Argentina entered into an early and extreme lockdown in mid-March with only a few confirmed cases. President Alberto Fernandez enacted the mandatory isolation measures through executive, emergency decree. Since then, the president has extended the quarantine every fortnight and will again until 8th June.
The dichotomy of ‘health or the economy’ was initially effective for the president. The government’s early lockdown received broad popular and political support. Although concerns over the socioeconomic impact of the measures are growing, approval of the government’s quarantine measures remains high. Six weeks after the imposing the lockdown, the government started to loosen it in provinces and municipalities where the virus had not hit. Metropolitan areas, especially poorer neighborhoods, are dealing with the tightest quarantine measures.
The economy has stopped (no car was made in April); the fiscal deficit is rapidly increasing; and inflation for now is temporarily frozen but not controlled; the printing of pesos is rampant; and the negotiation of the sovereign debt is taking longer than expected. The curtailment of informal economic activity has thrown millions into extreme poverty. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) – a major engine of the formal economy – are in a precarious state. Labour and Peronist-led social protests which seemed a permanent feature of the streetscape under the administration of President Mauricio Macri (2015-2019) have disappeared and informal arrangements are being made between companies and workers to survive together. The future does not look bright for any of those agreements to last.
State capacity has shown some serious limitations. The provision of water in poor communities and the payment of social subsidies have shown poor results. There has also been evidence of corruption in the emergency procurement of some goods and medical devices. Even worse has been the policy to bring back thousands of fellow Argentines that were temporarily abroad for travel, work and health reasons. The policy has been erratic, inefficient and opaque. While empty flights were landing in Buenos Aires from Europe or the US to rescue their residents, thousands of fellow Argentines were and are still waiting to purchase a new ticket in any of the few weekly flights rented and authorized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Regarding restrictions on internal movement, many were locked down far from their homes and many still have problems returning to their provinces and cities. Classes are not taking place in any schools at any level and distance learning is worsening social inequalities and access to education.
Argentina’s healthcare system, which has better public and private coverage compared to other countries in the region, has been well equipped for the ‘peak’ that has been announced several times and now seems to be approaching next June. Early quarantine has avoided the collapse of the healthcare system. At the same time, the health side effects of the lockdown appear to be mounting as people avoid medical treatments or consultations, and alcohol consumption, anxiety, and ‘cabin fever’ increase.
The state of accountability and the rule of law is worrisome
The president’s emergency decrees have effectively sidelined the Congress. More than twenty exceptional decrees have been enacted by the Executive while Congress was locked down for almost two months. Exceptional executive orders closed skies and borders, banks, commerce and trade unless the order determined them to be an essential duty or essential good. The armed forces have been deployed to assist in many regions. Under the emergency law enacted last December and without a 2020 budget passed by Congress, the executive acquired congressional control over federal public funds which now can be allocated at the discretion of the chief of cabinet, Santiago Cafiero. The congressional opposition in minority has protested. However, it seems it will not be able to reject the decision. If so, the executive will have full control over the public budget at least this year.
The opposition is a minority in both houses. Opposition legislators have presented more than one hundred requests for information to the executive and repeatedly demanded the presence of the chief of cabinet, Cafiero, to make his monthly accountability report. It also organized a campaign, ‘A crossing for democracy’, with legislators travelling by car from all over the country to unlock Congress. Some Committees gathered by Zoom and both houses were set for Orwellian sessions though big screens and avatars.
The Supreme Court has also been closed since mid-March and there have been no signs of it reopening. Not even the cleaning service is working in the historic building. And since the judiciary has failed to upgrade to the digital era, all business is still conducted by paper, difficult under the current situation despite some individual efforts to conduct judicial business online.
After social and political opposition, the government had to re-think the mandatory use of a ‘health’ smartphone app for authorized workers that failed to protect personal data. The government also walked back a proposal to monitor and control personal movements through the digital public transportation card that would have restricted movements inside and outside the city of Buenos Aires. Instead, a system of pre-booked seats in metropolitan trains might be put in place. Some experts are raising a red flag on a plan to share fiscal data amongst other government agencies that companies have to fulfill in order to access to the public subsidy to pay half of payroll.
Several weeks ago, there was a massive and noisy home protest (organized through social media) when governmental officials and some judges granted home arrest to murderers, rapists, human rights violators and corrupt officials. The former vice president, Amado Boudou (2011-2015), from the previous Peronist administration convicted for corruption was one of the beneficiaries. More than 80 per cent of the public rejected the move.
Taking advantage of the pandemic, a series of coordinated hearings in the lower courts – which the media and the opposition have called an ‘impunity plan’ – have started to exonerate the current vice president and powerful president of the senate, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, from corruption charges stemming from her time in power as president. Simultaneously, the attorney general’s office remains vacant as well as an increasing number of judicial positions just at the time the government announced a still-to-be-defined judicial reform and a plan to enlarge the Supreme Court membership is on the agenda. All of this has raised the question: is the Argentine judiciary being re-politicized?