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


  1. Anonymous02:15

    Welcome to the Western Way!
    Peasants, poor people and social programs be damned, money is power!

    I have spoken and thought so much about this problem, but with this result, I see more problems for Argentina. Now the government will have less authority, more opposition and will, in reality, be able to do far less for the country than before. It likely spells, as you have stated, things getting far worse before they get better...

    The only benefit, my slice of paradise in Patagonia will cost far less in the year(s) to come!

  2. Jeff, I sincerely don't know what leads you to this conclusion. The export taxes wouldn't have meant much in terms of total tax revenue, so there's no reason for their rejection to mean less money for the poor. Not that the Kirchners have been very good for the poor, who are doing as bad as in the last times of Menem.

    Less power for the government - we agree on that. But the government itself made that possible. They could've gotten money from many places, with legitimate means, based on laws passed by Congress in due time. They chose an illegal, illegitimate means and a divisive, hate-filled discourse, and it backfired. Make no mistake: Cobos's negative vote was just the feather that broke the camel's back. I was relieved that it happened this way and not the hard way.

    I agree with government intervention. I don't agree with the Kirchnerist way of doing it. They've had plenty of opportunities to rise the standard of living of the poor, and they've done nothing. Their power structure depends on there being lots of poor people - just as in traditional Peronism. I believed in their stated goal of income redistribution 3 or 4 years ago; then I realized they'd never been serious.

  3. Anonymous20:30

    What prompts me to make my comments is quite simple. With the Vice president, of all people, essentially plunging a knife into the back of the administration, it spells nothing but disaster and instability for Argentina that will likely take years to recover from. There is no good coming from this result, or at least, I cannot see it.

    As I have said, I do not know the entire history of Argentine Politics, Peronism or Kirchnerism but my understanding of the past year or two is quite good. Although this law was passed illegally, it was from an economic stand point, going to affect the middle class or higher citizens and not tax the poor. It would have, likely, put more food to market in Argentina, lowering the prices and help everyone's dollars last longer .

    These protests, and this result, was more about proving the government did something without following the proper channels than it was about the tax. The result leads to one thing that is very common in the western way: do not tax the rich, let the poor get poorer, the rich get richer.

    And if you truly do support redistributing the wealth, why do you support so many things that look to do the opposite?

  4. Jeff, I remind you that the fixed export taxes of 35% which were valid until March 10 are still valid now. And most people in Congress and among the farmers, as well as public opinion, support them, and would support a system with higher tax rates for large producers. The government's mistake, imposing an illegal tax bypassing Congress, was responsible for the weakening of their own position and the strengthening of the opposition's.

    This shouldn't be the end. Cristina might get back some of her popularity if she abides by the Constitution and lets Congress debate. This might not look so epic and won't increase her personal power or that of her husband, but it will be good for her administration and for the country's stability. There's simply no way in which she can succeed if she continues like this. She must learn to pick the right enemies.

    If Cristina had sent to Congress a bill taxing the very wealthiest landowners and the "soybean pools", it would've had little opposition. If she'd openly admitted that the administration needs the money to keep paying off debt and utility subsidies, it would've been accepted. She made a huge mistake. Now we're back to square one, so we'll have wait and see. Since she seems not to have understood at all, the prospects are dim.


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