Monday, April 19, 2021
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OP-ED | 27-02-2021 08:59

Message in a syringe

With President Alberto Fernández set to open the ordinary sessions of Congress with a state-of-the-nation address, the usual buzz of anticipation is conspicuous by its absence.

The day after tomorrow President Alberto Fernández will be opening the ordinary sessions of Congress with a state-of-the-nation address, traditionally the formal start of the political year after the summer holidays, and yet the usual buzz of anticipation over this calendar milestone is conspicuous by its absence.

There are at least a couple of reasons for this anomaly, both related to the coronavirus pandemic. Firstly, President Fernández commenced last March with a state-of-the-nation address which was not immune from criticism (the stress laid on judicial and abortion reform and a crackdown on state intelligence did not respond to most urgencies) but was at least a road map for 2020 – just two days later Argentine had its first confirmed case of coronavirus (the first of well over two million almost a year later), turning everything upside down, so why go writing in sand again? The second – and far more glaringly obvious reason – is the scandal of the ‘VIP vaccination’ queue-jumping, which evicted Ginés González García from the Health Ministry at the end of last week.

Tossing the midweek conviction of an emblematic icon of corruption like Lázaro Báez into that cocktail, even the most skilled speechwriter would be at a loss to find the right words for the presidential address come Monday. The situation clearly calls for something out of the box but even a drastic correction of governance might not suffice – perhaps something as innovative and unprecedented as an apology is required. Public anger runs deep here – queue-jumping is commonly eyed askance in such trivial contexts as bus stops or banks or supermarkets but when it becomes a matter of life and death like vaccines, indignation knows no bounds. How can President Fernández possibly defend such immorality with the argument that it is not technically illegal? A change of minister is unlikely to be enough.

The worst thing President Fernández could do on Monday would be to try and change the subject but at the same time the outrageous misconduct of certain government cronies is not the biggest problem facing Argentina. Buried deep below the ‘VIP vaccine’ and Báez headlines last week and barely reaching the front page was the confirmation of a double-digit economic plunge last year by INDEC statistics bureau – a decline condemning the country to the same per capita income as half a century ago. A reflection of so many years in which the urgent has constantly crowded out the important. Monday’s state-of-the-nation address could usefully incorporate some of that medium-range and long-term thinking which President Fernández tried to pioneer earlier this month by launching the Socio-Economic Council (another fundamental item buried deep in the news). Urging attention to the big picture might look like a feeble distraction from the mega-scandal on a par with arguments like “Accidents will happen” or “Boys will be boys,” but it is not.

Yet if the government is to earn respect for this approach, it needs to be consistent. The strategic vision underlying the Socio-Economic Council concept is not to be found elsewhere. When country risk tops 1,500 points, a level kissing any investment goodbye, any government needs to move fast, starting with an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – priorities of which the economic team is well aware, but delaying that agreement all year has already moved from being a possibility to a probability as an electioneering allergy to structural reforms weighs uppermost. Yet nor is that agreement everything – the IMF would doubtless be impressed by January’s fiscal surplus (the first of this administration) but squaring the circle of balancing the budget while wooing voters is being achieved at the expense of business, starting with the wealth tax. Keeping electricity and gas cheap while slashing Treasury subsidies will be achieved by piling up company billing while the fiscal cost of the planned income tax relief of some 40 billion pesos will be lowered by increasing corporate taxation. Perhaps commodity prices will come to the rescue but the general thrust of government policies is, in the best of cases, for growth without job creation or investment.

Nobody is agog anyway but we will know soon enough what President Fernández has to say for himself on Monday.    

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