The midweek demise of such a controversial figure as the late federal judge Norberto Oyarbide from that great plague of Covid-19 might seem the runaway candidate for today’s column and nor are the newsroom memories lacking – well before his express acquittal of the Kirchner presidential couple for their equally express enrichment in 2009 made him notorious nationwide, he was within my radar as from 1998 when his Spartacus Club hanky panky with taxi boys first came to light, conduct hardly befitting that simile “as sober as a judge.” But “de mortuis nihil nisi bonum” – since I cannot think of anything good to say about the guy, I’d better stop right there.
Next weekend we have the PASO primaries (in case you have not noticed), for which last weekend’s provincial elections in Corrientes seem an apt prelude. While the pundits quite rightly remind us that it would be rash to extrapolate these local results onto the national arena, the fact that re-elected Radical Governor Gustavo Valdés virtually trebled the votes for his veteran Peronist rival Fabián Ríos should send alarm-bells among the ruling coalition – while metropolitan opinion polls point to Frente de Todos dropping around a quarter of the 48.24 percent voting for President Alberto Fernández two years ago, their vote of 23.25 percent in Corrientes last Sunday was well under half the 51.2 percent garnered by the Fernández-Fernaández ticket there in 2019.
Nor does a significantly lower turnout (down from 80 to 65 percent since the last election in one of the provinces least hit by the coronavirus pandemic) suffice to explain either that threefold margin or the swing from the first triumph of Valdés in 2017 (with 54 percent of the vote, as against 45 percent for the popular Peronist Senator Carlos Mauricio ‘Camau’ Espinola, winner of four 2008 Olympic yachting medals) – there must have been a considerable crossover from erstwhile Peronist voters instead of merely staying home. Yet a binary interpretation of this election as three-quarters for the winners and a quarter for the losers is also too simplistic and linear. The Radical list as such actually won less votes than the total obtained by Frente Todos de Corrientes, a Peronist-led conglomerate of a couple of dozen groupings – 20.4 percent as against 23.25 percent. Over half of Corrientes voters are thus neither Radical nor Peronist – if Valdés cornered three-quarters of the vote, it was thanks to PRO and other Juntos por el Cambio opposition allies but even more to some 50 colectora independent lists jumping onto his bandwagon.
Time to place last weekend’s voting in the context of a less recent past, as this column seeks to do with current events. My own acquaintance with Corrientes actually precedes my presence in Argentina – around 50 or so years ago I read The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene, who never names the city in which the novel is set but the prominent statue of Sergeant Cabral and the proximity of Paraguay make it unmistakably Corrientes. That northeastern province was also the occasion of an early cultural shock in my first months here. Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú was interviewing José Antonio Romero Feris (the leading figure of the then-dominant Autonomist-Liberal Pact provincial party) and kicked off by saying: “We have with us today José Romero Feris,” upon which he immediately corrected her: “No, Magdalena, José Antonio Romero Feris, my parents named me for [Spanish Falangist leader] José Antonio Primo de Rivera.” The fact that a leading politician could openly take pride in being named after a Spanish fascist started me wondering in what kind of country I had landed.
The Autonomist-Liberal Pact (PAL, in its Spanish acronym) is one leading example of how Corrientes has historically marched to the beat of a different drum – thus it was the only province to resist the landslide bringing Juan Domingo Perón to power in 1946 (an anomaly tolerated by the great man for around 18 months before slapping a federal trusteeship). In the early 19th century there was almost zero identification with the Buenos Aires of Juan Manuel de Rosas – instead most in Corrientes favoured the dream of linking up the Paraná watershed with Paraguay to the north and Uruguay to the south in a single country (which today would have around 17 million people, not far behind Chile or Ecuador) rather than joining Argentina.
Back in 1983 (marking both the return of democracy and my first year at the Buenos Aires Herald) the PAL of Corrientes was the only party to buck the Peronist-Radical dualism prevailing nationwide, apart from the Neuquén Popular Movement and the Bloquistas of San Juan. The years since then fall neatly into two halves, one in the last century and the other in this. PAL governors persisted through to the 2001-2002 meltdown (aside from the trusteeships imposed by Carlos Menem in 1992 and 1999) while since then there have only been Radicals – four terms of the Colombi cousins through to 2017, and Valdés since then.
The historic aversion of Corrientes to Peronism (persisting through to last weekend) is all the more curious because it breeds the poverty on which Kirchnerism is supposed to thrive. Its provincial capital (founded in 1588 with an original population of 148 settlers and with over 400,000 people today) pioneered having half its population below the poverty line even before the pandemic – in the pre-Covid year of 2019, Corrientes was the runaway leader for urban poverty according to the data of INDEC statistics bureau with 49.3 percent of the city’s population below the poverty line, followed by the Chaco provincial capital of Resistencia on the other side of the Paraná river (41.4 percent) while the notoriously poverty-ridden urban sprawl of Greater Buenos Aires lagged far behind on 31.3 percent.
With just below a million people (992,595) according to the 2010 census, the population of Corrientes is now estimated at 1,112,801 despite heavy emigration, thus making it the 10th most populous of Argentina’s 23 provinces. Goya (boasting the best fishing in Argentina with the possible exception of Bariloche, although paralysed during the pandemic) was the only city beyond the provincial capital with over 50,000 inhabitants according to the 2010 census (77,349). True to its name, Corrientes is characterised by its water rather than land with the Iberá wetlands offering a wealth of flora and fauna – only a couple of metres below sea level, they could easily be drained as was similar terrain in Holland and the East Anglian fenlands with 17th century technology but spared for the tourist so far.
Anyway the whole country votes next weekend.