Mayor v president v commuters
Aug 18th 2012 | BUENOS AIRES | from the print edition
FOR ten days, bus queues snaked around entire city blocks, passengers packed suburban trains and traffic choked intersections, as workers on the Buenos Aires metro went on strike. On August 14th they returned to work, but the political conflict that lies behind the strike is far from settled. The 900,000 daily users of the system, known to locals as the Subte (short for underground), may face more disruption.
Metrovias, the concessionaire that has managed the Subte’s six lines since 1994, relies on public subsides of around $180m a year. But at the end of last year, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner demanded that the city’s mayor, Mauricio Macri, take charge of the Subte. Since Mr Macri is a foe of Ms Fernández, and the two detest each other, the transfer was never likely to go smoothly.
The two sides signed a preliminary agreement in January, but Mr Macri then backtracked after the government slashed its financial support and withdrew the federal police from the Subte’s 76 stations. A crash involving a suburban train that killed 51 people in February highlighted the decay in Argentina’s rail system. Since then, neither Mr Macri nor Ms Fernández has been prepared to take responsibility for the Subte. They left Metrovias to negotiate with the union over its wage claim. It offered an increase of 23% which it cannot pay without more subsidy.
In a scathing television advertisement, the government blamed the strike on Mr Macri. The mayor hit back, blaming the government for the Subte’s precarious state (some of the coaches are a century old), and arguing that the handover had not been completed. The agreed deal required the government to pay within 90 days its debt of $1.4 billion to Metrovias, says a city official. The government counters that Mr Macri’s decision to more than double fares in January, to 2.50 pesos (52 cents), meant he accepted the transfer.
City officials say they are prepared to take charge of the Subte if the government pays 10% of its debt to Metrovias and lets the city raise the rest from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. But the government rejects this and refuses to talk to the mayor, according to his office. Mr Macri sees this as part of a broader scheme by Ms Fernández to cripple the city financially, making it more dependent on the government. He has cited as examples the removal of electricity subsidies and the withdrawal of federal police from hospitals and schools.
Mr Macri, a conservative in his second term as mayor, plans to run for president in 2015. Rumour has it that Ms Fernández may try to change the constitution to allow her to seek a third term. She certainly seems keen to hurt potential electoral rivals. After Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province (the area surrounding the capital), announced his presidential candidacy, the government lopped $400m from a transfer for workers’ bonuses, prompting strikes in hospitals and schools. Mr Macri may also find that tangling with a president who ruthlessly exploits the power of the public purse for political advantage costs him popularity with the city’s long-suffering commuters.