Since this newspaper last went to press early in the evening, a new Cabinet emerged on the brink of last weekend to patch up the post-electoral institutional crisis. Following the purge of a quarter of the previous ministers (strangely enough, all the ministers who presented their resignations are still there while several with no intention of departing are now out and also strangely, all five new faces are male despite President Alberto Fernández describing his commitment to gender equality as “irreversible”), attention quite naturally centred on the helm of that Cabinet and indeed the move of Juan Luis Mansur from Tucumán governor to Cabinet chief is fraught with symbolic importance.
If Peronism was born out of the Greater Buenos Aires mob of the original October 17 in 1945 dovetailing into nationwide alliance with provincial strongmen (an amalgam of the hitherto socialist or anarchist trade unions with inland feudal overlords in a single populist movement), the stunning PASO primary defeat a fortnight ago abruptly removes the people from that equation. No choice but to fall back on local party bosses and go cherry-picking among the governor of Tucumán and the mayor of Lomas de Zamora to head the new Cabinets at national and key Buenos Aires provincial levels respectively. The territorial imperative thus reigns supreme – at least until the November midterms when it stands or falls.
Yet instead of Mansur, the focus of this column will be on the new Security Minister Aníbal Fernández, previously nicknamed ‘La Morsa’ or walrus – The Beatles song ‘I Am the Walrus’ (which has some of the weirdest psychedelic lyrics penned by John Lennon) includes the King Lear line: “A serviceable villain, as duteous to the vices of thy mistress,” which perhaps describes the new minister as well as anything (not to mention the presidential A. Fernández).
When that “mistress” Cristina Fernández de Kirchner first hit upon the game-changing electoral strategy of flipping the Frente de Todos presidential ticket to occupy its bottom half, the confusion between the two A. Fernández was seized by spin doctor Jaime Durán Barba to reassure then-president Mauricio Macri that he had nothing to worry about because the electorate was sure to mistake Alberto for Aníbal Fernández. Durán Barba was proved wrong but his confidence stemmed from Aníbal Fernández being the virtual incarnation of the ultimate loser back in 2019 – after being the first Peronist gubernatorial candidate in a generation (since 1983) to lose the vital stronghold of Buenos Aires Province in 2015, the 2017 midterms then found him unable even to win the Peronist municipal primary in the Atlantic resort of Pinamar for a humble seat on the town council. One prime reason for singling him out among the new ministers is thus as one of the greatest comeback kids of all time from the political wilderness where he lurked until this month.
Another reason is more personal. The Buenos Aires Herald had a proud tradition of facing pressures prior to my entry in 1983 which I never would have shared had it not been for the walrus. Quite apart from a spurious diplomatic immunity, a newspaper written in the wrong language is unlikely to find its target, no matter how strident the criticism, but one day (I cannot quite place the year) the Herald receptionist put through a call from a ministerial office which turned out to be Aníbal Fernández himself ferociously berating me for an editorial which cast unpardonable slurs on his integrity in his far from humble opinion, calling me whatever the Argentine slang for “howling cad” and “rotten bounder” might be. But it turned out that the critique had cost him more domestic than political discomfort – his son Facundo read the Herald to further his English and one breakfast he told his dad: “Look what they’re saying about you,” the origin of the call.
So who is Aníbal Fernández? First the official story and then the unofficial. Born in Quilmes (last January 9 the walrus had occasion to sing another Beatles song ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’), he advanced in local politics after graduating in first accountancy and later law from the university of the neighbouring Southern Greater Buenos Aires district of Lomas de Zamora, rising to be mayor of Quilmes (1991-5). Provincial labour minister around the turn of the century, he entered the national government in 2002 as first the presidential chief-of-staff and then the production minister of caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde before playing a leading role in displacing his mentor from the helm of the Peronist movement in favour of Duhalde’s reluctantly chosen heir Néstor Kirchner. He served the latter as Interior minister (2003-2007) before being transferred to the Justice portfolio by Cristina Kirchner (2007-2009) – references to his now returning to his old job are technically inaccurate (created in 2010, the Security Ministry has been in female hands for all but six months since) but broadly true since the interior minister has historically been top cop while the full title of his second portfolio was Justice, Security and Human Rights Ministry. Two stints as Cabinet chief (2009-2011 and 2015) were bridged by a senatorial spell. Then came the aforementioned gubernatorial defeat in BA province with 35 percent of the vote – hardly better than this month’s debacle. Early in 2000 he went into an extended Patagonian hibernation as Río Turbio coal mine trustee (although reportedly only down there two days) until this month.
And his unofficial biography? The first negative headline came in 1994 when he reportedly fled Quilmes City Hall in the boot of a car when charged with a US$15,000 kickback. After stabbing Duhalde in the back (he was not the only one), he next returned to notoriety over at least three major drug-trafficking scandals while justice and security minister, of which by far the biggest was the General Rodríguez triple murder of 2008 where he was widely suspected of covering up the smuggling of ephedrine (or worse) – in the first days of the Mauricio Macri presidency in 2015 the absconding General Rodríguez hitmen charged that he had spirited them out of prison in order to bump them off. The Church reportedly gave enough credence to these drug links to do its level best to see him defeated in 2015.
All this is barely scraping the surface of the new minister’s murky reputation but should suffice to buttress the conclusion that if he can return to public office, then nothing is irreversible and everything is possible in politics.