Monday, January 21, 2013


 There’s an old adage that says that a dog is smarter than its tail, because if the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog. From that maxim comes the expression “to wag the dog”, which means to create a diversion from some action or event you want to hide by drawing as much attention as possible to something of entirely secondary importance. Illustrative of this type of ruse was a 1997 black comedy called, precisely, Wag the Dog, in which Roberto De Niro plays a top Washington spin-doctor who contracts a Hollywood film producer (Dustin Hoffman) to help him fabricate a fake war in Albania as a means of covering up a White House sex scandal in which the president is caught making illicit advances to an underage “Firefly Girl” (a fictional Girl Scout type organization).
The film created quite a stir upon its release because the real-life dog-wagging that had been taking place in the US capital at the time had managed to span two presidencies and rendered the movie prescient. Although in the original novel by Larry Beinhart the plot obviously had to do with cover-ups in the government of George H.W. Bush and the country’s precipitous entry into its first war in Iraq (Desert Storm), the motion picture’s debut coincided with the emergence of a sex scandal involving Bush’s successor, President Bill Clinton, having to do with his Oval Office liaisons with a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. More chilling still was the coincidence between the movie’s plot and Clinton’s orders to the military to bomb suspected terrorist strongholds in Africa, just when the scandal was breaking. Although Wag  hasn’t been a very popular movie since then, it got great reviews and Oscar nominations at the time, and—probably thanks to how uncannily on the nose it had been—managed to take in an estimated US$50 million over its US$15 million budget at the box office, despite a relatively short run.
Dogo argentino (Photo by Christian
Pinatel via Creative Commons 3.0)

Wagging the Dogo. Here in Argentina, the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is no stranger to wagging the dog—or dogo, as it were. This said, however, the president’s smoke-and-mirrors crew can hardly be accused of being original. Since long before Cristina came to office, husband Néstor had already started wagging one big dog in the Argentine public’s face: namely, his former bosom buddy turned archenemy Héctor Magnetto, CEO of the Clarín Group media empire. Reported to have said that he had to “put Magnetto in jail before he puts me in jail,” Kirchner made discrediting Clarín and building public enmity for its media his number one priority and his widow has carried on that tradition following her husband’s untimely death.
But the government’s attacks on Clarín and its heavy-handed attempts to manipulate the law and justice as a means of stripping Magnetto and his media of some of their admittedly awesome power—a portion of which was gained back when the Kirchners and the media mogul were still on friendly terms—has, to an exasperating degree for the president and her crew, backfired, by generating support for the media group from the ever-increasing segment of the population that opposes the Kirchner government and that perceives the anti-Clarín campaign as a blatant attempt to muzzle the press. This attitude has been reflected too in such major exponents of free expression as, among others, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), which has issued public opinions criticizing the government for undermining the principle of free expression in Argentina. And it has emerged as well in national justice where, when pushed to “obey orders” from the president, jurists pushed back and reaffirmed their independence as one of the three separate branches of government.
Other times, when the Kirchners and Magnetto were still on
speaking terms.
So it is that long-time independent observers of the local media like myself  have looked on with a mix of astonishment, amusement and horror as Clarín—whose apparent editorial policy has long been “the art” of innocuously filling in the holes around the advertising and whose flagship paper, in terms of any genuine coverage of an ineludible reality that it provided, might as well have been absent from Argentina during the entire dictatorship that bathed the country in blood from the mid-seventies to early-eighties—has suddenly been launched to the position of avant gard transgressor and principal opponent to the Kirchner autocracy, and to that of paladin of the free press as well. For anyone who has ever risked anything to ensure that the truth was told to the public in Argentina, the situation can’t help but seem ludicrous, especially when the government’s attacks have extended by association to Clarín’s paper-manufacturing partner, La Nación, which has also garnered a fresh image as a major defender of truth and justice among the anti-Kirchner opposition. This, from a paper, whose publishers, in the past, were, at the very least, the useful idiots of the former military regime and, along with Clarín, mass-circulation suppressors and confounders of truth or any sort of objective reporting about fundamental principles that really mattered. In this process, Kirchner strategists have probably done Clarín’s readers, viewers and listeners in particular a great service, since the group has gone outside of its own rarefied environment to contract some outstanding political commentary talent to help it make its case against the administration: independent journalists with their own bones to pick that just happen to coincide with Magnetto’s desire to chop the floor out from under Cristina, certainly not the least of whom has been brilliant veteran newsman Jorge Lanata.
Canus Malvinus. Wagging those particular dogs, then, has chalked up a score of Dogos One − Cristina nada, and has probably only added impetus to the plummeting popularity the president has been experiencing in recent months. You would think that supposedly savvy politicians would be quicker to learn from their own erroneous new tricks than old dogs are, but no...The more the anti-Clarín campaign has gone south, the more Cristina Kirchner has been beating her Malvinas Islands drum—another issue so utterly lacking in originality or possibilities for any sort of success as to make you wonder what Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman could possibly be thinking, considering that this particular tail has had its proverbial dog wagged off.
It’s not as if the foreign minister were a party yes-man picked to fill his post because of favors owed or services rendered in local politics. Timerman—whose newsman father the former military regime sought to silence but instead turned him into an international celebrity by kidnapping and torturing him as well as confiscating his newspaper before forcing him into exile—had achieved a certain international standing of his own before signing on with the Kirchners. He holds a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University and has, over the years, been a frequent columnist in such major US publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Nation. He was also an active member of the Fund for Free Expression, a London-based free-press advocacy group. So with a foreign minister of his international experience, how can the president be so ill-advised as to be clinging for dear-life to an issue that, handled as she is handling it, could only further undermine Argentina’s relations with the major world powers and stir up the reheated enmity of the very people with whom the government should be apologetically and humbly seeking to forge the most cordial of relations if it ever hopes to peacefully resolve the Malvinas/Falklands dispute once and for all? The only answer possible is that this is a domestic rather than foreign policy and that its purpose is merely to override negative local headlines by, again, wagging the (Malvinas) dog, convinced, as the president seems to be, that the negative reactions her clumsy overtures are bound to bring abroad will be positively newsworthy for local readership.
But at what cost?  There is good reason to believe that, once upon a time, before the 1982 war precipitated by the Argentine military government’s decision to take the islands by storm—in yet another act of unmitigated dog-wagging—Britain might well have been willing to eventually discuss the possibility of some sort of joint stewardship of the Malvinas/Falklands. With patience, according to an article at the time by savvy Canadian-born author, journalist and international affairs expert Gwynne Dyer, the then-twelve hundred islanders would eventually have been told that they could remain there under the conditions agreed to in an Anglo-Argentine pact, or they could exercise their right to self-determination elsewhere in the Commonwealth, because, logistically, the archipelago was simply too far away and too expensive for London to continue to fund and administrate alone.  At the time, however, the islanders had overseas-territory citizenship status, which meant that they were British subjects, but for the purposes of actually going to live in the British Isles, they were basically “tourists”, who needed to go through a particular immigration process if they wanted to take up residence in the UK proper. While twelve hundred Falklanders could easily have been absorbed by Britain, they had the same passport status as millions of Hong Kong Chinese, and if London were to set the precedent of full citizenship status for the South Atlantic islanders, how could the government avoid giving the same option to the millions from Hong Kong who might want to emigrate to England when that former British colony was returned to mainland China’s jurisdiction in an Anglo-Chinese accord slated for execution in 1999? So when the Argentine Armed Forces government’s Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Méndez approached his contacts in London about the possibility of opening immediate talks about the future of the islands, he was told that any change in the status of the Falklands was very low on the British priorities list. And so it was that the Argentine dictatorship, which was desperately seeking a cause around which to re-rally support, as its popularity and backing plummeted, decided to raise that priority to number one overnight.
The tragic 1982 war in the islands between Argentina and Britain set back any bi-national rapprochement on the subject of Argentina’s claim by decades. And the billions of dollars that Britain has had to spend on its “Fortress Falklands” policy since then has rendered relative any resource exploitation the UK has been able to achieve there or any that it might have planned for the immediate future. Meanwhile, the war completely undermined any previous bargaining power Argentina might have had with the islanders resulting from the Falklands then having basically been administrated by a British trading company and having had to count on vital mainland Argentine services, such as regular local flights to and from the islands and complex urgent medical treatment.
Despite the horror and sadness that the islanders suffered during the war, since then, they have gained enormously. Since that tragic time 30 years ago, their population has doubled, they have been fully recognized as British citizens, they have their own governing council, they have ample military and economic protection and promotion from London, their infrastructure has been vastly improved,  and most important of all, they have gained top diplomatic priority: The British government has repeatedly and unequivocally stated since the war that no decision about the future of the islands can be taken without the prior approval of their inhabitants.
Regarding Argentina, meanwhile, a recent statement on Twitter by the local Falklands government reads: “Argentina say their claim to our home is a global issue, yet the one people they won’t talk to are the Falkland Islanders. Hypocrisy?”
Try as Kirchner surrogates might to convince the public that the president’s Malvinas crusade is an altruistic campaign to return the islands to their rightful Argentine owners, considering this administration’s continuous dog-wagging strategies—from its anti-Clarín campaign to its juggling of the books at the National Statistics and Census Bureau and to its use of the Tax Board as a political tool with which to pressure its opponents and publicly discredit them—this seems less than credible. It appears far more likely that the Malvinas have been rolled out of storage and dusted off once more as the perennial “anti-colonial” warhorse around which Argentines will always rally, and, in the process, rally around whomever is willing to, once again, keep on beating that basically dead horse on a nationalist soapbox.  Or will they?
The tack the Kirchner government is taking on this issue is defiant, arrogant, disrespectful and ill-advised. While it might appeal to the most blindly nationalistic sectors of the population, the tactic of publishing open letters to Prime Minister David Cameron in London newspapers or of railing against British colonialism in the UN, while ignoring the very existence of the Falkland Islanders, as the president has done, seems almost infantile as well as inflammatory. If it “plays” at all, it does so to the chorus, and fails entirely to take into account that Argentine public opinion of today is not the same as it was in 1982. War taught the majority of Argentines some lessons about rash nationalist extremism, about the realities of war beyond incendiary speeches and false glory, about carnage, loss, defeat and humiliation. Those kinds of recollections are what prompted local protesters, following the Ghana government’s seizure of the Argentine naval training Frigate Libertad—in a dispute over a government bond default—to hold up signs chiding the president for talking about taking back the islands when she wasn’t even capable of bringing home a frigate.
The Frigate Libertad
But Cristina Kirchner seems to have an innate problem understanding the application of “register” to her rhetoric and once an international legal decision forced Ghana to give the ship up, she climbed aboard with a band of followers she took with her for the occasion and harangued the officers and crew with a battlefield-like address in which, of all the level-headed quotes by founding patriot General José de San Martín that she could have picked, she chose the one about fighting until there was nothing left to fight with and then, loosely translated, “fighting bare-assed like our brothers, the Indians.” Fighting what? Fighting whom? Evidently anybody and everybody who isn’t a loyal member of the Kirchner band.
"We'll fight bare-assed like our Indian brothers."
Anyway, this sort of silly grandstanding on the part of the president has done little more than consolidate the resolve of Britain and the Falklanders not to give an inch of ground and has served only for London to decide to bolster its garrison on the islands by 150 additional troops and to call a referendum for March 10-11 of this year in which the islanders will be asked to answer a single, simple question: “Do you—yes or no—wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”
It’s not hard to figure out what their answer will be.
One of Bariloche's St. Bernards with City Hall in the background...
Another case of wagging the dog?
Wagging Patagonia Style. Meanwhile, the Andean ski resort of Bariloche remained at the top of Argentine national news schedules this past week as Mayor Omar Goye resisted the Kirchner government’s attempts to lay all blame on him for the pre-Christmas supermarket riots (previously reported on here), which began in that municipal jurisdiction and spread to towns and cities in ten other provinces. Try as they might, the president’s emissaries, Río Negro Governor Alberto Weretilneck and national Senator for Río Negro Miguel Pichetto couldn’t convince Goye to make the grand gesture the national administration was asking of him and step down, after it came to light in the press that his questionable practices were the probable cause that sparked the rioting.
Suspended Bariloche
Mayor Omar Goye
The job of forcibly removing Goye, then, fell to the local City Council, which, obviously under instructions from the Kirchner administration via Weretilneck, sifted through the city charter until they found grounds for suspension of the mayor from his duties. These included his loss of backing from the national and provincial governments, his questionable payment of AR$190,000 to a “social cooperative” that was among the chief organizers of the riots, his frequent absences from the city (the most telling one being on the day of the riots) and his general ineptitude. Goye was suspended for sixty days and given ten days to present his defense. After the 60–day period the municipal government is ostensibly bound to call a popular referendum to decide whether the mayor’s removal will be definitive or not, but the national government is obviously holding out hope that Goye can be convinced to quit on his own before then. In the meantime, he has been replaced by City Council Chairperson María Eugenia “Maru” Martini as the interim head of the municipal government. Martini immediately called on the Goye cabinet to present their resignations. She also reported to the press that she had been receiving telephone threats and other intimidatory pressures from the Goye camp. The disgraced mayor himself indulged in a bit of the fiery hyperbole the Kirchnerists are known for, telling supporters and detractors alike that this was “a war that’s only just beginning.” He also countered his suspension by calling for that of seven city council members on the same grounds leveled against him, since, he reasoned, if they had supported his policies, they were as guilty as he was. While this didn’t speak very highly of his government’s platform, it did indeed seem to make a point about shared blame.
In the end, the mayor’s disgrace and ouster would also appear to be a bit of dog-wagging. He has hinted repeatedly that if anyone other than the rioters were to blame for what happened, accountability stretched far beyond him and his immediate collaborators. He has tangentially sought to implicate the national government in the political and material support his administration has lent to social pressure groups like the ones involved in the riots and looting.  And, clearly, the wildfire spread of the disturbances from his jurisdiction to others more than a thousand miles away (including major cities like Rosario and Buenos Aires) makes it hard to see Goye as anything but the tip of the iceberg. The risk of trying to harness an unruly mob for political ends is, of course, that of losing control over the mob’s leaders, which begs the question of whether what started in Bariloche and went national isn’t, perhaps, a case of formerly loyal political “shock forces” going rogue to prove a point and to extort more power from their handlers.


Saturday, January 5, 2013


Embattled Bariloche Mayor Omar Goye
Late this week, Argentina’s embattled Bariloche Municipal Mayor Omar Goye was still insisting he wasn’t going to resign. Nobody was really asking him anymore, in the aftermath of the December 21 riots and lootings that I reported on here last month, but he continued to state it anyway—and to just about anybody who would listen. Most local, provincial and national observers probably realized that his saying this was a sort of affirmation of faith, rather like whistling in the dark to belie his worst fears, because the question most people were asking was when rather than if he would quit, since he has done something that is hard to recover from in the Kirchner Era: ticked off the Queen Bee (or K) herself. And it’s a less forgivable sin still, because he’s not just another party dissident that President Cristina Kirchner is forced to cope with, work around or kick out of the way, but a player within Kirchnerism’s own internal party line, the FPV (Frente Para la Victoria).

Verticality. Peronism was conceived as a vertical organization. If today it often looks like a monster with multiple talking heads (each of which thinks it’s right), that concept still holds at the most basic of levels. And even if, as a party, Peronist Justicialism appears to be an illustration of the old adage about how if you put 50 Argentines in a room together you’ll get 50 different points of view, as a movement, Peronism is all about the tail always following the head. At the top of the Peronist heap, it would appear that Goye is seen as having cut a path of his own, and on top of that, defied a virtual order from the President for him to tender his resignation.
Rampart in the Civic Center

Yesterday, in the historical Civic Center, Bariloche’s main square, surrounded by the city’s traditional stone and cypress wood public buildings—designed by famed Argentine architect Alejandro Bustillo (1889-1982)—the mood was still so dense that you could cut it with a machete after the pre-Christmas riots that rocked the Andean resort and later spread to ten other provinces. The plaza had been shut off to vehicular traffic with caution tape barriers manned by traffic police and instead of being peopled by the usual throngs of blissful tourists who go there to have their pictures taken by photographers accompanied by Saint Bernard dogs that join travelers in the photo portraits, or with local artisans who deftly man chainsaws to carve statues from six-foot-tall sections of tree trunk, the entire center of the square was dominated by a monstrously large wooden structure not unlike the sentry’s walk from the rampart of a frontier fort. With ladders up both sides, and a catwalk perhaps 25 feet long and tall enough that it cleared the much-abused, graffiti-covered equestrian statue of General Julio Argentino Roca and, in the process, confined the nineteenth-century politician and military hero (depending on who’s telling the story) and his mount to a kind of stall beneath it. On this rampart, under it and all around it, were rotating shifts of protesters and their attendant general litter of tents, survival utensils, jugs, bags and banners.
Roca and his mount placed in a kind of stall.
On the sidewalks and street and under the arcades surrounding the square were perhaps a score or more of cops. Although some of them were wearing their flak jackets, their demeanor was less than threatening. They were clearly there as a symbolic presence of authority—so symbolic, in fact, that, if you looked closely, you could see that the holsters on their right hips were hanging empty, their regulation 9mm pistols having been left behind in the police station at the end of the block, nor were they carrying truncheons with which to defend themselves. If anything happened, it was only their bodies, their uniforms and their badges standing between the protesters and whatever random objective they might choose.
A House Divided. At first glance the scene looked as if it might be, like so many others before it, an installed protest against municipal authorities, but if you read the signs, you began to ask yourself if these were not groups led by the same “punteros políticos” (heads of local pressure groups from the poorest neighborhoods) with whom the mayor has so often been alleged to be conniving, since their messages were clearly directed at the provincial government—which, at this point in time, is unequivocally distancing itself from Goye and his administration.
One sign read: “We ask for work and you send us repression.” Another said, “Governor, you call us scabs, but we’re workers.” A large banner in the middle read: “May Day Cooperative: Union and Liberty, Work and Social Justice.” There was also a cryptic reference to the looting’s having been directed against “multinationals”. But go tell that to all of the mom and pop operations that were also victimized by the well-organized hoards that descended on the city last December 21. Try as these dubious activists might to make their “cause” sound noble, those incidents were a case of political chicanery at the service of mass vandalism and larceny, with no saving grace to justify them.
While such events may tend to confuse and confound those who are not privy to the inner workings of the country’s political underworld, the truth eventually percolates to the surface as the political players scurry helter skelter following revolts of this sort, seeking to shed responsibility and lay blame elsewhere while keeping their own political assets intact. As usual—over the course of the last 70 years of Peronist history in this country—what masquerades as “social upheaval for the cause of social justice” is actually the result of infighting at the core of Peronism itself, or “organized chaos” staged by one Peronist faction or another against whoever happens to be in power at any given time. Cristina Kirchner appeared to suggest this herself this past week when she referred to the December 21 riots as being “a shabby version” (versión desmejorada) of the organized mass looting and protests staged against the administrations of former opposition Radical Party (UCR) Presidents Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) and Fernando De la Rúa (1999-2001), which ended both of their presidencies ahead of schedule. To her mind, there appears to be a single person accountable for the mess: Omar Goye.
Río Negro Governor Alberto Weretilneck
Early on after these latest riots, Río Negro Province Governor Alberto Weretilneck sought—perhaps thinking he might kill two birds with one stone—to blame elements in the UCR for the violence. But the Radical Party’s response was swift in coming and utterly clear-cut: Bautista Mendioroz, a leading UCR politician in the province, termed the governor’s accusation “an infamous calumny” and challenged Weretilneck to put up or shut up. If the governor had proof of what he was stating, said Mendioroz, then he should press charges and name names, and if he was proven right, the UCR would take its own actions to expel the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Nothing more of this sort was heard from the provincial capital and by this week, Weretilneck and Goye were swapping accusations of their own, making it fairly clear that the Bariloche riots were very probably the result of a feud between Peronists in power in both the municipality and the provincial governorship.
All About Money. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the bad blood between the governor and the mayor is, apparently, all about money. Weretilneck assumed the governorship a year ago, when his predecessor, Carlos Soria, who won office with the backing of Cristina Kirchner, was shot to death by his own wife on New Year’s Day, 2012, just 21 days after being sworn in. During a later tour of the province, Weretilneck publicly announced in Bariloche that the province would be allocating 500 million pesos to the city to provide, among other things, for its ambitious social programs. Goye later discovered that no such allocation was earmarked in the provincial budget, and has since accused the governor of making facile announcements for political gain and then welching on his promises. In the days leading up to the organized looting in Bariloche, which spread like a contagion to the rest of the country, Goye and his surrogates are reported to have repeatedly warned the governor that by not coming up with the funds promised he was risking a social explosion in one of Argentina’s premier tourist destinations.
The impression left by this is that in what started as a bid by the mayor to pressure the governor into putting his money where his mouth was, he may well have unleashed something he couldn’t control (especially since he was conveniently out of town during the riots), and something that grew a lot bigger than anybody would ever have expected.
Whatever the case might be, the person on which the turn of events reflected worst wasn’t the provincial governor, but the country’s president and her government, since the riots and looting spread to ten of the country’s 23 provinces and the chaos triggered in Bariloche fostered the impression of a country out of control, underscoring the growing perception that Cristina Kirchner has lost the majority support that swept her into a second term in office and that if she doesn’t start paying attention to the demands of a no longer silent civil opposition, she might well expect to end up like De la Rúa, whose ouster amounted to a civilian coup.
Sole Accountability. It would seem logical, then, that she might like to see Mayor Goye’s head on a platter, and that was precisely what she was calling for at the end of this week. She reportedly passed this “desire” on to Weretilneck and to powerful Río Negro Senator Miguel Pichetto, who immediately called on Goye to cross the province to the capital city of Viedma for a powwow. Already guessing what the meeting was going to be about (his resignation), Goye flatly refused, saying he was busy, and adding—rather cynically, considering the circumstances—that he “didn’t want to leave the city on its own,” because “you can see what happens when I’m absent for just 24 hours.” Undeterred, however, the governor and senator flew to Bariloche, where they held a meeting yesterday in the airport with Mayor Goye and strongly suggested he hand in his resignation. It was pretty clear that the two provincial authorities purposely made no secret of the meeting because news of it spread like wildfire throughout the national media. The situation was clear: the highest of national and provincial Peronist officials considered the mayor a loose cannon and were dumping him overboard before he could cause any more damage. If he defied them, he would do so in total isolation, which would make his viability as mayor untenable. This is particularly true since the justification that the authorities cited for giving the mayor his walking papers was the barely veiled extortion he allegedly perpetrated by hitting local businesses up for “Christmas gifts” for the poorer sectors of the population if they wanted to avoid retaliation.  
In point of fact, to what extent the national and provincial government were distancing themselves from Goye was clear immediately after the riots, when the governor showed up and outshined the mayor, virtually shoving him into the background and taking over. In a country where such crimes have often gone unpunished, Weretilneck praised the bravery of police in standing up to the rioters and revealed that the provincial special forces had been kept busy at the local jail where a prisoner revolt appears to also have been part of the planned disturbances. Ill-equipped regular police were forced, then, to cope with the early part of the riots and a score of them ended up getting injured. As a result, the governor said he would be making sure that police received a stock of riot gear usually only issued to the special corps. He also ordered 30 police raids, 23 of which turned up stolen merchandise. Another one brought the discovery of a crop of cannabis plants and residents there were placed at the disposal of a Federal judge. Police also confiscated over a score of vehicles identified in news pictures and security tapes as having taken part in the looting.
Clearly, investigators knew just where to go: neighborhoods known as 34 Hectáreas, Frutillar and Km 20 (Don Bosco), where punteros, who rather grandly refer to themselves as “luchadores sociales” (social fighters)—some of whom have been widely alleged to have loyalties to Goye—complained of police harassment.

In the end, Goye’s fate would appear clear. It seems the only question is whether he decides to make it easy or hard on himself and his city.