FpV Lawmaker Gabriela Cerruti displaying the message that caused the uproar. (Photo via Télam / Osvaldo Fanton)

Heated discussions; crossed accusations; a power outage and a piece of paper that prompted a scandalous, early end to a congressional session.

In a much anticipated appearance before the Special Committee of Oversight and Control of the Administration and Payment of Public Debt in Congress (yes, that’s the real name)  Finance Minister Luis Caputo faced senators and deputies from the opposition who grilled him about Argentina’s public debt and, more importantly, his offshore associations.

For four hours, Caputo engaged in tense exchanges, mostly with FpV deputies, who strongly criticized him for failing to disclose in his tax returns that he was involved in a series of offshore accounts – a revelation that saw the light of day with the so-called Paradise Papers scandal last year. The minister was also questioned about what opposition leaders say is the increase of public debt issued by the Macri administration.

Caputo began his appearance by delivering a presentation in which he explained the government’s economic policies, assuring they are aimed at achieving a stable economic growth that extends for “many years” and “eradicating poverty.” In doing so, he defended the level of debt issued, saying it is necessary to finance the policies aimed at gradually reducing the fiscal deficit.

He did concede, however, that it will be impossible for the country to maintain this level of debt issuance for “20, 10 or five years.”

“It is reasonable that we have to explain whether this debt is sustainable and why this time it will be different [i.e. the country will not end up in a crisis of debt]. Debt is exactly that: a reflection of the deficit. What we have to do is reduce the deficit,” he said.

After Caputo finished his report, lawmakers present proceeded to ask him the questions they had prepared for him. Former Economy Minister and current Deputy Axel Kicillof was one of the most critical ones, grilling the minister for – according to him – not handing over “relevant reports” concerning the negotiations with holdout creditors and his offshore accounts.

“Offshore accounts are an instrument to commit crimes. They might serve other purposes. One can have poison and say it’s good for something else. When you have an instrument to commit a crime, you usually use it to commit a crime,” he said.

Further into the session, Senate president Federico Pinedo said that the reports mentioned by Kicillof had never been concealed, and that they were “available” for examination for all committee members.

Finance Minister Luis Caputo at today's meeting in Congress (Photo via Télam / Osvaldo Fantón)
Finance Minister Luis Caputo at today’s meeting in Congress (Photo via Télam / Osvaldo Fantón)

 

In regards to his offshore accounts, Caputo said that “his only crime was not declaring them.”

“Think of an offshore account as a safety deposit box. It does not make them evil. People have to be responsible for what they have in them. In my case, I’ve already said it. I don’t have anything to do with that company (Noctua Partners, presumably). I have declared everything to the Anti-Corruption office and the AFIP [tax collecting agency], everywhere. In regards to that report from the SEC (a recent report that revealed that he actually owned Noctua), I did not own it. I can’t declare something that is not mine.”

Regarding the issuance of public debt, he said “we have to try to reduce the dependence of external financing,” some that the Macri administration has been trying to correct that since day one.”

Later at noon, while FpV Senator Sigrid Kunath was asking questions, the power went out.

During that time, the session continued and lawmakers present had to ask questions without a microphone. 10 minutes later, the power came back.

The session finished abruptly shortly after 1 PM, when FpV Deputy Gabriela Cerruti got up from her chair and suddenly started screaming at Caputo, waving a piece of paper while everyone around her looked confused.

Unable to ease the tension, President of the Committee José Mayans decided to finish the session.

Immediately after, FpV deputies, led by Cerruti, ran to the TV cameras in the room to display a piece of paper that read: “My daughters are 11 and 13 years old, please don’t be so mean :)”.

(Yes, it actually included a smiley face.)

Cerruti accused Caputo of gender-based violence: “He sent me a piece of paper through an aide. He gestured at me and asked me to read it. He can’t send me a piece of paper in the middle of a session, I am a deputy, I don’t know him. He lied to us since minute one.” And regarding its content, she said: “either this is a threat, or it trivializes the situation, or whatever you want to call it. It is sexist, misogynistic, all of that,” she said. Agustín Rossi, on his end, asked for Caputo to resign.

On Cambiemos’ side, Deputy Eduardo Amadeo said that Cerruti had previously made a reference to Caputo’s children. “Then he answered he has two daughters, it is what any father who feels like that would do.”

Caputo’s communication team released a statement after the scandal, apologizing for sending the message: “I reacted as a father and not as a public official. It was not the place nor the way to do it. In no time I intended to offend anyone. I spent four and a half hours answering every single question.”