31 December 2008

Exit 2008...

'Tis the last day of 2008. One can't easily escape the temptation of the traditional year's end balance, so here it goes...

Overall, this has been a very good year. First of all, of course, love. I met Marisa in the last days of 2007, and a month later, when I went away on vacation with a couple of friends, I discovered I'd already grown used to her, and even as I had lots of fun and traveled through wonderful landscapes I couldn't help missing her. Nearly one year after that, I still feel her absense when we stay apart even for a few days. And so my quest for a place to live on my own also turned into a better kind of expectation — rather than getting away, getting together with the one I love.

It was also a good year on the work side. I didn't get a raise or a higher post or anything like that — if everything, I'm doing extra work for the same pay. But the new administration does things quite differently. Back then I was doing boring repetitive work, and almost completely pointless as well (the signing of tireless forms for the archives of dust, as Borges would say), while now I'm doing more of what I like, meeting new people, and being consulted on what I know. I was quite prepared to leave my safely stable, futile job last year; now I'm willing to wait until I get the monetary recognition I need.

This was a year for travel, too. I spent two-and-a-half weeks touring what I consider the most beautiful part of Argentina (so far), the desertic part of Mendoza and the forests and lake of southern Neuquén. Then I had my first try with Marisa (a week together, visiting Córdoba), in late March. In September we went to La Rioja for another week. And then, despite our conflicting schedules, we somehow managed to squeeze in an escapade to Victoria and another to Tigre. Now we're planning a trip to Uruguay on the first half of February. Always tight on cash, but ready to take any opportunity.

What else? So much! I was stranded in Villa María and survived. My office was moved and I actually got my own little space as "the computer guy". I had some of my photos of Rosario chosen for an exhibition. I sold a piece of software for good money. I resumed jogging and then stopped again. I sold a few pictures. I got scared shitless because of my liver's misbehaving and got well. I started a personal blog and a blog on religion and actually got some people to read them. I left Japanese class and regretted it a bit. From Marisa I learned not to set the alarm clock when I have no reason to wake up at a fixed time. I picked up some cooking from Marisa and her mother. I read a lot of books in English. I joined an atheist group and got my picture on a newspaper. I got some of my long-neglected teeth fixed. I bought gifts for a lot of people, and got many gifts myself. I acquired a few more white hairs. I kept my beard and my 5-year-old cell phone. I learned to let go of some cherished personal myths and hobbies.

Not much will change tonight at midnight, but even as we're all "work in progress", it's a special night. So everybody, have a nice year's end and a happy beginning for 2009!

24 December 2008

Christmas at home

It's been a while since I last wrote, and I feel bad about that, given how often I used to post in earlier times. But such is the way of things.

The last year or so has been busy for me, mostly in the good sense (new girlfriend, new job routine, new places traveled to), but not spectacularly good for news (about the city, or the country or the world as a whole, for that matter). I seem to remember apologizing for a seemingly endless string of depressing political posts. I don't want to do that again.

Christmas season is about to end, thank Jeebus, and truth be told it doesn't seem like "the crisis" has hit that hard. Judging from the sheer volume of the throngs that squeezed along every inch of the downtown commercial streets last Monday (that's when I went gift-shopping myself), there's still lots of spare change in people's pockets for one last spending binge. The soft credits promised by the government have still failed to materialize (and seriously, nobody thinks they will, or at least it's highly doubtful they get past the nicest parts of Greater Buenos Aires) but retired people have got their extra 200 pesos, there'll be a similar supplement for minimum-wage workers and welfare benefits, and it seems the tendency to pay the aguinaldo before the holidays, instead of in January, has caught on.

As for me, I spent an unexpected amount buying little gifts for everyone in the family, which now includes Marisa's parents and her brother's family of three. Back in 2000, when I first got a stable job, and for more than a couple of years after that, I didn't earn enough for such luxuries as gifts, so now I love having the chance, although the act of going around and choosing the actual gifts is still stressful, being such a detail freak.

Since Marisa and I will each have dinner with our own families, and both driving yourself or getting a cab are virtually impossible on Christmas, we exchanged gifts days ago. I promised not to peep, so as to keep the surprise until tonight. There's no-one left at home that believes in Papá Noel (Santa Claus), and of course I don't believe anybody of divine origin was born on December 25, but one comes to appreciate the symbolic importance of waiting until midnight, as is the custom in Argentina, to open the shiny, bow-topped packages and peer inside to see what our loved ones thought we'd find nice or useful.

These days are exhausting, what with the summer heat and the crowded shopping malls and the explosion of red-and-green kitsch everywhere, and it's true that more people than usual feel depressed or lonely at this time of the year. In this sense I loathe Christmas. But maybe we should have more of it. It wouldn't be so special, but maybe one week as each season turns into the next, with less of a focus in overdoing (overspending, overeating, overdrinking) and more of simple expectation and celebration of our continued friendship. Our ancestors (no matter who they were exactly) had a developed awareness of seasonal change; why couldn't we? Imagine four short holiday seasons instead of a protracted one — better for the economy, for our digestive system, and for our inner peace.

Here's to a happy and peaceful Christmas, to all my readers. I'll see you again sooner than expected, I hope.

16 December 2008

Big Tobacco strikes back

The tobacco company Nobleza Piccardo (part of British American Tobacco) is suing Santa Fe Province before the Supreme Court because of the provincial anti-tobacco law, they claim, has made them lose a lot of money. Specifically, they feel the articles that ban cigarette advertising go beyond the provincial state's attributions to care for public health and infringe on free expression.

The fight against smoking has a been a frequent subject in this blog. I think we're all pretty surprised at our own reception of anti-tobacco regulations in this country; besides a minority of doomsday sayers, soon reduced to nothingness, most Argentinians have accepted that it's just rude to smoke indoors in a public place, and got on with our lives. I guess that's as far as product loyalty goes — the tobacco companies must have been very disappointed to witness none of the addicts they created mobilized against the rules that forbid them from pushing their poison on teenagers and children.

The suit (a claim of unconstitutionality) was brought to the Supreme Court two months ago but we know about it now because the state attorney Jorge Barraguirre appears on the press denying the charges. Nobleza Piccardo tried to get in an amparo (sort of an injunction, to stop the law from being applied while the matter is decided) but the Court rejected it, so we must wait and see what comes out of it.

03 December 2008

Expensive, those principles (by Martín Caparrós)

What follows is a translation of an article by Martín Caparrós on today's Crítica Digital (Caros, los principios) about the sweeping tax and capital smuggling amnesty proposed by Kirchner's government and currently being discussed in Congress. In dire need of fresh funds, Cristina is basically offering criminals a free pass to launder their money in Argentina, and inviting all those Argentinians who illegally sent their undeclared foreign currency abroad to take them back without paying taxes, dropping any legal investigations under way. [For some more background, see the American Task Force coverage.] Caparrós, once a leftist militant, again voices his disappointment with this supposedly progressive government, whose true leader (Néstor Kirchner) famously said he would never agree to check his principles at the door of the Casa Rosada.

The good thing is that we now at least know how much they're worth. Or rather how much they believe they're worth. (It may be, if anything, as in the classical sudaca joke about the best business deal: buy an Argentinian for what he's worth, sell him for what he thinks he's worth.) We now know, I was saying, the price. They're not cheap: they must believe their principles are better than they look — and they're charging a lot for them. The savings repatriation and tax moratorium proposal, which Congress began discussing yesterday, is that: a price label. They were supposed to have some principles: equality before the law, opposition to financial capitalism, a "new tax culture", a push towards some [wealth] redistribution by the State, an insistence on justice being made despite [purposeful] oversights. All of which crumbles when the government tells those who took away the money, those who evaded taxes, that there's no problem, that everything's forgotten. For a handful of dollars: various economists reckon that, on the best scenario, five percent of the Argentine capital that escaped might come back — that is, some six billion. That, if anyone believes them and brings in the bucks, which isn't a safe bet at all. With luck, the State could recover 10% of that 5%, some 600 million, and at the same time, of course, take advantage of the modicum of reactivation that money could bring to our economy.

That's what their principles are worth. Or rather the price of shitting on them: if you laundered money, if you evaded taxes, if you forged your bills to take home your "10% commission", don't worry, we'll fix it; and if you were in jail, you can now go home. If you stole 10 kilos of beef from the butcher's on the corner, or 80 pesos from some boy on a dark street, then no, this deal doesn't include you. Evading taxes is not stealing from one person — it's stealing from all of them, from the State which should spend that money on schools and hospitals for everyone, or at least for those who don't have them. Tax evasion is robbery worse than any other robbery: it's robbing those who have the least. These are the crooks this law wants to spare: the big crooks, the shirt-and-tie ones, the friends.

That's why this law is a full stop: a point of no return. If they pass it as it is, they won't ever again be able to speak of their principles: they will have sold them, under the excuse of a crisis that didn't exist days ago. A bit expensive, it's true: as in that bad joke.
The translation is free; the links are mine. Caparrós employs a few local references that may not be obvious unless you live in Argentina: the use of sudaca as a self-effacing slur; the soundbite por una nueva cultura tributaria ("for a new tax culture") which the Federal Tax Administration uses to advertise its fight for citizens' fiscal responsibility (which this moratorium turns into a mockery); the diego or "10% commission" — an euphemism for bribery; the expression punto final, which compares this obscene pardon for the wealthy to the law that halted investigations of the dictatorship's crimes. It just came out and I felt I had to share.

21 November 2008

Our illegitimate debt

The government of Ecuador is considering defaulting on 40% of its debt because it's "illegitimate, corrupt and illegal" (as per the words of president Rafael Correa). An ad hoc international committee studied 32 years of indebtedness, with a focus on the dictatorial period of 1976–1980, and produced a 30,000-page document detailing how and why a large part of the buildup of Ecuador's US$13-billion debt involved questionable or outright criminal maneuvers by governments, creditors, negotiators and other middlemen.

The committee included President Correa's advisor, Argentine historian Alejandro Olmos Gaona. You might remember I mentioned the possibility of Argentine collaboration with Ecuador in a post of February 2007.

Crítica de la Argentina titles this, quite appropriately, Ecuador hizo el Nunca Más de la deuda — a reference to Argentina's Nunca Más ("Never Again") document about forced disappearances. To my knowledge, this is the first time a Latin American country revises its history of debt in this manner. Most of if not all Latin American countries have had long periods of right-wing dictatorship in the late 1970s and early 1980s and neoliberal governments during the 1990s, and a common tendency for these has been to get the country indebted with the IMF, the World Bank and other financial vultures, then divert funds for corrupt purposes and finally trash the economy, leaving the next administration with no seeming choice but to ask for more money and repeat the cycle... each time squeezing the economy a bit more.

Not only did the Argentine military abduct, torture and murder thousands, but they also increased our debt and stole whatever they could. A creditor that lends money to a corrupt, illegal government shouldn't expect to be paid, least of all if the negotiators and overseers of the loans were well aware of that corruption. Moreover, anything done under the pretense of legality during a dictatorship shouldn't be, in principle, considered legally binding. (Laws and other regulations passed by a dictatorial government should be voided ipso facto, though this hasn't been done for practical reasons.)

In 2000, Judge Jorge Ballesteros ruled that the part of Argentina's external debt contracted during the 1976–1982 dictatorship was fraudulent, due to more than 470 irregular operations detected in the loans' proceedings. The debt went from 7 to 45 billion dollars, including formerly private debt that was nationalized by then-minister Domingo Cavallo (a specialist in this matter, judging by his career). Ballesteros left it in the hands of Congress to take action. Nothing happened.

Argentina has much to learn, even from Ecuador — most people don't even question the legality of the debt, but only complain about the politicians who took the money. Would it be impossible to repeal the illegal debt and take the responsible people to court? Even in those cases where 30 years have passed, an argument could be made that Argentina's indebtedness has caused more misery and death than all our dictators. Of course, the reason is political: most of those who benefited from bankrupting the state repeatedly are still Senators, Deputies, ministers, government secretaries, prominent lawyers, presidents of corporations, respected bankers, or family or relatives thereof. In politics and big money, these dynasties and mafia-like networks, essentially the country's owners and managers, haven't changed in decades.

PS: More reading material: Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt.

07 November 2008

No more trams for Rosario

I was going to write about Obama's victory (and I will eventually), but I just spotted a bit of bad news over here on Rosario3.com. On February 2007 I was happy to report that the mayor's trip to San Francisco had resulted in a conversation with that city's Rosario-born Secretary of Transport and an agreement to mediate in the donation of a fleet of old trolleybuses from Vancouver, Canada (negotiations for which had started before).

Unfortunately, although the trams were almost free (a symbolic amount, as I understand), we had to pay for the shipping. Bringing 80 buses from the opposite end of the planet costs a lot. The national government promised to help us with 2.5 million pesos, but the money never arrived, and the municipality of Rosario is really strapped for cash. So the trams are going to the city of Mendoza, which could afford them (being a provincial capital has its advantages, I guess). They left Vancouver by boat on November 4 and are now headed for the port of Valparaíso, Chile.

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but I must say this: it's a shame how local governments are always poor, how provincial administrations have lost control of their own financial resources, and how the national government takes more and more money from us without our representatives doing anything about it. I'm not advocating for the kind of independence from the federal administration seen in the United States; that would be impossible because some provinces, left alone, would simply be inviable. And some things (such as large public works) might be better left to the federal state. But for a city of 1 million to be unable to disburse some US$7 million to take advantage of such a fantastic opportunity is terrible.

I suppose I must be happy for Mendoza, a beautiful city and one I love... but I'm just very frustrated.

03 November 2008

Nationalizing pension funds: more money for the Kirchners?

It's time again for a depressing anti-government post! This time, about the nationalization of AFJPs (private retirement funds). I strongly feel it's a good idea, and as strongly as that I also feel we must keep it from happening as intended by president Néstor Kirchner. (If you think Cristina's the one in charge, you must be living inside a jar, as we say over here. For months she's been devoting her time exclusively to cutting ribbons to [unfinished] public works and, lately, to writing newspaper articles in praise of her husband's ideas. Néstor is de facto big guy.)

Now you mustn't believe I do this because I like destructive criticism. I'm absolutely for "big government" as Americans call it, and I believe important stuff should never be left fully in the hands of private corporate interests whose creed is "make money fast whatever way you can". Kirchner's government has taken us far in this sense, and that's OK.

The problem with the Kirchner administration is that they always, somehow, manage to turn good theory into bad practice, and for a long while now (and not because the media or the far right are trying to make it look so, as C&K passionately believe) everything they've proposed has been born tainted by association. Or, as in this case, destined to fail before (a good part of) public opinion because common sense and the typical Argentine paranoia will kick in, and all alarms will go off, as soon as the state gets close to our pockets.

About 15 years ago, the law that allowed the creation of the AFJP system was drafted and passed, accompanied with a heartfelt defense of private capital accumulation (the so-called "capitalization scheme") by many who now profess to be old-time fans of the old-fashioned state-regulated collective saving scheme, including many faithful Kirchnerists (flip-flopping is another word for pragmatism — the only thing that can be truly called "Peronist doctrine"). Gobs of money were transferred to private capitalization accounts from the state's coffers, and the AFJPs (Administradoras de Fondos de Jubilaciones y Pensiones) started recruiting associates. The law said if you didn't choose where your retirement funds should go, then it would be automatically assigned to an AFJP; thus millions of distracted workers were signed up for a massive speculative operation. The AFJPs invested money in assets of various kinds and for a while they actually increased their clients' funds, although they charged huge commissions.

Pensions were frozen for ten years, as the economy entered into a low-growth phase, unemployment rose steadily, and finally recession entered the picture. After president Carlos Menem (cursed be his name) got away with murder, president Fernando de la Rúa found the dying economy and, instead of trying to resuscitate it, he finished it off with such nice measures as cutting 13% of pension payments. We all know what happened then... so fast forward to 2003.

Néstor Kirchner passed a series of decrees increasing both salaries and pensions, which were well-received, even as employers complained. The economy took off and pensions did as well. There was a small problem, though: the private pension funds couldn't keep up. They started losing money. The law said that the state must guarantee pension payments, if necessary by compensating (subsidizing) the private funds. So the state poured money into the AFJPs, whose risky investments had proven disastrous (does that sound familiar?), and when the companies began accumulating too much debt, the government forced them to buy national debt bonds. Yes, that's right: the government forced the guarantors of retirement funds for millions of Argentinians to accept what amounted to wet paper in order to rid itself of them (the only other feasible destination for those bonds was Hugo Chávez).

In January 2008, after the scarce enthusiasm that followed Cristina's election had faded, someone near her came up with the idea of "letting people choose" where to place their retirement savings. The Kirchnerists hastily passed a law opening up the choice for everyone: 180 days to take your money away from the private box to the state's bag (or the other way round). And the law also established that, if newcomers to the labor market didn't explicitly choose which way, their funds would go to the state system, not some AFJP. The AFJPs understandably lost a lot of clients, but in all fairness they deserved to, and the law didn't force anyone to accept anything against their interest. It had some other very good points as well, so good in fact that, "better late than never" aside, some of us wondered why it hadn't been passed before. Like four years before.

The answer came easily. Why indeed? Because it was only now that the economy had begun slowing down, while debt payments were looming closer and the whole economic structure was showing the strain. High inflation, high interest rates, no way to get fresh funding for things like the bullet train, and the need to pump more and more money into subsidies for electric power, drinking water, fuel, natural gas and everything else. Néstor Kirchner had always ruled with a big wallet of state money freely available to him, but Cristina's future was uncertain. The fresh funds from the AFJPs, of course, should have never been used to fund the state in any respect other than pension payments, but the new law didn't say anything about that. Already in 2007, his last year, Kirchner had signed a decree allowing the government to divert funds from ANSeS (the social security agency) to expenses such as public works.

After the fiasco of Resolution 125 (another, more desperate attempt to get money for the state) came the worldwide financial crisis. After being deprived of juicy taxes on exports of soybean, both exporters and the government have seen the prices of soybean plummet to half the levels of the first quarter: less and less money! Subsidies on buses, natural gas and power were reduced, but that's not enough; with a world recession looming, and the economy visibly decelerating, it would be economic suicide to raise the prices of basic services. On top of that, 2009 is an electoral year, and that means a lot of wills and votes must be bought. Back then, Néstor and Cristina could campaign all year round, visiting one town after another in provinces with "loyal" governors, handing out multimillion checks without any real oversight, and making sure crowds of bussed-in "supporters" would be ready to applaud their presence; but all that costs money.

The national state keeps about 70% of what the provinces contribute, and what it shares, it does so rather unfairly. Most provincial governments are strapped for cash right now, and more than a few are absolutely dependent, on a short-term basis, on presidential whims when it comes to distribution.

Kirchner's desperation is now becoming noticeable. Initially he ordered the bill that nationalizes AFJPs to be approved and turned into law at once, without any changes. His parliamentary bulldog, deputy Agustín Rossi, first attempted this, then saw it was impossible, and timidly conceded that the government's bloc would accept discussion of the finer points.

Now, the bill seeks to overturn a 15-year-old system with millions of associates, in a context of financial turbulence, and to do so in a matter of weeks, so that all the money from the private pensions can be transferred to the state's social security before the end of the year. Not only does this negate the choice of millions of people who decided to stay in the private companies earlier this year, but it also looks rather suspicious.

Why the hurry? True, the assets of the AFJPs are taking heavy hits from the world's financial meltdown. But those things come and go. It's also true that the AFJPs haven't given their associates what they promised, and that they've engaged in some dubious practices. That's something to be settled with general audits. If you have a critical system that doesn't seem to work as intended, you don't decide to break it. You fix it and keep it going while you prepare the transition. The president can count on ample powers, a Congress controlled by overwhelming margins, and a social consensus that private pension funds aren't a good idea for most of us. I repeat, why the hurry? Cristina still has three years to go.

This administration has frustrated me time after time. I'm really tired of seeing great ideas given such bad names by the Kirchnerist gang. I'm fed up with having to agree with certain people... being forced to be on the same side as some who hold principles completely opposite from mine.

Yet I have no alternative. It's just plain common sense that the Kirchners want the private pensions' money to continue their incessant campaigning for their own permanence. They have no new ideas, no plan, no policies, nothing but a hunger for power that sometimes translates into seemingly brilliant developments, soon marred by corruption and negligence. Are we as a nation doomed to go from one rotten set of politicians to another?

30 October 2008

25 years of democracy

Today it's been 25 years since the formal return of democracy in Argentina. On October 20, 1983 a democratically elected president, Raúl Alfonsín, took office after more than seven years of dictatorship and over half a century of erratic shifts between legal presidents and military usurpers.

My personal reckoning is that, although I was born exactly six months after the coup d'état, I have so far spent four fifths of my life under democratic rule. During that time I've voted quite a few times: three times for president (1999, 2003, 2007), four for governor (1995, 1999, 2003, 2007) and many more, at least once every two years to elect national and provincial legislators, and once every four years to elect city mayors and councilmembers, plus a couple of primaries. My generation is possibly the one that has voted the most times during the entire history of this country.

On the national level I've always either voted for the loser... or later regretted not voting for him. During all this time, this thing that gets called "the democratic process" hasn't offered me much satisfaction. But I don't want to despair. Never has Argentina experienced so many years (a quarter of a century!) of uninterrupted free elections on all the levels of government. We move on and crises hit us and sometimes we'd rather have everything blow apart, but in our heart of hearts we know and wish it will go on no matter what.

I have my reservations and my protests in store and readily available, but today I want to end this on a positive note. For 25 years now we've refused, as a people, to be deprived of our right to choose, and even when all our options look bad, we always have one more chance ahead of us. And that counts.

(El texto original de este post, en castellano, está disponible en Sin calma: 25 años de democracia.)

25 October 2008

Image gallery

I've been busy revamping my website these days, which is why I haven't blogged here at all for a week. It's in Spanish, so that's also why I haven't blogged about it here. Anyway, I'm unveiling an image gallery in order to showcase my photos in a different way from that which Flickr offers. The system is not the best to be found, but I can control it some more. The idea is, I will continue sharing pictures of everything that strikes my fancy on Flickr, but I'll keep the more artistic photos for my gallery. I can't (so far) make a trade out of my photos, but this would be a first step towards establishing an online presence as a photographer with a portfolio.

The gallery can be accesed directly at pedeefe.com.ar/gallery2, or embedded into the website at pedeefe.com.ar/site/?q=gallery; the interface is practically the same. Go check it out and leave comments, critiques, or whatever.

14 October 2008

Time displacement

By decree of Our Most Reflective Leader, President Cristina of the Unwrinkled Face, and based on the success of last year's Daylight Saving Time scheme, we'll be advancing our clocks and watches by one hour next Sunday, October 19, at midnight (which will thus become 1 AM). Except of course there was no measurable difference in power usage last year, and all we got from DST was a surge in sleep disorders (and, admittedly, beautiful sunsets at 11 PM beyond the 40°S parallel — almost midnight sun without the expense and inconveniences of a trip to Antarctica).

As usual, it's up to the provincial states to adhere or reject this measure. Four provinces (San Luis, San Juan, La Rioja and Catamarca) are almost sure they won't change the time, while Mendoza has already announced it won't — that is, the whole Cuyo region plus the neighbouring Catamarca will stay behind.

Here in Rosario, as well as in Santa Fe City, business owners are complaining as well, and plan to file a formal request to governor Hermes Binner. Most likely that won't change the decision. It would be rather problematic if Santa Fe stayed behind while all of its neighbours don't.

08 October 2008

Argentina's economy: what now?

Everybody's talking about the financial crisis, so I thought I could chip in with my two cents..., especially seeing how our own Argentine government continues to deny we'll face serious trouble. In fact, President Cristina Kirchner has devoted a lot of time to deride, with barely concealed glee, the proponents of globalized laissez-faire capitalism (we must acknowledge that "kicking them while they're down" never felt better) and to defend the Kirchnerist achievement of decoupling Argentina from international market shocks, which would be terrific — if it were true.

First of all, not to despair: we are, as Cristina says, better prepared than ever in recent history for the shock. The problem started outside our borders (we have different problems) and we'll just have to slow down and wait, hoping that they don't spill into our own economy. For example: we need money to pay our foreign debt next year (and it's a lot of money — more than we owed before Néstor Kirchner renegotiated it, because we actually exchanged debt for more debt), and it'll be difficult to get money from abroad or to refinance the debt once again, with interest rates being so high and everybody clutching desperately to their remaining assets; but we still have a fiscal surplus and a trade surplus.

The peso-dollar rate jumped a bit, too, and that will help the trade surplus. There's just one problem — we're dependent on imports of all kinds, so a higher exchange rate means inflation. And one more problem: the Brazilian real has devalued as well, only much more brutally, so Brazil will be able to sell cheaper stuff to us, they won't be able to buy as much from us, and they'll be much more competitive with respect to third parties. Brazil has a long-standing state policy of industrialization; we don't. Brazil can cope with lower or higher exchange rates; we can't.

Yet more problems: our trade surplus feeds our fiscal surplus, via retenciones (export taxes), especially on soybean products. The price of soybeans (as with other commodities) has taken a deep dive, so that means less revenue from exports. China buys most of our soybeans, but China, like all countries around the globe, will start buying less of everything. Less revenue from exports means less available money to (for example) cover the costs of subsidizing inefficient public services and utilities, and funding public works. The national government has already left the inner country to its own devices, delaying or altogether abandoning plans to build homes, schools and such (Minister De Vido lies, as usual); now it's Buenos Aires's turn. Natural gas, drinking water, domestic power, buses, trains, the subway — they'll go up and up, while construction (the engine of Argentina's economic recovery since 2002) will come to a halt. Tourism and foreign investment will suffer as well; people in the US and Europe simply won't have money to spend on Third World countries like Argentina.

There's a political problem as well, because 2009 is a legislative election year, and the Kirchners doubtless had plans to pour money into cheap, quickly-unveiled public works all over the country, as Peronists are fond of doing; that just won't be possible in this scenario. Least of all if the opposition gets to revise the budget, which contains certain provisions deserving a "best fiction" award, plus the infamous "superpowers" that let the Chief of Cabinet move around huge chapters of the budget under the excuse of an economic emergency that supposedly ended years ago.

All in all, it looks like the next months will bring a "plateau" in Argentina's so far swift growth, and the Kirchnerist government will have to deal, for the first time ever, with a tight budget. It's easy to play when you have cards, as we say over here. The feeling of opportunities for true growth, for industrialization, for true redistribution of wealth, wasted and lost and now unlikely to return for a few years, is almost unbearable.

03 October 2008

Vacations in pictures

Here's a two-volume compilation, totalling 72 pictures, of our trip to Chilecito and La Rioja last month. Click on the mosaics below and, once in the Flickr picture page, click on the individual pictures' titles.

Vacaciones en Chilecito, La Rioja (vol. 1)

Vacaciones en Chilecito, La Rioja (vol. 2)

29 September 2008

Ship parade against the fires

Caravana náutica II Last Saturday, September 27, there was a "ship parade" to protest the fires on the islands of the Paraná river's delta, opposite Rosario. The municipality organized it, and called all the people without a boat to participate by staying beside the river and waving.

Since I've written about the island fires before, I won't explain it all over again in detail. In short: farmer needs place for cattle; government of Entre Ríos Province lets farmer buy island; farmer cheaply clears island scrub by setting fire to it; drought makes fire worse; smoke blows away, blocks traffic, irritates people's eyes and noses; ash rains on Rosario; wetland ecosystem is destroyed; Entre Ríos government does nothing; neighbouring Santa Fe government gets angry; Rosario sues.

The ship parade was the last move of Rosario's municipal government, one week after a gathering and a declaration against the unchecked burning on the islands and for the creation of a natural reserve.

You wouldn't believe the kind of bullshit we've been getting from the government of Entre Ríos and the municipality of Victoria, under whose jurisdiction the nearby islands are. This has worked against them, as more and more facts are uncovered. Entre Ríos, we learned, gets some good money from leasing fiscal land plots on the islands to cattle farmers. And the mayor of Victoria, Entre Ríos, approved the establishment of a meat processing plant there as well, even after the town council rejected it because of the highly suspect credentials of its owner.

It's clear these guys have some business going on on the islands. The governor of Entre Ríos was livid when he learned that Santa Fe's senators were requesting the creation of a protected area. Right now, Entre Ríos and Victoria can say they are unable to stop the fires, with what the drought and their lack of economic resources, and that anyway it's private land; but a protected area under federal jurisdiction would force the national government to preserve the ecosystem from such destruction.

The fact that Cristina Kirchner's government has done almost nothing to stop the fires, except when the smoke reached Buenos Aires, and that Environment Secretary Romina Picolotti might as well be a wooden lamppost for all the effort she's put into this issue, is also a cause for more anger here in Rosario. We've always taken this sort of local pride on being a "self-made city", so if Entre Ríos can't or won't solve it and Cristina doesn't feel like it, let them hand the islands over to us, and we'll surely do a better job keeping one of South America's largest wetlands and most fragile ecosystems from being burned to the ground for short-term profit.

If you read Spanish, keep up with the news and activism reading my blog Sin calma: No a la quema.

22 September 2008

Vacation report: La Rioja City

Casa de Joaquín V. González
Joaquín V. González's house
Well, after Talampaya Canyon little of importance could happen to us. The next day, mid-morning, we got on the bus that would take us to the city of La Rioja, and arrived there about three hours later.

La Rioja is a relatively small provincial capital, and I don't have much to say about it, although I do want to be fair and emphasize that we visited it in a hurry and because we had to, since the return bus to Rosario departed from there rather than from Chilecito. La Rioja is cute, but it has no major remarkable touristic spots, with the exception of a huge palaentology museum and some historical churches. The cathedral is also beautiful, but at this stage of our vacations we were no longer terribly impressed about this sort of things.

There's a house resembling a castle where the famous Joaquín V. González lived (the one who built Samay Huasi in Chilecito as a house of rest), and a fair amount of ample, well cared-for public squares, but no big parks within the urban downtown area.

Cara de mono II Parque Yacampis, the public park where the zoo is located, lies almost outside of town, and either because of the drought or sheer carelessness it looks rather decrepit. The zoo itself is surprisingly large and comprehensive for such a small city, and we spent a couple of hours going from one cage and enclosure to another. Among the primates there are caí monkeys (capuchins), a spider monkey, and baboons; also many birds, including a miserable condor which seemed to have too little space to exercise its vast wingspan; llamas and guanacos, too, and less curious animals such as goats and pigs.

The "problem" (note the scare quotes) with La Rioja is that, touristic or not, it's a "deep country" city with a small town mentality, and siesta time is sacred, so even the finest restaurant on the best parts of downtown shoo off customers during the afternoon. The traveller that arrives from Chilecito, for instance, checks in at the hotel and goes looking for late lunch, is in for a bad surprise and will be forced to a hungry pilgrimage around the city before he or she can find a table and a waiter.

We stayed in La Rioja all Friday afternoon and Saturday until sunset, when our bus departed. Again we had the unforgettable experience of an interrupted return trip. In March, you'll remember, we were stopped en route by a picket of farmers near Villa María, Córdoba; now it was a bit earlier, when the engine failed and started losing diesel. Marisa, doubtless because of the fuel vapours, felt sick all night; she couldn't force herself to eat so much as a mouthful of dinner, and the nausea lasted even a couple of days after our return. Fortunately we weren't delayed a lot: we stopped in La Falda, north of Córdoba, and we waited an hour or so until a replacement bus was sent from nearby Capilla del Monte. So in the end we got to Rosario two hours after schedule.

And that's the end of my vacation report.

19 September 2008

Vacation report: Talampaya Canyon

Two days after our first, failed attempt, we finally got to see the Talampaya National Park. This was what we'd come to La Rioja for, so we were exhilarating.

Cañón de Talampaya

The weather had changed. It was cloudy and rather cool, and the tour guide warned us about being so happy, since there was a possibility, if remote, that it could rain. I made the mistake of not taking along more warm clothes than I had already on...

Cañón de Talampaya
The canyon's walls (there are earthquakes here)

Marisa helada
Marisa, frozen, just like me
The trip felt shorter than before. The Cuesta de Miranda wasn't full of splendour under the sun like the previous Tuesday, but dark, with deep colours toned down by the cloud cover. We got to the park's entrance, registered, and then the van kept on going for 12 km. The Talampaya National Park is huge (2,150 km²), but the touristic part, the one you can actually visit, is just the canyon formed by the Talampaya river (which is a dry bed of dust most of the time), with rocky walls chiseled by wind erosion.

We got to the canyon and got off the van to do our trekking. It was bitterly cold and the wind didn't help it, but luckily it hit us from the back. I immediately realized I should've brought at least two more layers of protective warm clothing, plus a scarf, gloves and a wool cap. Marisa was a bit better protected than me and she had a hood over her head; the tips of my ears painfully froze in a matter of minutes.

All this notwithstanding, when you walk for a while at a good pace you forget the cold, even more so when you have such a great spectacle before your eyes. At this point I must let the pictures speak for themselves, because I don't have proper words to describe the immensity of the view. All I was left with was impressions — the clearest one being one the guide made us notice, our inability to grasp the sheer height of the canyon's walls. I don't know how much they were apart; for us, walking along the midline of the utterly dry riverbed, they seemed close enough, but when we tried to get closer we noticed we were never there, it took us a minute or so to get to where your hand could actually touch the reddish rock wall, and then you looked up and it was impossible to see the end of it. The Talampaya Canyon's walls are up to 180 metres high, equivalent to a 60-storey building (there are none so high in Argentina, by the way).

Pongámoslo en perspectiva
The "chimney"
Our other impression was that of geological age. The wind we felt was dragging and blowing sand and dust; that we could see. But it was hard to relate that to the worn-down, polished, modelled walls. How many millions of years of wind and sand there were on those rocks, I don't know.

The guide showed us petroglyphs, symbols and human and animal characters carved on the surface of the rocks by the ancient natives of the place, who didn't live there but sent their shamans to perform occult ceremonies there (some pictures of petroglyphs can be viewed on my other blog). It's easy to understand how they came to believe the canyon was appropriate for the supernatural; I myself, who don't believe in it, had a perception of concreteness, of such overwhelming solidity that it felt more than sheer material stuff. (Even now my regret is not having touched those rocks with my bare hands a little more. It sounds incredible, but I hardly touched them.)

In a couple of spots, the shape of the rocks and the canyon multiplies the echoes. A cry uttered there rebounds so that you can hear entire sentences repeat themselves four or five times, clearly, all along the walls, at a great distance.

In another spot, a fortuitous combination of factors make the scarce humidity of the place gather and create a natural "garden", with several typical desert tree species. Besides trees and bushes there are maras (wrongly called Patagonian hares — they're cousins of Guinea pigs).

The climax of our experience was looking up and seeing two black shapes gliding among the red peaks, perching on a rock for a while, then flying again. They were condors. There was no way to estimate their size, but we knew a condor can have a wingspan of three metres and these were at high altitude.

El cóndor pasa

A van full of tourists went by and came back after a while. The passengers glared at us, confused. What were we doing outside in this freezing weather, walking miles along the canyon? And just what were looking at so eagerly, up in the sky? Our guide explained that many tourists, instead of hiring the full tour, come by themselves to the park. As they arrive, the management offers them to ride on their vans (it's how they do business). The tour on the van is much cheaper than doing the trip from Chilecito, getting off and hike for two and a half hours with a guide on your side, but it's much more partial. The whole show is reduced to what you can see from the van's windows. Of course you can't see the condors. I don't know what those poor tourists are told, but based on what the guide said, many tourists who came to see the canyon realize only later than they've been sold a very small part of it.

As we walked into the "garden", a shower of tiny, cold things floated down from the sky. It was (barely) snowing. I was happy as a child. Where I live it hasn't snowed since before I was born. Once in my life had I touched snow, when I was 17, in Bariloche.

We took the way back. The wind now blew into our faces. I felt my nose freezing over. Marisa had lost all the healthy colour she'd acquired during the previous days outdoors. Our hands were livid, devoid of blood. It couldn't be much above zero degrees, and there was no shelter. After what seemed like eternity, we came back to the parked van. It took us a while to stop shivering.

In the Cuesta de Miranda, 2,000 metres above sea level, it was snowing with minuscule snowflakes of a white so white it looked fake, like a rain of fine-grained expanded polystyrene; the clouds veiled the peaks. Coming down from those heights, we saw again the already familiar hills of the Famatina, the highest of them subtly covered with snow. It wasn't much, but I hope it helped. In Chilecito, when there's no snow in the winter, there's no water in the summer.

16 September 2008

Vacation report: My God, it's full of cacti!

Chirau Mita
Entrance to Chirau Mita
You'll remember we had to retreat from Talampaya chased by the zonda wind. Well, after that and two and a half hours, we got back to Chilecito and were told the tour was re-booked for two days later, or else we'd get our money back (minus the cost of fuel).

Since we'd made no other plans, we tried to fit something in the rest of the day, a sunless Tuesday afternoon full of suspended dirt, so we visited Chirau Mita, a cactus garden on the Paimán hill beside Chilecito. You enter from the street and climb terraces planted with many species of cacti plus some non-cactus, mostly agaves (the source of tequila).

Asunto espinoso (by pablodf) The guide told us everything we wanted to know about cacti but were afraid to ask, a bit too quickly for my taste, since I'd rather stop beside each plant and take pictures from several angles, while she continued to climb the stairs and speak of other cacti. You can see some of the best cactus pictures on a special photo-only post of my other blog.

We learned that cacti are succulent plants, which reduce the loss of water through the surface of leaves by turning leaves into spines, which has the added advantage of protecting the plant. The trunk itself turns green and takes over photosynthesis. We saw huge spherical cacti ("mother-in-law's cushions"), tiny cacti with infinitesimal flowers, tall straight cacti, cacti with helicoidally twisted trunks, and hairy cacti, with white doll-like manes that protect them from freezing (you know what happens when water contained in a barely flexible container freezes?). We also learned that cacti are exclusive of the American continent.

We returned to the hostel and saw the people mopping the sidewalks in front of shops to remove the fine reddish dirt, before opening to the public. (It was rather late in the afternoon, but siesta time is kept almost as a sacred tradition.) And that was the rest of Tuesday afternoon.

15 September 2008

Vacation report: Zonda Tuesday

Tuesday, September 2, the sun rose gloriously above Chilecito. We got up at 6 AM and had a half-conscious breakfast. The tour guide came to fetch us on his van at 7, to go to Talampaya and Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna). These are natural preserves with unique geological formations, and the main reason why we thought of Chilecito for our vacations. (You can also go to Villa Unión, which is much closer to Talampaya, but there's nothing else to do there. The same goes for Valle Fértil, which is opposite Valle de la Luna in San Juan. Both are OK if you have your own vehicle and don't mind changing from one hotel to another.)

Vista desde la cornisa Carrying our mate gear, some warm clothing, and the compulsory cap and sunblock, we exited Chilecito, passed by Nonogasta, and then the Cuesta de Miranda, between the mountains (I'm not going to refer to this beautiful place right now). Then we took a dirt road, asphalted road, dirt again, a couple of sleepy villages, and finally we came up to the entrance gate of the Talampaya National Park. A strong wind was blowing, and dust flew around.

The guide got off the van to record our entry and came back after a while. "People, the park is closed", he said calmly. For two whole second I stared at him, waiting for some laughter to emerge after what was indoubtedly a joke told to every tourist — una jodita, as we say in Argentina. It wasn't. It was the truth.

Only then we realized the wind was blowing stronger and stronger. It was the zonda, a dry wind that comes down from the mountains and is felt by the Cuyo provinces of central and central-northern Argentina at the foot of the Andes. This zonda brought reddish dust and sand in incredible amounts and at a terrible speed. It was just starting and the horizon was already vanishing, blurred out of sight by a brown mass of the color of Talampaya's iron-laden sand. Not only sightseeing or taking pictures would be impossible, but anything could fly away, or come flying with, such a wind.

Viene el zonda

We stayed there for a while to inquire about the park rangers' opinion. The zonda was going to last for a few hours at least, and even after that there would be too much suspended dust. It was entirely likely that the wind wouldn't stop during the whole day.

Dispirited, we took the road back to Chilecito. The zonda's entry way among the mountains could be seen clearly at a distance of a few kilometres: a uniform opaque brownish jet that ran and expanded after us. To my surprise, I noticed I was resigned, even content. The trip to the park and view on the way had been fabulous. I had no right to complain because an unforeseeable weather incident had ruined the main tour. We would have a new chance two days later.

We got back to Chilecito after midday. The zonda had arrived as well. The sky and the tops of the hills had disappeared, swallowed by the enveloping brown cloud. It was cooler than the day before, so off we went to see cacti... which I'll come to later.

12 September 2008

Vacation report: Santa Florentina

Monday, September 1, we kept on braving the heat climbing hills under the sun at noon. This time we resumed our exploration of the famous cablerail that climbs from Chilecito to the Famatina.

You take a bus and it takes you, in twenty minutes or so, to a nearby village called Santa Florentina, a few miles closer to the Famatina range and therefore a few meters above downtown Chilecito's level. SF's main touristic asset is supposedly a plaza museo, that is, an outdoors "museum square", the only one of its kind in the country, with mining-related objects on display from the time when there was mining.

Estación 2 del Cablecarril Chilecito - La Mejicana The "museum square" was a complete disappointment, but across the street you can walk up a broad path that leads you along the hillside, first past a deserted camping site and then reaching (after 40 minutes of ascension) to Station No. 2 of the Cablerail, at about 1,600 m amsl.

The station is well-preserved, the buildings and machinery taken care of as if people still lived and worked there every day. When we got there, obviously, we were mostly interested in getting some rest in the shade, but then we took lots of pictures. The view is fabulous: on one side, the slope down the hills, with a line of towers supporting the cablerail, red-ochre, disappearing on a gracious curve towards Chilecito; on the other side, hills crowded with cacti fusing into a gray-blue mass that climbs and climbs until fine snowy threads appear, and finally the eternally white summits of the Nevados del Famatina, no less than 25 or 30 km away and over 4,500 m above sea level. Below, in the valley, a little river flows, with swift, slightly turbid waters, their colour between gold and copper, laden with minerals.

Nevado al fondo

El río de los minerales

After much admiring the landscape, having some mate, and catching our breath, we went down the path and stayed beside the "museum square" waiting for the bus, which was only half and hour late.

The next day was scheduled for the tour we came to La Rioja for: the visit to the Talampaya Canyon and the Valle de la Luna (Ischigualasto). It began at 7 AM and was going to last 13 hours, so we went to bed early...

11 September 2008

Vacation report: Samay Huasi

Joaquín y Marisa On Sunday, August 31, we decided to visit Samay Huasi (that's Quechua for "house of rest"), a large country residence that belonged to Joaquín V. González. The guy's name was vaguely familiar to me before, but in La Rioja he was everywhere. He was born in Nonogasta, near Chilecito, and he was a deputy, senator, governor, educator, historian, philosopher and writer, besides (rumour has it) an atheist and/or a freemason, and an obsessive gambler — a truly fascinating character.

Samay Huasi is minutes away from Chilecito's city center by taxi. There's a small historical museum, rooms with preserved stuff from Joaquín's time, and plenty of space outdoors for the visitor to wander freely, once the AR$1 admittance fee is paid to the guide.

So we walked around, listening to the noisy wild parrots, among galleries, withered vines, and seemingly decorative olive and almond trees. The heat increased as the morning turned into noon. We came by a big statue of Joaquín in a meditative pose, at the foot of a hill. We took a path up the hill and climbed and climbed until we got tired (which was not that close to the summit, I'm embarrassed to admit). I took some pictures, and then we went down a bit, sought the shade of a boulder, took out our sandwiches, and ate lunch.

Samay Huasi - Panorámica desde el cerro

Coming down the hill wasn't as easy as we'd guessed, but finally, sweating and panting, we returned to the main residence and sat comfortably on a bench in the shade, drank mate and ate cookies and generally attempted to waste as much of our time as possible. The guide had disappeared around siesta time, so nobody looked for us to check what we might be doing. I guess we could've camped somewhere in the fields and stayed for a couple of days.

We had spent a quiet and well-rounded day. We took a deep breath and walked back to Chilecito, 3 or 4 km along the road.

And that was the morning and afternoon of the second day.

10 September 2008

Vacation report: First day in Chilecito

We arrived at Chilecito on Saturday, August 30, mid-morning. The trip from Rosario lasts about 14 hours, not the least because it goes out of the straight path to reach Córdoba City and stops in two dozen little towns on the way. Although the punctuality was exceptional and the travel was fortunately uneventful, I'd like to vent my carefully preserved rancour at the General Urquiza bus company, which gave us no on-board dinner and no breakfast — a major crime if you ask me.

You get to Chilecito and the bus leaves you on the road by the new terminal station. It's not far from the city center but unless you're a backpacker you don't want to drag your stuff ten long blocks, so we took a taxi. We found our hostel quickly enough, left our bags there, went for breakfast, then back to the hostel for a bath, and then to the Cablerail Museum.

Cablecarril al cerro

The Famatina range west of Chilecito is full of valuable mineral ores, so back in the early 20th century a German company built a system of aerial cables to transport rocks from the mine up in the mountains (at some 4,600 m ASL) to the processing facilities in Chilecito (at 1,100 m ASL). The rails and the supporting towers are still in place and, according to the guide, it might still work if the parts that have been stolen were replaced (and maybe oiled a bit). The Museum is Station No. 1 of the Cablerail, its terminus, and it harbours a heterogeneous collection of tools, blueprints in German, a payroll, parts of the mineral wagons, and rust.

Junto al cactus We learned that the Famatina is being open for exploitation of its gold ore by the provincial governor, one of whose campaign promises was that he'd never allow exploitation of the Famatina. Gold extraction requires cyanide, and the snow on top of the Famatina is Chilecito's almost single source of water. Environmentalists don't know if the cyanide process is safe and they're up in arms against the government.

After the museum, we took a nap and then went out again, wandering, taking in the ochre-pink of walls, the blossoming lapachos, the stillness of siesta time. Carrying a thermos for mate, we went to see a white statue of a Christ on a hill and took pictures of ourselves beside a couple of tall cacti, exactly as tourist couples are supposed to do.

And those were the morning and the afternoon of the first day.

09 September 2008

Back from vacations

I'm back from my vacation! I'm trying to summarize all the information and to review all the pictures I took, so it'll take me some time to recount my 1-week experience in Chilecito and La Rioja... but I'll get to it.

Repeating what I wrote on Sin calma, it was a week full of variations — especially weather-wise. First it was sunny spring, which in dry, northern Chilecito means cool nights and blazing-hot days under the sun. Then came the zonda, which is a föhn wind that comes down from the mountains carrying tons of dust and is usually very hot, though this time it was atypically cool. And then there was rain (more like a drizzle, but still extraordinary in this arid land), and then a cold wave hit the whole country and it even snowed a little on the mountaintops. So we got to wear almost all the clothing we'd brought with us, which was nice in a way — because I always pack things just in case which are returned home unused.

The trip to Chilecito lacked any surprises, except the fact that the bus departed and arrived on time. The return trip was a bit bumpy, which makes three of that kind for me since January, and two for Marisa and I as a couple (the first one, you'll remember, took place while the farmers were blocking the roads). If I believed in such nonsense, I'd believe I'm under a jinx of some kind.

I reckon we travelled about 3,000 km total by bus and on a van, plus a few more kilometres on foot, including a few hundred on the vertical axis. I took in a considerable amount of sunlight and sweet honey paste, I ruined an almost brand-new tripod, I submitted to wearing a Mets cap Marisa gave me to prevent sunstroke, I snapped about 1,100 pictures, and I saw llamas, guanacos, maras (Patagonian hares), and condors (three of them for sure, one of them in a zoo cage).

I'm writing a travel chronicle in a more literary, un-blog-like format, in Spanish, which I'll post somewhere else when finished, in case you can read it (and want to try). In the meantime, I'll post my travel stories here. Be patient!

In case you were wondering, I'm having Internet access problems both at home and at work, so the reports may not come smoothly...

03 September 2008

Musketeers of redistribution: Guillermo Moreno

This is the third and last installment of my translation of the Crítica Digital article titled Los mosqueteros de la redistribución ("The Musketeers of Redistribution"), which shows how the Kirchner administration has failed to redistribute income, which they claim as their main economic goal. This time it's about the worst offender in many respects, Secretary of Commerce Guillermo Moreno. This is what the article says about him:

In theory, his mission was to keep inflation from diluting the purchasing power of fixed-wage workers and retired citizens. The price agreements that he signed with companies at the beginning ceased being complied with long ago, except for [the statistics bureau] INDEC, where Moreno draws the lines of his private world.
Of course I've already written about INDEC and its ridiculous, obscenely faked figures of inflation, which the government continues to defend as true. Moreno is de facto leader of INDEC, which used to be a purely technical organization, fairly independent from the national government and thus trustable, until Néstor Kirchner decided he didn't like reality and let Moreno appoint his minions in places of power there. And that's not all.
[The manipulation of INDEC's figures] is a well-known story. Less known are [Moreno's] practices to favour concentrated companies, consolidating monopolic or oligopolic markets. For Moreno, competition is [a subject] for textbooks. He has always chosen commanding phone calls and verbal agreements with the major actors in each economic sector (cereal producers, mills, supermarkets, dairy companies, food companies, etc.) over transparent regulations that might discourage [the formation of] concentrated structures and encourage competition.

The removal of José Sbatella from the leadership of the National Commission for the Defense of Competition, key to the enforcement of anti-monopoly laws, is the culmination of that process. Sbatella, a professional with a long career, ruled against the Cablevisión-Multicanal merge, which two of Moreno's deputies in the Commission approved on the last day of Néstor Kirchner's term; Sbatella also set conditions for other multi-million [company] purchases in the food sector, which were not taken into account.
Guillermo Moreno is the kind of official that any sane administration would get rid of as quickly as possible, preferrably offering him (as compensation) a trip to some faraway land. Cristina Kirchner's unspoken excuse for keeping him is that everybody in the opposition and the major media is asking for Moreno's head, so firing the guy would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. I can understand that, but it also shows quite plainly that Cristina cares more for an appearance of overwhelming power and firm determination than for doing her job well despite her personal pride.

Moreno is a wrench in the most sensitive part of the economic machinery; the more he stays, the more difficult it will be to restore the credibility of the government regarding inflation and their goal of reducing poverty. Right now we don't know how many poor people there are in Argentina, but we know for sure they're many, many more than Cristina Kirchner and Guillermo Moreno would admit.

31 August 2008

Musketeers of redistribution: Ricardo Jaime

Continuing with the translation of the Crítica Digital article titled Los mosqueteros de la redistribución ("The Musketeers of Redistribution"), about the subsidies granted by the Kirchner administration.

The second musketeer of redistribution is the Secretary of Transport, Ricardo Jaime. During the first semester of the year, subsidies to transportation (urban buses, trains and subways) reached AR$2.66bn, up by 71% compared to the same period last year.
Néstor and Cristina Kirchner (for all practical purposes, it's all one open-ended presidential term) have channeled billions into subsidies for public and private companies, with almost complete freedom to alter the budget and without oversight, so these figures are important. They usually say they need freedom to redistribute the income collected by the state so that it reaches the poor, but in fact all that money and all that freedom gives a few people a huge amount of power. Unsurprisingly, they've been using it to benefit the companies.
Subsidizing public passenger transportation is not an Argentine invention. And there's a consensus that such subsidious mostly benefit the lower-income rung of society. However, here we have doubtful criteria for assignment of subsidies, [which are granted,] in the case of bus companies, on the basis of sworn statements without control over cost structures, and in the case of trains and subways, over cost structures that are inflated by companies linked [to the main ones] as suppliers.
If you've travelled by train in Buenos Aires, it should be obvious to you that the companies that provide the service aren't pouring money into it. I mean, people have set fire to train stations out of anger, due to how bad the services are. By giving money to private companies and not overseeing their investments or forcing them to give a reasonably good service, the government is an accomplice of fraud. If the Secretary of Transportation can't make sure that people aren't treated like cattle in buses and trains that he (using our money) is paying for, then he should resign.
Aerolíneas Argentinas is a completely different matter. The poor do not generally travel by plane. The decission of re-nationalizing is debatable, but valid if weight is conceded to arguments such as regional integration or economic development. What is not trivial from the point of view of redistribution is who will take on the cost. Jaime said that, if it were up to him, he would pay nothing to the Spaniards of [the Marsans group]. And he says they gutted the company, while he looked the other way for five years…
This is especially relevant now that Aerolíneas is being really nationalized. It certainly looks as if we'll be buying back a company laden with debt and with a dismal record of service, and we'll be taking care of fixing it.
There is not a successful precedent of redistribution, either, in the case of LAFSA, the state company that in 2003 took care of the employees of former companies LAPA and DINAR. LAFSA never flied and today it is in the process of dissolving itself. But in the budget there are still funds set aside to pay the salaries of 99 employees, about 10 of them with wages above AR$10,000 per month.
Empty shells masquerading as actual companies for accounting purposes are so common in Argentine history that this surprises no-one. "Enterprise ethics" is an oxymoron in Argentina. This case is also interesting because the state invokes the welfare of the workers to justify the intervention in the finances of failed companies. We're hearing this kind of thing in the debate about Aerolíneas Argentinas as well. At the risk of being accused of insensitivity, I think the state should decide whether it wants a serious company that works and can sustain itself as a flagship airline, or a mockery of an airline whose main purpose is to produce money for its workers, some of who have never done any actual work besides showing up at union meetings.

I'll be posting the last installment of this series in a few days.

29 August 2008


I'm going on vacation! Tonight I'm boarding a bus with my girlfriend Marisa and heading for the province of La Rioja, in the northwest of Argentina. We're staying for a week in Chilecito, a town of about 30,000 in an artificial oasis near the center of the province, between two mountain ranges. Although it certainly looks like a lovely place and we'll tour the surroundings, checking out its vineyards and its abandoned mines high up in the sierras, our main goal is to see the marvelous geological formations of Talampaya and Ischigualasto, located south of Chilecito.

Talampaya is a national park; Ischigualasto, better known as Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), is a provincial park and lies in the territory of the neighbouring San Juan Province. Both places are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They feature some weird geological patterns caused by erosion; Ischigualasto is also renowned for the presence of many, well-preserved ancient dinosaur fossils.

I may have time to leave a few scheduled posts ready for publication, but other than that, I don't think I'll be able to check this blog. I'm leaving comments open without moderation for registered users, in case you absolutely need to express yourself while I'm away. I'll be back, hopefully with good stories and many pictures, on Sunday, September 7.

24 August 2008

Musketeers of redistribution: Julio De Vido

Long time no write, sorry. I resume the translation of the Crítica Digital article titled Los mosqueteros de la redistribución ("The Musketeers of Redistribution"), which shows how the Kirchner administration isn't Robin Hood taking from the rich to give to the poor, as they arrogantly assert all the time.

… [T]he residential natural gas fee in Buenos Aires amounts to 30 cents per cubic metre. However, four million low-income households which have no access to the natural gas supply network are forced to buy [pressurized natural gas] containers at a cost of AR$1.70/m³, that is, almost six times more. Since the devaluation [of the peso, in early 2002] the residential gas fees have been frozen; but the price of the 10-kg gas container has climbed 275%, to an average of AR$30…. [Minister of Federal Planning Julio] De Vido authorized the deregulation of the gas container market, in which [the private company] Repsol YPF is dominant, and in exchange offered the so-called "social container", which is impossible to find at the price of AR$18 suggested by the State. Even if you could get that, the price (AR$1.20/m³) would be four times that of the network gas….
That is, the government forces the natural gas companies to sell their product at ridiculously low prices to a mostly middle-class public (and gives those companies a good excuse not to invest on surveying and expanding their network to less privileged areas) and allows Repsol YPF to charge six times more to the poor who aren't reached by the network, or who can't pay for a connection to it. (Until a few years ago my neighbourhood itself wasn't connected to the NG network — when it was our turn, we had to pay something in the order of AR$700 to get the pipes into our home; the equivalent price today must be three or four times as much.)
With more concern for fiscal health… in the last weeks Cristina's government started giving signs that it will unfreeze the utility fees. The astronomical growth of subsidies would threaten the fiscal balance if tax revenue were to falter in the future. … During the first semester [of 2008] the energy subsidies alone amounted to AR$8.2 billion, 295% than the same period [in 2007]. The announcement of hikes in the power fees will be followed by the slow thawing of residential natural gas fees.

The interesting thing is that the increases follow a segmented criterion: more [percent] increase for those who consume more. According to data provided by the power distribution companies, 7% of the high-income households account for 25% of the consumption. In the case of natural gas the concentration is similar.

If progressive [as in gradual?] adjustments had been applied two or three years ago, the State would have avoided a huge transference of wealth to the pockets of the less needy. Why wasn't it done before? De Vido used to explain it was not easy to identify the bills of the higher-income households, something acknowledged as possible only now.
More about this coming soon...

11 August 2008

Income redistribution?

An example of why I don't consider Cristina Kirchner's to be a progressive government, and why the Kirchnerist mantra about their income redistribution goal is a big lie, and why I think it's OK if the middle- and upper-class heavier consumers are charged more for utilities: an article on Crítica Digital, titled Los mosqueteros de la redistribución ("The Musketeers of Redistribution" — Minister of Federal Planning and Infrastucture Julio De Vido, Secretary of Transportation Ricardo Jaime, and Secretary of Domestic Commerce Guillermo Moreno). I translate freely:

"This year, one million families with incomes in excess of AR$6,000 per month will receive a state subsidy of AR$750/month in the form of cheap power, domestic natural gas and fuel. This is the equivalent of five social plans [welfare payments] of AR$150/month, which are still received by little less than one million household heads under the extreme poverty line."
The minimum wage has been recently raised to AR$1,200, from an earlier figure of AR$980 established in July 2007.
"We have already written about the sales boom of natural gas-powered heaters for swimming pools, of the rage in 1,000-watt searchlights for the gardens of the most exclusive closed neighbourhoods, or the growth of the market of high-end diesel cars. Since nothing is free in economics, these subsidized prices are paid by the state, which this year will give away nearly AR$20 billion to compensate energy companies."
For comparison, the federal state collected taxes for about 17 billion in March and 24 billion in July, so this is like giving away a whole month of taxpayers' money. You could argue the subsidies go to the taxpayers, only they're not the same taxpayers. Most of those billions come from the IVA (our VAT), which is 21% over most goods and services (including food), so the poor pay a disproportionate amount of it, because everybody needs food, and most of what the poor buy is food. A smaller amount comes from a profit tax that leaves ample room for evasion, and that the government doesn't even try to collect. In fact, the government is about to exempt individuals with monthly wages over AR$3,300 (single) or AR$4,500 (married with children) from the profit tax, detracting from the total collection.

The government actually benefits from the "inflation tax". Every month it proudly exhibits huge and increasing tax collection figures, which is easy when your main source of revenue is tied to the prices of consumer goods. Coupled with INDEC's low inflation rates pulled from Guillermo Moreno's ass, it lets them believe or pretend that the country is growing fast, although that plainly happens only in nominal terms.
"From the total subsidies to the energy sector, the generous Argentine State will provide this year AR$9bn to subsidize the consumption of that higher-income social group. Incredibly, there are still well-off middle-class people who complain that the State "gives away" Jefes de Hogar welfare plans, which today are received by extremely poor households mostly headed by women. The 2008 budget for the Unemployed Heads of Household programme is only AR$1.8 billion."
Yes, many in the middle class are really angry that the poor "don't work, don't pay taxes and get money from the government", while "decent hard-working citizens" have to struggle to go on vacations or change the car every few years. I've heard borderline middle-class citizens demand that the government "sends those lazy bums to work", disregarding the fact that most of them are single women with small children, or young men who have no qualifications at all. This is the state's fault, but taking away their welfare payments is not a viable remedy.
"So as to dispell all doubt regarding the magnitude of the redistribution exercised by [Julio De Vido's] Ministry of Federal Planning: the nine billion pesos devoted to subsidize the consumption of well-off citizens are well above this year's budget for the Ministry of Social Development (AR$7.6bn); they're on par with the annual budget of the Ministry of Education (AR$9.3bn); and they represent 2.5 times the budget of the Ministry of Health (AR$3.5bn)."
This was just the first part of the article devoted to the "Musketeers of Redistribution", who (as you see) wield huge power over the lives and fortunes of Argentinians, and who are accountable only to the office of the President. If and when I have the time, I'll translate another part.

08 August 2008

Rosario sues over the smoke

A nuestra derecha, el incendio The municipality of Rosario is taking the case of the smoke coming from the islands to the Supreme Court. As I've reported on several occasions, people who own fields on the islands on the Paraná river's floodplain have been setting the scrub on fire, a traditional and cheap way to clear the land that has gotten out of control. The reason why the fires are so widespread is that farmers are moving all their cattle to the islands and keeping their good fields elsewhere for much more profittable soybean, wheat and sunflower.

Not only is the environmental damage considerable, but the smoke raising from the burning islands decreases the visibility on major road corridors (the Buenos Aires–Rosario Highway and the Rosario–Victoria Bridge), and the falling ashes create health problems.

The islands opposite Rosario are under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Victoria, Entre Ríos. Further south, the delta comes under the jurisdiction of Buenos Aires Province.

After years of putting up with the smoke and seeing how nobody does anything to stop it (except the feverish but insufficient joint operation mounted by the national government through the Environment Secretariat a few months ago when the smoke reached the Center of the Universe, i. e. the City of Buenos Aires), mayor Miguel Lifschitz decided to sue the provinces of Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires, not asking for monetary reparation but to get the authorities to stop the burning, monitor the area, and control its development.

I think this is good idea, seeing how all the friendly talks and meetings have failed.

07 August 2008

Shadows of the dictatorship

Argentina's last dictatorship ended in 1983, but for several reasons the criminals that took part in it were not punished appropriately. Now that the trials have been resumed, some cases have been re-opened, and new horrible deeds are unearthed every time. It's no wonder that the criminals resist.

Yesterday the guilty sentence was passed for four of five military defendants on a trial for crimes against humanity held in Corrientes. Cecilia Pando, an activist that defends the tactics of state terrorism employed by the dictatorship, was there with a group of supporters; as the sentence was read, she snapped and started yelling insults and threats all around, accusing Human Rights Secretary Luis Eduardo Duhalde of being a "terrorist", sliding her index finger across her neck (the throat-slitting gesture) and shouting "I'm going to kill you with my own hands".

Pando is the wife of a retired major, Rafael Mercado, and her group calls itself the "Association of Friends and Relatives of Political Prisoners of Argentina". They believe the military defended the country against terrorism and the prospect of a leftist dictatorship, and now they're treated as dirt because the current government is made up of former terrorists and their allies. This claim was echoed by the professional torturer and murderer Luciano Benjamín Menéndez — "the terrorists of the '70s are in power" — after his sentence (a life term) was dictated, last July.

There's a small but well-connected group of people who are convinced of the justice of the military cause — who believe the desaparecidos were only a few, that most of them actually fled to Europe and let their families play the victim, that everyone who has testified about the kidnappings, the gruesome torture sessions, the summary executions is lying or deluded or paid by the government that "persecutes" the country's "heroes".

They don't state this out loud all the time, of course. More often, they admit that crimes ("excesses") were committed fighting the terrorists, but justify it by saying "it was a war". They always speak of national reconciliation, unification and peace, which for them means forgetting the past and forgiving the criminals even as they unrepentantly walk down our streets — not incidentally, the usual line of the Catholic Church.

Another usual complaint is that of unfairness — placing themselves on one side of the "theory of the two demons" and claiming that, if the military must be punished, then so must the "subversives". In reality, of course, many who were tortured or killed by the dictatorship were just activists, and the actual terrorist organizations were never even close to subvert (i.e. overthrow) the government. They were used as a convenient argument for the military to seize power and "restore the order", and then as a scapegoat for the dictatorship's own failed policies.

Why am I giving so many details? Well, part of the public opinion has become more receptive of some of these claims because they don't like the Kirchners' idea of human rights. You know I don't like the Kirchners at all, and I don't believe they have the marvelous "human rights policy" they often congratulate themselves of. What they have is a desire for revenge. They were leftist militants in the 1970s; Néstor Kirchner has a background of closeness to the leftist-Catholic-Peronist terrorists of Montoneros, though he wasn't in the organization himself; there's plenty of evidence he views the world as a battleground, with him on the "good" side; his words when he speaks of the past show his deep (and broad, and therefore often misguided) resentment and intolerance against those who are not of his own ideological flavour. One can understand and sympathize with that up to a certain point, but a president or the leader of an influential majority should be above that, for the good of the people.

Kirchner's desire for revenge turned out to be a catalyzer for better things: by fighting the conservative Supreme Court he was stuck with at the beginning of his term, he allowed for an independent Court to be assembled; by fighting the laws and pardons that kept the dictatorship's criminals from being investigated, he let justice work as it should. That removal of obstacles was about the extent of Néstor Kirchner's policy on human rights, and if he had stepped down as soon as his work was done (about three years into his term), he would've been remembered as a great president by most Argentinians, including myself. But because he showed his true colours, he gave the dictatorship's sympathizers a measure of credibility. Ah, I suppose it's too much to ask for a human being in such a high place to be OK on all accounts.