It is usual for a journalist to receive critical comments from readers and friends, beyond that feverish blender into which social networks turn in times of change. And as much as I have the necessary level of self-confidence required to write monthly editorials about the brittle Argentine reality, when various of those comments point in the same direction, the doubt arises: am I being too soft with the Macri government? Such is the repeated criticism after reading the last few editorials and covers of Le Monde Diplomatique, a criticism that objects to the idea of the “new right”, accuses Macri of using the “equality in opportunities” discourse as a mask behind which he hides his true class interests, and of being, ultimately, more rustic and malicious than we’ve been claiming.
Taking this criticism on board, I hereby propose a first evaluation, necessarily provisional, of the new admnistration, with two clarifications. The first, following the great [journalist] Mario Wainfeld, is that a democratic government can never be judged as black or white; even at the worst times it is possible to find some light. The Menem government, for example, did away with compulsory military service, eliminated the constitutional article that stipulated that the president had to be catholic, and created the first universities in the Greater Buenos Aires. The second clarification, is that a government must not been seen as the systematic application of an infallible plan but as a messy combination of policies, decisions taken somewhat blindly, and instinctive reactions to unexpected circumstances: a government is a general direction, a tone, an intention.
What can we say, then, about the Macri government, two months after it took office? Beginning by the economic-financial dimension, the first thing we notice is a clarity in its objectives that is not present in other areas: devaluation, lifting the restrictions on the purchase of foreign currency, suppressing the bureaucratic hurdles to importing and exporting, lowering taxes —including agricultural export taxes—, cutting back on subsidies, and re-inserting the country in the international financial markets after reaching agreements with the vulture funds and the IMF; all of this makes up a market-friendly programme that has been clearly explained and laid out without any hesitation from the first moment.
Though all these decisions are connected, their success depends mostly on the stability of the exchange rate. What does this mean? From a macroeconomic point of view, a devaluation is sucessful if these two things happen: a) the price of the US dollar does not get out of control, and b) the devaluation rate is higher than the inflation rate (otherwise it has a neutral effect and a new devaluation is needed). So far, the government has been succesful in achieving point a; the success or lack thereof of point b will only be known at the end of the year. From a social point of view, however, a devaluation always has a regressive effect on those who earn incomes in pesos, that is, workers and retirees. It’s not collateral damage: the aim of a devaluation, of any devaluation, is to lower domestic costs in US dollars —among them, salaries— to make the economy more competitive and give some air to exporters.
Doing a quick exercise on comparative devaluations, we could say that the Kirchnerist devaluation on January 2014 failed in macroeconomic terms (inflation was higher) but not in social terms (the social measures taken afterwards managed to avert its most damaging effects). It’s a matter for debate whether the former was a consequence of the latter, at least partially.
We were saying that the set of economic measures taken by the new government confirms we have a typical liberal programme which aims at dismantling the network of controls, regulations, and interventions built during the previous decade, and the promise to free up the market forces as an idealised driver of an economic growth that is now promised to arrive in 2017. One may question its social consequences, the transfer of income to the most concentrated sectors of the economy, its certain effects on employment —but it is true that there is much more coherence here than in other areas within the administration, where confusion abounds. I insist: you may be against it, but the plan is consistent. And it is not surprising in the least: at this point, Macri is doing exactly what he said he was going to do.
The same is not true for the political-institutional dimension, where Macri is not only not doing what he said he was going to do, but he’s doing exactly what he said he wasn’t going to do. The appointment of two Supreme Court judges by decree, the annulment —also by decree— of part of the media law, and the public sector layoffs quickly did away with the fine pastel cloud of institutional dialogue and political consensus built on statements and gestures. Because, what’s the point of inviting the provincial governors —crucial in any negotiation in the Senate— to a pleasant lunch at the Olivos presidential residence, only to announce two days later, on his own and without any consultation, the Supreme Court appointments? In case it was needed, the bizarre sequence involving the escape of the three men convicted for the triple crime proved that inter-jurisdictional dialogue is more complex than usually thought.
However, I propose a moratorium on the use of the adjective ‘authoritarian’ —so widely used during the Kirchner years— and a policy of austerity on the use of historical comparisons, like the one that describes the Macri government as “a Liberating Revolution [Revolución Libertadora] without tanks”, because a liberating revolution without tanks is not a liberating revolution, and because the definition comes dangerously close to Elisa Carrió’s infamous witticism: “Kirchnerism is like Nazism without the concentration camps”.
Up to a certain point, the official strategy is understandable. Every government coming from the opposition and promising change makes a stand against the previous government, much like Kirchnerism did, very appropriately and for many years, with regards to the Menem government. Building that difference is a basic resource to consolidate power. This does not justify laying off state workers for ideological reasons or the criminalisation of social protest.
It is within this context that is worth questioning the definition by Beatriz Sarlo —leader of the ‘I didn’t vote for him’ party— who called Macri an ‘inverted Cristina’, who does exactly the opposite of what the previous administration would have done. Is it really like that? In terms of image, it is: with their bucolic cabinet meetings, long press conferences, and open invitations to the opposition, the president seeks to highlight the contrast between his zen style and the previous roughness. It is also evident, with the introduction of the ovenbird and the jaguar on the new banknotes, they are making an effort to differentiate themselves from the ideological overload of the previous decade, which sometimes got a bit out of hand: one of its most picturesque moments was the eschatological drift of the identity conflicts reflected in an episode of the series ‘Identity Stories’, financed by the Infrastructure Ministry and broadcast by the public TV channel, about a young man who insists his child carry his surname despite his wife’s opinion, who begs him to accept a change of name. “Only your twisted father could think that Arse is a surname that can be carried with dignity,” she says.
But there is something, as always, that links past and present. And it is not very far if you look for it: the umbilical cord that connects the Macri administration with the previous ones is the age-old and widely analysed Argentine hyper-presidentialism, which began to emerge towards the end of the Alfonsín government and which no president has been able to move away from. Neither Aramburu or Rojas, Gandhi or Mandela; Macri resorts to the typical practices of our “king with a president’s name”, as per Juan Bautista Alberdi’s famous definition: emergency decrees, a unilateral —rather than coalitional— exercise of power, surprise decisions and, in the future and very likely, vetoes. The evidence is at hand: like Guillermo O’Donnell wrote, the justification of this power-concentrating practice —which forces the president to act dodging checks and balances, rather than merely allowing him to do so— is the emergency, or at least the feeling of emergency, which Macri has declared in areas as diverse as the economy and security, statistics and agriculture.
Let’s go back a step. The first democratically elected, right-wing government in Argentine history came to power with an articulate economic programme and, just as important, a team that is capable of implementing it. The main beneficiaries of its decisions squarely match its electoral base: agricultural producers from the core agricultural areas, better-paid formal workers, the middle classes tired of the Kirchnerist style. Macri is building his own intense minority, beyond the guidelines of [political marketing advisor] Jaime Durán Barba, to whom we have stopped underestimating a while ago, and who, as people within the PRO cabinet say, demands a more open and inclusive administration.
Because the bias is evident. Faced with the increasing organisational and ideological weakness of the political forces, French sociologist Frédéric Sawicki suggest we should study what he calls the “party entourage”, that is, the social medium on which a party is based, the “social worlds of belonging” of its officers and leaders, who share experiences, values, and visions, as per Gabriel Vommaro’s definition. It is not necessary to await the impending political analyses to affirm that the PRO government exhibits a social, professional, and phonetic homogeneity that is unheard of since the return to democracy. This may help explain why the Macri government, so active when it comes to freeing up the economy, reforming the media law, or rewarding the agricultural producers, has not announced —except for the $400 one-time bonus for retirees and benefitiaries of the Universal Child Allowance— a single important measure in terms of social, labour, health, or education policy.
For a country that has already become familiar with [Economy Minister] Alfonso Prat-Gay’s warnings, [Security Minister] Patricia Bullrich’s tough stance on crime, or [Communication Minister] Oscar Aguad’s promises, the ideas of those responsible for the areas that should supposedly achieve the goal of ‘zero poverty’ remain a mystery, beginning by the Social Development Ministry, whose website, at the time this edition went to press, still showed that the minister was… Alicia Kirchner.
Translated by Celina Andreassi.