Alberto Fernández’s ethnocentric entourage
The COVID-19 pandemic did not only serve to boost Alberto Fernández’s position in the polls, showing he could act as a caring statesman. It also led to the physical transfer of the government’s center of operations, from the Government House in the city center to the Olivos Presidential Residency.
In Olivos, Fernández is joined by a tiny group of collaborators. Most of them are porteños from BA city, plus one province man from the elite “inner ring” of Greater Buenos Aires. They are the Olivos ethnocentric entourage.
The mystique of mystery
The idea of an entourage, in Peronist politics, has a certain mystery mystique.
A select group of people join forces to shield the leader. While surrounding him, they also become a target to take on the heat for the leader’s mistakes. “The president is being poorly advised,” the saying always goes. Those words often come with some resentment, typical of those who would like to be part of that select club of advisers.
“Being close to the President is better than being his minister,” Pepe Albistur, a close friend of Fernández known for lending him his Puerto Madero apartment, puts it concisely.
But a person that gets to the presidency is unlikely to be weak or easy to manipulate. If someone is part of that entourage it’s because that person is wanted, trusted or valued. Alberto picks those he wants to have close to him.
The entourage is invariably criticized by those who cannot get access to it. They feel discriminated, excluded from the circle of confidants. It happens with most of the ministers, who are only called to Olivos occasionally, to go over some specific issue. The only exception is Interior Minister Wado De Pedro, who is there in representation of Cristina. Alberto might have won a fortune at the casino, but he did it with Cristina’s chips. His entourage has to accept this fact, though it does so with certain resignation.
Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero, the Grandson, is He Who Gets Slapped, like Russian playwright Leonid Andreiev’s classic character. Cafiero might be the most good looking of the bunch, but looks are not necessarily matched with efficiency. So he has to take the presidential slaps to the face, although this only happens in private.
Alberto, a former Cabinet Chief of Néstor Kirchner, is widely seen as his own Cabinet Chief today, with Cafiero relegated to act merely as a VIP assistant. He is a degree above the ministers, but not above the rest of the entourage.
For his sense of pragmatism, the most useful in the entourage is Julio Vitobello, a long-time partner of Alberto in the Buenos Aires City Peronist Party (or sect), now Secretary General of the Presidency. Vitobello handles the presidential agenda with elasticity and deals with all the day-to-day issues.
The third man is Pepe Albistur, former spokesman during the Néstor Kirchner era, now publicly speechless. Albistur solved his conflict with Media Secretary Pancho Meritello, an ally of the doormen union leader Víctor Santamaría, who controls several government-friendly media outlets, of the kind that depend on state advertising to pay their bills.
Those small but militant media outlets are always competing with the big media giant of Clarín, which is handled directly through Albistur. In his handling of Clarín, Alberto Fernández is a disciple of the late Néstor Kirchner, and not of Cristina. “We have to keep the friendly media happy, but even more important is to keep Clarín on our side,” Néstor used to teach his own inner circle, of which Alberto was a part.
But perhaps the most important man in Fernández’s inner circle is Gustavo Béliz. A strategic promoter of “honest”, corruption-free politics, Béliz has been close to Fernández since before the Kirchner years, in the Nueva Dirigencia party of the late 90s and early 2000s, of which even Macri’s former hardline Security Minister Patricia Bullrich was a part.
Béliz was Carlos Menem’s wonder kid before they parted ways. He was also part of the Kirchner team until the President was forced to choose between him and Spymaster Jaime Stiusso, and pragmatically went for the latter. The legend surrounding Béliz says he was forced to emigrate due to the risks of being on the wrong side of Stiusso. In Stiusso’s version of the legend, Béliz was merely a source of indifference.
But Béliz was brought back from exile by Eduardo Valdés when Stiusso and Fernández de Kirchner had a fall out, with the Spymaster now becoming the one forced to emigrate. Valdés brought Béliz back into the Casa Rosada to talk with Cristina. Now, Béliz is even more important than Valdés. But the ministers are politely mistrustful of Béliz, as they see him stepping into their role. Airing too many opinions and giving too much advise. Especially with regards to Foreign Policy, where Foreign Minister Felipe Solá has been lately relegated to working on the repatriation of Argentines stuck abroad due to the pandemic.
While Solá is stuck making phone calls to countries where Argentina doesn’t even have an ambassador, trying to schedule flights and hotel bookings, he often learns through news portals that the President, with Béliz sitting by his side, has just spoken with Angela Merkel. Or with Winston Churchill, Emmanuel Macron, Sebastián Piñera, Kissinger or Ribbentrop. With malicious delight, insiders leak to the press that the Foreign Minister was strangely absent during the phone calls. As if Solá was merely a decorative figure.
Some say these leaks come from Alberto Fernández’s Chilean friend, Marco Enríquez-Ominami, the man behind the Group of Puebla. But it’s not true: the entourage also likes to throw some darts at Solá’s picture.
The last name in the inner circle is that of Vilma Ibarra. Ibarra is tasked with writing the Executive’s bills, decrees and resolutions. She’s perhaps the most politically experienced person of the group (Fernández included), but keeps a low profile and a dignified silence.
A small coffee table
This entourage or inner circle should not be confused with the main political roundtable. In Argentine politics, the “small roundtable” is the name given to those who share decision-making power with the President.
But Peronism’s most powerful presidents always liked to keep that table extra small: with room for only one person. That was the case with Néstor Kirchner or Carlos Menem.
It doesn’t work like that for Alberto, who likes to consult with many, to the point of sometimes getting worn out. But only one woman he consults has real political power: the owner of the casino chips.