10 June 2008

I want to believe

Cristina, you are a genius! You just sent those coup-inciting filthy rich farmers packing, and you unveiled a master plan that will show Argentinians the extent of your generosity, vowing to put those billions of dollars of tax exports to use on the things the poor and the struggling working class need — roads, public hospitals, unexpensive housing. If only I could believe you!

As I write this, I've just finished hearing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's speech on the national broadcasting signal (Cadena Nacional) which she had used only once before. I'm posting it now, on the day after the speech, because I just posted something else, something personal about my weekend, something of no importance.

I must say this — Cristina showed that she's not beyond reflection and change, and everybody took note of that. That that simple fact is a huge relief shows clearly how low our political culture has gone. The President, in the most contorted fashion, acknowledged that the government made a mistake, and asked for forgiveness to anyone she might have offended. I bet several million of my compatriots had never dreamed they'd hear such words coming from a Kirchner.

Now for the real content of the speech, things aren't so bright. Before Cristina began, the official spokesman read aloud a decree that will be published tomorrow, creating a "Social Redistribution Programme", which will be funded by the mobile tax exports on soybean whenever they climb above the 35% mark, and will be in charge of building public healthcare centers, roads and "popular homes". The Programme will be "decentralized", said the Prez; the national government will leave it to the provinces and municipalities to implement what they need. So far, so good.

Now, the Kirchners have been doing this kind of "federal decentralization" for years — it works by giving money to politically obedient governors and denying it to provinces ruled by the opposition (opposition doesn't mean just a different party — anyone who disobeys is opposition). There's no sign that this time it will be different. The Programme's funds will be administered mainly by Federal Planning Minister Julio De Vido, who has the power to do whatever he wants with great chunks of the budget.

At no time during her 30-minute speech did the President explain why this plan is presented to the public now and not before, or why the extra couple of billions that might be collected from farmers couldn't be replaced by the US$4 billion they're spending on a bullet train for the rich. It's obvious the Programme was made up in the last few days, and we Argentinians know perfectly well that such great plans never come to fruition, mainly because middlemen divert (steal) the funds.

Cristina said we're not in a crisis anymore, which is right, I believe. If so, however, our useless, yes-people-filled Congress should reclaim its duty to manage the national budget, which they gave away (in violation of the Constitution) years ago because we were in an emergency. The emergency is over, right?

Moreover, the need for a paternalist, strong-handed government is over as well. We don't need an Evita lookalike implementing her version of a Great Leap Forward. We need a federal state that lets the provinces have their own money and manage it, not granting them leftovers from an unconstitutional tax. Only allied governors and government-addicted mayors were invited to Cristina's speech, to nod and smile and applaud. No room was allowed for dissent. The Kirchners firmly believe they're the only ones who know how to run the country, and they refuse to hear, let alone follow, other people's opinions.

Cristina did one thing right: she noted that it all began because a certain specific group of people, who on average are doing quite well compared to the average, refused to accept that the state took away part of their profits (again). Of course, we all knew that, and it's a testimony of the profound ignorance of the Kirchners that they turned a focalized reaction against tax collection into a divisive countrywide revolt that brought down their image and caused huge losses of money and time for everyone.

Here are links to the coverage of the speech, in Spanish:

4 comments:

  1. In a country where nearly the entire non-elite population lives in a collection of three cities, you could never have a successful provincial level government program the money most go to the federal government first for redistribution or else the difference between say, farming rich Cordoba and generally poor Jujuy would be far far worse.

    And at the same time, as I have traveled throughout the country, it is very obvious that the money is where the rich people are anyways. The federal government give everyone basic services to a point, but rich oil/gas towns like Rio Grande, TDF, and Neuquen, Neuquen live in a much higher class than the residents of the above mentioned Jujuy.

    Mendoza, where i spend most of my time, is also a pretty rich area and it is one of the cleanest cities I have ever seen, as the cleaning crews, who are paid by the provincial government, are out in full force each night, while nearby San Juan receives far less of the same service.

    You think the money should be provincial? Then what happens when the highway between, lets say, Mendoza and Buenos Aires is incomplete because San Luis cannot afford to repave the damn thing?

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  2. The highways in San Luis are probably the best of the country, and they're so well-lit you can't sleep while you do the all-night trip from Mendoza to Rosario or viceversa. On the other hand, the highway between Rosario and Córdoba has been on and off for years, because it requires federal funding that for some reason never arrives in time. And these are the country's second and third city, in two of the wealthiest provinces.

    It's not that I'm against redistribution. Obviously Jujuy and Chaco will never be able to collect so much revenue as Santa Fe and Córdoba. But they've always been desperately poor and this hasn't changed during the five years of Kirchnerism, even as their governors have submitted all their authority to the national government.

    I also know provincial administrations are often feudal-like and corrupt, and I've denounced that repeatedly in this blog. But the Kirchners haven't cleaned that up; instead they've placed themselves on top of the feudal hierarchy. Loyal governors (like those of Chaco, Jujuy and even Buenos Aires) have turned into vassals; disobedient ones have been branded as rebels. That's a shame and it's also a violation of the spirit and the letter of the Constitution, which mandates a federal country. We had fifty years of civil war over that, back in the 19th century.

    Most of my criticism comes from the lack of credibility of the Kirchners. Cristina never intended for the money to be used on hospitals and roads; she was forced to make that up after three months of political attrition. Why not at the same time the taxes were announced? Why not one or two years ago? The money was already rolling in nicely by then.

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  3. If you have a major complaint with the roads at home, you should probably quit supporting the TrenParaTodos.

    I understand that its a better option than the high-speed money pit the government wants to build but if they cannot maintain the roads with their money, they certainly cannot maintain the roads and the railway with their money.

    In Canada, another huge country with a small population, the passenger trains are long gone because they simply are too expensive to maintain and operate...

    That San Luis was an example, because the province has far less provincial money than Mendoza or Buenos Aires, and there for would not have the best highways in the country if it were not for federal sharing of funds...

    I can think of one bad outcome by saying that the money will be used for roads and hospitals. What happens when they need the money for something else, like repairing a damaged seaport or purchasing energy from Paraguay and the public cries that they are illegally using the money for something other than what was intended?

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  4. But Canada is more than three times the size of Argentina and has a smaller population! Argentina had an extensive railway system until the 1950s, and a decent system was in place until the 1990s. We know it works. Such a system requires federal subsidies - it does in every country - but it pays for them by being much safer, cheaper and less polluting than road transport. If we had a good railway system, we wouldn't need so many roads, we could retire half the cargo truck fleet that clogs those roads, and bulk cargo would be transported much more efficiently.

    I didn't say the provinces should administer all their money. But surely, hospitals and homes and some roads (not highways) can be handled by local governments!

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