Blast from the blood-drenched past

By M.B. Gambarotta

Here’s one thing about political reality: you can’t tell what event or issue will end up doing electoral damage to one given party. That’s the way life is for the politicos. Argentina is heading for crucial midterm elections in October. President Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right coalition Cambiemos (Let’s Change), has admitted that he needs to win the elections to consolidate his political position. Cambiemos, after all, does not control Congress and would be left in a dire situation if it does not perform well electorally.

When something happens politicians assess the potential damage. Take, for instance, the Supreme Court’s 3–2 decision in favour of granting a man convicted for crimes against humanity during the last military dictatorship the right to walk free based on an abolished law, in place between 1994–2001, that said that each day spent in jail by a suspect awaiting sentence should be counted double once a prison term was handed down. The law, known as 2x1, prompted a scandal and was scrapped when it became evident that many criminals were walking free too soon. But suddenly the 2x1 is back to haunt Argentina after the Supreme Court’s ruling. There is speculation that many officers and civilians convicted of gruesome human rights abuses will now move to file similar 2x1 claims.

Three Supreme Court justices (Elena Highton, Horacio Rosatti, and Carlos Rosenkrantz) voted in favour of granting the 2x1 benefit to Luis Muiña, a 61 year-old civilian who was part of a death squad, and was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2011. Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti and justice Juan Carlos Maqueda voted against.

The political dimension to this is that Rosatti and Rosenkrantz were nominated by Macri to the Supreme Court. Highton, until this ruling considered a progressive judge, meanwhile turned 75 recently and was surrounded by controversy when she contested legislation promoted by the national government claiming she should retire.

Marcos Peña, the president’s powerful Cabinet chief, on Friday scrambled to condemn the ruling. The 2x1 concept, Peña said, should not be applied for crimes against humanity. Peña’s reaction shows that the government is concerned that public opinion will come to the conclusion that the Macri administration is behind the ruling, which potentially could allow hundreds of notorious convicted human rights abusers to enjoy an early release.

The ruling for instance could irk moderate progressive voters in Buenos Aires City, a Macri bastion since 2007. Already Macri’s coalition has a rival in Martín Lousteau. Lousteau, who heads his own progressive party, quit recently as Argentina’s ambassador to the United States to take on his ambition of running for Congress in Buenos Aires City. Lousteau’s initial intention was to take part in a Cambiemos primary. But top officials of Macri’s coalition, including Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, have said that they do not consider Lousteau a member of the ruling coalition. Lousteau, to make matters even more twisted, has the backing of the BA City chapter, of the Radical Civic Union UCR. That’s a twist because nationwide the UCR, historically one of Argentina’s two largest parties, is a member of Macri’s coalition.

The UCR still controls a powerful machine in Argentina’s capital, which used to be one of its strongholds. The question is if the Supreme Court ruling will make many Radical voters back Lousteau rather than Macri’s official candidate. The president’s candidate is none other than Elisa Carrió, an anti-corruption crusader who has a past in the UCR. Carrió recently declared that the old human rights abusers now in prison should be granted house arrest. Human rights are a major issue for the UCR. Raúl Alfonsín, Argentina’s first president after the return to democracy in 1983, was a Radical. It was under Alfonsín that the bloodthirsty junta leaders were given a fair trial and thrown in jail.

Still the Macri administration has moved quickly to condemn the ruling. The issue could fizzle out. But outraged human rights groups, including the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, have called a demonstration for May 10. The ruling was also predictably condemned by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. It would not have happened under her administration, she said.

An unlikely victory for Lousteau in BA City could be devastating for Cambiemos. The mayor already is under pressure after the chief of the new BA City police was jailed on corruption charges amid speculation that there is fierce infighting in the force over reforms that merged the Federal Police with the Metropolitan Police.

The week started a little more calmly. May 1 was a national holiday. May Day was marked by a series of rallies by labour groups and leftwing parties. But the oddity was that Macri himself attended a May Day rally organized by a dissident centre-right Peronist group, headed by the farm hands union leader Gerónimo Venegas, that backs him. Macri used the occasion to announce a plan to allow people on social welfare to keep their benefit when they are employed. The rally was attended by Peña and other top Macri administration officials. But it was odd because it appeared to contradict the coalition’s strategy of not opening itself up to Peronist groups. A banner emblazoned with the slogan Macri 2019 at the rally also pointed to the president’s potential re-election bid. Macri himself speculated about a second term on inaugurating public works saying that he will see them finished only if he serves eight years in office.

The president was again busy inaugurating on new Metrobus fast-lane for buses on Friday in La Matanza, the sprawling Greater Buenos Aires district ruled by the Kirchnerites. The media made something out of the “tension” between Macri and La Matanza Mayor Verónica Magario, a Kirchnerite. But the inauguration, even with some anti-Macri demonstrations nearby, was civil.

Magario is a potential congressional candidate for the Kirchnerites. Fernández de Kirchner, now on a brief visit to Greece and Belgium, appeared to rule herself out when she addressed a group of Kirchnerite trade union leaders to discuss the scenario. “I exclude myself,” she said. But the next day members of her inner circle said that it was still too early to rule her out of the race in Buenos Aires province.

It’s hard to predict whether Fernández de Kirchner will be a candidate. But the former president will probably only be a candidate if the economic situation worsens dramatically and the president’s popularity plummets. Fernández de Kirchner is now being challenged internally by her former Interior minister, Florencio Randazzo. Randazzo is expected to take part in a primary in Buenos Aires province against the Kirchnerite candidates.

The blood-drenched past, with the Supreme Court ruling, has come back to haunt Argentina once more. But the election could be about rising food prices.

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Politics & Labour

Your Sunday read on Argentina. This column used to appear in the Buenos Aires Herald. Now it’s here — gratis.