Macri in the Next 100 Days

By Nicolás Comini*

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Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Everybody seems to love President Mauricio Macri outside Argentina – it’s not hard to understand why – but he faces tough challenges at home.  Foreign supporters have plenty of reasons to believe in him.  First, he is not Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the former president whom they branded a populist too close to Venezuela, Bolivia, or Ecuador.  Like many conservatives inside Argentina itself, they see Macri as the person who avoided the “Venezuelization” of the country, and his market-friendly credentials were sealed through his campaign promise of a “rain of investment” and his government’s implementation of a package of measures aimed at financial liberalization, regulatory flexibility, liberalization of foreign trade, and stronger fiscal discipline.  He has been less confrontational in diplomacy.  “Return to the world,” “de-ideologization,” “pragmatism,” and “transparency” are the continuous slogans that draw the foreign accolades.

Things look different at home, however.  The federal government confronts a convoluted scenario in the next 100 days, during which it will face at least three sets of sensitive issues in the run-up to Legislative primaries in August and elections in October.

  • Domestic issues. The government will have to deal with a hostile internal front.  One challenge will be resolving a long-running pay dispute with teacher unions – especially in the province of Buenos Aires.  Another is quelling complaints about steep increases in the costs of government services and deep slashes in funding for Science and Technology, Culture, Human Rights, Health, Production, and Energy.  Macri’s failure to meet inflation reduction targets (prices rose by 40 percent in 2016); the need to stimulate the economy; and debates on tax reform are a daunting agenda.
  • Controversy over human rights and immigration. One of the Achilles’ heels of the current administration is the imprisonment of social activist Milagro Sala in the northwestern province of Jujuy.  An ally of former President Fernández de Kirchner, Sala was arrested in January 2016 – one month after Macri took office – on highly contested charges: initially of “instigate criminal activity disorder” and later of “illicit association, fraud, and extortion.”  Pope Francis, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, and UN officials have expressed concern, fueling tensions inside Argentina.  An immigration reform decree facilitating deportations and restricting access at border crossings has been rejected by social movements, international organizations, and much of the Argentine political opposition.  The repudiation is not only felt in the formal political arena but also on the streets.
  • External dynamics with internal consequences. Brazil’s Lava Jato scandal is splashing as much onto Macri’s government as his predecessor’s.  Officials from both administrations are being accused of receiving bribes from Odebrecht, the largest Brazilian construction company, and no one knows how this process will develop hereafter.  Congresswoman and Macri ally Elisa Carrió claims the whole political elite is complicit in the Odebrecht mess.  The “Panama Papers” – leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, which allegedly was involved in helping companies hide bribes paid to a number of South American leaders – has so far not touched Macri, whose family has links to firms cited in the documents.

The August primaries, followed by full legislative elections in October, are a potential inflection point for both Macri and his opponents.  Neither side has yet announced its slate of candidates, but one essential factor is already clear: the candidacy (or not) of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.  The primary election will define how the pieces of the political chessboard are placed, and Macri’s handling of his economic, political, and social challenges will be decisive.  Achievement of his reform agenda – including the overhauling the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC, accused of cooking data during previous governments), an ambitious “Plan Belgrano” infrastructure program, and the end of currency controls – may not be enough.  The potential reunification of his key Peronist opponents, increased social unrest, splits in his own coalition, and the spillover from the Brazilian crisis suggest a sobering future.  True love cannot be achieved from one day to the next, but in the domestic political arena it is simple to lose it suddenly.

June 8, 2017

* Nicolás Comini is Research Fellow at CLALS; Director of the Bachelor and Master Programs in International Relations (Universidad del Salvador, Argentina); and Professor at the New York University-Buenos Aires.

Gay Rights Amidst Uneven Cultural Change

The lower chamber of Uruguay’s legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage on December 12 that is expected to sail through the Senate. The law, which polls show is supported by a majority of Uruguayans, comes just two months after the country legalized abortion.  Even for Uruguay, long seen as among Latin America’s most progressive and democratic countries, these measures represent a major shift in social attitudes.

MUMS Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual | Flickr | Creative Commons

MUMS Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual | Flickr | Creative Commons

Writing in the Journal of Democracy, Bard College political scientist Omar Encarnación argues that the 2005 legalization of gay marriage by Spain’s socialist government was a model for activists and legislators across Latin America. Transnational networks with ties in these cities have led the charge, using human rights language and gaining support from human rights organizations. Evidence in support of his argument is growing:  the city of Buenos Aires and later all of Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2002 and 2010 respectively, as did Mexico City, in 2012.  Where legislatures have not acted because of opposition from religious or other groups, activists have appealed to courts, earning recognition of important civil rights for gay couples in Brazil and Colombia. Progress in the ALBA countries, Chile, and Central America has been more limited still.  Honduras banned gay marriage in 2005. Discrimination, both legal and de facto, remains an issue.

The changes in Uruguay and elsewhere indicate the need for an updated map of Latin America that reflects widely differing approaches to social issues.  Secularism is an emergent force in global metropolises such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo, and the Catholic Church’s dominant role in the region’s social policy and politics has diminished considerably.  But the decline in the Catholic Church’s power to block gay rights does not mean a continued shift in social norms is inevitable.  Evangelical faiths have exploded in parts of the continent, many of them even more conservative than the Catholic Church in opposing gay rights. Moreover, in countries that lack the strong transnational human rights networks of Argentina and Colombia, activists have fewer tools at their disposal.