President Takes Reins as Argentina Shifts to the Left

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AFP) — Argentina’s new president Alberto Fernández takes office Tuesday, having pledged to put Argentina “back on its feet: but he faces a tough task due to recession, high inflation and rising unemployment and poverty.

Fernández, a leftist who ousted market-friendly Mauricio Macri in October’s elections, will be sworn in at a morning ceremony in Congress.

The new head of state will host an inauguration lunch for fellow presidents from across Latin America — including Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, who arrived here Sunday — before addressing a crowd at the Plaza de Mayo in the evening.

Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera will attend the festivities in Buenos Aires — his first foreign trip since the beginning of his country’s social crisis — as will Paraguay’s Mario Abdo Benítez and Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez.

A notable absentee will be President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Argentina’s ideological swing has roiled relations between the two countries and the far-right Bolsonaro at first declined to send a cabinet minister to represent him.

Bolsonaro said before Fernández’s election victory that his government would turn Argentina into the new Venezuela, with Brazil likely to face a flood of Argentine refugees.

Fernández’s was among the loudest voices to call for the release of leftist icon and Bolsonaro adversary Luíz Inacio Lula da Silva from jail.

Bolsonaro’s government finally announced Monday that Brazil would be represented by Vice President Hamilton Mourao.

Moderate and pragmatic, Fernández has never served in elected office but brings years of backroom strategizing, as a former top aide to late President Nestor Kirchner from 2003-2007, and briefly for his wife Cristina Kirchner when she succeeded him.

After joining forces with Cristina Kirchner to unite a fragmented camp and win October’s elections, his main challenge will be to lead the resulting coalition government, according to analyst Enrique Zuleta.

” Fernández is a very experienced person. He’s assured on international issues and debt issues. He’s very prepared,” Zuleta told Agence France-Presse.

“His biggest challenge will be to administer this heterogeneous coalition.”

Fernández will rely heavily on his pick as economy minister. Martín Guzmán, 37, will have the task of negotiating with the International Monetary Fund and other international creditors on restructuring Argentina’s massive debt.

Guzmán, an academic at Columbia University in New York, has been critical of austerity policies as a solution to debt crises and his appointment signals a sharp shift from Macri’s austerity drive.

The first problem Fernández faces is rescheduling Argentina’s $44 billion debt repayment to the IMF.

Argentina’s total external debt amounts to more than $315 billion, about 100% of GDP.

“We are already working with the IMF. It’s work that must be done quietly, so Argentines can rest assured that we have been dealing with the issue for weeks,” Fernández said at the weekend.

“We have opened a negotiation process; we are satisfied with how it’s going.”

Economist Hector Rubini of the University of Salvador said the government is likely to maintain the strict exchange controls put in place by the Macri government in October, at least initially.

He said a new budget law will likely be approved to reallocate funds to fight poverty, an issue that Fernández said was “a moral imperative.”

Fernández has also pledged to legalize abortion, a bitterly divisive issue in Roman Catholic Argentina, saying in November he would send a bill to Congress as soon as possible.

He inherits a dismal economy that will shrink by 3.1% this year, with inflation running at 55%, poverty near 40%, and unemployment more than 10%.

Despite a bleak economic outlook, Fernández is likely to be able to count on a period of social peace from the powerful unions, and will have Congress and debt timetables on his side.

“He has time, he has Congress, he has ideas. If he plays his cards right he can create a great presidency,” Zuleta said.

© Agence France-Presse

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