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.

1 comment:

rab said...

Judging by today´s (01/19/13)editorial in the Buenos Aires Herald, the chain of command for the Christmass looters involves Alicia Kirchner. Is this another instance of choosing the lowest possible link as a sacrificial lamb?