The Odebrecht connection

By M.B. Gambarotta

Thursday May 25 was a national holiday in Argentina. But it was a busy day for the nation’s top politicians. President Mauricio Macri, the leader of the centre-right coalition Cambiemos, headed the formal national day celebrations. But Macri had something political to say. Politicians, judges and business leaders will not tell my government what to do, the president said. Macri headed a ceremony at the Buenos Aires Cathedral where he heard the Catholic archbishop, who has close ties to Pope Francis, say that many in Argentina have nothing to celebrate because they live in poverty.

Macri’s comments, which implied that he is feeling the pressure from lobbies, was only the start of that busy holiday full of the confrontational politics Argentina is always packed with. It was such a busy holiday that it felt like the day was the start of the campaign for the midterm elections. The elections are scheduled for October. But technically all political parties must hold primaries, known as PASO, on the same day in August. It’s a long road to October. It is a complicated road to August — especially for the Victory Front headed by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

The former president’s authority in the coalition, which still includes the Peronist party, is being challenged her by former Transport and Interior minister Florencio Randazzo. Randazzo has declared that he is determined to take part in the Peronist primaries in Buenos Aires province even if Fernández de Kirchner decides to run. There is speculation that Fernández de Kirchner will do just that in Buenos Aires province, a Peronist bastion until the gubernatorial elections in 2015 were won by Macri’s coalition.

The former president was interviewed live on cable television on Thursday night. Fernández de Kirchner said that she is ready to run if that will win her coalition more votes in Buenos Aires province. But she also called for “unity,” implying that she is not prepared to run in a primary against Randazzo. The problem for the president is that Randazzo is allowed by law to run in a primary and looks determined to do so. The showdown is a possibility amid speculation that Fernández de Kirchner is currently ahead in the polls.

Other opposition partyies were also busy on Thursday including Sergio Massa, the presidential candidate who came a strong third in the presidential elections eventually won by Macri in 2015. Massa headed a rally in northern Greater Buenos Aires with his progressive ally Margarita Stolbizer. They unveiled the name of their new coalition “1 País” (One Country) — a message that they are out to put an end to the Macri-Kirchner divide.

Massa said something else. He told the rally that he is ready to defeat Fernández de Kirchner again (“as we did in 2013”) if she decided to run. Massa served briefly as Fernández de Kirchner as Cabinet chief in 20o8. But come 2013 Massa was heading his own dissident Peronist coalition, the Renewal Front. Massa defeated CFK’s candidate in 2013 in Buenos Aires province. His win was seen as instrumental to putting an end to any plans Fernández de Kirchner might have had of reforming the Constitution to seek re-election after serving two consecutive terms.

Marcos Peña, the president’s Cabinet chief, was interviewed live on late night television on Thursday. Peña took a swipe at Massa for sponsoring a bill to lower taxes to bring down food prices saying that it was demagogic.

The national holiday ended with the sensation that Fernández de Kirchner could well end up running for Congress. That sounds ideal for Cambiemos strategy of polarization. But what if Fernández de Kirchner is performing better than expected in polls?

All is not quiet in the president’s coalition. Elisa Carrió, the anti-corruption crusader and Macri’s top candidate for Congress in Buenos Aires City, has kicked up a new internal fuss. Carrió has claimed that she is being monitored by the state intelligence services — including when she visited Paraguay recently. Carrió has blamed Silvia Majdalani, the deputy head of the state intelligence agency, for snooping on her. Carrió has called for Majdalani’s resignation, claiming that she is also corrupt.

The context of this is the massive scandal surrounding the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, which has admitted to also paying 35 million dollars worth in bribes in Argentina overthe past decade. The Odebrecht evidence is expected to land on the lap of Prosecutor General Alejandra Gils Carbó next month. Gils Carbó is locked in conflict with the president who has called for her impeachment due to her ties to the past Kirchnerite administration.

There is no telling what the Odebrecht case evidence holds. Gustavo Arribas, Macri’s intelligence chief, has already been named by Brazilian witnesses as having collected bribes. But Arribas has denied the allegations. Carrió is also asking question about why Julio De Vido, CFK’s former all-powerful federal planning minister, has been spared in general by judges investigating corruption cases.

Carrió said she is “morally fed up” about corruption, and complained that she was not getting any protection from her political allies. But she underlined that she had no plans of quitting the president’s coalition.

Odebrecht was involved in a Sarmiento train underground project, managed by the national administration, in Buenos Aires City. Macri was mayor of Buenos Aires City at the time. The problem for the president is if the Odebrecht case ends up naming his former associates as having collected bribes — including the enigmatic chief spy Arribas.

Arribas has no experience in intelligence. He is a former soccer player agent who knows Macri from when the now president was chairman of Boca Juniors soccer club.

The Odebrecht case could blow up in the middle of the campaign. But most of Argentina’s ruling class will hope it fizzles out with no effect.