January 16, 2018

The week

Friday, May 12, 2017

Court caught in own labyrinth

Wednesday´s march
Wednesday´s march
Wednesday´s march
By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor

Wednesday’s huge crowds were effectively echoing what Mr. Bumble had already said almost 180 years ago in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist: “The law is an ass.”

The law is at times literally a law unto itself, defying all political logic and moral sense. With such strictly legalistic tunnel vision the Supreme Court had painted itself into a corner with its ruling early this month applying the “2x1 law” (two days off the final sentence for every day spent in pre-trial detention beyond two years) to a crime against humanity dating from the 1976-83 military dictatorship — the three justices voting for this ruling felt bound by the “most benevolent law” criterion designed to prevent justice from turning into vengeance.

For once the politicians were ahead of the people, effectively dismantling this obnoxious ruling even before the human deluge in midweek.

They showed a legal savvy apparently lacking in the Supreme Court by hitting on the fact that during the 1994-2001 life of the “2x1 law there were no human rights trials of military officers due to the 1986-7 amnesty legislation (especially with the “only obeying orders” of the Due Obedience law imposed in the wake of the Easter mutiny whose 30th anniversary was marked just four weeks ago) — this month’s ruling was in favour of a rare case of a civilian torturer. The bill rushed through Congress in less than 24 hours (with virtually unanimous votes of 211-1 and 56-0 in the Lower and Upper Houses respectively) could thus avoid a conflict of powers by strictly limiting the ruling to that 1994-2001 period when there were almost no human rights trials without directly contradicting the Supreme Court.

No conflict of powers but considerable institutional disarray. The task of Supreme Courts worldwide is to interpret legislation but here we have a Congress interpreting justice and producing the legislation retroactively. Supreme Court Justice Horacio Rosatti had justified the original ruling by arguing that in the absence of legislation to exclude crimes of humanity from the most benevolent law, the judicial branch could not supplant the legislative —Congress has now turned this sequence on its head by rushing through this law while totally ignoring such procedural requirements as a committee stage.

Yet digging any deeper into the letter of the law or parliamentary procedure becomes somewhat pointless if politics was the determining factor across the board — whether in government offices, the corridors of Congress or in the street.


Will Wednesday’s protest turn out to be a new watershed in this electoral year? Following a February of unforced errors and the escalating marches of March, April was anything but T.S. Eliot’s “cruellest month” for President Mauricio Macri with the surprise appearance of big crowds in his favour on its very first day. That seemed to set a more upbeat tone for the next 40 days despite continuing stagflation but we might have seen a game-changer on Wednesday — even if it was the Supreme Court which had sparked the public wrath and even if the organisers avoided anything explicitly anti-Macri in order to broaden their net, the protest was centred on Plaza de Mayo not Tribunales.

Too early to judge the impact but the two marches have points in common. Both were successful despite a timing which seemed to doom them to failure. The April 1 rally “in support of democracy” had all the makings of an April Fool’s Day since it was called for a Saturday afternoon when Boca Juniors were playing and Macri’s more upper-crust supporters are usually in their country homes. Wednesday’s march also coincided with a big soccer match (the two Madrid teams were squaring off for a place in the Champions League final) but more importantly, the target of the protest had been effectively defused by Congress a few hours beforehand.

And yet the crowds still poured into Plaza de Mayo and far beyond to protest against impunity for state terrorism — the organisers claimed half a million while the police calculated 100,000 but a six-digit figure according to any estimate (something approaching 400,000 would probably be closest to the truth). Far more than April 1 when the range of estimates was 25,000-100,000 but the turnover then was much higher and it was a weekend, not midweek.

The impact would also depend on how successful the Macri administration is in distancing itself from this unfortunate ruling. The fact that two-thirds of the Supreme Court majority behind it were Macri nominees seemed incriminating and Macri’s tepid record on human rights issues up to that point did not earn him the benefit of the doubt. But the ruling coalition’s parliamentarians (with provisional Senate president Federico Pinedo in the forefront) played a leading role in drafting the bill to disarm the ruling since the first instinct of most of the opposition was to let the government stew in this juice.

At the same time government officials were quick to disown the ruling with Justice Minister Germán Garavano applying the adjective “aberrant” on the day it was issued but Macri himself maintained a suspicious silence for fully a week. When his disavowal did come, it was in highly similar terms to Garavano’s immediate reaction and both men were missing the point (doubtless deliberately) — they expressed themselves as against the “2x1” law for any crime. By not explicitly confronting impunity for crimes against humanity, Macri avoided annoying his military constituency and those nostalgic for junta days but he thus also failed to distance himself from the ruling.

Yet at the same time it remains hard to believe that the Macri administration could have deliberately instigated such a politically suicidal move but the very fact that there is far more speculation as to where this leaves the government than the Supreme Court suggests that plenty of damage control lies ahead. The backlash (which includes prosecutor Guillermo Marijuan proposing that the offending trio of Supreme Court justices be placed on trial for a criminal offence) seems out of all proportion to any impunity any “dirty warrior” is likely to obtain.



Between outrage against the ruling of the previous midweek and last Wednesday’s cathartic protest, all energies seemed absorbed by this issue but meanwhile Argentina’s many other problems remain unsolved. The atrocities of the 1976-83 dictatorship should not be monopolising the attention of progressive minds with a third of the population below the poverty line.

On the same day as the huge march, INDEC statistics bureau announced an unexpectedly high inflation of 2.6 percent for April (perhaps it is the cruellest month after all) with far too much “core inflation” maintaining that momentum in that figure — no doubt this will make Central Bank Governor Federico Sturzenegger feel obliged to continue his tight monetary policies with a negative impact for economic growth (which might yet have its electoral sequels).

The Supreme Court uproar also served to obscure the fact that both halves of law and order are undermining the government these days — and police helm disarray now extends to both Buenos Aires city and province with City Police chief José Potocar (suspended and arrested for corruption a couple of weeks ago) now being joined in the out-tray by his Buenos Aires province counterpart Pablo Bressi. The latter supposedly quit voluntarily for strictly personal reasons but for at least the last 10 months he has been under incessant fire from Macri’s maverick ally Elisa Carrió for alleged collusion with drug-trafficking.

Meanwhile little change in Buenos Aires provincial governor María Eugenia Vidal’s other big problem — the pay dispute with teachers now into its 10th week.

This week also saw the visit of Italian President Sergio Mattarella but it was a low-profile event — despite sharing Macri’s title, an Italian president is not his real counterpart as a head of government, the accompanying trade delegation was mostly small and medium-sized business and the investment expectations were in the region of 80 million dollars when previous overseas contacts (especially with G7 members) have usually sparked talk of billions. But given the huge Italian percentage of the Argentine population (which Macri inflated to fully a half), the visit received good if limited press.

Meanwhile in the opposite direction previous president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner spent the week in Europe (she should be returning today and it might be interesting to see if she goes to her turbulent adopted home of Santa Cruz for the weekend). While in Europe she stayed strictly left of centre, spending most of her time with Greece’s populist government and the leftist members of the European Parliament. But she gave Oxford a miss — perhaps the strange Oxonian custom of calling its stretch of the Thames the Isis gave her the wrong ideas which she corrected in time.

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