Vidal Squashes Sindicalístas

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  • From the Wall Street Journal:

    By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

    April 1, 2018 1:52 p.m.

    Buenos Aires

    Are Argentines ready to throw off the yoke of peronista populism, thuggery and politics by roadblock that has destroyed their nation, and to rebuild the free republic of the 19th century?

    The governor of Buenos Aires Province, María Eugenia Vidal of the Republican Proposal Party, doesn’t quite say as much during a recent interview. But speaking at her offices in the capital city, she does argue that “the most important change Argentina is going through is not economic” but rather “cultural.”

    As proof Ms. Vidal cites her 2015 election, which made her the first non-peronist in almost three decades to lead Argentina’s most populous province. That couldn’t have happened unless her constituents wanted deep change in the political culture, she says. Though she doesn’t mention it, she also is Argentina’s most popular politician, and has been for the past couple of years.

    To understand the 44-year-old governor and her popularity, consider what happened to her on an official visit to the coastal city of Mar del Plata in December. Unionists who had blocked the road began pounding on the SUV she was riding in and jumping on the hood.

    They had a dispute with the municipality and wanted the province to mediate. Ms. Vidal says that when she saw the police approaching, she feared someone would get hurt. So she got out and confronted the mob.

    “I told them what I felt,” she recounts: “ ‘Do you think this right? Do you have to jump on my truck? Someone could get hurt. You’re blocking traffic. Is this the way to solve this problem?’ ” The protest’s leader stepped forward, claiming that the crowd had “overflowed” and that “people did not listen” to him.

    “And then I became angrier,” Ms. Vidal tells me. “I said, ‘I am responsible for what the police do. You are responsible for all these people that you brought saying that they had to do this. Now you cannot tell me you cannot handle them.’ ”

    She then announced that a meeting already arranged between her chief of staff and the unionists would go forward “as agreed.” She told the unionists: “And if you want a meeting with me, ask for it as appropriate.” Then she added: “I’m going to get in the truck and I’m going to go, because I have to go.” The mob dispersed, and “shortly after, they issued a public apology.”

    Ms. Vidal says she was angry “because the attitude seemed so violent, so unjustified.” Yet this all-too-familiar means of making political demands flourished during the 12 years of Kirchner presidents, from 2003-15. “Without realizing it, I think I expressed what many Argentines have at some time wanted to do,” Ms. Vidal says. Namely, to get out of the car and “say my rights matter. Let’s talk, let’s find another way, not violence, not roadblocks.”

    Ms. Vidal declares that change in the political culture has begun. But she warns that it will “cost a lot,” mainly because backers of the status quo “are defending many privileges.”

    Nowhere is this more apparent than in the province’s high crime rates and its failing education system. In two years, Ms. Vidal has removed some 9,000 police officers—almost 10% of the force—for corruption. Meanwhile she has upgraded police training, retraining, technology, equipment and salaries. A new law requires supervisory police and politicians to report their income and wealth. Her office is still compiling the data, but Ms. Vidal says the murder rate has fallen to between 5.3 and 5.8 per 100,000 from 7.3 when she took office. Auto theft has dropped 18%.

    Containing public-sector wages in the province is key to reducing deficits and thereby reining in inflation, which was 25% last year. A tough negotiation with the teachers’ union is in progress. The province is offering a 15% pay increase and a promise to revisit salaries in October.

    The quality of provincial education is alarming. Ms. Vidal notes that 40% of junior-high and high-school students cannot pass exams in reading comprehension or basic mathematics. She partly blames the fact that “last year, only 30% of teachers went to work every day.”

    Students “have two, or three, or four teachers,” which implies learning continually starts over. If the governor has her way, the new contract will link teacher compensation to attendance and a willingness to upgrade skills.

    Ms. Vidal says Buenos Aires Province has often been shortchanged by politicians who used it only as a path to the presidency. “I do not want to do that,” she says, brushing off my hint at her prospects for higher office.

    “It is very difficult today,” she says, “to ask for commitment, to ask for effort, to ask for a long-term project if one is not willing to give that commitment first, to make that effort, to set the example. And to be willing to face situations that have not been faced before”—like perhaps that day in Mar del Plata when the governor cleared the road.”