Apart from giving its name to a doomed submarine, San Juan is probably best-known in Argentine folklore for its monster earthquake of early 1944. But in political terms it has also witnessed at least two decisive seismic shifts. The first stemmed directly from that catastrophe (which utterly destroyed the city founded in 1562, killing up to 10,000 people) – as nobody who has seen the Madonna film should need telling, it was the charity relief there which first introduced then-colonel Juan Domingo Perón to Eva Duarte, thus adding a new dimension to hitherto a 1943 military junta member also receptive to fascist ideas from a stint at Rome’s Argentine Embassy.
San Juan’s other major game-changer – the provincial elections of August 11, 1991 – is far less celebrated but ended up defining a decade. Until then Carlos Menem’s popularity had been rock-bottom due to the ravages of the Bonex Plan and his red Ferrari frivolity – Peronist Jorge Escobar’s upset win in San Juan was the first indication that convertibility (introduced that April) offering an apparently inflation-proof currency was doing the trick electorally and that Menem from neighbouring La Rioja would be around for the rest of the century. Escobar’s narrow win was all the more impressive for ending the long reign of the neo-Radical Bloquistas (founded in 1923 by the Cantoni brothers Aldo and Federico and dominant ever since apart from the all too many years of military or Peronist rule) – an especially successfully example of the provincial parties which have been doing so well in this year’s voting.
But this year San Juan has been following, rather than setting a trend – Peronist Governor Sergio Uñac’s resounding PASO primary win a fortnight ago (55.74 percent of the vote as against 32.18 percent for Marcelo Orrego heading the Con Vos list backing President Mauricio Macri in a polarised race) was the ham in the sandwich between equally convincing provincial party triumphs in Neuquén last month and Río Negro last weekend. The overwhelming lesson from these three results should be never to underestimate incumbent governments but expect continuity everywhere (even Santa Fe’s struggling socialist government bereft of its former Radical allies is newly optimistic). Last Saturday’s column erroneously tipping the Victory Front in Río Negro was firmly grounded in logic and opinion polls alike – with the Supreme Court forcing the ruling Juntos Somos Río Negro party to improvise a new candidate within a fortnight (which now gives the province its second straight accidental governor) amid a nationwide groundswell of discontent with Macri‘s policies (especially in Patagonia where heating bills are higher) the Peronists seemed winners by default while a quick glance at local opinion polls (one showing the Victory Front 44-21 percent ahead and another 26-13 with many undecided) pointed the same way. But the Supreme Court ruling may have triggered a backlash against outside intervention while the huge percentages of provincial employees throughout Argentina (fully a third of the workforce in Río Negro) create a vast captive vote.
But today’s subject is San Juan. The PASO result turns Uñac’s re-election in the June 2 provincial elections into a no-brainer, while also maintaining the Justicialist legislative majority (19 of the 36 seats). But the Peronist solidity is more apparent than real, as can be seen from its national Congress representation. Here all three senators and five of the six deputies are Peronists but … Senator Roberto Basualdo is a Peronist who opposed Kirchnerism from its very start and has since passed to the Cambiemos (Let’s Change) caucus backing Macri where he is now presenting the government’s labour whitewash bill. The other senators – Rubén Uñac (the governor’s older brother) and Cristina López Valverde (one of the more vocal members of the Senate’s pro-life majority during last year’s abortion debate) – are faithful provincial government mouthpieces under the “Frente Todos” label. These seats are not up for renewal until the next general elections in 2023.
Current (if disputed) Justicialist Party chairman José Luis Gioja kept a firm grip on the Lower House deputies during his three terms as San Juan governor between 2003 and 2015 but today only Daniela Castro remains with him in the Victory Front caucus. The other three deputies drifted in the general direction of Renewal Front leader Sergio Massa with Walberto Allende and Florencia Peñaloza under a “(Todos Juntos) Somos San Juan” label while Graciela Caselles has revived the Bloquista ghost after leaving the Victory Front in 2016. Yet this pro-Massa tendency is rapidly shifting towards dark horse Roberto Lavagna, whose presidential ticket Uñac might even join – watch for further evolution after the June 2 provincial elections. The other deputy is Eduardo Caceres, enlisted in Macri’s PRO, while the seats corresponding to Caselles, Gioja and Peñaloza are falling vacant this year.
One of the 13 founding United Provinces of the River Plate in 1810 (fully separating from Mendoza in 1820), San Juan has had a complex and sometimes violent political history for such a detached oasis with no less than 139 governors, trustees and lieutenant-governors since 1812. The province’s most famous native son Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was one of these (1862-64) although the 19th century’s most durable governor was Nazario Benavídez, ruling fully 20 years in mostly Rosas times before being savagely murdered during an attempted prison breakout in 1859, while the liberal Antonino Aberastain faced a firing-squad after losing a border war with San Luis in 1861. Another assassinated governor was the Radical Dr Amable Jones, shot dead in his official car by supporters of the Cantoni brothers in 1921. Leopoldo Bravo was the main caudillo of the second Bloquista generation while yet another Radical offshoot, the Renewal Crusade, triumphed around the turn of the century under Alfredo Avelín (governor 1999-2002 before falling victim to the nationwide meltdown).
Arid with mostly irrigated agriculture (dominated by vineyards, second only to Mendoza in Malbec and Syrah, also specialising in white wines), San Juan’s main economic asset is the mineral wealth of the Andes although such big mines as Veladero gold (with its cyanide overspills) and Pascua Lama (closed due to environmental objections from the Chilean side) are under a cloud – solar energy has potential. The most prosperous of the three oases between Mendoza and Salta, San Juan is also the most populous with an estimated population of 739,000 in 2015, of which over two-thirds live in the provincial capital (471,389 of the 681,055 in the 2010 census) with 80-90 percent in its vicinity. A fairly unattractive city lacking any real centre with modern public buildings deliberately scattered but that’s the fault of that monster earthquake at the start of this column.
#12 San Juan
Electorate (as of March 31 PASO): 557,166
Governor: Sergio Uñac (Peronist)
Senators: Three (1 Cambiemos, 2 Peronist/Frente Todos)
Deputies: Six (2 Victory Front, 2 Peronist/Somos San Juan, I Bloquista 1 PRO)
On the ballot: Three of six deputies