Macri’s cold war with a truck driver

By M. B. Gambarotta

President Mauricio Macri is turning two years in office. Macri’s centre-right coalition, Cambiemos, has a lot to be a proud about politically.

In the midterm elections held in October it garnered 41 percent of the vote nationwide. In Buenos Aires province, the nation’s largest voting district, Cambiemos defeated former president Cristina Fernández de Kirhcner in the senatorial race. Still Fernández de Kirchner, who collected 35 percent of the vote in the province, won a Senate seat for the minority — that’s where it gets complicated.

Cambiemos, even after that impressive win, still does not control Congress and it needs the Peronist backing for its tax, pension and labour reforms.

The other twist is that the national conversation is at times dominated by an unexpected issue: the disappearance of an Argentine Navy submarine, the ARA San Juan, with 44 crew members on board on November 15. The Navy has declared that it is no longer treating the case as a search and rescue operation. Still it needs to find the submarine, with the help of international powers, to establish exactly what happened. The ARA San Juan conversation is dominated by the anguish of the relatives of the missing crew members.

There’s also another issue making headlines. A Mapuche indian was shot dead by an elite Coast Guard unit near the Patagonian city of Bariloche. The Coast Guards argue that they opened fire when a group of demonstrators occupying national parkland attacked it with handguns. Yet there is still no evidence that the protesters were armed with guns and that there was indeed a clash.

The national government officials are standing by the story of the security forces saying that they, and not the protesters, should be given the benefit of the doubt.

It’s not the first time that turmoil hit Patagonia this year. Santiago Maldonado, a 28 year-old backpacker, went missing on August 1 during a Mapuche demonstration in Chubut province. Maldonado’s body was found in the Chubut river on October 17 — only days ahead of the midterm elections eventually won by Macri’s coalition. An autopsy established that Maldonado, who did not know how to swim, drowned in the cold waters. There were “no lesions” on the body, according to the autopsy. But Maldonado’s family and human rights groups insist that backpacker died in the context of a crackdown by security forces against the demonstrators.

Now judicial investigators are trying to establish exactly how a young person was shot dead by the Coast Guard. Argentina’s security forces have a terrible human rights record and are prone to being unpredictable under pressure. But the novelty is that the Macri administration appears determined to stand by the security forces even when complaints about abuses are raised by human rights groups. The national government claims that a Mapuche organization, RAM, is violent and verges on being a terrorist organization.

The mood, inevitably, has turned sombre since ARA San Juan went missing. Macri’s coalition had hoped that the momentum from the election win would allow it to push the reforms through Congress with the support of the moderate opposition parties.

The Senate, where the opposition Peronists are the first minority, has approved the pension reform and the fiscal pact. The new senators, including Fernández de Kirchner, were sworn in on Wednesday. But they will not take their seats until December 10.

Still the labour reform bill has effectively been bogged down even when it has the formal backing of the three leaders of the General Labour Confederation (CGT) and many observers claim that it is a watered down version which does not bite into the trade union muscle.

The CGT still behaves like the trade union wing of the Peronist party. But a group of unions that oppose the reforms staged a rally outside Congress on Wednesday as Fernández de Kirchner was taking her oath along with the other elected senators. The labour reform could trigger a rift in the CGT.

The real test for Macri’s political mettle in Congress after his election win will be the labour reform vote. The problem for Macri is that the teamsters union, headed by Pablo Moyano, has joined the Kirchnerite unions in opposing the labour reform. Pablo Moyano is the son of Hugo Moyano, the former boss of the CGT who commands huge muscle through his control of the transport unions.

Top Macri administration officials have declared that they are “surprised” to see the Moyanos “together with the Kirchners.” Hugo Moyano broke off his strategic alliance with Fernández de Kirchner when the then president refused to give in to his political demands ahead of the 2011 elections.

Hugo Moyano has since shifted his attention away from party politics and the unions and is now the president of Independiente, a popular first division soccer club. Hugo Moyano’s son-in-law, Claudio Tapia, is the president of the Argentine Football Association.

But Hugo still controls the teamsters through his militant son Pablo, who also holds a seat in the CGT leadership. Hugo Moyano and President Macri go back a long way in hammering out backroom deals. But is a cold war now developing between the president and the powerful teamster?

Independiente, Moyano’s soccer club, is now the subject of a court investigation into the dealings of barrabrava hardcore fans. Pablo Moyano is heavily involved in running Independiente. One of the Moyanos top bodyguards was also arrested.

The latest development in the Independiente soccer club probe is that Noray Nakis, its vice-president, has been arrested for his dealings with the hardcore fans. Is this evidence of the Macri-Moyano cold war?

Even when Macri’s labour reform is watered-down the government had hoped that its approval in Congress would open the way for more market-friendly reforms sector-by-sector.

The problem for the Macri administration is that Pablo Moyano has implied that the only way the Peronist senators will approve labour reform is if they are bribed. The quip is a reference to the botched labour reform bill of 2000, which prompted a major crisis in the administration of then president Fernando De la Rúa. The crisis eventually lead to the resignation of De la Rúa’s vice-president. De la Rúa himself quit late in 2001 during a financial crisis that culminated in a huge sovereign debt default by the republic.

The trade unions, headed by Hugo Moyano, back in 2000 alleged that the Peronist senators had collected bribes from the Radical-Frepaso government to approve the labour reform bill.

Now the Peronist senators headed by the chief of their caucus, Miguel Angel Pichetto, don’t want to be tainted by fresh allegations of foul play.

Pichetto, who has been willing to negotiate on good terms with Macri’s whips in Congress, has challenging times ahead after declaring that he will not accept Fernández de Kirchner as a member of his Senate caucus.

The problem for Pichetto, who served loyally as CFK’s chief whip in the Senate when she was president, is that other members of his caucus have declared that he has no right not to accept Fernández de Kirchner in the Peronist bloc.

Pichetto’s argument is that Fernández de Kirchner formally did not include the Peronist party in her “citizen’s front” (Unidad Ciudadana) when she ran for the Senate in Buenos Aires province and thus is no longer a Peronist. Fernández de Kirchner, in a bid to avoid a primary against other Peronist hopeful in this year’s election process, instead joined forces with a group of smaller non-Peronist centre-left and leftist parties.

Yet Senator Pichetto will now have to deliver on his promise not to accept Fernández de Kirchner as a caucus member in a context where the labour reform is at issue. Critics have also blasted the pension reform claiming that it will effectively lower an annual increase scheduled for early next year from 12 percent to 5 percent. The reform could lead to a series of lawsuits by pensioners. The context also includes a new bout of whopping utility rate increase, which will have an effect on December’s inflation rate.

The pension reform now moves to the Lower House where the mettle of Macri’s lawmakers will be tested. The reform is designed to save the government at least 65 billion pesos in pension funds. But the opposition claims that this will be blatantly achieved by short-changing the pensioners.

Still ultimately what matters is the extent of the confrontation between Macri and the Moyanos, who purportedly have a stake in the private post company OCA that is on the verge of bankruptcy and swimming in debt. That company is part of Moyano’s conflict with the president.

The reforms will also test the unity of Cambiemos. Lawmaker Elisa Carrió, who won 50 percent of the vote for Cambiemos in Buenos Aires City in October, has frowned at the latest negotiations in the city chapter of the Radical party (another member party of the ruling coalition).

Carrió has warned that her party, the Civic Coalition, could “move away” from Cambiemos over agreements between Radical politicians in Buenos Aires City to elect a new leadership that she considers corrupt.

The reforms are putting a strain on Macri’s coalition. The challenge for the president is preventing Cambiemos from falling apart under the weight of reforms so soon after its perfect electoral performance in October.