Alejandro Bodart: Argentina pays foreign debt, skimps on coronavirus healthcare

As coronavirus cases pass 1,000 in Argentina, President Alberto Fernández ordered a strict lockdown in hopes of flattening the curve, even as the contagion is provoking a political crisis in neighboring Brazil. If the coronavirus is triggering a global recession, falling commodity prices and international debt payments drove the GDP down 1.8 percent between January 2019 and 2020. After four years of austerity policies at the hands of conservative President Mauricio Macri, Fernández won handily.

Prior to the coronavirus, liberal economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz put high hopes in the new administration’s potential to “achieve gradual restoration of growth” by patiently negotiating debt payment reductions and “moderation” in economic policy, especially since Fernández appointed Ivy-League PhD economist Martín Guzmán to run the Ministry of Economy. These hopes were misplaced all along, but now appear absurd as prices for Argentine exports plummet and the nation enters into the crisis with unemployment at 8.9 percent and a poverty rate of 34.5 percent. The political parties and factions based on the historic traditions of populist former president Juan Peron, which Fernández now leads, still command the allegiance of Argentina’s trade unions, parts of its powerful feminist and social movements, and a large section of the poor and working class. The coming crisis will put these Peronist traditions and politics to the test as never before. 

Alejandro Bodart is the coordinator of the International Socialist League (ISL), which brings together revolutionary socialist parties and groups from twenty countries on three continents. He is also the general secretary of the Socialist Workers Movement (MST) of Argentina, which is part of the Left and Workers’ Front Unity (FIT Unidad), the country´s main left-wing political-electoral force . He has served as a legislator in Buenos Aires and is editor of the magazine Permanent Revolution. This interview was translated by Luis Meiners and is part of No Borders News ongoing international coronavirus coverage. 

No Borders News: Describe the state of the pandemic in your country or city. How many people are infected? How many have died? What do experts expect in the coming weeks in terms of how fast the contagion will spread. 

Alejandro Bodart: So far we have 966 infected people and about 26 deaths in Argentina. It is a relatively low figure compared to other seriously affected countries, but all the specialists anticipate that there will be a significant increase in the number of new infections and deaths in the next two months. The so-called “flattening the curve” does not prevent the pandemic’s spread, it only delays it.

NBN: What practical measures has your national government taken to respond to the crisis? Have they acted responsibly or were they unprepared? Briefly describe measures your government is taking now to contain the virus and treat people infected with Covid-19. Is there a state of emergency, are schools closed, etc.?

AB: At the beginning, the National Minister of Health played down the situation given our country´s geographic distance from China. Later, the national government ordered the suspension of classes at all educational levels. And then, since March 21, President Alberto Fernández ordered a mandatory isolation quarantine that will last at least until April 13. However, official measures are insufficient and only palliative in nature. At the same time, the deployment of the police and military under the pretense of enforcing the quarantine has already led to numerous cases of abuse and arbitrary arrests and is a threat to democratic rights and freedoms.

NBN: How has your health care system responded to the crisis? What are your health care system’s greatest weaknesses? What are its greatest strengths? 

AB: Poorly. As in almost every country in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed Argentina’s pre-existing health care system’s crisis brought on by cuts and austerity policies applied by successive capitalist governments under orders from the IMF. In Argentina, 40 percent of the population is treated in public hospitals, 15 percent in the private sector, and 45 percent in a mixed system (funded by workers´ and employers´ contributions) called social providers. Today, these social providers are deregulated and almost completely privatized. The public system suffers serious shortages in personnel, supplies, equipment, and infrastructure. Its great strength lies in its workers, nurses, doctors and others, who support day-to-day health care through their dedication despite the poor conditions. Every night at 9 pm the population carries out a massive ovation from their balconies and quarantined houses all across the country in recognition of health care workers.

NBN: Describe the official political response to Covid-19 in your country from the far-right and conservative parties, to liberal and social democrat parties, and the parties of the left if applicable. 

AB: The Peronist government of the Frente de Todos (Front of All) seeks to differentiate itself from the irresponsible denialism on display by Trump and the Bolsonaro, adopting a discourse of “capitalism with a human face.” In this regard, it has taken soft and insufficient measures, like a small purchase of respirators, insignificant emergency subsidies for the most deprived sectors, and a proposal to freeze rents for six months. But these are measures are meager, their sum total is much lower than the interest payment on external debt that the government pays out on a single day, for example, Tuesday, March 31. And the government has not adopted the most critical measures: massive tests for early detection of the virus (as in like Korea); taking over private health care facilities for public use (as Ireland did); creating thousands of new intensive care beds and legally banning layoffs in the face of a worsening recession. Instead of negotiating debt payment reductions, it should not pay any of the external debt and immediately break out of agreements with the IMF in order to free up resources to establish a single public health care and pharmaceutical system. However, only the left promotes these radical proposals, while the right agrees with the government from the standpoint of “national unity.”

NBN: How have trade unions responded to the crisis? Especially public sector, education, and health care unions? 

AB: In general, unions in Argentina have strong links to the capitalist state, both legally and economically. The union bureaucracy supports the government seamlessly. Now they are proposing wage cuts to avoid layoffs. However, there are unions that do not follow the government’s lead, such as the (Buenos Aires public health care union (CICOP). And there are other combative locals in the public and private sectors that raise demands for wages and working conditions. Another example of combative unionism can be found amongst the shop floor delegates at the Italian Hospital, the country´s largest private health care establishment. They are protesting their employer’s negligence in covering the fact that an employee tested positive for the coronavirus. Our militants play a leading role in the CICOP and the Italian Hospital, as well as in several public hospitals.

NBN: How have social movements (student, feminist, ecological, immigrant, indigenous, etc.) responded to the crisis? 

AB: The social movements that are more closely related to the government in general adapt to the official line and reproduce a discourse of conformity and making excuses. The more independent movements, or those that are linked to the left, on the contrary, are raising demands for increased social aid, food for community kitchens, provision of drinking water, and assistance for victims of gender violence among other emergency demands. [Editor’s note: “Femicides don’t stop in quarantine, and neither does our rage,” said feminist collective Ni Una Menos (Not One Less). There have already been at least 6 femicides since the quarantine began.]

NBN: Are there any efforts to make demands for social justice, national health care, emergency economic measures for unemployment pay, stopping rent and debt payments, etc.? 

AB: There is growing concern in the poor neighborhoods, where many people rely on informal jobs or are self-employed, over a growing shortage of food and basic needs. Regarding health care, the country only has 4.5 hospital beds per thousand inhabitants, while the World Heath Organization recommends twice as many. Of that total hospital 160,000 beds, only 10,000 are intensive care beds, whereas there should be at least 16,000. If we assume that 60 or 70 percent of them are occupied by patient’s with other pathologies, the availability for a growing number of coronavirus patients will critical. For this reason, we insist, it is urgent to allocate funds for public health care in a significant and immediate way, while the Peronist government is only doing so at a snail´s pace.

NBN: Explain the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and how you think it will change national politics in the coming weeks and months? 

AB: The situation in our country and across the world is unprecedented. Some rulers are taking advantage of this to promote authoritarian measures while others are more moderate, but both types see protecting the interests of the capitalist class, and not those of their peoples, as their essential objective. However, the pandemic is exposing the scourge of exploitative, inequality, privatization, and plundering typical of the capitalist system. Yesterday, we suffered through the fires in the Amazon and Australia, today we face this pandemic. New York, one of the great icons of capitalism and imperialism, now appears powerless. That is why millions of young people, workers, and women increasingly feel the need for fundamental changes and there is a growing space for socialist ideas. We are placing our bet on transforming advances in consciousness into revolutionary organization to open that path.