Perhaps the ball started rolling on the other side of the estuary on March 26, when new Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou proposed that the salaries of all politicians and senior officials be reduced by 20 percent to finance a fund against coronavirus.
On this side of the River Plate, however, it was not until this week that a simliar two-pronged demand emerged – lead by the Juntos por el Cambio opposition and citizens who participated in the nightly 9.30pm cacerolazo pan-bashing protests.
By Tuesday, Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa had responded to the pressure by going one better still – proposing a 40-percent cut for five months to create a similar emergency fund here and calling a meeting of caucus leaders for next Monday to secure the necessary consent.
The cut would save the State an estimated 200 million pesos, on top of the 32 million pesos in unused travel expenses and special subsidies which deputies have already agreed to donate to the health system. Deputies collect a gross salary of 218,935 pesos which works out to around 169,000 net plus expenses, which would take the total over 200,000 pesos with the travel allowances for representatives from distant provinces factored in.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has afflicted nearly all levels of society, politics has returned to the fore.
THE TRIMMING TREND
At 9pm on Monday evening, the now-familiar sound of applause for medical professionals could be heard across the country. It’s become a nightly ritual ever since March 19 when President Alberto Fernández announced the nationwide lockdown. But half an hour later came a new but equally familiar sound – the din of banging kitchen metal demanding sacrifices from the political class.
The protest, replicated in regions across the country, was not across all of Buenos Aires – it was largely limited to the upmarket neighbourhoods of Barrio Norte, Recoleta, Belgrano, Núñez, Palermo and Vicente López, strongholds of the PRO centre-right party that rules the capital.
However, the move to trim political incomes did not start this week in those affluent zones – on the contrary, Buenos Aires City and Province lag behind much of the country.
Mendoza Radical Governor Rodolfo Suárez pioneered the trend by announcing on March 23 a cap of 50,000 pesos on all public-sector pay outside the key areas of health and security (an example followed in every detail by Corrientes last Tuesday). Before last weekend Jujuy, La Rioja, Salta and Entre Ríos had all followed suit – most cutting at executive branch level (with La Rioja Governor Ricardo Quintela and Salta’s Gustavo Sáenz donating their entire salaries), though Entre Ríos’ Peronist governor, Gustavo Bordet, halved the pay of political officials across the board. Tuesday saw four more provinces climb aboard – Corrientes, San Juan (a 30 percent cut across the board for all political officials), Tucumán (whose governor Juan Manzur donated his entire salary while halving the pay of his ministers) and La Pampa (no percentage cut but a donation of 10 million pesos collected from political pockets).
Congress has been especially vulnerable to reproaches of unearned wealth in the last fortnight since it has been totally paralysed by the lockdown (especially the Senate whose head, Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has either been in Cuba or self-isolation).
The legislature was jerked into some activity this week – the Chamber of Deputies questioned Education Minister Nicolás Trotta on Monday and the Senate Labour Minister Claudio Moroni on Wednesday, both via videoconference.
Public indignation has been fuelled not only by the examples of Uruguay and Mendoza but also by Congress itself. On March 19 it voted for a resolution granting each legislator an extra 100,000 pesos a month for use against coronavirus. “Why don’t they take the money out of their own pockets?” some started to ask.
The call for sacrifice was not well received in all political quarters. Carlos Bianco, the Cabinet chief of Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof, expressed the feelings of many national officials when he said that those in government did not deserve a pay cut because they were “working 16 hours a day, often without eating, with huge responsibilities.” He dismissed the cacerolazos as “partly [a political] operation and partly ignorance.”
Presidential advisor and City legislator Leandro Santoro had his own explanation for the saucepan-bashing – it was a direct reaction to the remarks last weekend from President Fernández that slammed Techint’s Paolo Rocca for laying off workers.
Santoro said they were entirely orchestrated by the opposition – pointing the finger at PRO party chairwoman Patricia Bullrich – although he exempted both the Radical party (from where he originated) and City Hall from the accusation. The Frente de Todos lawmaker said that he was not against cutting the pay of the public sector, but said a pandemic was not the time to do it.
Bullrich rubbished Santoro’s accusations, pointing out that since the protest was aimed against all politicians, “it would be pretty stupid and ridiculous to organise saucepan-bashing against ourselves.” Less partisan analysts interpret the protests as resulting from the spontaneous interaction of social networks.
Even the opposition coalition, which proposed a 30 percent pay cut for all three branches of government on Monday, was not united behind the idea.
After PRO caucus chairman Cristian Ritondo first presented the idea during a videoconference, Juntos por el Cambio caucus leader Mario Negri (RadicalCórdoba) announced a letter addressed to President Fernández calling for a cut at the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches. But there was no consensus, with various deputies complaining about not being consulted over the letter’s contents and considering Negri’s approach too soft.
Some thought the idea should take the form of a bill in Congress, rather than an appeal to the president, while others wanted the money to be earmarked for loans at zero interest rate to the PyMEes (small and medium-sized companies) rather than merely being returned to government coffers. Others thought the cuts should go beyond the pay of deputies. The entire Civic Coalition wing of the opposition coalition broke off all Zoom and WhatsApp contact in rejection of the proposal, Perfil reported.
The Senate has stayed rather more silent on this issue.
Three Frente de Todos senators have indicated their willingness to absorb a pay cut should it be asked of them. Three opposition senators (Esteban Bullrich, Humberto Schiavoni and Martín Lousteau) have tabled a motion that 20 percent of the gross earnings of all personnel in the legislative and judicial branches and in state companies should be withheld for the next six months should they earn over 200,000 pesos, 15 percent in the 150,000-200,000 range, 10 percent in the 100,000-150,000 range and five percent for salaries between 70,000 and 100,000 pesos. Since senators gross around 240,000 pesos, they would seem to qualify for the top bracket unless their net pay (around 163,000) is made the criterion.
On Thursday, Frente de Todos lawmakers held a videoconference call lasting three hours, after which it emerged that each one would choose their own path. “Do it conscientiously,” was a line that emerged in reporting, as was the fact that it was “at their discretion.” For now, there remains no consensus, though surely but slowly, money is being transferred to private or public institutions.
On Thursday, first vice-president in the Senate, Maurice Closs, donated his entire monthly salary (164,244 pesos net) to a hospital in Misiones. He then posted proof on his Twitter account.