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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 15-02-2024 11:37

Neither castes nor authoritarianism

Argentina has already suffered plenty from quasi-messianic leaders opening up deep grieta chasms with their friend-or-foe logic.

There were no surprises. The noisy crash of President Javier Milei’s ‘Ley Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Libertad de los Argentinos’ was to be expected. Raising the session after first reading approval of the so-called “Omnibus law” – turned into a minibus law – had sent alarm-bells ringing. It was evident that the government lacked the votes to advance with clause-by-clause approval of the multi-article law. There was a need for negotiations which did not prosper when President Milei ordered his intransigent stance on the federal revenue-sharing of the PAIS tax to be maintained.

It was a furious Tuesday night in the suite occupied by Milei in the historic King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The President’s mouth was on fire. “Traitors,” “criminals,” “thieves” and “sons of bitches” were all heard repeatedly in those hours of wild annoyance.

The timing of Milei’s trip to Israel was badly chosen. It was an error to leave the country at such a crucial point, giving the local political situation a central importance which obliged permanent reference to it. Both common sense and political logic would dictate that no president should make an international tour at the same time when issues central to his administration are being debated, far less when exposed to a lost Congress vote of the dimensions suffered last week. 

One display of the presidential annoyance was the publication in his Instagram account of an image with the Biblical fragments corresponding to verses 19, 20, 21 and 26 of Chapter 32 of Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament. This passage describes the moment in which Moses, upon coming down from Mount Sinai after having written the Ten Commandments dictated by God, found the Jewish people dancing their adoration of the golden calf made by his brother Aaron. Furious, Moss broke up the tablets and decided to punish the Jewish people.

It is important at this point to make a fundamental distinction between the narration of the Biblical chapter mentioned by Milei and Tuesday night in the lower house Chamber of Deputies. The protagonists dubbed “traitors” by the President were the deputies, not the citizenry.

Wrath, one of the seven deadly sins, is the origin of many evils in the history of humanity. It is impossible not to associate these outbursts of Milei with the brusque decision to withdraw transport subsidies in revenge, a vendetta which hurts the citizenry. It is not the political caste which takes the bus (or buses) to work every day but the common citizen and fundamentally the poorest.

It is worth going back over those days of fury, left by the most complicated week of his term so far. In the political sphere the moderate opposition – consisting mainly of PRO – hit the roof. “We risked as much or more than the government deputies. We are not in government and thus have no commitment to vote – as we did – for several complicated articles of the omnibus law. We paid the political price and the President ended up withdrawing it.

We had to swallow our pride,” complained one deputy allied to the government. 

There are no saints and far less is anybody innocent in this power play tangle. Beyond the complaints and regrets for the gallery, PRO are perfectly aware that the President will end up in agreement with them in order to flex parliamentary muscle. He does not have many other options.

The other great loser of the week was Interior Minister Guillermo Francos. Upon his shoulders fell the responsibility of dialogue with deputies and governors – along with Lower House Speaker Martín Menem – to negotiate key votes and backing. None of that occurred, in great measure due to the intransigence of Milei himself. On the other hand, more than a few deputies pointed out that Francos was not as up to speed with the parliamentary regulations, as he should have been. A senator said ironically: “Francos was already out of fashion in the 1990s so imagine how we see him now.”

Two other victims of the presidential wrath have been left by the wayside. At the end of the week the President demanded the resignations of ANSES social security administration chief Osvaldo Giordano and Mining Secretary Flavia Royón. As from Wednesday these officials were considered doomed in government circles for responding to the Peronist governors of Córdoba and Salta, Giordano in the former case and Royón to Salta’s Gustavo Sáenz. 

Secretaries Franco Mogetta (Transport) and Luis Giovine (Public Works) and Banco Nación chief Daniel Tillard are walking on thin ice. In the face of this irascible conduct, at least two questions arise. Do technical capacity in their posts and the openings they might have offered the government count for nothing? And in any case were all those nominations the fruit of a give and take of an intricate and short-sighted negotiation?

In the case of Giordano, more than a few businessmen defended his technical prowess and vision of the future in a key post. He had commenced an ambitious plan to cut the political middlemen out of the distribution of social welfare benefits. His exit opens up a parenthesis leaving many good initiatives on stand-by.

Beyond the names, an amber light is flashing in the short term for domestic politics. The President must understand that the campaign is over. Neither marketing nor playing cute work any more – governing requires agreements, flexibility and level-headedness. We Argentines have already suffered enough under quasi-messianic leaders who have opened up an interminable grieta chasm via their friend or foe logic.

Caste no, but not authoritarianism either.

Nelson Castro

Nelson Castro

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