LatinNews Daily Report - 14 June 2013

Fernández’s track record back in question

Development: On 13 June three people died and over 300 were injured in a crash between two passenger trains in Castelar, 30 km from Buenos Aires.

Significance: The poor safety record of the Argentine railway system is a red-hot political issue. Railway safety has been a particularly sensitive subject since February 2012 when there was a major crash at the ‘Once’ station in Buenos Aires, leaving a toll of 51 dead and over 600 wounded. The Once accident and this week’s train crash 16 months later both happened on the General Sarmiento railway line. After the Once tragedy, the government of President Cristina Fernández cancelled the operating concession run by a company controlled by brothers Mario and Sergio Cirigliano. Since then a government-controlled consortium, UGOMS (Unidad de Gestión Operativa de las líneas Mitre y Sarmiento) has run the service. Now, ahead of October congressional elections, it is the government’s record of handling the railway that is under direct scrutiny.

Key points:

  • The accident happened when one passenger train crashed into the back of another, which was stationary on the tracks at the time. Interior & transport minister, Florencio Randazzo, described it as “very serious”. He was quick to deny trade union claims that the moving train had faulty brakes. Randazzo insisted that it had new brakes installed and had recently been “completely reconditioned”. Satellite images are said to show the train braking normally at the previous station, but then rolling past one warning and three danger signals, for reasons yet unknown. The train was travelling at 62kmh at the point of impact. Both train drivers and their assistants have been arrested pending investigations.
  • President Fernández, who laid the blame for the Once tragedy on the private operating companies and promised higher safety standards on the country’s railways, now faces the embarrassment of having a new accident happen under the state-controlled UGOMS. She spoke of her feelings of “sadness and impotence” at the news. Scrutiny of how the rail system is being currently run will not be good for the government. Many analysts say there are major ‘systemic’ problems, the result of years of low investment. Although the Cirigliano brothers face trial for their role in the Once incident, they are still very involved in the railway business, and it appears that Emfer, a company they control, worked on the brakes of the train involved in the Castelar incident. Elsa Alvarez, a legislator for the opposition Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), said that this week’s accident “exposes the absence of the State, its laziness and lack of concern for its citizens. Is this the transport revolution the national government has been announcing?”
  • The government is already fighting adversity on other fronts. It is involved in a complex legal battle over its attempt to push through reforms to the justice system. Its proposal to introduce direct elections for members of the council of magistrates, the body which controls the appointment of judges, has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. The government appealed against the decision, and within hours the supreme court admitted the government’s request that it hear the appeal as a matter of urgency, since it proposes that members of the council are to be elected at the same time as the October congressional elections.

Pointer: Also potentially embarrassing for the ruling Partido Justicialista (PJ, Peronists) is the fate of former president, Carlos Menem (1989-1999), who was yesterday sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for his role in illegal arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia after having been convicted on 8 March. Menem is from a different PJ faction than Fernández’s (Frente para la Victoria, Kirchneristas), but had recently been an important ally in key votes. It seems, however, that the Kirchenistas have done a deal to protect him. As a Senator for La Rioja Menem enjoys congressional immunity; the Kirchenista bloc in the upper house is reported to have promised to vote against any attempts to lift his immunity by opposition senators. The official line is that as Menem is appealing against his sentence it would be premature to lift his immunity, but the opposition rejects this argument.