The human rights outcry

By M.B Gambarotta

It’s not easy for a ruling party to navigate an election year in Argentina. The country’s political volatility is infamous. It’s no different for President Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right coalition Cambiemos (Let’s Change). Macri’s most obvious challenge is sorting out the economy. In his first year in office inflation clocked in at 40 percent annually in 2016. Inflation in April hit 2.6 percent, the state-run statistics bureau INDEC reported. That’s higher than in March. Food prices are going up and at least one opposition leader, Sergio Massa, has launched a symbolic campaign to bring them down. Yet there is no predicting what a political week will look like in Argentina.

April’s high inflation rate was overshadowed by the Supreme Court’s ruling last week reducing the sentence of a civilian found guilty of committing human rights violations during the last military dictatorship. The Supreme Court voted 3–2 in favour of applying a law, known as “2x1,” that allows convicts to count as double the time spent in prison prior to being sentenced. Two of the justices who voted in favour (Horacio Rosatti and Carlos Rosentkrantz) were nominated by Macri to the Supreme Court.

The outcry was audible. It was loud. It was clear. Congress, which is not controlled by Cambiemos, scrambled to pass a law declaring that the 2x1 law (it no longer stands for current crimes) can’t be used for crimes against humanity. Claudio Avruj, the president’s human rights secretary, initially declared that the ruling should be respected. But as the outcry grew louder top Macri administration officials said they disagreed with the ruling.

Cambiemos backed the bill swiftly approved in the Lower House and the Senate. Only one lawmaker voted against the bill in the Lower House. It was approved unanimously by the Senate. Effectively Congress was overruling the Supreme Court. It was all done before a massive demonstration called by the human rights groups took place in Plaza de Mayo on Wednesday.

Macri took some time to comment. But eventually the president “congratulated” Congress on its vote saying that he had never agreed with the “2x1” legislation, which was scrapped due to its unpopularity a long time ago.

The tone of the huge Plaza de Mayo demonstration was moderate. Human rights groups refrained from directing their wrath against the national government. It was the Supreme Court they were furious at. Still opposition leaders, including former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, implied that Macri was effectively behind the decision.

The Supreme Court vote came at a time when there was speculation that the authority of Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti could be defied by other justices. Lorenzetti deftly voted against the ruling that outraged the human rights groups. Now Rosatti and Rosenkrantz look in no position to head the Supreme Court. Rosatti’s office had to deny rumours of his resignation.

The risk for the ruling coalition is that the issue of human rights could cause a rift within it. The Radical Party, which is part of Cambiemos, prides itself in championing human rights. Raúl Alfonsín, the first president after the return to democracy in 1983, was a Radical. It was during Alfonsín’s presidency that the military junta leaders were brought to trial and jailed.

How will the coalition hold together? Elisa Carrió, who will head the coalition’s congressional slate in Buenos Aires City, has insisted that human rights abusers over 70 should be allowed to serve their sentence under house arrest. Carrió, an anti-corruption crusader and former Radical who now leads her own centrist party, said she did not agree with the Supreme Court ruling. But it’s not clear whether she will pay an electoral price for her statements now that the mood has changed. The problem for Macri is that the Radical Party in Buenos Aires City is backing a different congressional candidate: Martín Lousteau. Lousteau, who recently quit as Argentina’s ambassador to the United States, has demanded to face Carrió in a primary — but to no avail. Macri officials have declared that Lousteau left the ruling party when he quit as ambassador. Technically there is no such thing as Cambiemos in Buenos Aires City, which has been controlled by Macri and his party, PRO, since he became mayor in 2007. Will the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling give Lousteau something to work with?

Carrió also has her anti-corruption credentials to think about. She has declared loyalty to the president. But she has been vocal in criticizing Macri when she sees it fit. Yet suddenly a graft case has resurfaced. Gustavo Arribas, the head of the AFI federal intelligence agency, was recently cleared of corruption allegations, involving bribes paid by the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht in 2013. But fresh allegations have now surfaced by a Brazilian broker who has insisted in a video conference with Argentine court officials that he paid Arribas 850,000 dollars in bribes.

Reports said Carrió called the president to discuss the Arribas case, which have been covered by a prominent investigative journalist in the daily La Nación. Argentina’s top intelligence chief has not made statements in public about the fresh allegations. But he is expected to contest the accusations made against him.

Macri considers Arribas, who amassed a fortune representing football players, a personal friend. Arribas now rents the luxury apartment where Macri and his family lived before clinching the presidency in 2015. An appeals court, after the initial case was practically closed, will now look further into the new bribery allegations against Arribas. The Macri administration can’t really afford to put with any bad news on that front.

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