Thursday, April 18, 2024

ARGENTINA | 01-03-2024 12:34

What we learned this week: February 22 to 29

A selection of the stories that caught our eye over the last seven days in Argentina.



President Javier Milei made his maiden state-of-the-nation speech to open Congress at 9pm last night amid lively expectations but the hour was far too advanced to meet our press time. There were hints that yesterday’s announcements might include a revamped reform law following a midweek meeting between Milei and almost the entire libertarian caucus including Speaker Martín Menem and La Libertad Avanza lower house leader Oscar Zago on what also happened to be Presidential Spokesman Manuel Adorni’s birthday. Meanwhile in Congress ahead of the inauguration of ordinary sessions, the Bicameral Commission to decide the future of the deregulatory emergency mega-decree 70/2023, which chose its authorities the previous Thursday, met last Thursday to set its agenda, which includes the summons of Cabinet Chief Nicolás Posse and Economy Minister Luis Caputo.     



It all started just before last weekend when Chubut PRO Governor Ignacio Torres threatened to cut off oil and gas supplies in response to 13.8 billion pesos being shaved off his province’s federal revenue-sharing cut in order to service the debts to the national government incurred by the previous Peronist provincial administration, but it was far from over as President Javier Milei prepared to face Congress yesterday. All Patagonian governors immediately rallied to the support of Torres, soon followed by all governors nationwide except Tucumán’s Osvaldo Jaldo. Security Minister Patricia Bullrich sought to counter these gubernatorial pressures by drafting a statement entitled “An Appeal to Sanity” against the “blackmail” of Torres, gathering the signatures of PRO leaders and militants. Bullrich further rubbished Chubut as a province “where nobody lives, only a million guanacos.” Both sides rapidly spoke of taking the issue to court but Torres moved first, obtaining as early as Tuesday a favourable ruling from the Rawson federal judge Hugo Sastre halting the retention of federal revenue-sharing funds (without giving back to Chubut its 13.8 billion pesos, however) – Milei spoke of seeking an overrule of this intervention via the Supreme Court. Yet even before that ruling the libertarian President had already escalated the conflict to dimensions making Chubut seem a very small tip of the iceberg when he started the week by slashing the Buenos Aires provincial budget to the tune of almost 875 billion pesos by eliminating the FFF (Fondo de Fortalecimiento Fiscal) revenue booster, created by previous President Alberto Fernández at the expense of City Hall’s federal revenue-sharing funds in order to help Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof to ward off a police mutiny in September, 2020. In response Kicillof urged joint action against the national government’s drive “to ruin the provinces,” also complaining about the Teacher Incentive Fund being withheld. Every possibility of new developments between this summary being written and this newspaper being read.



President Alberto Fernández was indicted last Thursday for presumed irregularities for steering the insurance contracts of government agencies in the direction of "a prívate broker and companies" during his presidency, standing accused of malfeasance and the misallocation of public funds with ANSES social security administration the biggest client to the tune of 20 billion pesos with 300 million in commissions. The case falling under federal judge Julián Ercolini for now was lodged by federal prosecutor Ramiro González on the basis of charges presented by the lawyer Silvina Martínez with the government requesting to be a co-plaintiff. Alberto Pagliano, the former CEO Nación Seguros SA and the businessman Héctor Martínez Sosa were also indicted. Fernández rejected the charges, saying that if anything had been done wrong, it was the fault of his secretary, who happened to be the wife of co-defendant Martínez Sosa. Fernández signed Decree 823/2021 stipulating that all insurance contracts of public agencies should go to Nación Seguros SA.



On Thursday Economy Minister Luis Caputo met up with his Washington counterpart, a congratulatory Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, at the G20 summit of economy ministers in Sao Paulo with International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva also on the scene. The United States also bulked large on the government radar last weekend – just one day after warmly welcoming Washington’s supportive Secretary of State Antony Blinken here, President Javier Milei was cosying up to Donald Trump on the other side of the political fence at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the US capital, telling the Republican frontrunner in a flash meeting: “You were a great president and I hope you will be so again.” The presidential entourage in Washington included Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who told the recently re-elected President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele: “We want to follow the (law and order) model which you are driving forward,” even if Bukele commented that Argentina might only need a milder dose of his medicine as facing a less extreme crime problem.



On Monday Federal Criminal Cassation Court prosecutor Mario Villar called for the six-year prison sentence already slapped on former two-term president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in late 2022 to be doubled to 12 years. Villar echoed the arguments of the prosecutors Sergio Mola and Diego Luciani in the previous Vialidad trial of the presumed misallocation of Santa Cruz highway contracts that she was guilty of “illicit association” as well as “fraudulent administration” and that the 51 misallocated highway contracts constituted separate crimes rather than a single continuous irregularity within a “structure of corruption mounted on a noble aim such as public highways.” The prosecutor also called for the conviction of former Federal Planning minister Julio De Vido and three other ex-officials acquitted at the previous trial, as well as for the decommissioning of the 84 billion pesos which went astray. The Cassation Court will session next Thursday to hear the defence. Meanwhile De Vido indirectly criticised his co-defendant, describing the Alberto Fernández Presidency (masterminded by Fernández de Kirchner) as “the worst in Argentine democracy” with Javier Milei as its inheritance.



Human Capital Minister Sandra Pettovello carved out her space in the news last week, dismantling the Potenciar Trabajo into two new plans in a form designed to cut out the intermediation of social organisations and municipal governments while virtually freezing the creation of five new national universities (Delta, Pilar, Ezeiza, Río Tercero and Madres de Plaza de Mayo), as approved by a law in the closing stages of the Frente de Todos government late last year with Peronist and Radical support, by ordering a review.



Nahuel Morandini and Roque Villegas, two Jujuy men jailed more than seven weeks ago for circulating via the social networks rumours casting doubts on the fidelity of the wife of ex-governor Gerardo Morales and the paternity of their daughter, were finally released last Monday after increasing criticism of an abuse of authority threatening the freedom of expression. Both men complained vociferously about physical and psychological mistreatment and about prison conditions in general.



A strike by three Aerolíneas Argentinas trade unions last Tuesday grounded most other airlines, affecting over 80,000 passengers at Ezeiza and Aeroparque airports and causing flights to be rescheduled throughout the week and beyond. ATE state workers went on strike on Monday, accompanying the stoppage with a march, but a teacher strike the same day at the start of the City school year was far less effective with 93 percent of teachers showing up in their classrooms after being granted a pay floor of 870,000 pesos (as against a national minimum of 250,000 pesos). Meanwhile in Patagonian San Martín de los Andes there was a lockout with the local bus company announcing the indefinite suspension of urban transport due to the lack of subsidies.



Inclusive language to honour the gender perspective was axed throughout the entire national civil service on Tuesday, one day after Defence Minister Luis Petri had placed it in front of a metaphorical firing-squad throughout his own portfolio. The feminisation of military ranks to “generala,” “sargenta,” etc. would be sanctioned as confusing the precision needed for the execution of orders, Petri clarified.



The outbreak of dengue is gathering force in Buenos Aires Province in particular where 26 municipal districts have declared a state of alert while the number of cases (over 40,000 testing positive so far this summer) has already swamped the capacity for lab analysis with the symptoms of patients being diagnosed instead. Between the second and third weeks of February the number of cases rose 66 percent from 1,796 to 2,997 confirmed cases in BA Province alone with four deaths but dengue is also on the loose in other parts of the country – for example, over 1,700 cases in Córdoba. Nationwide the number of cases of dengue has set a new record, marking a 2,546 percent increase so far this year by comparison with the same period in 2023. In the six months between last August and February there have been 57,210 cases of dengue with 38 deaths.



Referring to her meeting with British Foreign Secretary David Cameron at the G20 ministerial summit in Rio de Janeiro in the previous week, Foreign Minister Diana Mondino defined the Malvinas issue as “beyond discussion” while describing the encounter as “the start of a very productive future.” Meanwhile the new envoys to Spain and Bolivia were named by President Javier Milei last Thursday - Roberto Bosch Estévez (previously chargé d’affaires) in Madrid to replace Ricardo Alfonsín and Marcelo Massoni in La Paz.



Tourists on a Caminito stroll in the colourful La Boca neighbourhood early on Sunday morning were startled to see the body of an elderly man floating down the Riachuelo, the second such case in a month. Coast Guards and firemen managed to retrieve the body.

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