Police Violence Is Still Endemic In Argentina

(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, October 14, 2015). 

As The Bubble reported soon after the news broke across social media, a video emerged last month of police in Tucumán mercilessly beating up a teenager inside his cell while other officers looked on, completely complicit. As he throws punches into the defenseless minor’s face and torso, the officer can be heard bawling:


The fact that the video caused such outrage after it surfaced was the positive to take away from what happened. Among the mountain of negatives was the sad truth that despite the condemnation, the images surprised few people here in Argentina, where stories of police brutality seem to emerge with almost clockwork regularity, 30 years since the fall of the last military dictatorship.

The event reminded us all that cruelty, corruption and violence at the hands of the police in Argentina has been a recognized norm here for decades.

This makes the institutional and illegal violence latent within the police — metropolitan, federal, gendarmerie… they’re all tarnished — all the more dangerous because it becomes normalized and almost accepted as an unchangeable constant that the government is seemingly at pains to do as little as possible about.

But is stoicism towards the corruption, the racism, the normalization of human rights abuses the best response, especially when the violence is so persistent? It has certainly not helped stem the tide.

According to Gerardo Netche, lawyer and researcher for the anti-police corruption organization Correpi there is almost one case of police violence every day,” in Argentina. Yet it’s impossible to know with any precision how many abuses have been buried entirely by the police themselves on top of a chilling estimate like this.


We can only judge the situation from the cases we know about, and these happen all too often. The video of the teenager brutalized at the hands of police came just days after federal police forces had repressed a non-violent demonstration in Tucumán, with a liberal spraying of rubber bullets and healthy doses of tear gas, after proved instances of electoral corruption in the province had prompted the protests.

And just weeks before that, it was the gendarmerie, beating up and shooting striking Linea 60 bus drivers with another rubber bullets and tear gas combo on the Panamericana highway just outside of the capital.

This time on Homeland Security Secretary Sergio Berni’s orders, the border guards wounded over 30 workers in the process, two of whom ended up in intensive care, before the Labor Ministry and corporate owners of the bus route eventually backed down and conceded to the workers’ demands anyway.

Border Guards in riot gear overpower a demonstrator and hold him down on the tarmac of the Pan-American Highway. Image via buenosairesherald.com

Berni showed no contrition whatsoever and in fact blamed the protesters themselves for getting shot, the latest offering from the expanding catalog of his “tough on crime” bullshit sound bites.

In both cases, the action of all those police officers involved in the use of rubber bullets to repress a democratic protest was illegal according to prominent human rights group the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), which cited a resolution tied to Berni’s own Security Ministry forbidding such suppressive acts.

These cases of government-sponsored repression at the hands of the police were rightly condemned by main opposition candidate Mauricio Macri of the Cambiemos center-right coalition.

But Macri and his political allies failed to recognize the extreme levels of hypocrisy berthed from slamming the federal government and police for unwarranted violence and force during a peaceful demonstration. After all, perhaps the most notorious and shocking instance of mass police violence in the last few years was dealt by the hands and truncheons of the metropolitan police in Buenos Aires City, of which Macri has been mayor for the last eight years.

In 2013 the metropolitan police stormed a workshop therapy wing of the Borda psychiatric hospital in the City scheduled for renovation, after patients and doctors refused to leave and suspend their work. Over 36 people including patients, doctors and journalists were injured by police officers as a result.

Then there are the ongoing, clandestine and extremely concerning reports of forced disappearances of those living in the impoverished villa neighbourhoods on the edges of the City, as detailed in recent documentary Nunca Digas Nunca (“Never Say Never”).


Why are brutality and human rights abuses so persistent within the various police forces?

At the crux of the issue in Argentina is the weight of a dark past. Unlike most other state institutions — such as the executive, for example, who is now a president people elect instead of a psychopathic general and his thugs imposing “order” — the police have not undergone any serious reforms since the fall of the dictatorship.

As Editor-in-Chief of the Buenos Aires Herald and longstanding human rights advocate Sebastian Lacunza told me last year, this is a root cause of ongoing malpractice within the police forces in Argentina:

“The main problem, once again, is the Argentine police; supposed to catch criminals and gather evidence against them. In more than 30 years of democracy, no government has led a much-needed reform of security forces which had been deeply involved in illegal repression during the dictatorship.”

“Hundreds of police officers took part in killings, tortures and snatching babies. Even though many of them were judged and Argentine society lives under the rule of law, forces still work with unacceptable practices from a human rights perspective,” he said.

In reference to the new Criminal Procedural Code which placed extra unaccountable powers in the hands of the police, he added:


As an organization, therefore, the police maintain, to a lesser or greater extent, many of the traits institutionalized during the dictatorship that now run through their ranks like seams of coal through a mountain. They do not by any means touch every part or person across the forces but are clearly present throughout.

During the 2001 crisis, police repression caused the deaths of 26 people in a single day (December 20). There has been no significant reform within the police forces since then. Image via wikipedia.org

The racism, authoritarianism and willful neglect of human rights espoused by the Generals are all engendered as a result, as Amnesty International detailed in a recent report on human rights in Argentina.

Police violence is also linked intrinsically to a decaying and often inhumane prison system. Amnesty also reported that many prisons here are woefully overcrowded, that torture of inmates inside whether by guards or other prisoners is endemic and that despite the overcrowding, many inmates are forced into solitary confinement for over 20 hours each day.


The scarcity of denunciations of such abuse from within the police itself is a key reason so few cases are met with justice. Lack of accountability is at the heart of the problem. It alludes to the endemic nature of  mistreatment espoused by the police.

If superiors are willing to turn a blind eye to the crimes and misdemeanors of their junior officers, or even be actively complicit in the abuse they deal out, hope for an improvement of police behavior coming from within the organization looks wistful at best.

Of those cases of police violence that did result in punitive measures against the cops involved, justice was invariably served in spite of the police authority’s best efforts to avoid any punitive measures against officers within their own ranks. The recent charges brought against the Chief of Federal Police in Tucmán, José Dante Bustamante, who was indicted by a government-sponsored judicial investigation following the Tucumán debacle earlier in the year, illustrated this.

Inmates at a prison in San Luis abused by guards and police officers, June 2014. Image via sanluis24.com.ar

Expecting self-regulation from the same police forces that were willfully complicit in the crimes of the last dictatorship and have undergone no significant reforms since then is probably wishful thinking. The impetus for change must come from outside, and those with the most obvious power to affect a change are our elected representatives.

So it is a bitter irony that one of the most striking aspects of the current state of the Argentine police and its many discontents is the way the subject unites the main political parties and coalitions in Argentina behind the current status quo.

All three front-runners for the presidency in Daniel Scioli (Victory Front), Mauricio Macri (Cambiemos) and Sergio Massa (A New Alternative) have attacked the others when instances of brutality at the hands of the police have surfaced. Yet none have made any significant foray into territory which suggests they might embark on a widespread, progressive shake up of the police forces that could help clamp down on the corruption and recurring brutality, both of which are documented extensively by human rights groups.

On the contrary, all three, and particularly the two Peronist candidates in Scioli and Massa, have prioritized a massive expansion of police power if they triumph at the pivotal general election two weeks from now.

Scioli’s campaign videos play up his massive expansion of the police in Buenos Aires Province as governor, and show him addressing rallies of rank upon rank of drilled police recruits in matching uniforms. His insistence that this “new” police force embodies authority but not authoritarianism was unconvincing amid so much evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, having ditched the use of crying babies for electioneering purposes, Massa’s latest video is perhaps even more sinister still. It seems to amalgamate the police with the military completely. “We declare war on drug trafficking!” he proclaims as narco-trafficking cops and, bizarrely, fighter jets charge towards the northern border regions.

NB: (No one has told Massa that he’s missed the War on Drugs boat, which left harbor over 40 years ago and shows every sign of sinking without trace but for the tragic escalation of violence and death it has fueled, needlessly, in this part of the world in particular).

What is to be done? Clearly, the police force must be strong when accountable force is necessary in order to deal with some of the most pressing criminal problems continuing to plague Argentina, not least of which are the shameful and ongoing cases of human trafficking, which continue despite swelling police numbers.

Nevertheless, the failure to address the institutionalized violence that national and international rights groups all say continues to exist within the Argentine police forces is a political failure that needs addressing if we are to avoid more incidents like Tucumán’s and Borda’s or villa disappearances in the future. Discussing the need for reform from a human rights perspective would be a start. The longer this is avoided, the longer ordinary citizens will continue to pay the price for their own government’s inaction.  At present, the biggest political forces in Argentina keep their heads buried in the sand.


Argentina’s Response to the Refugee Crisis Is Everything Europe’s Isn’t

(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, September 16, 2015). 


Argentina, distant and guiltless in the current crisis engulfing Europe and the Middle East, has offered a coherent and consistent refugee policy.

If the refugee crisis currently unfolding in Europe has exposed a drastic lack of unity among European states, it has also shown a clear divergence in policy between Europe — which, along with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan is currently bearing the heaviest burden of the influx — and other parts of the world.

In the Gulf States close to Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean, the response has been a consistent refusal to provide for refugees. Saudi Arabia, one of the largest, richest and most powerful countries in the region, has taken in some refugees (reports differ wildly as to how many) but not offered a single concrete resettlement program. It’s the same case for UAE and Qatar, as wealthy as they are.

Then there are far corners of the world which are not affected by the same extreme urgency but where governments are still aware of the international nature of the problem. Post-modern globalization increasingly means that no country is an island.

This brings us to Latin America and Argentina.

Today, as a destination for people seeking a life better than that which is possible in their homeland, Argentina as a state is unambiguously welcoming. It’s constitutionally bound, in fact, to be this way. After all, it’s what the country was essentially built on. “To govern is to populate,” said Juan Bautista Alberdi in 1852 (he’s a key historical figure as well as a stop on the Linea A Subte).

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. (Image via wikipedia).

For the last decade or so, Argentina has specifically enshrined migration — the umbrella term that includes people fleeing war, famine, poverty and so on — as a human and therefore inviolable right (more on this later).

Fast forward to the current situation and the international refugee crisis in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in particular. The President’s latest foray into the issue came last week, when she emotionally pleaded with Latinos across the region not to follow the example some nations were setting in “the North.”


So has the North, and Europe in particular, really been so bad? The answer, of course, is a bit more complicated than that. Something Cristina’s outburst last week forgot to mention was the overwhelming humanity of thousands and thousands of ordinary Europeans that have gone out of their way to help those arriving at that door: the mountains of donated food and clothing, the coordinated refugee-welcome campaigns across major European cities… this is the other, grassroots and altogether more positive side of the coin.

But examining government policy in Europe on its own, one thing that stands out is the sheer lack of a coherent strategy. Let’s take this article’s author’s own homeland as an example.

In October 2014, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the UK was formally withdrawing support from the search and rescue operations currently saving lives every day in the Mediterranean. Hundreds, possibly thousands of men, women and children died on the dangerous crossing before he quietly reversed the decision months later.

His xenophobic opening salvos during the height of British summer (the word “swarm” was used by Cameron, not to describe ants ruining a picnic but homeless refugees forced into a Hooverville in the French port Calais) were forced to beat a hasty retreat as more human and humane public opinion united behind the refugees and pushed him and his knee-jerk Daily Mail appeasing flirtations (“send in the army”) back to the stinking pit they came from.

The Prime Minister then made an overtly heartfelt speech a few weeks ago telling the world he had been “moved” by the image of a drowned six-year-old boy lying face down in the Turkish surf, that Britain was now completely changing her Conservative summer position on the issue and could we please stop putting pressure on him thank you very much.

Now, 20,000 is the latest number of refugees the UK will take in, over five years. Sounds impressive enough, but when we scrape just a hair’s breadth beneath the surface, we discover that in fact this only equates to around 12 refugees per day, while Germany has taken in reported tens of thousands in the last weeks alone and tiny, impoverished and war-torn Lebanon currently shelters 1.1 million Syrians. Cameron’s latest commitment is “Barely even a response,” as Green Party MP Caroline Lucas remarked after the announcement.

Still, at least he has changed his stance and bowed to the great swing of public opinion on the issue while other EU states continue to stonewall, scapegoat and even abuse the needy arriving at their front door.

Hungary was a case in point, as underlined late last week when Hungarian police were filmed forcing starving refugees to compete for food as they threw sandwiches into outstretched hands of a desperate crowd, or when Hungarian riot police refused to give water to refugees waiting on the wrong side of newly erected barbed wire fences.

Other low-lights from the right-wing central European government included the forcing of thousands of refugees to walk the hundreds of miles from central Budapest station to the Austrian border, and the crypto-fascist prime minister telling his population that they are under attack from a “rebellion of Muslims,” etc.

Add to this the complete U-turn of German policy which now closes the borders once more, and this tiny glimpse offered by such stories help expose many European government policies on Eurasian migration and refugees for what they are: an utter shambles.


This is not something that can be said in candor of Cristina and the Argentine government on the issue, who, physically more distant from the crisis than their European counterparts and so with a far more comfortable degree of flexibility, have issued a robust, clear-cut and extremely timely policy response featuring the single most important thing lacking in Europe: regional integration of policies.

As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) analyzed following the Cartagena+30 process which gathered South American nations to discuss and form policy reponses to global migration and refugees:


While the numbers taken in have been modest, Cristina and Co’s decision to further widen the non-discriminatory door to refugees only emphasized how enlightened their immigration policy had been in the first place.

The amnesty extended to Syrian and Palestinian refugees for two years is, in fact, in part outdone by existing laws in Argentina, which guarantee migration as a human right and therefore — technically at least — as inviolable and guaranteed without recourse to bureaucracy.

Argentina has one of the most progressive set of rules and legislation regarding the free movement of peoples anywhere in the world. In 2004, Law 25.871 enshrined human movement — migration, call it what you like — as the fundamental human right it probably ought to be everywhere. It did away with the lingering fascism of “Videla’s Law,” from the dark years of the dictatorship (1976-1983), which saw authorities screen all migrants depending on their “cultural characteristics and possibility of successful integration,” as the law specified with a heavy dose of racism.

Law 25.871 explicitly states that migrants of all kinds, especially refugees, will be accepted regardless of the current status and availability of the necessary paperwork.

And even though the blanket implementation of the Law has encountered a number of hurdles,  its very existence puts other countries’ immigration policies to shame as far as human rights are concerned, at least according to a Cornell University study into Argentine migration policy past and present:


Also, the Argentine policy casts a necessarily wider net than some European countries regarding who is eligible to seek asylum from the war-torn regions of the Middle East. Alongside Syrians, Palestinians are also directly welcome under the new emergency legislation, unlike in numerous European states’ rapidly hashed policy responses and vague, confused soundbites.

Destroyed house in Gaza City following an Israeli bombardment. Palestine is an increasing source of refugees. (Image via wikipedia).

In the UK, the media zeitgeist and often-corresponding political rhetoric surrounding the refugees is shamefully short on mentioning the current humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories of Palestine, most especially Gaza which will be literally “unlivable” by 2020, according to the UN, if Israel’s illegal and inhumane siege — not to mention sporadic massacres of civilians — in the region does not stop.


Cristina made another point in her calculated, emotional outburst last week that also bears consideration.


Somewhat clumsily, she hits the causal nail on the head. A further fact to set apart Europe and Latin America generally on this issue is the geo-political, economic and industrial connections to war in the Middle East.

Just look at Libya, for example, a source of many thousands of refugees since it was plunged into chaos in 2011 by intervening powers intent on removing an undoubtedly nasty despot who they had nonetheless happily supported for years beforehand when it suited them. All to the benefit of the corporate sponsors of some of those NATO powers involved: Total (France), Marathon Oil (US) and so on swiftly carved out stakes in the nation’s oil supplies.

Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. (Image via wikipedia).

Latin American governments have not been paragons of perfect behavior since 9/11 themselves, but one thing they are not guilty of (in fact, for the most part blissfully incapable of anyway) is imposing unilateral regime change via armed conflict on an immensely complex political arena (the Middle East) with little credible plan for making whatever comes next work.

The botched removal of mass-murdering Saddam Hussein in the 2003 Iraq War, who was supported for years by Washington and London beforehand even as he committed his atrocities, created a power vacuum into which ISIS emerged where it could not under the dictator’s iron grip.

It’s a similar story with the arms trade. Afghan refugees flee from Russian Kalashnikovs and US cluster bombs that were either given directly to the Taliban (in the case of arms from the US) or else acquired by them after the Cold War proxy between the West and the Soviet Union in the country wound down.

Syrians meanwhile run from the Russian guns and bombs pumped into the Civil War by Moscow, while Gazans unprepared to stay and risk death for themselves and their families whenever the next invasion by the IDF falls are fleeing bullets, white phosphorus, shells and more essentially paid for and supplied by the United States government.

In each case, the assorted lethality currently making the mass killing in the Middle East possible was overwhelmingly made in the North, be it Russia, the UK, the US or elsewhere.

Add to this the shameless flip-flopping NATO policies about which bad guy to bomb in hellish Gordian knot of the Syrian Civil War, which seems to change with the seasons and be lifted directly out of the Ministry of Peace handbook from Orwell’s dystopian classic.

Definitions of friend, ally and enemy to the Northern military powers, particularly the US and UK, change often and easily. Cristina made this very point at the UN last year, which needs saying far more frequently.


Of course, the xenophobia that exists towards many Andean migrants from Bolivia, Peru or Colombia in some corners of Argentine society; the coercion of many of these impoverished economic migrants into situations of quasi-slave labor in countless underground sweatshops here in the Greater Buenos Aires Area in particular; not to mention the abhorrent existence of widespread hunger and malnutrition in Argentina — these are all shameful realities that need to be addressed by the government and lawmakers urgently.

But they don’t exist as a result of state policy. A severe lack of it, more likely, but this bares no direct or especially helpful comparison to the immediate and pressing issue of the refugee crisis revolving around the Mediterranean.

On this, Argentina’s state policy and existing progressive laws show coherence, nuance and above all consistency that, along with a region-wide concensus, is lacking across the Atlantic. So we can maybe forgive Cristina a small bout of point scoring this time, as ugly as it was. Just this once.


On César Milani’s Appointment and Resignation

(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, June 29, 2015).


The last military dictatorship in Argentina seized power in an anti-democratic coup in 1976.

In the weeks, months and years that followed, the junta proceeded to crush any opposition to its regime by force of arms. On the premise of “restoring order” and targeting underground left-wing rebels like the Monteros, it launched a systematic and targeted campaign of state terrorism, abductions, torture and murders still known as “disappearances” since many of the victims were never found.

The disappeared were not only men, women and children from Argentine civil society, but also many of those forcibly conscripted into the military itself, including one Alberto Agapito Ledo, a conscript who was disappeared in Tucumán Province on June 17, 1976.

Whenever a soldier was forcibly disappeared, the army tended to falsify the doomed recruit’s paperwork to cover their own backs, often using the euphemistic lie that the disappeared person or persons were “deserters” and therefore missing without a trace. In Ledo’s case, the man who declared him a “deserter” in signing his paperwork was a certain Second Lieutenant Milani, who resigned his post as commander in chief of the army on Tuesday.

César Milani. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Appointed two years ago by the current administration, the outgoing César Milani is consequently suspected of crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in the state terror campaign of the last military dictatorship. This situation raises some important questions. Why was Milani appointed as head of the army in the first place? Why by this current administration, which, like its predecessor, justly prides itself on the progress it has made in bringing many former oppressors from the military regime to justice? And why is he standing down now?

The final question is perhaps the most pressing. This year, human rights groups unified during a commemoration of the 1976 military coup to demand Milani be investigated. After two years of piecemeal calls for greater scrutiny, the ground was visibly beginning to shift under his feet. Naturally, though, the official line is that he quit the government for “strictly personal reasons,” as Defense Minister Agustín Rossi told the press on Tuesday, following up insistent and renewed questioning by my colleagues at The Buenos Aires Herald with the same answers.





Whether we take the Defense Minister’s words on Milani at face value or not is subjective. But applying even a shred of critical reasoning to the situation suggests that, if nothing else, the FpV gains from letting Milani go before the election. Perhaps President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner forced Milani out and in so doing appeased the genuinely progressive voices within her governing Perónist movement dissatisfied with their centrist presidential candidate Daniel Scioli and surely feeling uncomfortable with an ex-dictatorship subordinate at the head of the Argentine military. Then again, if there was unease within the FpV ranks over Milani’s appointment, it was not audible on his appointment back in 2013.

It seems more likely that, with the net tightening around Milani and his shrouded past, the decision came — either from himself or his elected civilian superiors — to leave the Fernández de Kirchner administration and save the FpV the unsavory prospect of fighting a general election with a serving army chief accused of involvement in systematic human rights abuses.

Whatever the party-political dimensions are, the basis for his indictment, which may still lead to further investigations, is pretty robust and can be drawn from various pieces of evidence. First, he was mentioned directly in La Rioja’s 1984 exhaustive regional Nunca Mas (Never Again) report on dictatorship-era crimes for his alleged involvement in the abduction of both Pedro Adán Olivera and Alfredo Olivera in the province in 1977.

In the Ledo case, the signed paperwork declaring the disappeared soldier a “deserter” sits alongside his indictment by a former comrade, Esteban Sanguinetti, who did stand trial for the disappearance and alleged the former army chief’s direct involvement.

These cases haunting Milani in Tucumán and La Rioja remain in stalemate despite his recent loss of a government shield. But despite the deadlock, there can be little doubt that Milani is standing on shakier ground than he was two years ago when he ascended to his position.

Cristina appoints Milani in 2013. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Last Monday, Judge Ricardo Warley approved the habeas corpus request of Nora Cortiñas, iconic member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who demanded Milani provide information regarding her disappeared relative Gustavo Carlos Cortiñas, who went missing in April 1977 at a similar time to the other recorded victims linked in some way with Milani. Furthermore, the Tucumán Court of Appeals is currently weighing federal prosecutor Carlos Brito’s request that Milani face further questioning regarding Ledo’s forced disappearance. It may yet send Milani to the dock.

Milani’s past testimonies have failed to completely dispel doubts that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. When human rights group the Center for Education and Legal Studies (CELS) questioned him prior to his government appointment about his time serving under the dictatorship, he said he had been completely ignorant of any human rights abuses occurring at the time — that he only became aware of them years later, after the return of democracy in 1983.

It could conceivably be true. Then again, why do we have to simply accept Milani’s own version? On the cusp of a top government appointment, his answer would have been the same regardless of the truth. It is a stretch to believe that since he was serving in the army during the military dictatorship, during a time (1976-7) of mass abductions within the army and with documents linking him to forced disappearances, he had absolutely no knowledge of what was going on. If he is innocent, why the hesitancy to face more questioning that might help soothe some of the doubts of those families so brutally affected by the army’s crimes?

The Milani affair is, of course, just one detail in the vast open wound left by the military dictatorship that still casts its shadow over Argentina. In just the same way many ex Nazi’s in West Germany were stealthily rehabilitated into privileged social positions after the fall of fascism in Europe, there are people in Argentina directly affiliated with the military regime and it’s plethora of crimes against its own people who remain untouched by justice.

As in the case of West Germany, a resolute and dedicated campaign to condemn those seduced by fascism and culpable for its crimes has helped heal the pain of its many victims. The human rights groups that continue this work in Argentina today — among them CELS, HIJOS and Human Rights Watch, who recently called the accusations against Milani “credible” — must continue to be supported and endorsed by all parties for their efforts to seek out justice.

Yet the government itself, democratically elected to best represent all Argentines, also has a direct responsibility. Whether the FpV is successful or not at the ballot boxes later this year, a central Kirchnerite legacy is the repeal of the amnesty laws that had protected so many former oppressors and ultimately brought many of them to justice.

Suspected of human rights abuses during military rule, Milani’s appointment by Cristina two years ago was an anomaly to her party’s good record. He should face further questioning not only since the evidence of his involvement remains unanswered and his own legacy murky, but because it would put to rest the painful doubts of those families affected by the crimes he is linked to. If he is as innocent as he and the government say he is, solid proof confirming so would vindicate Cristina and the FpV’s appointment of him. In the end it could be, ironically, in their best interests.



Kirchner the Third or Máximo to the Max

Strong signals from the most influential names in the ruling Victory Front fuel speculation that president Fernández de Kirchner’s son Máximo may finally make the leap into institutional politics.

(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, June 14, 2015).


It’s election year in Argentina and for the first time in a decade, we face the prospect of entering the immediate future with a president who doesn’t have “Kirchner” somewhere in his or her name. With the bland and vaguely centrist, Perón-ish bid of Sergio Massa in terminal decline (despite his desperate pleas to the contrary), the next president will probably be one of three people.

Either Mauricio Macri, the right-wing mayor of Buenos Aires running on the Republican Proposal (PRO) ticket, or one of the ruling Victory Front (FpV) hopefuls: Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo or Buenos Aires Province Governor Daniel Scioli.

These are the “Kirchnerist” or “Kirchnerite” candidates, named such since the Victory Front movement was formed and has always been led by a Kirchner — first the hugely successful Néstor, who salvaged Argentina and the economy from a very neoliberal crisis after his victory in 2003, and then his widow, current President Cristina Fernández, who must step down this election since she can’t stand for a third term.

The Kirchner clan in 2007. Image: commons.wikimedia.org

The blending of progressive, social democratic welfare policies and strong Peronist themes (the mass rallies, constant Evita references and comparisons and so on) have helped drive Kirchnerism to win after win at the ballot box, but this time things look far from certain. What’s more, the lack of a Kirchner in the presidential race has caused divisions within the party. With no clear go-to choice after Cristina, we are left with two potential candidates (there had been more until very recently) who will fight it out for the nomination in the upcoming presidential primaries on Aug. 9.

Both Scioli and Randazzo have good claims as to why they deserve the FpV nomination. But there appears to remain an element of existential angst within the FpV that without the right family name on the ticket, somewhere, a Kirchnerite presidential bid will lack legitimacy, party direction and the intangible just-right, “Goldilocks” brand of leadership.


This worry finally appears to have bubbled over into the very public side of the party’s internal politics, as demonstrated by a spate of statements by party grandees regarding Néstor and Cristina’s son Máximo Kirchner.

For years, Máximo shunned the public eye and left party politics to his parents. But despite his best efforts to keep the Casa Rosada’s inner dealings aside, as well as a potentially damaging image of him growing fat on the bloating Kirchner wealth (Cristina’s own net wealth has increased by 16 percent in the last year alone), Máximo is clearly embedded in the Kirchnerite project and a key player in where the movement goes from here onwards.

His role up to now has provided a bridge between the institutional face of the FpV — largely taken care of by the career politicians in the cabinet — and the movement’s grassroots. He founded the important FpV youth group La Campora back in 2003 and injected it with his own brand of Peronist militarism from the start. Under Máximo’s watch, it has expanded its influence (not without a certain notoriety among those less sympathetic to the Kirchners) to gain a seat at the governing table with representatives in the Chamber of Deputies and many more on regional councils nationwide.

La Campora. Image: en.wikipedia.org

La Campora also exerts influence on Argentine politics through impressive shows of strength. Mass rallies are routine, and at one such rally at the Argentine Juniors stadium in September last year, Máximo stepped into the limelight. He has remained there ever since. It was his first ever public speech and caused a miniature earthquake in the Argentine media and political ether. Here was the prodigal son of the Kirchners following in their footsteps in mesmeric fashion, electrifying a devoted crowd with his rhetoric and passion for el proyecto nacional. What’s more, that day he cut a figure almost the spitting image of his late father Néstor in tone and style as many commentators couldn’t help but notice. Kirchner III had arrived.


Flash forward to today and the reality of a tough and crucial election for the Victory Front, which has never won without a Kirchner on the ballot, let alone without one in a defined government position of any kind. This uncomfortable fact has simmered under the surface of the FpV for years now. And just as a kettle boils over — with an apparent lack of activity and then all at once — there have been strong signals from the most influential names in the party that Máximo may finally make the leap into institutional politics.

These have been semi-cryptic statements, presumably designed to test the water for Máximo if and when he announces a move towards an official position in government during election season and sheds his current skin as the unofficial, close personal aide he has been to his mother in recent years.

Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, one of the undeniable stars of the current administration and Cristina’s own favorite among her inner circle, said:


Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández also hinted at Máximo’s imminent arrival:


Indeed, most intriguing of all is how both FpV presidential candidates Scioli and Randazzo have also put out Máximo-related feelers to the media and gauged the reactions, fueling speculation that they could name him as their preferred vice president. Neither has announced his choice yet, so there is still a very real possibility of at least one of them doing just that. Either way, the apparent widespread backing from within the party must reflect at least a certain degree of political competence on his part, and he is unquestionably popular with grassroots FpV supporters. The stage is set.


Máximo is a member of a wealthy, influential family still dominating Argentine politics, just as Macri is ensconced in the handshakes and business card world of the corporate elite.

But in Máximo’s case, his name itself might also be a hindrance as much as a help. There are many in Argentina who rightly feel uncomfortable with the prospect of another Kirchner calling the shots in whatever capacity after over a decade of just that. To have such dynastic tendencies within what’s supposed to be an open and representative democratic system hardly demonstrates the liberal meritocracy that politicians the world over champion as an accepted global norm.

Then again, when has this ever been true in Western liberal democracies? Meritocracy repeatedly plays second fiddle to social and industrial elites. Just look at the US. Its recent presidential history has been utterly dominated by selected families of privilege. There are Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons as far as the eye can see, two of which are running from opposite sides to replace Barack Obama next year, who despite shoehorning his way into the clique has done little to change the pro-capital and hawkish tendencies of the White House across two terms. Elsewhere, oligarchies of career politicians have a stranglehold over who actually does the representing in legislatures and the ruling in the executives, exemplified by the current UK cabinet that is basically filled with old, white and mainly male millionaires who went to Eton and then Oxbridge.

Whether we like it or not, representative politics is an incestuous game and it’s hard to break the mold, even if it’s healthy and often necessary to do so. If he does end up running, Máximo has spent some time with the party’s grassroots, at least. He may remain firmly within a wealthy circle of elite members of Argentine society, but if he stands, he will likely bring some of the radical notions of his activist days with him and maybe shake up the uneven landscape of Peronism in Argentina. Like father, like son.


Another Brick in the Wall: Why Are We Restricting Books in Prisons?

There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” -Goethe

The row is long overdue. In November of last year, the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling passed legislation that put in place a blanket ban on prisoners receiving small parcels of any kind from the outside. An apparent move to cut down on contraband, it conveniently helped him appease the Tory-Ukip faithful by appearing to toughen up our supposedly cushy-by-comparison prison system. Primary universal victim of this: books. The ban now means prisoners can’t receive reading material from the outside unless they spend their entire, often elusive, wage on a title from an approved catalogue.

Steve Bell 26/03/14

Cartoon by Steve Bell, 2014

Eager to defend this seemingly draconian policy, Grayling recently stressed that “All prisoners can have up to 12 books in their cell, and all prisons have libraries which prisoners have access to. They can buy any book they want to with their prison earnings, with the approval of prison staff”. However, a quick look at this case for the defence highlights its failure to even paper over the cracks. On the justification for the policy, surely employing more people to check parcels for contraband could help challenge the problem without being detrimental to education inside? However, this would be anathema, of course, to Coalition policy of public-sector cuts across the board.

Why the need to arbitrarily limit the number of books (12) a prisoner is allowed? An essential belief in the prison system must put faith in its potential to rehabilitate prisoners, say, for example, by offering the opportunity to further knowledge  through education and learning. By capping the number of books authorized, the law deliberately limits the potential for this to happen. A 2013 report by Criminal Justice Inspection showed that a shocking 60% of British prisoners fall below ‘functional literacy’. The ban will do nothing to improve this state of affairs, and may very well exacerbate it. Further, many prisoners whose literacy is better than this take educational courses during their time inside, such as degrees with the Open University- how does one complete a course reading list when restricted to twelve titles?

Prison reading group

Image: Martin Godwin

It is widely reported that the prison libraries Grayling appears to rate tend to be understaffed and drastically under-supplied. They usually source their content and volunteer staff from local libraries, but this is looking increasingly untenable under the coalition, as so many public libraries up and down the country have closed or are under threat of closure due to local government cuts. Not only that, but access to libraries in prisons is highly limited- one hour a week, again highlighting how restrictive the landscape for prisoners’ rehabilitation through education was before Grayling’s ban.

The ban on receiving books and other parcels from the outside and the limitations placed on access to them inside could also lead to deterioration in the prison environment, as expert on prison literacy Richard Armstrong (Newcastle University) argues:

“The consequences of banning small items being sent into prison, including books, has not been thought through. There is a chronic lack of education and workplaces in prison which mean prisoners are locked up with nothing to do simply because there is no work for them. No matter how willing a prisoner is, without work they cannot afford to buy books…. A blanket ban will negatively affect the morale of prisoners and cause unrest. A scheme aimed to encourage good behaviour will therefore end up achieving the complete opposite…”

“Prisoners have extremely high levels of language impairment and learning disabilities. Literacy classes delivered by further-education colleges and the Toe-by-Toe scheme run by prisoners themselves help improve prisoners’ communication and literacy skills which ultimately reduces re-offending. Books are integral to this process.”

So expert opinion seems to agree with Rights groups, and campaigns for reform like the Howard League, that this is a really lousy idea. The public outcry against this policy of enforced, active ignorance is growing. Writers including Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Linda Grant and Professor Mary Beard have demanded that Grayling drop the ban. A concerted, grassroots effort may yet yield results…

Prisons should of course be punitive. But they must also foster hope through the possibility of rehabilitation. This ban on parcels that will prevent books freely entering prisons from the outside, coupled with the inadequacy of current prison libraries and such high levels of below-par literacy for inmates, is yet another example of how reckless the Tory party can be as it strives to stick with reactionary ideological foundations. Another brick in the wall, as Phillip Pullman summed it up on Twitter:  “one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government”.

Embedded image permalink


Reflections on the Death Tony Benn

Tony Benn died on Friday and we lost another hero in the fight for social justice at home and peace internationally. A giant of the Labour Movement, an icon who came from the era of progressive, tempered socialism of a New Jerusalem, Benn never stopped campaigning for social justice, never gave up the struggle to make the world a better place; most of his last 13 years after retiring from Westminster were spent as President of the Stop the War Coalition. Who among the current clique of politicians and their of vanguard of Etonian millionaires, who plate up offerings of Cuts to our post-millennial God of Growth, even comes close to Benn’s stature as a consistent champion of conviction over careerism, of deeper democracy, wealth equality and international peace? To inject some dynamism into British politics we need new heroes of the Commons, as Benn evidently was, that might wake up the Thatcherite dinosaurs who’ve taken up residence there for the last few decades.

My generation has lived solely under variations on an unchanging theme; shades of neoliberalism espoused by faithful avatars from Major, via Blair and Brown, to Cameron and Co. Even the idea that a passionately principled and idealistic man like Benn, who frequently challenged the status quo in the political arena, was once entrenched in our political system and came very close to being deputy leader of Labour seems strange now. In this sense, Benn’s death and the incredible outpouring of tributes that have followed it reflect what we have lost under the neoliberal consensus that says selfishness and individual desire are more important than the collective. Horizons for those of us younger people who still invest time and effort thinking and acting on ‘politics’ at all have been curtailed since before we were born, as the political class refuses to challenge the current order’s philosophy of market privilege and laissez-faire individualism uber alles.


Many politicians that have been interviewed since Benn’s death on broadcast media appeared eager to use the opportunity to close their long running contestations with him over policy. Across party boundaries, the narrative that’s been repeated has consistently has been something along the lines of ‘he was a wonderful man but we all disagreed with him’, or insisting as Shirley Williams did that his views were ‘curiously backward’; a highly subjective declaration. But why the need to stress this disagreement and division so much when asked to say just a few words by the media?  It has seemed very much like a closing of the ranks by the current mainstream residing in Westminster, all determined to quell the resurgence of Benn’s radical ideas that are now rightly being given attention again following the his death. Surely the best way to celebrate his memory is to let those ideas bloom:

On the NHS and 1945:

On Democracy:

  • “In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person–Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates–ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”

On the Labour Party:

On Modern War:

  • “I was born about a quarter of a mile from where we are sitting now and I was here in London during the Blitz. And every night I went down into the shelter. 500 people killed, my brother was killed, my friends were killed. And when the Charter of the UN was read to me, I was a pilot coming home in a troop ship: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.’ That was the pledge my generation gave to the younger generation and you tore it up. And it’s a war crime that’s been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.”