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“In Argentina, those who have needed a respirator have had one”

The head of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Nation, Santiago Cafiero, poses at the Casa Rosada after the interview with EL PAÍS, on October 13, 2020.

Santiago Cafiero (San Isidro, 1979) belongs to a long Peronist dynasty. The head of the cabinet (prime minister) of President Alberto Fernández says that Argentina is suffering the crisis of the pandemic mounted on another crisis, the economic one inherited from Mauricio Macri, and defends the long quarantine that began on March 20 and has yet to end. In this interview, carried out last Thursday in his office in the Casa Rosada, he affirms that “the health system has not been saturated and whoever has needed a respirator has had one.”

Question. Why in the middle of the pandemic, when consensus is most needed, is priority given to a reform as conflictive as the judicial one?

Reply. It is something that the president had been raising for a long time. This reform adds courts and accessibility.

P. Especially in Buenos Aires.

R. No, in Santa Fe, with a lot of conflict over drug trafficking, there are also nine courts. The time is now because the priorities set by the president should not be postponed due to the pandemic. What we object is that the opposition anticipated its negative vote before reading the project. This Government has always promoted dialogue. The president has met three times with the opposition blocs and the measures against the pandemic are taken in conjunction with the governors, regardless of political colors. Dialogue is part of the DNA of this Government. The previous president [Mauricio Macri]In his four years in office, he did not meet once with the opposition. We distribute assistance equally among all provinces.

P. Discretion is precisely what Macrismo criticized of Peronism.

R. We created a provincial development trust fund with 60,000 million pesos [unos 850 millones de dólares al cambio oficial; más de 717 millones de euros] and we add another 50,000 million. Then we distributed 60,000 million in advances from the national Treasury. We set the same distribution parameter of the co-participation law, which regulates the distribution of federal funds. We do not say: to this yes, to this no.

P. Let’s get back to justice.

R. We held Congress in January [plenas vacaciones del verano austral], something that had not happened since the crisis of 2002. Laws such as the sustainability of public debt were voted with practically unanimity. We had a totally uncalibrated budget from the previous government, Argentina was in practice default, there was an exchange stocks, the fiscal situation was delicate and annual inflation reached 54%. We had to draw a new map of the state. For example, we created a new Ministry of Health. In this scenario, we extended the budget and at the end of December we approved the law of social solidarity and productive reactivation, structuring for our government. We began to change the scaffolding that macroism had created, which concentrated economic resources in a few hands. And we made progress in judicial reform because it is part of what our political space had proposed.

P. It is often said that in Argentina the judges tend to favor the government of the day. The opposition now insists that the reform aims to end the cases opened against the current Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

R. As a government we propose that justice be independent. The president personally corrected the article that linked the Executive with the intelligence services. That testifies to the path we want to travel.

P. Agustín Rossi, the defense minister, said there was no room for more progressive measures. What internal tensions does the Government face?

R. We have done a task of redistribution and an ethic of care. On March 3, we had the first case of covid-19. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the pandemic. And on March 19, the president decreed mandatory social isolation. From there we strengthened the health system.

P. No other country in the world has maintained such a long quarantine. And now, just as the pandemic seems to be reaching its worst, people are fed up.

R. There is a semantic issue regarding quarantine. Today, Argentina has 87% of its commercial and productive capacity open. What there is not is personal attention in public administration, face-to-face classes, and then there is what is linked to gastronomy or sports.

P. Apart from the semantic issue, Argentina is one of the countries with the most restrictions for the longest time.

R. Everywhere there are restrictions.

P. In Europe life is normalizing.

R. Yes, but they have lost many lives. We have almost the same number of cases, but in Argentina the health system has not been saturated and those who have needed a respirator have had one. That, at certain times, did not happen in Europe.

P. And what is the horizon?

R. At the same time you are vaccinated in Europe, you will be vaccinating in Argentina.

P. He did not respond to the question about internal tensions.

R. We formed a political space that was necessary to defeat Macri. That front has different looks. We do not think the same in all matters. Now, according to the mainstream press, that puts the institutionality in tension. But that the macristas spied on each other went unnoticed. We have a diverse front and we must nourish ourselves with that diversity. Alberto builds a consensual leadership, not a leadership of hegemony.

P. It is interesting, because Peronist leaders do not usually accept dissent.

R. It is quite unpublished. The president does not come from being a governor or from having a powerful electoral experience.

P. In fact, it comes from his vice president proposing him to be president. Something very unusual.

R. It was a strategic construction necessary to win Macri, with whom almost everyone, except some of his friends, lost.

P. Speaking of losses, did you, like the president, expect more popular support for the nationalization of a grain-producing group in suspension of payments like Vicentin?

R. We did not expect that they would take us on litters, but we did expect it to be understood as a rescue policy. I do not understand. There the crack reappeared, and a rescue operation was described as authoritarianism and other nonsense. We were forced to back down because the judge overseeing the group determined an unacceptable work mechanism and kept those who had carried out the embezzlements in command.

P. Are you not afraid that the fight with the United States for the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank will hinder the next negotiation on the debt with the Monetary Fund?

R. International organizations now have a different view of emerging countries in crisis. The European Commission reflected and realized that it had shown little solidarity with Greece. We are very satisfied with what has been done so far [con los acreedores privados]We have saved Argentina a lot of money: we had 100-year debt at 7%, and that ended thanks to the restructuring. When we acceded to the Government the reference rates were at 70% and 80%, now a small business can access a credit at 24% per year. We are in the crisis of the pandemic mounted on another crisis, that of macrismo.

P. Will there be an abortion law in this legislature?

R. That is our intention. When the coronavirus allows it, we will start the debate.

P. But the coronavirus already allows the reform of justice.

R. I mean that abortion corresponds to the Ministry of Health, the area most exhausted by the fight against the coronavirus. I hope that we can pass the abortion law this year.

P. The relationship with the opponent Horacio Rodríguez Larreta [jefe del gobierno de la ciudad de Buenos Aires], Is it as good as it looks?

R. It is a relationship of interests.

P. Which rival would you be most concerned about in the 2023 presidential election?

R. We would be concerned, for democratic reasons, to confront some of these emerging more fascist leaders. That would be complex.

P. Someone as peculiar as Sergio Berni, the Minister of Security for the province of Buenos Aires?

R. There are many peculiar characters, they are not the exclusive patrimony of Peronism.