President Mauricio Macri formally opened the 2016 legislative year yesterday with a speech before a packed Congress. The address lasted just over one hour, and included both criticism of the legacy of 12 years of Kirchnerist governments as well as a look at his administration’s plans for the coming four years in office.
The speech was punctuated by applause from Macri’s supporters and interrupted at one point by heckling from the opposition Frente para la Victoria (FpV) party, whose members also displayed protest placards throughout the speech. Social media, obviously, also jumped up on the president’s gaffe in re-reading a page of his speech. “I’ve already read that,” said Macri, after realising his mistake.
Leaving that aside, here is an overview of the key points made by the president as he opened Congress.
The first half of Macri’s speech was largely a run through of the difficulties he inherited from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a common theme in the government’s communication since taking office in December.
“I was to be clear on what our departure point is, as we are coming from years in which the State has lied systematically, confusing everyone and blurring the line between reality and fantasy,” said Macri. “We found a state that was disorganised and poorly managed, with its navigation equipment broken. Information was hidden, documents missing, there are no statistics.”
Macri went on to list some of the economic problems he says his administration inherited: One of the world’s highest inflation rates, near 30% poverty, an “historically high” budget deficit of 7% of GDP, a slump in Central Bank reserves, and a long-running debt dispute with vulture funds that “we calculate cost Argentina US$100bn and more than 2m jobs that were not created.”
The president also railed against what he called a State “plagued with clientilism, wastefulness, and corruption.” He claimed that resources designated for health and education had been spent on political activism and said that the country’s infrastructure had deteriorated despite large sums of money being funnelled towards public works.
Finally, Macri criticised the rise of organised crime and lack of security, calling Argentina a “prosperous” country for drug traffickers.
“Crime statistics have not been published since 2008,” the president said. “The first figures we could reveal indicated that there are 3,400 homicides a year, an increase of 40% compared to 2008.”
Lamenting the country’s “inability” to protect its borders, Macri finished by saying: “It will be the job of the courts to investigate whether the situation we received was down to neglect, incompetence, or complicity.”
Macri next reviewed the work of his administration in the short period since taking office – in his words, work to “normalise the country”.
The president said it was “his obsession” to create “more and better jobs and less inflation”, adding that this had started by reducing monetary emission and bringing down the budget deficit. This prompted heckling from the opposition FpV
After a brief pause, Macri highlighted recent measures such as lifting the minimum threshold for paying income tax and expanding social benefits for impoverished families, which he said would transfer $50bn from the state to households. He also noted the lifting of currency controls “without any of the predicted disasters happening”, the elimination of export taxes for primary and industrial sectors, and the “adjustment to reality” of the energy sector (known in other circles as the 300%-plus hike in electricity costs). Macri also mentioned the launching of the ‘Plan Belgrano’ to develop Argentina’s northern provinces.
The president then discussed the shift in approach to international politics, saying his government had “re-established” relationships with the US, France, Italy, Germany, Israel, and the UK, adding that “dialogue [with the UK] does not mean giving up our sovereignty claim over the Malvinas [Falklands] Islands.” Macri also named every other South American country except – conspicuously – Venezuela.
Macri challenged Congress – where his party does not have a majority in either house – to debate and approve key government policies as soon as possible.
The most urgent of these is the recent agreement with the so-called vulture funds to settle Argentina’s long-running debt saga. The settlement requires Congress to repeal two laws, with Macri stating that “now it depends on this Congress to end the 15-year conflict… I’m confident that responsibility will win over rhetoric.”
The president also urged Congress to debate changes to the scale of income tax brackets and to approve environmental commitments that Argentina signed up to in the Paris Climate Change summit. According to Macri, other “priorities” for Congress were new laws to combat drug trafficking, improve access to public information, and regulate public sector purchases.
Macri also asked Congress to quickly approve his government’s nominations to fill two vacancies on the Supreme Court.
Macri’s speech was relatively light on policy commitments, though the president did list a series of measures that his administration plans to implement.
In education, Macri promised to introduce new laws to make schooling compulsory from the age of three and create a new body to evaluate the quality of education. He also outlined a plan to provide high-speed internet for the entire country.
Key social policies include a plan to remove VAT for basic food goods, expand the existing Universal Child Allowance programme, and work towards a new ‘Universal Childhood Income’ as proposed by Macri’s ally, Elisa Carrió.
The government also plans to introduce electoral reform to end the use of paper ballots, make electoral bodies more independent, and unify the electoral calendar to reduce the number of voting days.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Macri’s speech divided opinion among legislators. Vice-president Gabriela Michetti said the speech was “balanced”. “It exposed the problems, with concrete figures and numbers… it laid out the reality on the table because the people should know what is going on in the nation.”
However, in a statement released yesterday, the opposition FpV said the speech was “violent and plagued with untruths”, adding that while calling for consensus Macri failed to mention a single positive from the Kirchnerist era. The legislators also called the speech: “empty, too general and without proposals.”
The FpV leader in the Senate, Miguel Pichetto, also criticised the speech for its “biased” review of the previous government, adding that “the part of the speech that should have included proposals and detailed a plan to solve the problems facing Argentines was very weak, almost empty.”
Sergio Massa, leader of the Una Nueva Argentina (UNA) bloc in Congress, said he shared the president’s view of the difficult situation inherited from the previous government but criticised the lack of new proposals. “Fighting from the terraces is not enough; we need to get busy solving the people’s problems,” said Massa. The lack of specifics in Macri’s policy pledges was a common criticism from opposition legislators.