In January 2010, Cristina Kirchner signed Decree 113 that allowed the consortium made up of Gabriel Romero’s Emepa and the Belgian firm Jean De Nul to continue for another decade with the tasks of dredging the river and signaling it so that some four thousand vessels per year transport the bulk of the exports that supply dollars to the ailing Argentine economy.
There was then no proclamation in favor of nationalization, like the one promoted weeks ago by the Cristinista deputy Fernanda Vallejos. Even Amado Boudou, who now calls for the nationalization of the service, signed together with the then president the decree with the extension of the concession for Romero and De Nul. Eleven years later and after the proclamation of Vallejos, the government of Alberto Fernández now postponed the idea of a tender and announced that in September the collection of the tolls of the ships will pass to the State. When did Kirchnerism discover that removing the sand from the bottom of the river was an urgent and sovereign task of the State? The plot hides insurmountable chapters of recent history.
When Cristina Kirchner was (and held) the presidency, the General Audit Office (act 342) warned her as a debt of her management that the control body of the waterway had never been constituted. He also pointed out that “the granting of exclusive monopoly rights over the entire waterway” left aside “competition mechanisms.” And it was not clear why “a subsidy to the concessionaire of 3,125,000 dollars per month for the execution of the work” of the north of the port of Santa Fe was set. The report, in summary, detected that the State exhibited “weaknesses in the monitoring and control of the concession”. Back then it didn’t matter.
After Cristina Kirchner signed the extension of the waterway concession, Elisa Carrió stated in the Chamber of Deputies that EMEPA, Romero’s firm, “did not have the minimum equity required in the specifications”And that he had presented as guarantees the signature of the same owner. None of that changed my mind. By then, Romero had also been awarded rail concessions.
The Kirchnerist proclamation for the waterway, published last month, expressed that it is “essential the control and administration of the river route” for “the State and for all Argentines.” Something similar posed the Audit to its political leader when he was the first magistrate. But Cristina Kirchner had not yet discovered the sovereign significance of dredging. The true reasons for this epiphany are illuminating.
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The owner of EMEPA, another expert in “regulated markets” that Jean De Nul’s Belgians needed to access the tender, is identified with Radicalism. In the environment where political interests intersect with economic ones, some associate the businessman with Enrique Coti Nosiglia and others directly with Alfonsinism and remember his workshops in Chascomús, the birthplace of Raúl Alfonsín. “It is a product of the Pact of Olivos”, summed up in the port market when explaining why a business awarded by the Peronist Carlos Menem in 1995 remained in the hands of a radical.
Romero was adopted by Kirchnerism as the private counterpart of public business, both in the waterway and in the railway service. At the height of Kirchnerism, society went from strength to strength, with no sandbars on the way. Until the cataclysm happened.
After the change of government, Romero’s name appeared in the notebooks of the driver Oscar Centeno where he recorded the collection of bribes for Cristina Kirchner officials. Suddenly, the world of transportation was boiling over. Faced with an uncertain prospect of prison, The businessman became repentant and confessed to having paid bribes of $ 600,000 for the government of Cristina Kirchner to renew by decree the concession for the exploitation of the waterway. Never before had they gotten so close to the former president. In addition, Romero said that he gave the Secretary of Transportation Ricardo Jaime a return of 10 to 15% of the subsidies he received from his company Ferrovías and also gave him an annual fee of 500 thousand dollars to ensure control of businesses related to transportation .
The confession caused a schism in the consortium. The Belgians assured that they were unaware of the payments of their local partner. And the crisis led the grandson of the firm’s founder, Pieter Jean de Nul, to settle in Argentina ever since. For Romero, the waterway had been a profitable business, because he had kept the least expensive part of the maintenance, the beaconing, but shared the profits equally. The merits for such an award were others, his unavoidable knowledge to do business with the Argentine State.
Romero’s confession impacted Cristina Kirchner like no other before, so much so that it caused her to break her silence and refer to the cause of the bribery notebooks for the first time. Through her Facebook page, the former president published in 2018 a letter entitled “On pajamas, bedrooms and decrees in repentant macrista Argentina.” He said that Romero had been a victim of the “extortionate handling of the figure of the repentant” and that he was not going to make “comments about ‘repentant’ remiseros who say they saw me in pajamas,” in reference to Centeno’s story and the details of the collection of bribes.
In light of the recent Kirchner proclamations and pressures to take control of the waterway box, the most significant sentence in that letter is when Cristina Kirchner affirms that she could do nothing in 2010 other than extend Romero’s concession, because she was just the last link in a bureaucratic process where her incidence, as President of the Nation, was minimal.
In that revealing letter, whose main objective was to face an accusation of bribery, Cristina Kirchner gave a long account of the steps taken by the analysis of the waterway concession and concluded: “My intervention as President of the Nation was limited to the only thing I could and should do: ratify what was done and resolved” by the organizations that had intervened in the evaluation of the extension, and sign the decree that extended Romero and De Nul’s business by a decade.
Challenged by a complaint, Cristina Kirchner presented herself in the case of notebooks as a limited head of state who could only ratify the extension of a private concession. The core of his argument was to point out that the signing of Decree 113/10, which extended the concession for Grupo Emepa until 2021, had been the result of a process that included interventions by the Unit for Renegotiation and Analysis of Public Service Contracts ( Uniren), the Procuration of the Treasury, the Sigen, the Chancellery and the Congress. And that she, helplessly, had only put the final signature. Therefore, she recognized that as Head of State it had not crossed her mind to call for a new tender or to nationalize the service on behalf of the sovereign dredging, as Vallejos, Boudou and Víctor Hugo Morales now claim in the proclamation.
Alberto Fernández, vilified by harsh Kirchnerism, would be delighted to hear that, if he took that letter seriously, Cristina Kirchner now recognizes him more power to turn the course of the waterway than her own government. Unless everything was an alibi, that impotence was acted with the sole objective of avoiding an accusation of bribery, and that Cristina Kirchner never thought of nationalizing the waterway because the business was running smoothly. It was not necessary to alter it with ideas of late nationalism. At least back then, before Romero repented and confessed to bribes. As in omerta, everything is forgiven except the betrayal.
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Ricardo Luján was undersecretary of Ports and Waterways during the government of Néstor Kirchner. He had been in charge of the port of Santa Fe and was chosen to manage the state area in charge of the ports until he preferred to step aside. For the former official, the Kirchnerist proclamation that mixes smuggling and drug trafficking problems with the dredging concession is an “insult to intelligence.” He is not lacking in reasons. The traffic of merchandise and drugs that the waterway crosses are the responsibility of the lack of controls or of the complicity of officials of the Customs, the Prefecture or the Senasa. The police or customs function has nothing to do with the barges that remove sand from the bottom of the river.
In dialogue with La Nación, Luján considers that the private concession for the dredging of the Paraná waterway was “a successful process that should not be lost, but improved”. The chronicles of the time maintained that the former official had to leave the Kirchner government due to a confrontation with Hugo Moyano. From Julio de Vido, Cristina Kirchner never let go.
In the aging epic of the third Kirchnerism, any argument can serve to move towards a new box. By recognizing that there is smuggling and drug trafficking in the waterway, the ruling party ends up admitting its own limitations or complicities in managing the State’s control agencies. But the solution is to create new organizations and keep the toll collection for ships that transit with exports. Drug trafficking is not solved. But more contracts are won.
The decree that transfers the collection of the toll to the General Administration of Ports, in charge of José Beni, duly registered in the power nucleus of the Patria Institute, opens a path full of traps. The foreign policy of Christianity has a special affinity with China and Russia. Both nations have already set their sights on the waterway.
For China it is strategic: taking control of the rivers would mean intertwining the entire soy supply chain, from the production they already control with the management of through Nidera and Noble, controlled by the Chinese state company Cofco, to the landing in their ports. Of the total soy imported by the People’s Republic, practically 90% comes from three countries: the United States, Brazil and Argentina; and USA
Staying in control of the waterway would entail trunking its food security. But to close deals with Kirchnerism they will need a new Romero. There are already several candidates. There are even draft contracts in the port sector, where they offer to lower the cost of the toll in exchange for a guarantee, such as keeping sovereign assets if Argentina fails to meet its commitments. The same thing that Alberto Fernández denied Pfizer as a guarantee for the vaccines. US laboratories have less affinity for Cristina Kirchner than Beijing.