Argentina’s president says populism is over. Then why the massive demonstrations?

Mauricio Macri

BUENOS AIRES – President Mauricio Macri says he is convinced that the disastrous populist governments that have ruined Argentina time and again are a thing of the past. But what I saw on my way to interview him at the presidential palace makes me wonder.

I almost didn’t make it to the Aug. 7 interview because the whole downtown area of this magnificent capital was paralyzed by a massive concentration of the piqueteros, radical groups who – without police permits – routinely block avenues to publicize their demands.

Traffic was in total chaos. My taxi driver told me that he couldn’t get to the presidential palace, leaving me several blocks away. The public square in front of the government house was occupied by tens of thousands of people demanding “bread, peace, land, roof and work.” They beat drums and held huge signs bearing images of Che Guevara.

Mauricio Macri

Populism is so ingrained in Argentina that even the majority of Argentines who don’t agree with the piqueteros accept with resignation their practice of shutting down entire parts of the city. The Macri government, like its predecessors, usually refrains from sending police to clear blocked streets, fearing violence and a political backlash.

There are an estimated 20 million Argentines, nearly half of the population, who receive some kind of government subsidy, in many cases for not doing any kind of work. The subsidies soared during the 2007-2015 administration of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who wasted a bonanza in the form of high commodity prices during a corruption-ridden populist fiesta that left the country bankrupt.

Now Fernandez de Kirchner is trying to make a comeback as a candidate for senator in October legislative elections that will make or break Macri’s efforts to rebuild the country.

While Fernandez de Kirchner is widely expected to win a senate seat in her Buenos Aires province district despite dozens of corruption accusations, the size of her victory could determine whether Macri will enter the second half of his first term as a politically strong president who will be able to pass much-needed reforms in congress – or a lame duck. Investors are watching closely, anxious about the possibility of a political resurgence of the former president.

When I asked Macri whether populism could make a comeback, he said that “I am convinced that that’s a bygone period.” He said that even if Fernandez de Kirchner wins her Senate seat by a comfortable margin, such victory would mean “nothing, because that’s something that’s happening in a very particular (voting) district. If you look at the national level, it will be difficult for her to reach 15 per cent of the total vote.”

Macri is urging Argentines to be patient, and to remember that Fernandez de Kirchner was taking Argentina “on the road to Venezuela.” His government – despite a very slow start, and negative growth last year – has cut inflation in half, and expects to see the economy grow by 3 per cent this year.

“More than 50 per cent of Argentines continue to support this road we are taking,” Macri told me. “This country cannot be built in 19 months. It takes years.”

I think Macri is right and, despite a much slower than expected economic resurgence, he is Argentina’s best bet to leave behind its tradition of free-spending governments and debt defaults, and to set the stage for long-term prosperity.

But this is a rich country whose people are long accustomed to instant gratification and total disregard for long-term planning, and where 20th century political labels are deeply ingrained.

Macri should use his bully pulpit to tell Argentines that there is no such thing as a right-wing country or left-wing country. The new global economy is made up of countries that attract investments and prosper – ranging from the capitalist US to nominally communist China and Vietnam – and countries that scare away investments and become poorer, such as Cuba and Venezuela.

It’s a very basic concept but – judging from what I saw on my way to the presidential palace, and from my conversations with many Argentines – a significant percentage of people here aren’t grasping it.

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