At the end of this month President Alberto Fernández will be meeting up with Pope Francis in Rome. This encounter goes some way towards explaining why the youthful Santiago Cafiero is Cabinet chief today, for reasons stretching back a quartercentury before his birth.
When Juan Domingo Perón embarked on his collision course with the Catholic Church in late 1954, just two of his ministers felt obliged to resign in consequence – Angel Borlenghi (Interior) and Antonio Cafiero (Foreign Trade). Antonio’s strongly political genes seem to have been monopolised by a single line among his 10 children, but Santiago’s father Juan Pablo (one of the Group of Eight deputies leaving Peronism in 1990 in protest against Carlos Menem’s neo-conservative policies) became ambassador to the Vatican from 2008 to 2014 – even the conservative Benedict XVI, who rejected the divorced Kirchnerite Justice Minister Alberto Iribarne for the post, smiled on that Cafiero surname.
If the Argentine Church from which Pope Francis hails generally prefers the socially progressive discourse of Frente de Todos to the modernism pursued by the preceding Mauricio Macri administration, Fernández is pushing it when he seeks to accelerate the legalisation of abortion on behalf of the strong feminist wing of his coalition – for Pope and Church the unborn child’s right to life is an absolute. As a schoolboy Santiago was already helping out at a Church canteen in San Isidro’s La Cava shantytown and even if there are no signs that he would make the same choice as his grandfather between president and pontiff should the two clash, having that Cafiero surname with all its traditional Vatican links at the Cabinet helm helps to keep the Church onside.
The new Cabinet chief is pure dynasty – Antonio Cafiero (1922- 2014), a “Peronist of the first hour” in 1945, was Buenos Aires Province governor (1987-1991), missing out on the presidency by just 120,000 votes in the 1989 Peronist primary, while both Santiago’s father and grandfather were Cabinet ministers. A political science graduate, politics has been his entire life apart from brief stints in legal and banking work plus an unsuccessful book-shop venture, with various candidacies and posts in both local and provincial government in the years of BA Province Governor Daniel Scioli (2007-2015).
Cafiero first met Alberto Fernández in the 2017 senatorial campaign of ex-minister Florencio Randazzo representing the Partido Justicialista against the Unidad Ciudadana ticket headed by ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a campaign managed by Fernández against his future vice-president. Cofounding the Grupo Callao think tank, Cafiero was then made campaign manager of last year’s Frente de Todos presidential campaign, with his status as future Cabinet chief never seriously in question.
For Santiago Cafiero, life now begins at 40. Despite which he is not the youngest Cabinet chief ever, since his predecessor Marcos Peña was 38 when named.
He will be seconded by Cecilia Todesca, 48, the daughter of Macri’s INDEC national statistics bureau chief Jorge Todesca. She was a dark horse to be economy minister alongside the early favourite Matías Kulfas (now production minister) until Martín Guzmán (with whom Todesca has studies at New York’s Columbia University in common, picking up an MBA there) emerged little more than a week before the Cabinet was named. Todesca’s number-crunching as opposed to Cafiero’s political genes make her potentially complementary to her Grupo Callao colleague in handling the nuts and bolts.
This institution does not have a long history, marking its first quarter-century this July – turnover has been high with Cafiero the 15th Cabinet chief in that short period (with his grandfather occupying that post for just three days in that hectic period between the end of 2001 and the start of 2002). That fragility alone betrays the original concept as a non-starter.
The post was the posthumous creation of the visionary constitutional expert Carlos Nino (1943-1993) as a key component of the basic trade-off underlying the 1994 constitutional reform, whereby the Radicals facilitated the twothirds-plus majority required to remove the barriers to a second term for the Peronist Menem in return for a more parliamentary democracy.
Nino envisioned the Cabinet chief as a quasi-premier but in a country whose capital likes to imagine itself the Paris of South America, he looked to the French rather than the Anglo-Saxon model as arguably the strongest within a presidential democracy. But the key difference here is that French premiers ultimately depend on a majority in the National Assembly (where they almost invariably hold a seat) and thus sometimes represent the opposition to the presidency. This was never going to happen in Argentina where the Cabinet chief is the personal choice of the president, with no obligations to Congress beyond submitting a monthly report.
Both this duty and chairing Cabinet meetings were envisaged as central functions of the Cabinet chief, but practice has failed to obey theory – apart from 2002-2003 caretaker Eduardo Duhalde, no president has held Cabinet meetings with any regularity and the monthly report to Congress has usually been skipped. Menem’s Cabinet chiefs reported more often than not (30 of the 53 months) and Peña was fairly conscientious but the intervening period averaged around three a year.
Instead the main focus of the Cabinet chief has been to reallocate budget items under the emergency powers prevailing in most of that period – even without this prerogative inflation invariably leads to budgets undershooting revenues, which gives huge discretionary scope. Nevertheless, the Cabinet chief implements rather than makes the decisions in Argentina’s ultra-presidential democracy.
Apart from co-ordinating ministries, the Cabinet chief’s office also has charge of supervising the relations with provincial and municipal governments (especially federal revenue-sharing) but the Interior Ministry often takes over that area – as well it might now with La Cámpora’s Eduardo “Wado” de Pedro in that portfolio.
Cafiero’s 14 predecessors include his boss today, Alberto
Fernández, who was both the longest-lasting (62 months, 2003-
2008) and the most influential, forming a virtual troika with
the Kirchner presidential couple and masterminding the construction of the ruling coalition. The runner-up for longevity is
Peña (48 months until five weeks ago), a successful campaign
manager like Cafiero now who never really evolved beyond
that role. Next follow the notorious Aníbal Fernández (40
months in two stints) and Menem’s Jorge Rodríguez (30
months, 1996-1999), a complete non-entity – as were most of
the rest and even when possessing talent (like Rodolfo Terragno) or making a career beyond being top presidential lackey
(like current Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa and Chaco
Governor Jorge Capitanich), they did not last long. The highest
turnover has been during the 1999-2003 period (seven changes)
and the 2007-2015 Fernández de Kirchner presidency (six).
Such is the heritage preceding Cafiero.