Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront
Amidst the wave of social upheavals, uprisings and coups taking place in Latin America, a little noticed battle of utmost strategic importance in the struggle for social and economic justice is reaching a decisive stage in Argentina.
Although it appears to be an innocuous and mundane development of little consequence in comparison with the dramatic events in Bolivia or Chile (for example), where the struggle of the future of the country has degenerated into widespread street protests and confrontations that have been met with a brutal repression rendering the constitution and the rule of law largely irrelevant to the imposition of rule by decree and brute force, the newly installed government in Argentina and the Chamber of Deputies of the national Congress are preparing for the renegotiation of the burgeoning public debts inherited from previous governments.
As in so many cases, the international financial community spearheaded by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank operating in tandem with a plethora of other public and private financial institutions have passed many decades approving exorbitant loans to a succession of military dictatorships and subsequent regimes ruling on behalf of the political and economic elites, loans which in most cases have not benefited the vast majority of the people in the slightest.
At the same time, the same international financial community has encouraged and facilitated the outflow of capital from the country into a host of tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions in quantities that match those of the loans made to the country. Responsibility for the repayment of the loans is inevitably passed on to the people to as sovereign debt, while the flight capital has disappeared into anonymous accounts of the political and economic elite and their international financial enablers, collaborators and accomplices.
Maybe it was just recklessness and negligence that led to the bleeding dry of the State Treasury and the resources of the Argentinian people, the extravagance of bureaucrats, executives and agents of financial institutions that rarely had to suffer the consequences of default as they could count on the political regime of the day to pick up the tab for failed loans and add them to the sovereign debt of the people.
Or possibly it was at least in part an intended consequence of the strategy described by John Perkins in an analysis of his time working for international financial institutions as an ‘economic hit man’, the objective being to entrap ‘third world’ countries in a condition of perpetual debt bondage, geostrategic subordination and political and economic impotence. In any case, it is the people of Argentina that appear destined to spend many more generations paying off debts that they had no part in contracting and from which they received little or no benefit.
The newly installed President (Alberto Fernandez) and national Congress in Argentina represent a possible ‘progressive’ outpost in the midst of a horde of ‘conservative’ regimes – in some cases outright fascist/ authoritarian police States and corporate-led dictatorships would be a more accurate description, most notably Bolivia following the coup d’état that deposed Evo Morales though Chile is not far behind in this respect.
Relevant objectives and priorities of the Argentine government in this respect include promoting and prioritizing the causes of social justice, national independence in the elaboration of domestic and foreign policies and supporting constructive forms of regional cooperation and integration (as opposed to the abject subordination to the geostrategic interests of Washington and ‘Wall Street’ that has characterized most other countries in the region in recent times, including the previous government in Argentina). In this context, the resolution of the inherited/ imposed public debt constitutes a challenge of paramount importance to the future of the country and the prospects for social justice, reducing poverty and stabilizing the economy.
As far as I am aware, only one government in modern times has taken the step of organizing a comprehensive audit of the accumulated inherited/ imposed public debts owed to international banks and financial institutions and then followed through with the findings of the audit, refusing to continue paying illegitimate/ odious debts and restructuring the payment of legally acquired debts to ensure that debt payments did not jeopardize the fulfilment of pressing social needs: the government of Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
It is likely that if the final tally of the audit of public debts in Ecuador had also excluded procedurally and legally valid loans that were nonetheless of dubious economic and social value, the international banks and financial institutions would have been found to owe the people of Ecuador. If one were to also take into account the capital flight enabled and managed by those same institutions and executives, no doubt they would owe the people of Ecuador many billions of dollars (as well as many years of jail time) as accomplices to and in many cases active participants in financial fraud and plunder on a massive scale.
One of the best studies of the global phenomenon of the ‘offshore markets’ and ‘offshore financial centres’ and the social costs involved that I have encountered is Capitalism’s Achilles Heel by R Baker (I have been somewhat ‘out of the loop’ for some time in terms of more recent studies on the topic). The NGO CADTM (Campaign Against Third World Debt) has contributed a great amount of research on the topic of illegitimate and odious public debt for many years, and has also been active in assisting efforts by citizens in many countries to identify and quantify illegitimate and odious debts and thereby strengthen their demands for ‘debt justice’ and the nullification of illegitimate and odious debts.
In the Argentinian case, a recent article by Alejandro Olmos Gaona provides some glimpses into the phenomenon in that country in terms of the systemic failure to investigate irregularities and fraud committed by government and corporate executives during the negotiation and execution of public loans and the subsequent costs inflicted on the Argentinian people from the reckless and often criminal wheeling and dealing of political, bureaucratic and economic elites.
For almost twenty years Olmos Gaona has been investigating the accumulation of State debts and the disappearance of the funds involved, leaving only mountains of debt with little or no evidence as to the purposes, objectives, terms and beneficiaries of the original loans and subsequent restructured debts. The few attempts to investigate the nature of the debts, the disappearance of the funds involved and the beneficiaries of the financial free-for-all for State and corporate officials and bureaucrats have been stone-walled. The following is a translation of some excerpts from the article:
“… Nineteen years ago, after the death of my father, I continued with the investigation of one of the most extraordinary frauds in Argentine history. I provided documents. I suggested that experts from the Central Bank be summoned to testify. Officials were sent to gather evidence. Approaches were made to public agencies and officials, requests were filed for the delivery of relevant reports; in spite of the limitations on my research, given that most of the files that document the conduct of the officials involved are secret, I was able to contribute important documents to the investigators.
In one of his discourses during the instigation of related criminal proceedings, Prosecutor Delgado commented that I had provided more relevant documents than the State itself, and that Prosecutor has been submitting requests to State officials for years, seeking the intervention of the Attorney General of the Nation, of the Inspector General of the Treasury, asking for investigations to be conducted, that officials be summoned to testify on activities ranging from 1984 up to last year and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. The judge responsible for the case accumulates papers, but does not want to be involved in any decision that affects government officials who renegotiated the debt from Alfonsín’s time up to the payment made to the vulture funds in 2016.”
** (The full article in Spanish is Alejandro Olmos Gaona, “La sesión de Diputados, la deuda y el culto a la ilegalidad” (“The session of Deputies, the debt and the cult of illegality”), 31 January 2020, Resumen Latinoamericano
As the Argentinian government prepares to (re)negotiate the payment of the international debt, CADTM and the Argentine civil organization ATTAC Argentina (Asociación por una Tasa a las Transacciones Financieras Especulativas de Ayuda al Ciudadano) are mounting a campaign to demand a thorough audit of the debts before any detailed discussions take place as to their payment. Late last year the government opened a public submission process for suggestions on how to manage the public debt, to which the aforementioned organizations forwarded a submission which stated in part:
“We are concerned that a hurried negotiation of the Public Debt is beginning again for Argentina. It is widely recognized that the imposition of particular interests, improvisation and/ or concealment in this type of negotiation entails enormous economic and social costs.
Unfortunately, Argentina has a long experience of the extremely negative consequences of negotiations over its Public Debt that were carried out hastily and confidentially. Hence our concern with respect to suggestions that a ‘closed book’ be submitted to the National Congress containing agreements that have been negotiated in secrecy as an accomplished fact.
Any balanced financial agreement, including the usual ones that are carried out in a generalized way in everyday life, must start, elementally, from:
- i) access to complete information of the principal actors and people affected – in this case, without a doubt, the Argentine people,
- ii) rejection of the existence of an obvious disproportion in the capacity and/ or the bargaining power of one of the counterparts.
There can be no acceptance of the debt to be payed as a ‘closed book’. There must be prior identification, by means of a public audit with active citizen participation, of the holders of all financial deeds and titles, including complete information as to the ownership of specific debts, the date and price of the purchase and sale sequences of each title, the identity of intermediary agents and their remuneration agreements, among other basic aspects.
The public audit is indispensable not only to verify formal conditions, but also as a measure of transparency that is essential to differentiate and expose possible conflicts of interest or manoeuvres involving asset concealment, ‘insider trading’ and other practices, all of which are unfortunately generalized at the level international level. A public audit also serves to determine if the use made of the contracted debt was legitimate or odious.
A public citizen audit of the debt is essential, based on the elementary democratic principle that the “people must know what the government is doing in their name”. The new Argentine government has expressed to the public its commitment to “transparency and ending the use of the State by speculators”…
The comprehensive audit must be guided and inspired by the experience of the Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of Public Credit (CAIC) in Ecuador in 2007-2008:
“Integral Audit is defined as an audit aimed at examining and evaluating the contracting process and/ or the renegotiation of public indebtedness, the origin and destination of resources and the execution of programs and projects that are financed with internal and external debt, in order to determine their legitimacy, legality, transparency, quality, effectiveness and efficiency, considering the legal and financial aspects, the economic, social, gender, regional, ecological and national and peoples impacts. (Article 2 of the PRESIDENTIAL DECREE – CREATION OF THE PUBLIC CREDIT COMPREHENSIVE AUDIT COMMISSION. July 15, 2007…”
** “Argentina. Deuda ilegítima y odiosa” (“Argentina. Illegitimate and odious debt”), 13 January 2020, Resumen Latinoamericano
The submission further recommends a series of fundamental principles and measures be adopted as a basis for the process of evaluation and negotiation of the public debt: Juridical consideration as Odious Debt; Discounting a negotiation against the clock; The adoption of law against ‘Vulture Funds’; The suspension of payment of the debt until the audit is completed; The obligation of the holders of titles of the Argentine debt to identify themselves to the Argentine authorities; The realization of an Audit of the debt with citizens’ participation; non-recognition of the accords signed by the IMF and Mauricio Macri in 2018.
With respect to the latter point, apart from being contrary to the interests of the Argentine people, supposedly the beneficiaries of the accords, the accords violated the stipulations of the founding statutes of the IMF – that it cannot approve loans that are not sustainable, as well as the requirements of the Argentine constitution given that the accords were not debated and approved by the national Congress.
Following the period for the receipt of submissions concerning the public debt, the Chamber of Deputies recently concluded a session that considered the steps to be taken and the principles to be followed. Alejandro Olmos Gaona was disappointed by the results of the session, to say the least:
“Those who have some idea of the damage caused by the debt only speak of Judge Ballestero’s sentence (pertaining to the investigation of just one instance of fraud), but they remain completely unaware of the scale of the problem as verified by some of the evidence that I found concerning the negotiations carried out by successive ‘democratic’ governments as I accompanied the judicial process, an ignorance that is fostered by a generalized conspiracy of silence about the proceedings which no media outlets want to mention.
I make this comment after having read a summarized version of yesterday’s session in the Chamber of Deputies, where by 224 votes the debt sustainability law was passed, giving powers to the Executive Power, powers which it ALREADY HAD SINCE 1992. But the measure was necessary for the media circus, so that a set of mediocrities could talk about ‘good faith’, ‘responsibility’, the ‘need to achieve debt sustainability’. I tried to find somewhere in the speeches, some creative idea, some serious foundation, some reference to the numerous criminal cases where there are proven crimes by public officialdom, some reflection on the responsibility not only of Macri’s government, but of all of the preceding governments back to the military dictatorship (which ended in the early 1980s), and found NOTHING. Only dialectical trash nourished with false data, wrong numbers and few details…
To the verbal flourishes they add a solemn intonation of ‘saviours of the country’, although with their votes they are perpetuating the fraud, and collaborating so that poverty continues on its ascendant path, as it is the inevitable counterpart of what has been paid and of what has to be paid in the future…
This club of serial payers, accompanied by ‘La Nación’, ‘Clarin’, ‘Page 12’ and other obsequious journalists, have never attempted a thorough investigation of the full range of activities through which the public debt has accrued and multiplied, instead publicizing some cases of fraud and hiding others…
They say that much of the accumulated debt is ‘old’ and nothing can be done (in relation to cases of fraud dating from earlier periods), demonstrating an absolute ignorance of civil law, administrative law, and even criminal law, as if the crimes cease to be crimes as time passes. They also easily forget that the debt of today is the logical consequence of the debts incurred during the dictatorship via the multiple refinancing agreements that have been made, thereby entering the category of continued crime as determined by criminal doctrine…
It did not even occur to them to create a Commission to investigate the debt as determined by Law 26984, a law that was approved in 2014 and subsequently repealed by the Law that served to pay the ‘Holdouts’, in March 2016, voted by a majority of both Chambers (of the national Congress)… Nor did they consider establishing a census of the creditors, to see who the bondholders are, how many they bought, what interest they charged, etc…”
Nonetheless, it is still early in the process in terms of the latest round of negotiations and associated planning and manoeuvres, and while neither the government nor the Congress have explicitly endorsed the establishment of an integral public audit, nor have they explicitly excluded the possibility.
The whole mess is extremely complicated. It is also very simple. Either the people of Argentina will be locked into generations of poverty as debt slaves paying off fraudulent loans to the bandits that robbed them blind in the first place. Or they won’t.