The New “Social Pact” in Argentina Faces the New Coronavirus

It has only been a few months since the new presidente Alberto Fernandez took office and he is already facing a big social crisis, the arrival of the new coronavirus in the country. Argentina has adopted very restrictive measures since the middle of March, and it has been the country with the most firm action towards the crisis in the region, while Brazil and Chile suffer from internal conflicts and adopt mild measures, resulting in a soaring number of infected people.

Once more in the presidency, the Peronist apparatus shows itself very unified and very able to move the corporative machinery that structures the country: government, unions and employers, with aligned discourse and actions, under the leadership of Alberto Fernandez. We were impressed, as activists, by the acceptance of the first measures to protect workers in big companies (home office, leave for high risk groups, closure of shopping malls, etc), and also by the complete absence of political opposition to the announcement of the total quarantine on the night of March 19. Most unions have backed, since the beginning, the demands for closing non-essential workplaces (with few exceptions, such as the tire factory FATE), showing that there was indeed an agreement already made with the employers, who appear to have offered some of their infrastructure to help in the emergency sanitization campaign (mainly, the many union hotels, and other buildings, etc).

Nonetheless, despite this gentlemen’s agreement, during the first week of quarantine there were quite a few statements issued from different sectors of workers which were organizing to denounce their current work conditions (lack of hygiene material, gathering, non-essential tasks, etc) in important places such as airports, public transportation, supermarkets, and even health centers, demands that are being completely ignored by their unions. After that first moment of “unity”, we can already see which ones are being kept outside the new “pact”.

This new “pact”, which is named, in Argentina, for the periods of peace between the main corporatist sectors of the country (government, employers and unions), owes a lot to the Peronist apparatus in the government. But it is also the result of the tragic failure of the former president, Mauricio Macri, in his mission to re-organize the country’s economy. Although this relationship is currently pacified, negotiations are intense. The second week of the quarantine has started with a new move from the unions and the employers, which are slowly beginning to put pressure on the government for a more “flexible” quarantine, in order to “protect jobs”.

If on the one hand Alberto Fernandez has former president Cristina Kirchner as his vice-president, in these few months, on the other, he has shown some differences in the way he governs as the president. Cristina Kirchner, as her late husband Nestor Kirchner (a former president himself), lead the government with the help of the social movements which arose in the ‘90 and the first years of 2000. An important part of the management technology that they created was based on the integration of these movements as management in the State’s welfare programs. However, the new president is giving signs that he does not subscribe to this methodology. One of his first measures in office was the announcement of a new welfare program, the “Alimentary Cards”, which received criticism from some “piqueteros” leaderships since the State would hand the cards directly to the families (a model similar to the Brazilian welfare program “Bolsa Familia”).

The same logic applies in a measure announced to mitigate the economic situation of the informal workforce during quarantine. Since the beginning of the restrictive sanitary measure, some organizations started to send Whatsapp messages announcing $5,000 pesos help to all informal workers which would last for three months. Each organization was saying that they had direct dialog with the government and that it would make an official announcement in the next days regarding this. In the meanwhile, all who were interested in receiving this sum were directed to fill in the organization’s excel spreadsheet with their personal data. However, the official announcement came and the facts were that the financial help would be a single sum of $10,000 pesos, and that each person would have to apply for it through the State’s welfare agency. Once again the social and political organizations were left outside the welfare structure of the new government. Maybe this new situation won’t have an immediate effect, but it can indicate a new way the poorest sectors of our class will be managed by the the government.

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