The knee-jerk reaction of more than one critic to the aggressive state-of-the-nation speech delivered by President Alberto Fernández last Monday was to dismiss it as “100 percent Cristina” but I beg to differ. Only Cristina Fernández de Kirchner could possibly be “100 percent Cristina” and I speak from long experience – a long experience which can be quantified as 1,138 minutes (almost 19 hours) of state-of-the-nation speeches over the eight years of her presidency. Not only did my Buenos Aires Herald job oblige me to listen to every word for the subsequent write-up and editorial but the sheer length of those tirades had me arriving impossibly late in the newsroom, making Matthew Arnold’s description of journalism as “literature in a hurry” truer than ever. Only one conclusion possible for a recently arrived ambassador from an Afro-Asian country (hopefully vague enough to protect his anonymity) whose mission began with having to sit through 220 minutes of self-congratulation – “No wonder her husband died,” he told this columnist.
Last Monday was not “100 percent Cristina” – the spirit of Cristina perhaps but not the letter. There more credit should go to Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero for his jerky cut-and-paste of tedious ministerial reports interjected amid the political fireworks and disrupting the flow. This column does not propose to delve much into this week’s speech since comment can be found elsewhere in this newspaper, whereas my task lies more in supplying background from the previous 37 Congress inaugurations of this democratic period (all of which I followed professionally). In particular, I refuse to be dragged into the ongoing judicial debate, a battleground which seems a distraction from the immediately preceding “VIP vaccine” scandal – giving any priority to that agenda in a country battling a coronavirus pandemic and with a double-digit 2020 economic plunge confirmed by the INDEC national statistics bureau just four days before the state-of-the-nation speech is a colossal stretch. But I would just ask that if that US$44-billion debt owed to the International Monetary Fund is so illegitimate, why is it being negotiated and whither those negotiations if the 2018 loan was the work of “the most fraudulent administration in memory” subject to criminal prosecution?
Congress has been inaugurated on March 1 for over a quarter-century now but it was not always Saint David’s Day March 1 – until the 1994 constitutional reform the legislative branch resumed its labours on May Day in times when parliamentary productivity was even less valued, with the date first switched in 1995.
The May Day of the Orwellian year of 1984 marking the return of parliamentary activity with democracy was my first state-of-the-nation. Having deployed his more idealistic rhetoric at his Human Rights Day inauguration the previous December and with the initial euphoria already fading, the Radical Raúl Alfonsín was down-to-earth in his 50-minute address, talking about the “gigantic challenge” of improving real wages while halting inflation (sounds familiar?) and complaining of a massive debt overhang of US$20 billion in service alone. The next year was the first example of the road map announced to Congress being quickly overtaken by events, a pattern again repeated last year – in the latter case the game-changer was, of course, the pandemic and in 1985 the Austral Plan (a price freeze with wage restraints) the next month. The 1986 state-of-the-nation speech amazed everybody by proposing the transfer of the capital to Viedma (never reality yet never really repealed in over three decades either) but thereafter the wheels began coming off the Austral Plan and Alfonsín’s human rights bandwagon (following the 1986-1987 amnesty legislation) at more or less the same time with increasingly abstract state-of-the-nation speeches, the last of which was delivered less than a fortnight before the Radical electoral defeat in 1989.
The late Carlos Menem (who died just a fortnight before last Monday’s parliamentary ceremony) had been in power for almost a year before his first state-of-the-nation in 1990 and had already begun turning Peronism on its head, confidently announcing a “true capitalism” with privatisation and deregulation – “the true test of courage is to face reality,” he declaimed. In 1991 convertibility was in its first month but its success still hung in the balance so Menem changed the subject to an overacted zeal against corruption and drug-trafficking. But the next year he could already boast an influx of foreign investment with federalism his central theme in 1993, while in 1994 the La Rioja native could celebrate the Olivos Pact leading to constitutional reform opening up a second term. In 1995 came the switch to March 1 (a fortnight before his son’s death), thus escaping delivery on the eve of his mid-May re-election with half the vote (despite peak unemployment of 18.5 percent the same month) but it was a campaign spiel anyway. Menem’s second term (1995-1999) was one long and ultimately unsuccessful bid to clinch a third with his state-of-the-nation speeches part of that futile quest and thus not worth much attention.
The millennial speech of his Radical successor Fernando de la Rúa in 2000 was perhaps the shortest ever (43 minutes) – it was centred on his labour reform, which was to be the beginning of the end for his presidency via the Senate bribery scandal, and included an outburst against “damned cocaine” in order to come across as the tough guy nobody imagined him to be. While expressing confidence in the “blindaje” of US$40 billion from the IMF (which no more saved him than the US$44 billion secured by Mauricio Macri), De la Rúa spoke of a “difficult moment” in 2001 which was the ultimate understatement for the meltdown to come. Caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde had to talk his way around his maxi-devaluation and pulverisation of dollar savings in 2002.
Which brings us to the dozen years of the Kirchners. Néstor’s first state-of-the-nation in 2004 vowed to place the “internal debt” above the external while disavowing default. Buoyed by global commodity prices and “Chinese” growth, he could boast his model without much challenge in the remaining three years of his term. I will spare the reader and myself the 1,138 minutes of Cristina but it must be said that her delivery without notes (never faltering even with an infinity of usually meretricious statistics) was impressive.
Macri’s maiden state-of-the-nation speech in 2016 included tax breaks but is best-known for the three main challenges he set himself – “zero poverty,” the fight against drug-trafficking and Argentina unity. Bullish in 2017, Macri claimed “the worst is behind us” in 2018 but most readers should need no reminder of how things have gone in the last few years.