14 March 2007

Lament for La Rioja

Argentina is a federal country. Most of the power resides (in theory) in the provincial states, which delegate some functions in the national federal government. The opposite would be a unitarian country. Since its independence in 1816, and until its final unification around 1860, Argentina was torn by civil war led by proponents of these two opposing systems.

In truth, many of the federalists were caudillos, powerful provincial chieftains, and they couldn't care less for the concept of decentralized government as an ideology. They just wanted to be left alone by the central power, residing in Buenos Aires, to continue ruling their lands like feudal lords.

This is still true for most of Argentina outside the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe and Córdoba, not coincidentally the ones most populated and the most productive. The north of Argentina is, in practice, ruled by hereditary successions of heirs linked by blood ties or lifelong political association; these dynasties are only broken every now and then, when the political establishment is shaken by strange coincidences or major crises.

These days the whole country witnessed, without so much as a mild outrage soon forgotten, the pathetic, dreadful spectacle of such a crisis in La Rioja. Twelve years ago, governor Ángel Maza succeeded his political patron, Carlos Menem, who had stayed in power for several terms before becoming President of Argentina. Maza himself got re-elected three times. In the meantime, the once all-powerful Menem became politically meaningless and Néstor Kirchner's rising star gathered a large following of opportunists. Maza realigned with Kirchner, as expected. In 2005 he ran for Senator of La Rioja against Menem, without resigning as governor. He won and, having beaten Menem as intended, resigned from his senatorial bench and continued ruling as governor. This is absolutely unethical but not illegal.

Now vice governor Luis Beder Herrera had an agreement with Maza: when the time came, Maza forfeit re-election so that Beder Herrera (who's been vice governor of three different governors, totalling 15 years) could run for governor. Something went wrong, however, as Maza ignored the agreement and prepared to run for a fourth term. Beder Herrera turned against him, and the Legislature he presides reformed the provincial constitution and got it to forbid indefinite re-election (which had been introduced years ago to favour Carlos Menem's own appetite for power). Maza protested. Beder Herrar accused Maza of a series of misdeeds, and got the Legislature to vote a suspension for Maza, pending the formal investigation known as juicio político that is reserved for elected officials. This took some time, which Maza employed to cry foul and denounce an "institutional coup". Furthermore, the national government hinted at the idea of federal intervention to La Rioja. Upon hearing of the legislature's decission, Maza formally asked for the intervention.

Last night, Maza, some of his officials and supporters locked themselves up inside the government house. The judicial branch of La Rioja ordered the police to drive them out. Outside, a demonstration gathered to support Maza. The lumpen-for-hire that are usually the majority in these demonstrations started lighting fires and breaking windows. They set a car on fire, destroyed public lights, and attacked the riot police (loyal to Beder Herrera) with sticks and stones. The police finally came into the government house and forced everybody out except ex-governor Maza and some of his companions.

Now the national government is faced with a tough choice. Federal intervention is not a minor thing. It is used in cases where a provincial state's power has been overtaken or dispersed. It means the federal state coming over, ending the local executive's terms and dissolving the local legislature. To fill this political blank slate the president must then appoint an interventor, who will have a certain time (typically 180 days) to re-organize the province and call for elections again. An intervened province is like an open wound in a federal country, and failure to choose a good interventor means a huge political cost for the president.

Worst of all, this is not a mission to repair injustice. When the government intervened Santiago del Estero in 2004, the province was a nightmare: it had been the fiefdom of the Juárez family for 50 years, a half-senile governor and his wife ruling a mass of poor peasants, held by welfare and public jobs granted in exchange for votes, with a police force that had carte blanche to harass and suppress dissidence, and a judicial branch completely subservient to the executive. Santiago was completely rotten, and yet the national government hesitated to intervene a Peronist-ruled province. The intervention at least brought the corruption into the light.

La Rioja is not like Santiago del Estero. The province has a lot of problems, to be sure, but it's not in the hands of a dark evil leader with a secret police. The mess was caused entirely by two ambitious men fighting for power. It's a catch-22 situation: if there's not an intervention, the national government will be validating Beder Herrera's "coup", which was legal but embarrassing and hardly legitimate; if the intervention takes place, it will be seen as the president using an extremely unsubtle approach to come to the rescue, not of a province in chaos, but of one of his protegés.

By the time you read this, the decission may have been made already. It needs to be ratified by Congress. We know how that works, but in any case, legislative debate will only make this look even more disgusting.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous19:31

    Excellent explanation of the situation. I try to keep up with Argentine goings-on, but of course it's difficult to get news about anything about Buenos Aires and the national government.

    Also, I wanted to say that I enjoy reading your blog. I once visited Rosario- briefly- and was impressed by the city. It's a shame that it's always so overshadowed by Buenos Aires.


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