The abortion card

By M.B. Gambarotta

The big demonstration called by organized labour has happened. Thousands marched on Wednesday heeding the call to rally made by the Peronist trade union leader Hugo Moyano, who controls the powerful truck drivers’ unions. The rally was staged on a section of 9 de Julio Avenue in downtown Buenos Aires. Moyano was the last speaker to address the crowd, which organizers estimated at 200,000 people and was dominated by the muscle of the truck drivers. It was not a pretty sight for the Macri administration.

The protest was called at the peak of Moyano’s confrontation with President Mauricio Macri. The truck driver is the subject of a number of court corruption investigations into his dealings. But Moyano on Wednesday told the rally that he has yet to be formally charged with any wrong doing, adding that he was prepared to go to jail if that was the price for defending workers’ rights.

Moyano claims that he is being targeted after refusing to back in public Macri’s botched bid to have a labour reform bill approved by Congress. Moyano has been also highly critical of the government’s reform of the pension system, which critics claim will mean less money in the pockets of pensioners. The government, Moyano said, is inflicting hunger upon the people.

Yet the next day, in a classic Peronist move, Moyano was telling reporters that he was prepared to sit down for talks with Macri. Here he was playing by the Peronsit trade union book: first you throw a heavy punch to show your worth and then you offer to sit down to negotiate. Moyano, for all his bravado about having the “balls” to face the music, refrained from calling a general strike on Wednesday.

The government’s reply to Moyano’s wink at a talk over coffee with the president? No thank you. Not yet, anyway. Moyano’s rally was backed by some big unions, including the bank clerks, by militant Kirchnerite and leftwing groups and by the so-called “social organizations” of unemployed and people making a living in the informal economy. But it was not supported by most of the big trade unions that are the backbone of the General Labour Confederation (CGT). Some of the trade union leaders who did not march underlined that Moyano had called the protest because he had “personal” issues to sort out.

If Moyano fails to muscle his way out of legal trouble even when Macri’s popularity continues to drop then the big trade unions could elect a new leadership without him, say, in June. Those big unions on speaking terms with the Macri administration include the UOCRA construction workers, the SMATA auto industry workers and the retail workers’ unions. On paper the big unions have more strength than Moyano. But only if Macri’s popularity, which has been battered by the pension reform, stops dropping.

The mood is foul. Polls show that Argentines, weathering continuing transport and utility rate hikes, don’t see a bright economic future ahead. On top of this comes a wave of loud chanting at football stadiums against Macri, who was president of Boca Juniors soccer club before becoming mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007.

Fans of other teams now believe that Macri is manipulating soccer referees to favour league leaders Boca. Those fans, mainly of other big clubs like River Plate and San Lorenzo, are now vocally directing their wrath at Macri at matches.

Football is everywhere in Argentine politics. Moyano is the president of another big club, Independiente. The head of the AFA football association is Claudio Tapia, Moyano’s son-in-law. But in the middle of the bickering Moyano has declared that maybe his son-in-law is unknowingly being manipulated by Boca Juniors officials (Tapia is also a Boca Juniors fanatic).

Ultimately what Macri’s camp fears is that the insulting chants at football matches will further fuel the palpable discontent about the economy and dent the president’s standing with the streetwise working people who go to matches. That has not happened just yet.

Moyano can expect to face further legal problems. Anti-corruption lawmaker Elisa Carrió, a key member of Macri’s ruling coalition Cambiemos, has called the Moyanos “a criminal family” — a reference to the trade union leaders’ confrontational son, Pablo, who currently runs the truck drivers’ union for his father.

One way of looking at the conflict is that Moyano, who is 74, is now isolated and that the other big trade unions will pounce at the chance of eliminating him, and the rowdy truck drivers, from the CGT leadership. Moyano made a point of denying after the demonstration that his son Pablo has engaged in secret talks with Kirchnerite politicos in a bid to return to the middle ground.

The Moyanos backed president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — until they didn’t. They withdrew their support when Fernández de Kirchner refused to meet their political demands in 2011 (following the death of the late president Néstor Kirchner in 2010). But now there is speculation that the Kirchnerites and Moyano, who was also on amiable terms with Macri before their falling out, have no choice but to bring back their old strategic alliance. Ironically Moyano offered only a very thinly-veiled endorsement of Macri during the presidential runoff that he won in 2015 against Daniel Scioli, the Kirchnerite candidate.

Moyano also has the teachers’ unions on his side. These unions are currently in conflictive salary talks with Buenos Aires province Governor María Eugenia Vidal, a key Macri ally who is still the most popular politician in the country according to polls.

But what if the discontent does not dissipate? The chants at football grounds are not music to Macri’s ears.

The president has also been forced to accept the resignation of his deputy chief-of-staff, one Valentín Díaz Gilligan, after a Spanish daily reported he had one million euros stashed in an undeclared bank account in Andorra. Gilligan claims he did nothing wrong and that the account has nothing to do with his time in public office. But the account was undeclared and he has resigned.

The Macri administration can afford to sacrifice Gilligan because he was a relatively unknown official in a back office before the story broke. But Finance Minister Luis Caputo is also under investigation for heading a series of offshore funds, which may have gone undeclared.

So what do Macri’s spin doctors do in this context? They play the abortion card. The president is scheduled to deliver his state of the nation speech to Congress on March 1. Suddenly the news has broken that Macri will allow Cambiemos lawmakers, who are not a majority in Congress, to engage in a debate to legalize abortion. The move comes after a demonstration was staged last week in support of legalizing abortion.

Cambiemos has now told its lawmakers that if an abortion bill is tabled they can vote according to their conscience. The legalization of abortion is, obviously, opposed by the Catholic Church. And you might well add to the context that Pope Francis is Argentine and would suffer a political embarrassment if abortion is legalized in his homeland during his reign.

Francis, according to the pro-government press, is a “Peronist” who is permanently in touch with the leaders of the “social organizations” that marched with Moyano against Macri.

Is the Macri administration cynically changing the subject by bringing up the abortion issue because it is losing the economic argument? Abortion is an issue that boils the blood of those who are for and against it. Fernández de Kirchner, now a senator, for instance refused to back the legalization of abortion during her presidency — even when calling herself “progressive.”

But Macri also risks antagonizing his conservative voters in Buenos Aires City by supposedly opening the door for abortion to be legalized. Yet the abortion debate is likely to be long and winding. Senator Federico Pinedo (Cambiemos-Buenos Aires City) has speculated that if the abortion bill is passed it will be vetoed by Macri. Pro-choice campaigners argue that 500,000 women have abortions illegally each year and that the debate surpasses party politics and is a national health issue.

Try making sense of all that while you crunch on the frustrating numbers of the economy.