Although it didn’t seem possible, the Province of Santa Cruz descended into an even more chaotic state this weekend, when thousands of residents gathered to protest in front of Governor Alicia Kirchner’s mansion after learning that her sister-in-law, former President Cristina Kirchner, was meeting with her.
The latent tension turned into confrontation when several people attempted to storm the governor’s residence, trying to climb the outer fences and throwing stones at the windows. Police responded, repressing the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. Four people were injured as a result of the clashes, including a photographer working for the State Workers’ Association union (ATE), Jorge Riquelme.
The next day, thousands of people took the streets again, this time to protest against police repression and demand that the Kirchner administration pays the salaries of the province’s public employees, who represent roughly 48 percent of the territory’s total population. The governor remained in her residence, heavily guarded by police, while Cristina Kirchner returned to her house in the province’s capital.
As is customary when there’s an event of this kind, the different players involved came out to pin the blame on the opposing political camp. Governor Kirchner and the former president argued that the incidents were planned by the Macri administration to smear their image ahead of the campaign for October’s congressional elections.
“They want my head for the national electoral campaign,” said Kirchner. Even though she admitted that the province was in a “critical state,” she considered that the protest had an ulterior intention and came from “an opposition that is both obstructive and destructive.” Moreover, she said she doubted that the protest had been called spontaneously.
Her administration pressed charges today against a group of protesters who clashed with police forces. They were accused of “damages, disturbing the constitutional order, sedition and trespassing.”
Following the same line, the former president said that the incidents represented “the campaign launch that [Macri’s main political adviser, the Ecuatorian Jaime] Durán Barba was aiming for.”
“That’s not the Argentina they promised,” she added.
Fernández published a video on her Twitter account where, in a reality show-like style, she guides a camera around the governor’s mansion, showing the consequences of the protester’s attempts to storm the premises.
The former president highlighted what she believes to be Durán Barba’s strategy: to “cut off the governor’s head [metaphorically, we hope] and hang it up as a trophy, as a sort of message for all governors who don’t belong to Cambiemos.”
The video starts at the house’s front door, where the former president shows the damage left by thrown rocks on the walls and the broken windows. Then, she goes on to show the inside of the house, noting that the people present had to set up a barricade with furniture to prevent people from entering the house.
“Look at what we had to do to stop them getting in last night,” she said, showing the barricade. “Broken lamps, broken windows, walls damaged by rocks. They also threw manure,” Fernández says.
At the other end of the political spectrum, government officials criticized the fact that the protest turned violent, but at the same time questioned the Kirchners’ rhetoric – in other words, blaming them for the incidents – and requested that they own up to their failings as a poor administration instead of blaming their woes on the national government.
“It’s true that the governor inherited quite a difficult situation, but for the past 25 years the province has been governed by the Kirchners or by associates of theirs, or by governors they hand-picked,” said Interior Minister Rogelio Frigetio in a radio interview.
The provincial administration is in a calamitous financial situation. It has a yearly budgetary deficit of AR$ 6,713 million and 90 percent of its tax revenue is used to pay regular expenses — mainly employees’ salaries and the necessary structure for the state administration to work.
The constant delay in the payment of salaries has led the province into a complete state of chaos. Classes haven’t started yet, as teachers have now been striking for over a month and a half, ever since they were offered a 3 percent salary increase for the entire year by the provincial administration; public hospital workers are on strike as well; the provincial judicial system hasn’t worked in over 20 days; pensioners have taken over the pension fund, demanding to be given the monthly payment they are entitled to. Since last year, the provincial administration has been paying public workers salaries in three installments throughout the month. When they get the money to do it, that is.
In an attempt to appease the citizens, Governor Kirchner intends to secure a loan of US$ 350 million, which would be used to pay regular expenses. This short term solution is set to bring more problems for her in the future, considering that the money won’t be invested in projects that could generate more income for the province and reduce its fiscal deficit in the future.
But, for now, that’s a problem for the future. The immediate one is finding someone willing to lend US$ 350 million to a province that, at least right now, doesn’t seem to have a way of paying them back unless it’s by getting yet another loan. And we know how that strategy usually ends – default. Before she can even start to worry about this, though, she has to make sure the province doesn’t go up in flames first.