Last Tuesday, on the same day as the violence erupting in Jujuy, there were massive marches against the reforms of Colombia’s new leftist government in healthcare, pensions and labour legislation, unfolding as peacefully as demonstrations should despite that Caribbean nation’s sanguinary history – an outcome perhaps not unrelated to the attitude of Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who insisted that “the right to protest is the essence of democracy” with the protection of the demonstrators his first duty. One conclusion from the contrast between Jujuy and Colombia might be that protests of the right against the left are less a recipe for disaster than the converse – middle-class citizens are more likely to show restraint than extreme-left militants while progressive governments have less time for repressive methods than their counterparts more to the right. But this would be already falling into the trap of politically pigeonholing much bigger issues.
One might logically think that the obvious and indeed only possible reaction to the mayhem in Jujuy would be to condemn violent assaults against democratically elected institutions and police brutality alike, but it is surprising how rare this opinion is. Despite their deep divisions, as exposed by their problems in defining candidacies by today’s deadline, both major coalitions have unanimously toed a line representing half the truth at best.
Perhaps welcoming the distraction from the PASO primary defeat in Chaco with a femicide reflecting adversely against the picket movement, the national government has jumped to condemn the brutal repression of a peaceful protest (with the first half of that interpretation distinctly more valid than the second) – a view echoed by the Latin American representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at a considerable distance from Jujuy. A blatant display of double standards in not equating Tuesday’s bid to torch the Jujuy legislature with the assaults on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2021 and on government buildings in Brasília last year, in both cases by rightist goons unable to digest electoral defeat. The Alberto Fernández administration considers provincial constitutions to be sacrosanct when they whitewash the indefinite re-elections of Peronist governors but not when approved by a bipartisan majority in a democratically elected constituent assembly. On the latter point the national government is not even being politically consistent, never mind institutionally – Jujuy Radical Governor Gerardo Morales is in direct alliance with the Frente Renovador party of Economy Minister Sergio Massa in the person of Lieutenant-Governor Carlos Haquin, while 11 of the 13 Peronist delegates at the constituent assembly voted in favour of the new provincial constitution.
Despite a tendency to celebrate rather than deplore police brutality (with Morales even enhancing rather than blotting his credentials to be City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s running-mate by giving him a more hawkish image), the Juntos por el Cambio opposition is being institutionally correct in repudiating this extremist assault on democracy, but is also playing cheap politics with its bizarre insistence on the violence coming from Kirchnerite mercenaries bussed in from Greater Buenos Aires – as if Jujuy were not capable of producing its own extremism when a quarter of its electorate voted in the Trotskyist indigenous deputy Alejandro Vilca in the last midterms and with all the backdrop of Milagro Sala’s Túpac Amaru. Almost half of Jujuy voted the Radicals back in last month but the other half did not, providing ample potential for dissent. Tempting as it might be to score points against a Kirchnerite national administration in an election year, last week’s collision course must be placed in its Jujuy context – which is not to rule out it being replicated on a national scale should a Juntos por el Cambio presidential ticket (possibly containing Morales) triumph.
All this political crossfire is distracting attention from any mature debate of the central issues at stake in the constitutional reform – notably the right to protest versus the right of free circulation (now upheld) and the recognition of indigenous communities depending on the provincial government (now withdrawn). At the electoral level the reform has the virtue of not seeking re-election for Morales but gives the first minority a legislative majority while in general the Radical regime in Jujuy with evidence of nepotism and judicial manipulation should not be exempt from the scrutiny applied to Peronist provincial feudalism elsewhere.
The national government’s refusal to condemn Jujuy vandalism gives rise to fears that they may not accept defeat any more than Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro but a repeat of such scenes in December seems unlikely. First, we must await the result of an election which remains far from certain and urge those hell-bent on violence, on both sides, to cease the insanity.