’ll be keeping it company.
Does that tie in with the loss of votes between 2019 and 2021 being attributed to Frente de Todos coming more under Cristina’s thumb?
That’s not the issue. I invite you to look at what happened to governments around the world.
The governments which lost during the pandemic.
That even happened to Winston Churchill after World War II, which he won, only to lose the elections. I’ve insisted with everybody that they shouldn’t talk of the pandemic. When you dedicate yourself like this president and his administration to resolving the problem and looking for vaccines wherever they might be, you cannot pass the bill to society, which will not permit it. That happened to Juan Manuel de Rosas with national unity, to Hipólito Yrigoyen with the middle class, to Juan Perón with social justice, to Raúl Alfonsín with the recovery of democracy, to Carlos Menem in the early stages of convertibility. What belongs to the people belongs to the people and this is an issue which the people have taken very much to heart so it’s a bit late now to think that this can win votes. In the world many people thought: “One vaccine, one vote” and that bedevilled analysis.
Will the years to come see more Alberto and less Cristina?
Both are needed. Alberto has plenty of vocation to work and create new things. Public powers will absorb plenty of manpower, boosting a domestic market which will then have to be supplied by the PyMEs small and medium-sized firms which will create still more jobs.
Alberto Fernández continues to be a presidential prospect for 2023. Would his economy minister then be Martín Guzmán?
No doubt about it. I’m not the one to evaluate it but as a political leader, he’s an enormous minister who at his young age knew how to interpret many of the real situations experienced by our country. It doesn’t worry me if I’m told otherwise. The one who has to say yes is the president.
How would you analyse the episode of the Molotov cocktails aimed at the offices of Clarín? Did it remind you of similar attacks against the doors of Perfil in 1992 and 1995?
I repudiated that issue. We caught one of those responsible within 48 hours. I’m not a cop and nor do I play at being one but I take decisions beyond the police, which are implemented by the professionals, who are many and very good. The cameras were examined to see exactly who were in action and while they were hooded, it was amplified and at some point you see when they take off their hoods and you can see their faces. With today’s technology those things can be appreciated. That led to locating that gentleman. I would have waited a bit more before going ahead with the arrests but that was the decision of the magistrate. Waiting a bit more, we could have investigated those linked to him more.
Does it worry you that it was against Clarín?
It strikes me as awful.
But doesn’t it worry you?
Yes, of course!
Could it escalate?
Doesn’t it seem counterproductive for the government when you took on [the cartoonist] Nik via Twitter writing: “Many City schools receive state subsidies and that’s OK, for example, ORT College. Do you know it? Sure you do. Or would you like me to sketch it for you?”
I called him up because I get on well with him. He came to my office and gave me some cartoons. When I was told that he had said that he was worried, I was in Tucumán. I had him called by an aide who is also present today in this interview to tell him that we would talk but since he couldn’t talk when I did ring, I made a couple of Twitter posts, one of which I placed in the answering machine of a journalist. When somebody told me that this would not be read by everybody, I tweeted again to say that I had no intention of harming anybody. That sketch reference is clear enough. There are thousands of sketches of ORT, a school for which I have the greatest respect. Some of the children of my friends are at that school, friends who have completed their studies and teach there.
But we can assume that you did not want to produce what followed.
If it did follow, that’s because I could have got it wrong. Can I do anything other than apologise?
Was it counterproductive for the government?
What is the importance of intervening in the public discourse to respond to the Nik Gaturro account when it says: “Gifting refrigerators, stoves, graduate trips, [social] plans, money, whatever. How sad not to hear the words work, effort or future.”
This is not the first time we’ve argued with Nik.
Does that contribute to the debate?
Not in any way.
With you a minister…
I was wrong … I don’t deny my errors.
‘I’m not going to stop what we’re doing for a single second to get Berni to stop delivering his opinions on this or that’
How do you evaluate the ministerial management of your predecessors, Sabina Frederic or Patricia Bullrich?
I don’t. I took a very ugly view of Bullrich and I told her so during her ministry, She has no idea how it works, leaving various loose ends in the worst possible way. As for my party colleague, she’s come and gone, not much sense in looking back. When I accepted the post, many friends told me that it was a ministry with many hassles. My reply is that I took it on precisely because of the hassles, which must be corrected. From what I know of this, given that I managed the federal security forces for five years, I recognise my own ability to work on that point. We’re in Río Negro, we were in Pino Hachado, we arrested some Chileans smuggling in some munitions. We’re in Greater Buenos Aires, Rosario, Salta and Misiones and we’ve been there for 40 days.
Doesn’t Frente de Todos have a problem of communication with the public divergences of Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni from what the president says?
That’s Berni’s problem – the president doesn’t lose half a second of his life over it. If Berni disagrees and says inconvenient things, that’s his lookout and I’ve told him that. I’m not going to stop what we’re doing for a single second to get Berni to stop delivering his opinions on this or that. There are many things which need changing in Argentina and that’s what the president is doing. Nobody’s encouraging Sergio to do his stuff. That’s not good and at some point he’ll have to realise that.
'My father wanted to call me Juan Domingo and my mother, Aníbal Alberto'
You were born in 1957. Imagining yourself to have been born in 1977, like Máximo Kirchner, would you be a leader of La Cámpora?
I started very young.
When you were 14.
Yes, now I’m 64. That was 50 years ago. My father was very Peronist.
Your second name is Domingo.
I was born on January 9, 1957, my father wanted to call me Juan Domingo and my mother, Aníbal Alberto, after her two brothers, so Aníbal Domingo split the difference.
Are your children also Peronist?
All of them. My oldest, who is 37, is a paediatrician and a Peronist, not so militant but ready to help out. And my daughter María Pilar, who is 25, is a journalist and very Peronist too.
Your fixed tweet is a video of Eva Perón in which she says: “Peronism is not learned or proclaimed, it is understood and felt. That’s why it’s a conviction and a faith.” How do you explain that feeling?
I respect it for the workers, the spine of the movement. Remembering it as a movement, not as a party, and understood as an electoral tool, a movement in which the workers occupy a fundamental place. Furthermore, women have been occupying a fundamental place for a long time, clearer than ever now. Nor do I detract value from the emotional.