31 July 2008

Power fees going up in Buenos Aires

The national government is giving the power companies a raise, through an increase in the power fees, that will fall on those who consume more than 650 kWh every two months. The increase will range from 10% to about 30% and, while Minister Julio De Vido says it'll only affect 24% of the population, others claim the middle class will be hit hard. And it seems a further raise is due next February.

The above is the news as reported everywhere in Argentina, and many people are genuinely concerned or outraged for the wrong reasons. Why? Well, despite the big headlines and the alarming newsflashes broadcast by the media, the raise is only for Buenos Aires, its metropolitan area and the city of La Plata only. Granted, that's 40% of the consumer base and Buenos Aires is the center of the universe for the porteño and for the "national" media, but you'd think they should at least qualify their statements.

I didn't say we hinterlanders* shouldn't be concerned or outraged. We have reason to be concerned since the same inflation and the companies' lack of investments that prompted the national government to grant the raise for the Buenos Aires area utility companies is having serious effects on those that supply the provinces; many had adjusted their fees up or were considering raises before this, and now it's only a matter of time before they align themselves with the capital's companies. Our own EPE (the Santa Fe Provincial Power Company) is checking its numbers right now.

* "El interior del país" ("the interior of the country") is what they call everything but Buenos Aires. That's how Argentina was structured to begin with: a colony with a big port to interface with the world, plus a broad expanse of land ripe for primary exploitation. It's customary and it doesn't sound alright. In fact, it reminds me of the ridiculous conception of Bender's robot apartment in Futurama — Bender sleeps standing up in a 1×1-metre room with no furniture, and the place where he lets Fry live is a huge room in itself... which Bender calls "the closet".

The reason for the outrage is, partly, the outrage of the porteños at this raise, because they've been enjoying ridiculously low prices for power, natural gas and public transportation at our expense since... well, ever. Time and time again I've written about the subsidized fuel for buses. As Rosario's city council is about to take the bus ticket to AR$1.60, a bus or subway ticket in Buenos Aires still costs about AR$1.

Well, as it turns out, the average residential power fee in Buenos Aires is vastly lower than the average in the rest of the country. No wonder the system has problems — you can't expect that the power grid won't collapse when you charge the lowest fee in the place with the largest and densest population, the highest per-capita income, and the highest concentration of installed top-notch air conditioners and refrigerators. According to the article in Crítica Digital, in the capital area a home that consumes 1,700 kWh will get a bill for about 88 pesos. Checking EPE's website and doing a quick calculation, we learn that the same amount of power, in Santa Fe, will punish the wasteful ways of the unfortunate consumer with a bill for 194 pesos. (The guy who writes the Crítica article obviously has math issues. He reports that fees in Buenos Aires are "194% cheaper" than in Santa Fe. Things can't be more than 100% less anything, unless you allow for negative values. Back in 2002 journalists noted that the dollar-peso parity had gone from 1 to a rate of almost 4 pesos per dollar, and reported that the peso had therefore "devalued by 400%". I recall only one news source giving the correct figure of 75%.)

Why did the porteños get this lucky all this time? Well, first of all, no-one likes being charged more, and when you have a metropolitan area with 12 million people surrounding the government seat, you don't want to make them angry. Especially when outside the capital proper you have several huge concentric rings of increasingly impoverished areas. If you control the money, you can use it to favour those near you, while the rest of the country gets indebted. Second, if you measure inflation only in the metropolitan area, it's in your best interest (image-wise and in the short term, i.e. the Argentine way) to concentrate your anti-inflation tactics there and leave "the interior" to its own devices. When the system starts to buckle under pressure (because you subsidize the demand but do not force the companies to invest and increase the offer), you deny it for as long as you can. And then you do something. You can imagine how close to the brink we've come if you consider the government is taking this step now, after the president's image has plunged and with a cooling economy on the horizon.

So, porteños and platenses, welcome to the rest of the country. Don't complain; you're still getting lucky.

23 July 2008

March of the penguins, part 2: Two down and counting

Alberto FernándezThings are moving in the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Although the Scourge of Statisticians Guillermo Moreno hasn't been removed (yet?), Secretary of Agriculture Javier de Urquiza had to go, and today the unthinkable happened: Chief of Cabinet Alberto Fernández has resigned. De Urquiza was replaced by Carlos Cheppi, formerly head of INTA (the National Agricultural Technology Institute). Fernández's place will be filled by Sergio Massa, up to now mayor of Tigre, Buenos Aires, who led ANSES (the National Social Security Administration) back in 2002. On inquiry, Massa said he'll be there to serve as "the President's spare tire". What personality.

Alberto Fernández, the man I once called "quite possibly the most aggressively ignorant and intolerant minister Argentina has ever had" and "that filthy rat", has been with us for a long time; when Cristina Kirchner was elected he was one of the many things left over from Néstor's government she should've thrown away as quickly as possible, and didn't. As both presidents' mouthpiece (the official spokesman for the Presidency was merely decorative), Alberto was in charge of implementing the policy of constant derision of the opposition and the media that made Néstor Kirchner well-known as a "strong and confrontational leader" — which he was, until he became simply a bully. But Fernández started to fade together with the Kirchners' popularity ratings, and he just wasn't himself since the long farm tax crisis began, during which he conducted unsuccessful meetings with the farming leaders. Rumours of his resignation had popped up every now and then since April or May.

This government defends its own members more than it cares for its own sustainability, its image, or its results. Fernández should've been expelled when he was the most aggressive and the most unpleasant in the eyes of public opinion; most people would've liked his shrill voice to be silenced, and the government would've scored points; now his resignation won't serve any real purpose. But hey, one less Fernández can't be a bad thing altogether.

Some recent pearls of wisdom from Alberto Fernández:

They say Alberto is ill and with high fever right now, possibly because of stress. We don't want that. Get well, Alberto! And then get away. Buh-bye!

22 July 2008

March of the penguins

It seems the first casualty of the Kirchners' defeat in the Senate won't be a senator but one of the most revolting elements in the government, Secretary of Domestic Commerce Guillermo Moreno. So say some people. But the news channels disagree: was it just a rumour, or will Moreno leave after all?

Does he stay or does he go? Same place, almost the same time.

Moreno is a thug. Just as Néstor Kirchner is the de facto president despite Cristina's formal title, Moreno de facto handles microeconomic policies (or what passes for that) as if the Minister of Economy, Carlos Fernández, did not exist. (I've only seen or heard this Fernández guy speak twice or three times on TV.) He deals with "price fixing agreements" (Kirchnerspeak for price controls) and, through his mafioso acquaintances, manages INDEC, the census bureau that protects us from the harsh reality of inflation by fudging the rates every month.

Moreno was one of the leaders of the mob that drove a cacerolazo away from the presidential residence last month. On Monday afternoon, a couple of hours before the press conference where Cristina Kirchner announced the nationalization of Aerolíneas Argentinas (and its massive debt), his mob at INDEC attacked the office of the opposition union ATE, whose members (also INDEC employees) have been protesting the Kirchnerist tampering of the inflation rate since it began. They threatened the employees and, after they escaped, trashed the office. The authorities did nothing. The police arrived late.

Moreno is just an extreme example of the characters that populate Kirchner's camarilla, and of his way of doing things. Most of his (and Cristina's) top officials are criminals in some way or another — they simply don't make it so clear.

21 July 2008

Roberto Fontanarrosa, one year later

Roberto Fontanarrosa, by Alfredo SábatLast Saturday was the first anniversary of the death of Roberto Fontanarrosa, writer, cartoonist and an icon of Rosario. There was a series of homages around last weekend, including an exhibition of drawings and cartoons by several well-known artists, such as Caloi, Quino and Sábat. The grand opening was Saturday at 7:30 PM on the underground floor of Pasaje Pam, a quaint gallery that goes through a whole block in the downtown. I had no idea there was so much room down there; I'd only been to the ground floor and above.

Fontanarrosa was a superb storyteller and cartoonist, or so they say; I was never a fan of his work. But like everyone in Rosario, I knew Fontanarrosa was more than a celebrity. He was someone you could meet down the same streets you walk every day. He had lots of friends here, which is why he rejected the main temptation of fame for an Argentinian of the "interior" provinces — leaving for the blazing lights of Buenos Aires. Most of our artists, writers, composers and singers tend to do that (our football players do it too, and then proceed to Europe). Fontanarrosa stayed with us and remained a simple guy, making it a point to gather with his friends, until he became too ill for that.

You can read a slightly different and longer version of this article (in Spanish) on Sin calma: Homenaje a Roberto Fontanarrosa.

18 July 2008

Julio Cobos hits Kirchner with a piece of sanity

Yesterday at about 4:15 AM I got out of bed, went to the bathroom, and went to the kitchen grab a glass of water. I'd gone to bed early, as usual, the latest news reporting that the government's export tax bill had accumulated 37 votes as announced by the senators themselves, with 35 votes for the opposition. So it was with masochistic intent that I turned on the TV, expecting to see hordes of Kirchnerists beating drums and waving banners in celebration of the victory of their leader's will.

What I saw instead was Vice President Julio Cobos, presiding the Senate, slowly taking the microphone, and at the bottom of the TV screen there was a huge announcement: "URGENT - THERE IS A TIE AT THE SENATE - COBOS HAS TO BREAK IT". The vote tally (as announced) was 36–36. A senator had done a major flip-flop at the last minute. Cobos wanted to put off the vote and continue the debate later to reach a consensus, but the leader of the majority had rejected it outright with a biblical quote: "What you must do, do quickly" — Jesus' admonition to Judas. Cobos took a while. First he ordered the vote. It was a tie. In this case and only in this case, the president of the Senate gets a vote to add to the 72 senators.

Cobos then took the mike (and here I was, half naked and suddenly very awake before the screen in the dark kitchen) and with a croaky voice and many pauses, he explained that he had to follow his inner convictions, that he thought the bill as it was was less than useless, that he hoped he would be forgiven if he made a mistake, and finally (by the time the leader of the majority looked like he was about to explode) that he could not vote yes.

The session ended in a mess. Canal 7, the state channel, immediately cut the transmission and went back to some old documentary. The rest of the news channels switched to hurried analyses of the vote and to the triumphal speech by Eduardo Buzzi, president of the Argentine Agrarian Federation, in the farmers' encampment in Palermo. I went back to bed, but I couldn't sleep. I got up again at 5:30 to go to work.

The papers closed late to catch the news. The papers from Buenos Aires must have arrived in Rosario at about 10 AM, and then they disappeared from the stands. Everybody was speaking about Cobos and the Kirchners. The vibe I caught (I don't presume to speak for the whole of public opinion) was cheerful and hopeful. Like when you're watching a movie and the bad guy is beaten for the first time and the happy ending is not there yet, but you can see it coming. The only concern was for the Kirchners' ability to process the opposition, accept it, and work to fix what's wrong — an ability to accept they might not be absolutely and automatically right every time — an ability they have so far shown not to possess in the slightest.

Yesterday afternoon Cristina went to one of those stupid inaugurations she likes so much, and gave a calm speech where she spoke of "defection" and of "those who haven't yet understood what our project is, but eventually will", avoiding names. Two hours ago she'd had to call a few people to notify them she wouldn't resign, a rumour that had been floated by her own close ones, and which was apparently was what Néstor Kirchner wanted.

I wrote about this in a slightly different mood on Sin calma. If you read Spanish, check out Es para Kirchner que lo mira por tevé. I still have lots of things to say in both places.

To be continued

15 July 2008

Rallies in Buenos Aires

Today the Senate is going to start discussing the export tax bill, which, as you will remember, were approved by the Chamber of Deputies by a difference of only seven votes. Although the Peronist majority in the Senate is even greater than in the lower house, senators are much more committed to their local constituencies. A significant number of Peronist senators are voting no to the government-sponsored bill. Only one or two votes decided at the last minute might make all the difference, and it's entirely possible that there's a tie — in which case the president of the Senate, Vice-president Julio Cobos, will have to break it.

Both Kirchners (the formal president, Cristina, and the de facto one, Néstor) and their high-profile ministers have been wooing the senators, pressuring them, threatening them, to get votes. The end result we'll only see later today, or tomorrow.

The farmers' organizations and the national government are organizing parallel rallies for today in Buenos Aires. The farmers want to (but probably won't) repeat the numeric performance of the May 25 meeting in Rosario, and the government wants to do better than the farmers. Néstor Kirchner has the mob-like truck drivers' union on his side, plus the Peronist Youth and a few other useful idiot clubs, to provide him with a lot of screaming fans, and the farmers have received the support of a true Prince of Sleaze, the leader of the Gastronómicos (the bar and restaurant workers' union).

It's all pretty stupid if you ask me. And divisive, and dangerous. The rallies are basically a bragging competition and won't serve any purpose. Néstor Kirchner is simply unable to stay quiet and hope for the best, and his hateful insolence is contagious. And the farmers must know that this is it, that they're not going to change anybody's mind now, because this has long ago ceased to be about taxes. It's all about ideology and people's conceptions of what government must handle power.

I believe that Kirchnerism is fascism, just as old-time Peronism was — corporatist, demagogical, perversely fusing patriotism with partisan loyalty, corrupt to its very dark core by its own nature. It must be brought down, by legitimate means, because it's wrecking the economy and destroying our dignity.

I don't believe for one second that this is the worst government we might have had at this time. Neither do I believe that the wealthy farmers would choose a better government (better for us) if they had the opportunity.

But the thing I believe the least is that we must somehow choose either populism or oligarchy, and violently reject the possibility of alternatives, the possibility of dialogue and compromise. I'd rather have no rival rallies hurling abuse at each other, no passionate masses in the public squares, no more demonstrations. Not for a while, at least. We'll have to do a lot of cleaning up, as a people, after this.

14 July 2008

My pictures of Rosario

Ignorado (by pablodf) A punto de (by pablodf)
Frutero (by pablodf) Paquetes de esperanza (by pablodf)

Eight months ago (in November 2007) I had the good luck to sign up for a photography workshop organized by the Firma & Odilo Estévez Decorative Art Museum (I mentioned it in passing back then). The goal was twofold: to observe and discuss pictures of old-time downtown Rosario, and to do guided photo tours and take pictures of our own. Then you had the option of submitting pictures for selection, to be part of a joint exhibition. It was planned for April. It was delayed, of course, but the guys at the museum let us all know that they were working on it, and a few days ago I received an e-mail announcing that the exhibition will be held in August at the Center Municipal District Center (the name looks like a joke, but it's the District Center building for the Center District). My pictures are the ones above (click to enlarge).

That workshop and those pictures hold a special meaning to me. It's not just the first time somebody else selects some my pictures to be displayed somewhere. It's that, while on this workshop and while walking down those streets, I met Marisa and talked to her for the first time. Three of her own pictures will share the exhibition room with mine. And to think that we didn't know each other at all when we took them...

11 July 2008

It's a frackin' cracker! (from Pharyngula)

I'm an avid reader of PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula since I discovered it. I don't know how he manages to produce so much content. I'm often lost on his explanations of the complexities of the evolutionary development of weird microscopic organisms and such, but I usually learn something from them. When he makes fun of religion, he makes me laugh. And when he unleashes his wrath — he's actually contagious.

After reading his report of the latest episode of senseless religious intolerance and unadultered religious stupidity (IT'S A FRACKIN' CRACKER!) I felt briefly overwhelmed by the certainty that humanity will never get rid of faith. But then I thought, the only way to deal with these things is make fun of the fanatics and expose their inanity. Well, English is spoken by many people around the world, but Spanish is also strong, and it's spoken in most of the countries where the hateful cult denounced by PZ is the majority belief. So I went to Alerta Religión and wrote Amenazas de muerte por una galletita ("Death threats over a cookie").

English and Spanish are down. Now we need it in Mandarin and Hindi, I guess...

10 July 2008

New blog in Spanish: Sin calma

I'm starting a yet another blog, mostly because I want to write in my own language, and there are a lot of things I'd like to write about which don't fit into D for Disorientation. So you should expect to see less personal and local content here. Sin calma (which translates as Restless) will get most of it, because I'll be writing for friends, acquaintances, people from Rosario, from Argentina, from the Spanish-speaking world, who'll be surely more familiar with the topics I'm writing about, and with my lexicon.

I still want to advertise what happens here to the whole world, but from now on I'll concentrate on major events (such as the development of the government-vs.-farmers crisis). Doubtless you've been seeing this trend lately.

If you read Spanish, go and read Sin calma. I'll be posting pictures more freely over there, too, so even if you don't understand the language, you'll still have eye candy. You're free to leave comments in English over there, or simply ask what it's all about, if you're curious.

06 July 2008

More complicated than seven votes

Last Saturday evening the mobile tax exports bill was approved by the Chamber of Deputies. Now it will go to the Senate, and if approved there it will become law.

Each politician and political pundit in Argentina has a slightly different view of the legislative debate and its result. The Kirchnerists are publicly exhilarated, though of course we don't know what they actually believe. For the hardcore K-people, it was a show of power and a triumph of loyalty. For the less sophisticated (the usefully idiotic palaeo-leftists, the Peronist Youth, and all the scum between those extremes), it was victory against the "oligarchy". For more than a few legislators, however, it was simply well-deserved relief from the strain of being pulled in several different directions — by the de facto President Néstor Kirchner, by the farmers, by the governors of agricultural provinces, by the urban middle class threatening with more cacelorazos, by our vulture-like media.

For the ones who lost, it was either the first step towards the unification of the opposition or merely one battle in a war that won't end soon. And they got a precious victory of principles: Cristina Kirchner had to subject to the will of Congress.

Mathematically, the result was simple enough: 129 to 122. The Front for Victory had to call on all of its allies for help, and some of their own defected. If three of the Río Negro deputies hadn't been offered a tax exemption that benefits the apple and pear producers of their province, the difference would've been reduced to one vote. If a certain deputy hadn't chosen to abstain at the last moment, instead of voting for the first minority, it would've been a tie. A year ago, even six months ago, Kirchnerism could've passed any law; yesterday it could've lost by a few votes, if only certain deputies hadn't been bought beforehand. That didn't happen, so the Kirchnerists won.

Néstor Kirchner won — the deputies explicitly ratified the authority of the President to set and modify export tariffs. This is so unconstitutional even a ten-year-old could take this matter as far as the Supreme Court, as it will most surely happen, but Kirchner has never been bothered by the law. The rest of the bill was changed almost beyond recognition — first it establishes a new tax and then it returns the money to 85% of the taxed. But the core of the problem, the one thing that matters to Néstor Kirchner, and which we citizens should never stop protesting — the short line that says that the President is entitled to do as she pleases with tariffs, is still there. So Kirchner can count this as a victory.

However, in a sense, it may be said he lost, too, and he's taking her wife and her party down with himself. Cristina Kirchner's approval rate has plummeted, most people don't believe she exercises power in more than symbolic fashion, the party is divided even at its core, and its alliances are coming apart. Right after Felipe Solá announced his vote against the export taxes, fellow Peronist deputy Carlos Kunkel called him "you traitor son of a bitch" so that everybody could hear. Vice-president Julio Cobos was told to "shut up" by an anonymous phone caller, echoing a previous, slightly more polite suggestion by minister Alberto Fernández. Cobos, who will be presiding the Senate next week, calmly replied he won't resign ("How could I resign, when so many people voted for me?"). Many of Kirchner's former allies, who are aligned with Cobos, will vote no to the taxes.

It's been almost four months since this all began, and everything has turned to the worse — consumer spending is down, credit rates are up to ridiculous levels, capital flight has accelerated, the high dollar-peso rate that made industrial exports competitive has had to be decreased to avoid a run on the dollar, and estimates of GDP growth have been taken down a couple of notches already. The export taxes that should've brought billions into the government's coffers are nowhere to be found, since the farmers refuse to sell, and the government is paying tens of billions per year to subsidize utilities and public services, and somehow has to honour a few additional billions of debt payments. Kirchner hates the idea of "cooling the economy", so public spending continues to rise. How will this end? One ugly word — stagflation.

English coverage:

04 July 2008

Congress making history — for good or bad

Another round in the government-vs.-farmers fight: last night the relevant committee in the lower house of Congress wrapped up a package of two different proposals to be debated by the whole Chamber of Deputies. One of them is a joint proposal of the opposition, which, after miraculously reaching an agreement, narrowed it down to "Let's suspend the President's bill for a while and see what we can do." This one was the most predictable, of course. It's in the minority, but it's quite a large minority.

There's a proposal championed by dissident Peronist, and former Buenos Aires Province governor, Felipe Solá, plus some other like him and many of the so-called Radicales K, i.e. former members of the Radical Civic Union. It's a compromise solution that maintains the mobile tax exports but decreases the amounts. If I got it correctly, this proposal doesn't count — the committee will only issue two, one for the minority and one for the majority.

The majority proposal is that of the Kirchnerists. What it basically says is "OK, we'll give you greedy farmers more subsidies, and if you ask for it using complicated forms we'll give you back some of the money we'll be unlawfully extracting from you in the first place." And then it explicitly says: "The President still has the right to do as she pleases with export taxes, no matter what the Constitution says, so all of the above is a joke."

The Kirchnerists say they have the votes it takes to pass the law — there's still some room for doubt, but wills can be bought, and they will. Needless to say, as soon as the law is passed the farmers will go back to the roads.

In the meantime, seeing how his own party turned to internal discussion (some legislators were actually thinking for themselves!), Néstor Kirchner has escalated his denunciations and threats. I won't be quoting him anymore, since it's sickening and pointless. The guy is clearly paranoid and very dangerous; in any normal country his own party would be shunning him (if only for political convenience), but Argentina being what it is, we'll have to wait until next year's elections to get rid of his influence.

This is all coming undone fast. Vice-president Julio Cobos hasn't spoken to Cristina in two weeks, since he started showing the common sense that seems to genetically absent in the Kirchners, and now even the ministers and senators tell him to shut up, which he says he won't. Cristina Kirchner seems unable to stop doing inflammatory speeches, but she can no longer get out of the safety zone. Kirchnerist shock troop commander Luis D'Elía went a bit far on his violent rants and was told to shut up and go abroad to preach his hypocritical "Revenge of the Poor" sermon, but the rest of the Kirchnerist mob is mobilized and waiting. Hebe de Bonafini was accused for inciting the take of official broadcasting media and asking for the farmers to be removed "with tear gas and sticks". Some politicians we saw as sensible, more-or-less honest representatives of the people have shown themselves as idiots and cowards at the very least, or simply as well-paid handmaids of the Kirchners.

It's painful process we're going through these days. The country is divided, and some of the worst elements in our society are working hard to widen the rifts. We've always had inept politicians, corrupt governments, economic uncertainty, but it's been long time since we had such violent popular leaders, such senseless verbal rage being poured on us without restraint. I'm optimistic, only in the sense I think it will all work out in the end. But how much time can we afford to lose?