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ARGENTINA | 01-05-2021 00:01

What we learned this week: April 25 to May 1

Our pick of the stories that caught our eye over the last seven days in Argentina.

 

THE WEEK IN CORONAVIRUS

The month of April closed with 2,977,363 confirmed cases of coronavirus contagion and 63,865 deaths as against 2,824,652 cases and 61,176 deaths at the close of the previous week – figures alarming enough for President Alberto Fernández to extend the tighter restrictive measures announced in mid-April into the first three weeks of this month early on Friday. Last year’s tripartite consultations ahead of quarantine announcements were revived on Tuesday when the three Cabinet chiefs (Santiago Cafiero for the national government, Carlos Bianco for the Buenos Aires provincial government and Felipe Miguel for City Hall) met to coordinate future steps. Also on Tuesday, presidential special advisor Cecilia Nicolini confirmed that vaccine negotiations with Pfizer (interrupted last February after six months of bad blood) had been resumed. On that front Patricia Bullrich, who chairs PRO centre-right party, drew fire from leading Frente de Todos figures when she said that the government “could have” traded the Malvinas for Pfizer vaccines although the former Security minister subsequently ratified her “complete” support for Malvinas sovereignty. Throughout the week the Supreme Court rolled over City Hall’s litigation pressing the right to classroom education until the corresponding emergency decree expired on Friday, although that battle stands to be renewed. On Thursday the price of medicinal oxygen was frozen for 90 days, restricting supplies to the health sector, after the Buenos Aires provincial government reported at the start of the week that the demand for oxygen had trebled in the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. That evening President Fernández went to Ezeiza airport in person to greet the arrival of a million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine aboard an Aerolíneas Argentinas flight. The strain on intensive care beds also mounted with occupancy topping 5,000 beds throughout the week as against just over 3,500 at the start of April, increasing fears of a collapse of the health system. 

 

MARIO MEONI DIES IN CAR CRASH

Transport Minister Mario Meoni, 56, died in a road accident when driving home to Junín (where he had been a three-term mayor before entering national politics) to spend last weekend with his family. Buried there last Saturday, he was mourned across the political spectrum. His portfolio will be covered by Public Works Minister Gabriel Katopodis until a successor is defined, the subject of speculation throughout the week. Predictably enough, at press time, Trenes Argentinos Infraestructura (TAI) chief Alexis Guerrera was confirmed as the new minister by several local news outlets. Like Meoni, Guerrera is closely allied with Sergio Massa, who proposed him for the post.

 

VACA MUERTA BLOCKADES

Protesting health workers on Wednesday lifted the roadblocks erected over the previous three weeks at the Vaca Muerta shale oil deposit, saying that they would shift their pay protest to other parts of Patagonia. The roadblocks had affected Vaca Muerta oil and natural gas production and left the area without energy. The health workers (including doctors, nurses, orderlies and other hospital staff) continue to rejected the increase offered by the provincial government of 53 percent spread over 10 months as insufficient remuneration for their high-risk jobs fighting the spiralling second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

MERCOSUR CHANGES AFOOT

Argentina agreed at a Mercosur ministerial meeting last Monday to place on the table the Uruguayan proposals of a lower common external tariff and permitting free-trade agreement negotiations with outsiders without requiring the assent of the entire trade bloc (both backed by Brazil) at the next summit.  

 

ESTEBAN BULLRICH REVEALS ALS DIAGNOSIS

Senator Esteban Bullrich (Juntos por el Cambio-Buenos Aires Province) revealed on Wednesday that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare disease condemning him to progressive muscular and neural decay. The former Education minister drew expressions of sympathy from across the political spectrum, including Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with whom he has frequently clashed in the Upper House and who said: “I am sure that his profound and sincere belief in God will give him the necessary strength to face this difficult situation.”  

 

MINIMUM WAGE RISE

The Minimum Wage Council on Tuesday approved almost unanimously (with the vote of 31 of the 32 government, business and trade union representatives present) to raise the pay floor by 35 percent over the next 10 months. This included an immediate hike of nine percent, followed by four percent both in this and next month, three percent in July and successive increases of five percent in August, November and February. Until last week the minimum wage had stood at 21,600 pesos since March while social organisations protesting last week included a figure of 60,000 pesos in their demands. Meanwhile business lobbies slammed the bill raising corporate taxation to 35 percent although the government claims that it will only apply to 10 percent of companies.

 

MARKET WATCH

 The “blue” dollar, the main parallel exchange rate, surged as high as 158 pesos early in the week but had retreated to 150 pesos by the close of the month. The official exchange rate of 98.90 pesos as quoted by Banco Nación remained well ahead if the 65 percent surcharges for purchasers are added. Among the unofficial but legal alternative exchange rates the CCL (contado con liquidación) closed April at 155.64 pesos as against 153.15 pesos the previous Friday, while the MEP (mercado electrónico de pagos) finished the month on 152.19 pesos, up from 148.36 pesos the previous Friday. After two weeks on either side of 1,600 points country risk closed April on 1,555 points.

 

ESPERT LINKS IN SPOTLIGHT

The 2019 presidential candidate José Luis Espert, the champion of free market economics, has been denounced for links with suspected drug-trafficker Federico “Fred” Machado, who was arrested in Neuquén in mid-April on the strength of an Interpol red alert to face charges from Texan courts of cocaine deals and money-laundering. Espert’s supporters downplayed the links, accusing Juntos por el Cambio of seeking to remove a competing alternative within the opposition vote, although there is evidence of Machado’s role in the liberal economist’s 2019 presidential campaign at least, including the loan of a plane to present the candidate’s book in Río Negro. Espert is accused of not declaring Machado’s contributions to his Unite party. The like-minded centre-right party Republicanos Unidos, headed by former Economy minister Ricardo López Murphy, takes these charges seriously enough to suspend negotiations for a possible electoral front with Espert until he submits his financing to an independent audit, while Espert’s current ally Javier Milei is starting to have cold feet.    

 

BODIES OF MOUNTAINEERS DISCOVERED

The bodies of Nicolás Ibaceta and Roberto Leroy, missing for a quarter-century since 1996, were found by a mountain guide last month at an altitude of 5,960 metres on the mountain Cerro El Plata in the Andes near Mendoza. The bodies, well preserved thanks to the extreme cold, were taken to the provincial capital where they were recognised by their families.

 

WRITER DEAD AFTER ALLEGATIONS

 

A Venezuelan writer, poet, and essayist who confessed on Instagram to statutory rape was found dead on Thursday after falling nine storeys in Recoleta. Two days ago, a woman in Venezuela had come forward on social media saying the writer, Willy McKey, 40, had requested nude photos of her in exchange for publishing her work. On Wednesday, another woman known only as "Pia" said on Twitter that McKey had had sexual relations with her in 2015, when she was 16 years old. Following the accusations on Twitter, McKey erased his Instagram profile, replacing all posts with three acknowledging the accusations, confirming the statutory rape and asking for forgiveness. It is presumed his death was a suicide.

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