BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — With shades of the French Laundry scandal that dogged California Governor Gavin Newsom well into the failed bid to recall him, Argentine president Alberto Fernández has hired two lawyers to represent him after he attended a birthday party with 10 other guests at the official presidential residence despite strict lockdown measures forbidding social gatherings.
Until now, Fernández, a trained lawyer, had been representing himself. He presented his defense to federal Judge Lino Mirabelli, arguing the party at Quinta de Olivos presented no risk to public health and that no crime was committed.
Mirabelli rejected the president’s request to dismiss the case, a ruling Fernández agreed not to appeal. Instead, he hired two lawyers, Marcelo Antonio and Fabián Musso, to represent him in further proceedings.
The birthday party honored first lady Fabiola Yáñez and took place in July 2020, despite strict lockdown measures put in place by Fernández, including restrictions on travel and a ban on indoor social gatherings.
The event remained unknown to the public until this past August, when a photo first appeared followed by a video of the 11-member party. In the video, friends and staff of Yáñez could be seen celebrating and sipping champagne without social distancing or wearing masks.
These media leaks led to federal prosecutor Ramiro González pressing charges against the attendees, citing penal code sections 205, 239, and 248 which deal with failing to comply with specific laws set by a public official and violating measures adopted by authorities in preventing the spread of an epidemic.
The timing of the “Fiesta in Olivos” scandal came at a painful moment for the government ahead of primary elections that took place Sept. 12. Pundits considered the primary elections a gauge of public opinion towards the government in the run-up to important midterm elections on Nov. 14.
“Up to a month before the elections in September, the social climate was improving,” said Bautista Gutiérrez Guerra, an analyst at Poliarquía, the country’s leading polling and public opinion firms. "The government’s vaccination program was accelerating, the country’s second Covid wave was receding, and restrictions on travel had loosened.”
But, Guerra added, "The scandal generated by the dissemination of images of the celebration at the Olivos presidential residence was a turning point. It brought the government's incipient recovery in public opinion to a sudden halt, had a strong impact on the image of the president and the rest of the government, and cost it electoral support.”
The government suffered big losses in the midterm elections, where half of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies — the lower house — and a third of the seats in the Senate were up for grabs.
The governing Frente de Todos party lost its majority in the Senate for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1984 as the opposition coalition, Juntos por el Cambio, recorded big wins. The hard right and hard left also gained seats.
The losses also exposed tensions within the government coalition. Vice President Cristina Fernández, a former president who holds significant political power within the party, wrote a public letter after the primaries requesting that the president shuffle his cabinet. “Cristina’s letter and the resignation of the ministers closest to her added further blows to the president’s authority,” Guerra said.
And the midterms have far-reaching implications, Guerra noted.
“Today, Argentines are faced with a divided government, whose main leaders have contrasting conceptions of power, ideas, and ways of doing things," Guerra said. "In a context of growing social discontent, rising inflation and poverty, and with negotiations with the IMF, the government will have to start achieving concrete results if it wants to reach 2023 with a real chance of competing for the presidency again.”
After two years in office, President Fernández has reached the halfway point in his presidency and has slipped steeply down the rugged terrain of public opinion. Yet he began his presidency at a historic vantage point.
“The pandemic broke out in Argentina just three months into the Alberto Fernández government's term in office. The president's swift response in establishing the first mandatory quarantine was widely supported,” Guerra said. “The president’s approval rating climbed to 83%, marking a peak for any president in the last 20 years.”
However, the following months saw the reopening of Argentina’s political fissures and signs of consensus between political leaders and parties fraying. “Polarization and the most radicalized positions on both sides of the divide soon returned,” Guerra said.
Any remaining stitches of cross-party support came undone, as pre-existing economic and social problems were exacerbated. Strict lockdown measures stretched much longer than in other countries: the capital Buenos Aires endured the longest continuous lockdown in the world, ending in November 2020 after 234 days.
“Then there was the VIP vaccine scandal,” Guerra said, where select people were given preferential access to vaccinations inside the Ministry of Health, despite not having authorization and amid vaccine shortages. Similar scandals also emerged in neighboring Chile and Peru.
The party in Olivos compounded the growing disillusionment in the country.
Now President Fernández faces an ongoing investigation. Although it’s unlikely he will be convicted of a crime, he has already offered to donate half of his salary for four months to Malbrán, the national administration of laboratories and health institutes, in exchange for a suspension of the criminal case.
But the case has already caused political damage, and with courts closed from Dec. 20 until the end of January, the president will have to wait a little longer for the outcome.
Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Argentina.
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