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Argentina: Hello from the other side


Marcela López Levy, one of the authors of LAB’s forthcoming Special Report on the Kirchner years in Argentina, reflects on the new political situation.

Tragedy and farce

On 10 December president-elect Mauricio Macri was due to take power from outgoing Peronist president Cristina Fernández, known as CFK. Instead, he was invested into office by his own vice-president, after an improvised 12-hour presidency by the leader of the Senate. Furious backroom negotiations had failed to find a compromise between CFK and Macri about how to conduct the handover. With ceremonial protocol in short supply due to the relatively few times democratic transfers have taken place in Argentina, the politics of one up(wo)manship won over the national interest. It was a sad spectacle after the peaceful democratic process at the ballot boxes that everyone celebrated. The results were close, but fair, and showed Mauricio Macri had won 51% of the 25 million votes, compared with Daniel Scioli’s 49%. Cambiemos (Let’s Change) was the coalition of opposition parties led by Mauricio Macri to victory. His attempt on the presidency had seemed unlikely only a few months earlier. Yet with support from the remnants of the national structures of the Union Cívica Radical (UCR), the historic party of opposition to Peronism, his party Propuesta Republicana (PRO) came to power. Much is being written about what his government might do. But I don’t have a crystal ball, so I prefer to look at what he has done already, as candidate, as mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, and as political leader. Most of us stay true to form.

 How the election was won (and lost)

In early October of this year Macri unveiled an outsized statue of Juan Domingo Perón in Buenos Aires. As odd as thinking Boris Johnson might erect a statue of Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party. Macri, a wealthy, privately educated businessman who has tended to look outside the country’s borders for policy inspiration, embodies everything that Peronism is opposed to. Given Perón’s towering presence in Argentinian politics, one might expect many statues of him to be scattered throughout the city. But he is also a controversial figure, so this was, in fact, the first in his honour. Another has been in the offing for years, under the auspices of the national government and Perón’s own Justicialist Party, but it has never quite come to pass. Macri’s audacious hijacking of Perón’s image to boost his own message of efficiency and non-partisanship showed his determination to woo all Argentinians to his political project. Even so, at the time of the unveiling, only a few weeks before the election, he was considered unlikely to win. In the event, he won the presidential run-off, not so much on his merits, but thanks to dissatisfaction with the government of CFK. People complained of the president’s arrogant attitude, of her divisive speeches that identified enemies everywhere, of the way she sought out confrontation. Her critics across the media hurled insults and denigration back at her. In turn, publicly owned media supported the government rather than promoting open debate. The past few years have seen Argentina become a social battlefield where differences have engendered enmities and disagreements have turned into vituperation. The vote against CFK’s chosen successor had more to do with weariness and alarm at the levels of antagonism in society than with unhappiness with the concrete results of the Kirchners’ 12 years in government. The successive Kirchners’ governments (Néstor Kirchner 2003-2007, CFK 2007-2015) have left behind a significantly better economy than the one they inherited. Income per capita rose from US$3,640 in 2003 to US$14,160 in 2013 according to the World Bank[1]. Economist Mark Weisbrot writes that independent measures recorded a massive 80 per cent fall in poverty, and unemployment fell from more than 17.2 of the workforce to 6.9 per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund[2]. Social protection was expanded with the creation of a universal basic state pension; child benefits meant informal and poor workers had a way of ensuring education and nutrition for their children. Inequality was reduced from a Gini coefficient of 53.5 in 2003 to 43.6 in 2011[3]. The country’s road networks have been modernised and more new cars put on them than ever before, airports have been refurbished and millions have travelled abroad. Yet the polarisation of society overshadowed the economic gains and the government’s strategy of exacerbating different interests into opposing factions made everyone lose sight of what was gained. And people voted for change. Macri succeeded in making ‘change’ a feel good generic promise, without concrete content. He offered to change the things people didn’t like about CFK’s government, but he didn’t say how. His happy optimism (“the happiness revolution is starting”, see photo) The happiness revolutionwas boosted by Daniel Scioli’s scaremongering campaign – instead of talking up the achievements he was inheriting, he concentrated on speculating on the terrible things Macri might do. Even if he was right, it was off-putting. It left Macri free to be positive, to offer the hope of change and to be as vague as he wanted. Scioli was likely to be quite different from CFK, certainly in style. But in the campaign he was seen to be continuing a culture of fear and name-calling that people had had enough of.

A country split down the middle

On 22 November Macri won by fewer than 700,000 votes, revealing a country split down the middle. But his electoral alliance also won the governorship of Buenos Aires province, a Peronist stronghold and the country’s most important political district. His party held on to the local government of the city of Buenos Aires after two terms in office. It was a convincing win, even though his party and allies have a minority in both Congress and Senate. The results signalled that there are two halves to the electorate, nearly equal and opposed. A constituency key to Macri’s win was the province of Córdoba, where the ring-wing Peronist governor opposed CFK and Cambiemos garnered 71.5 per cent of votes cast. It is Argentina’s second largest city and lies in the heartland of soya growing, the country’s main export. The agribusiness sector has been bitterly opposed to CFK since she increased taxation on exports: in 2008 they were at the forefront of the landowners’ protests that paralysed the country. The election results show an even split between progressive and more conservative forces in society. It is an interesting result because it is not explained only by party politics and has more to do with attitudes to power and social change. Only time will tell whether it follows the same contours as the ‘the rift’, the much talked about grieta[4], the term used to describe bitter differences that arose within society, even within families and groups of friends, when some supported and others criticised the Kirchner governments. On the morning of the 23 November it seemed that the rift might become a chasm. The day’s editorial in the right wing La Nación newspaper read ‘No more vengeance’. It claimed that ‘the election of a new government is a good moment to put an end to the lies about the 1970s and the current violations of human rights’ – it was referring to the trials and prison sentences being meted out to those who took part in the state’s crimes against humanity during the last dictatorship (1976-1982). The editors clearly felt that their calls for interfering in the rule of law would find a sympathetic hearing with the new government. The repudiation of La Nación’s stance was overwhelming. To the credit of the paper’s workers, other journalists, and society at large, everyone spoke out against it. It suggests that perhaps the rift can be narrowed through a shared respect for the law. Macri’s muted response was to say that the courts should have total independence to pursue justice. The incident showed that the support for justice set in motion by Néstor Kirchner’s annulment of the amnesty laws protecting those accused of violations of human rights has become common sense above politics. The social response showed that impunity will not be tolerated by the majority of the population and demonstrated that the desire for an independent and fully functional judiciary is widespread. Macri has repeatedly said that he will strengthen the rule of law and show respect for the division of powers, and that is part of his appeal. Yet as soon as he failed to agree how to conduct the handover of power with CFK, he asked the state attorney in charge of electoral matters to terminate CFK’s mandate at midnight of the day before he took office. His request was accepted so that instead of negotiating a handover, he used the judicial system to resolve a political dispute. Coincidentally, this was the same state attorney who was unable to continue proceedings against Macri within days of his election, in a case where he was suspected of tapping the phones of political and personal rivals[5]. That leaves only 213 legal proceedings in which Macri stands accused[6]. The cases against him include ‘fraud and illicit association’, ‘abuse of power and violation of the duties of an elected representative’, and ‘falsifying public documents’ among other charges. There has been no comment in the mainstream media on the contradiction between these charges and his declarations to take on corruption and be a staunch defender of the rule of law.

Searching for the facts

Despite his talk of change and unity, Macri deftly avoided making concrete proposals during his campaign. The few he made, such as taxing the Christmas wage bonus, he backtracked on. During his swearing in speech, the fact-checking group Chequeado[7] were ready to look into his every statement. Instead, they had to report that he only delivered one checkable fact in the whole half hour speech. One fact speech But, of course, he is not new to politics and is not an unknown quantity. He was mayor of Buenos Aires for two consecutive terms, elected in 2007 and again in 2011. He led the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, to give it its official title, the wealthiest[8] administrative unit in the country, with a Human Development Index closer to Japan’s than to the rest of the country’s[9]. According to the 2010 census it had 2,800,000 inhabitants. This may seem strange given that Buenos Aires is the third largest conurbation in Latin America, after Mexico City and Sao Paulo. It is explained by the artificial boundaries that separate the city from its suburbs: for most of its border, only a ring road distinguishes the ‘capital’ from the ‘province’. From the air the artifice is clear. It is just a convenient way of separating the wealthy capital from the mostly poor suburbs. This division means the city has not grown in population in a hundred years and has consistently clustered the richest individuals and businesses in the country. In spite of increasing the tax burden and achieving record collections in the city, Macri left the city finances with four times more debt than he found when he arrived. As far as can be ascertained, the extra loans did not go on major works but on running costs[10]. The Human Rights Observatory for the city noted that three times more was budgeted for Christmas decorations for the city centre than for all Housing and Social Inclusion projects[11]. But this fact was just an aside in a report that showed how between 2011 and 2014 the budget for advertising had tripled while social spending fell. The Observatory has been one of the few organisations to have systematically monitored the conduct of the city government. It also noted the dearth of media coverage of reports of serious human rights violations. The worst involved the Unidad de Control del Espacio Público (UCEP in the Spanish, the Unit for Controlling Public Spaces). UCEP was created by Macri in 2008[12] and one of its aims was to keep public space ‘free of trespassers’[13]. What this meant in practice was the violent eviction of homeless people and precarious settlements, with physical force used against women and children, property and documents burnt and destroyed, and those forcibly evicted being intentionally intimidated and hurt. In a report by the Public Ombudsman the UCEP itself admitted that it had carried out 444 of these ‘operations’. While giving evidence in court, members of the UCEP revealed that Macri was aware of their activities, and in at least one case, directly ordered it. In June 2015 he was acquitted of any charges, but members of the now disbanded UCEP were sentenced. The effects of Macri’s city government on the most vulnerable can also be seen in data on health in the city. The rate of infant mortality has been erratic in the city, while in the country as a whole it has decreased steadily in the same period. The overall rise in infant deaths since 2010 seems related to the inequality in health provision: the number of deaths has diverged, with the poorer boroughs to the south of the city seeing rates more than double the mortality in the wealthier north. In the south of the city over a third of inhabitants depend on (free) public provision, whereas in the city as a whole only 17 per cent of the population are not covered by private or employment-derived health services[14]. These figures are provided by a think tank connected to the PRO’s opposition, the Frente para la Victoria – it would clearly be better if there were independent data to analyse. And, although Macri is quick to criticise the deplorable influence the Kirchners wielded over the national statistics office, there is very little information available to judge his performance in the city. Transparency for all would be good. Unfortunately, Macri’s claim that he is honest and transparent is not backed up by evidence. When he was asked point blank if his childhood friend Nicolás Caputo had ever won city contracts, he categorically denied it[15]. But journalists uncovered that Caputo is the majority stakeholder in other companies that have won multimillion contracts from the city government. Macri’s claims to respect the independence of the judiciary and the importance of the rule of law are compromised by his past actions; unsurprisingly, he doesn’t mention this. And at least as worrying is what we know of his disregard for the country’s sovereignty. Alfonso Prat Gay, Macri’s minister for Revenue and Finance, rang the US Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew to outline the economic plans of the incoming government before even taking office. The store Macri sets by US influence in Argentina is long-standing and is visible in the cables revealed through Wikileaks[16]. In the past decade, he was recorded as urging the US Ambassador to criticise CFK’s government and be publicly ‘tougher’ on her measures. The ambassador replied ‘that we will continue to seek a positive working relationship with the government of Argentina’. Macri saw no problem in inviting US intervention in national affairs, ignoring the abhorrent history of such meddling in the region. Journalist Santiago O’Donnell, in his book Argenleaks, records the bizarre spectacle of the ambassador gently reminding Macri that it was his job, as the opposition, to contest the government’s measures[17]. These examples are only a few of the facts in the public domain that reveal Macri’s disregard for due process, the rule of law and national sovereignty. Historian Ezequiel Adamovsky has compiled a longer list[18] of actions by Macri and those near him that contravene the law, and is sceptical that those who celebrate his victory as a way of strengthening institutions are genuine in their concerns. Although we cannot predict the exact policy decisions that his cabinet might make, what we know of some of his cabinet appointments[19] is already disturbing. The new head of the Central Bank, Federico Sturzenegger, might at first glance seem to be a technical appointment, for he is an academic economist with experience in government during the 1990s. But a closer look shows that he is one of eight men accused[20] of engineering a sale of government bonds in 2001 that brought fresh US dollars into the country, a knowing scam given that the pegged currency was collapsing. He was part of Domingo Cavallo’s team, who has twice assisted private companies in capital flight at the cost of increasing national debt. The first time, in 1982, one of the companies that benefitted from the 1982 debt ‘swap’ was owned by the Macri family. For those who are critical of CFK’s government for the lack of debate and collusion with large mining companies[21], the appointment by Macri of Juan José Aranguren, a chemical engineer who was the president of Shell’s Argentine subsidiary as Minister for Energy and Mining does not signal an improvement.  

Yellow brick road

Optimists like Ernesto Semán, writing in Nacla[22], argue that the right has been tamed in Argentina, that the progressive governments of the past decade have moved the goalposts and the bases for discussion have changed. It may be that the achievements in human rights, social protection and inclusion have moved society towards more inclusive goals. Yet the evidence from Macri’s past actions, and those of his closest collaborators, signal that their actions to achieve their objectives may not be as respectful of civil society and the rule of law as Macri so loudly proclaims. Macri supporters would argue that his achievements as mayor are visible and convincing. The advertising budget is visible in bright yellow billboards across the city. A network of cycle lanes, dedicated bus lanes, an expanded underground system. Parks have been refurbished and fenced. The city of Buenos Aires looks beautiful, and so much neater for being cleared of ‘trespassers’. And that is the feeling one gets from Macri’s actions: they look good. And what doesn’t look great – in this case the poor, the homeless – are pushed out of sight and out of mind. Progressive commentators are hopeful that popular organisations will be able to hold Macri to account. And the numbers of people who took to the streets to see CFK off seem to back them up. The handover CFK and Macri failed to agree on, the people made flesh on the streets. A peaceful transition took place between 9 December, when thousands of people filled the Plaza de Mayo to say goodbye and thank you to Cristina[23], and 10 December when Macri’s supporters celebrated his win with anti-K chants[24]. The differences in the crowds suggest that the rift is still an open wound. On both sides people asked for unity and dialogue and a more inclusive future – yet both sides harbour enormous reserves of mistrust and anger. Saying goodbye to Cristina The achievements of the Kirchner years were not enough to keep them in power. Paradoxically, they were undermined by their own fighting spirit, the same that also enabled broad changes to take place in society. Their conviction of being right made them speak on behalf of everyone, reducing the plurality of opinion to being for or against them. Macri won because people wanted change in the style of leadership. And that he can deliver: style and image is what he’s best at. Voters will need to decide how he will be held to account on matters of substance. They will have to employ the democracy that Argentina has achieved to demand transparency and respect for the law. His past record in power suggests that considerable and organised oversight will be needed to ensure that what he says is what he does.
[1] GNI per capita 2003: 3,640; 2013:14,160. Accessed December 10th 2015, [2] Accessed December 10th 2015, Mark Weisbrot, Why Macri’s Win is Bad News for Argentina. [3] World Bank figures, 2011 latest available independent figures. [4] Interview with journalist Jorge Lanata. Accessed December 10 2015. [5] Accessed December 10 2015, [6] Accessed December 10 2015 [7] [8] Accessed December 9th 2015, [9] “Informe Nacional sobre Desarrollo Human 2013 Argentina en un mundo incierto: Asegurar el desarrollo humano en el siglo XXI” (PDF) (in Spanish). United Nations Development Programme. p. 143. Accessed December 8th 2015–argentina-en-un-m/ [10] Accessed December 10 2015, [11] Plan Plurianual de Inversiones 2015-2017 Accessed December 10 2015. [12] Decreto N° 1232/08 signed by Mauricio Macri in Boletín Oficial (29/10/08). [13] Accessed December 10 2015, [14] Accessed December 10 2015, [15] Accessed December 10 2015 [16] O’Donnell, Santiago (2011) Argenleaks: Los cables de Wikileaks sobre la Argentina, de la A a la Z. Buenos Aires: Sudemericana. [17] Accessed December 10 2015 [18] Accessed December 10 2015, Adamovsky, Ezequiel. ‘Mauricio Macri: No Triumph for the Republic.’ [19] Accessed December 10 2015. [20] Accessed December 10 2015 [21] Accessed December 10 2015. Svampa, Maristella Magaminería, el debate que falta. [22] Accessed December 10 2015 [23] Accessed December 10 2015 [24] Accessed December 10 2015

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