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OP-ED | 11-03-2023 05:20

Beware all sides of March

Various anniversaries in recent days (including today) only underline the fragmentation of a society facing the overhang of economic and social volcanoes.

Various anniversaries in recent days (including today) only underline the fragmentation of a society facing the overhang of both economic and social volcanoes in the forms of insoluble insolvency and Rosario’s drug drama. Today’s 50th anniversary of the election of Héctor Cámpora (whose name is kept alive by the voraciously militant Kirchnerite grouping La Cámpora), next Monday’s 10th anniversary of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio metamorphosing into Pope Francis and International Women’s Day with its divided marches last Wednesday all reflect very different social sectors, although not without some overlap, and all further disperse an already confused political debate which only eludes the real problems.

To confuse the issue yet further, the real problems seem to be finding solutions more easily than the invented on the basis of last Monday’s smooth peso debt bond swap and the highly overdue presidential response to Rosario violence – where a directly existential menace also meets in some ways with surrealistic reactions inasmuch as an attention-grabbing threat to the in-laws of football superstar Lionel Messi seemed to prompt more nationwide concern than the slaying of a 12-year-old kid as a direct target, not the collateral damage from a stray bullet or crossfire. Sending 400 more Border Guards and unarmed military engineers to the hotspot at least recognises Rosario’s plight although federal forces have already been sent there seven times in the past decade without bringing peace – moreover, as President Alberto Fernández himself implied, the police are as much part of the problem as the solution (also widely suspected of authoring the threats against Messi, even if perhaps for the more acceptable motive of bringing attention to Rosario’s tragedy).

As for Monday’s bond swap agreement, consensus there seemed as impossible to avoid as it is to achieve in the rest of a polarised country – Economy Minister Sergio Massa appeared to be defusing a bomb of 7.5 trillion pending pesos by as simple an expedient as pulling a plug. There was simply no alternative to that agreement, a conclusion shared by most orthodox economists. With shrinking reserves and zero credit abroad, the state had no means of meeting payments condensed into the next quarter due to the elections acting as a cut-off date, given the doubts over either the will or the ability of the next government to pay them – well aware of this and fully sharing those doubts, the creditors had no choice but to negotiate since their only alternative was to trigger a catastrophic default and nor can they set too much store by the relatively favourable terms obtained. What we saw last Monday was a mirror of what we have been seeing for the last three years with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – being “too big to fail” as the recipient of the largest credit extended by the IMF, Argentina has been pretty much able to dictate its terms because absolutely nobody wins with a default.

Yet the fact that nobody wants a crisis does not necessarily mean that none will happen in a very near future. Kicking the ball ahead is a finite option because it eventually leaves the pitch and game over. Furthermore, rollover might work for pesos but dollars are also needed to keep the ball rolling. Each month so far this year the drought forecasts have been direr than the previous month with grain export earnings slumping by at least US$20 billion at a time when Massa cannot tighten import restrictions any further without sending industry into a recessive tailspin and at a time when inflation is sliding out of control following a brief slowdown in the last third of last year.

But instead of taking this looming crisis and the tragedies of Rosario as seriously as they deserve, political debate is stuck with such non-issues as the “ban” on Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s candidacy, which is set to bulk large in today’s commemoration of the Cámpora anniversary and also obtruded in Wednesday’s International Women’s Day marches. But if even the prosecutor Diego Luciani is appealing (as insufficient) the corruption sentence given its judicial grounding last Thursday, what chance does it have of being upheld any time soon and thus ruling her out of this year’s elections? Such problems are actually harder to solve than the real ones because they do not lend themselves to any simulated solutions such as bond swaps or the despatch of security forces precisely because they are unreal.

But at least Messi has the World Cup and Argentina 10 years of a Pope in Rome. Fingers crossed, there will be an Oscar to celebrate too.

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