The Aristocrat Who Wants to Make Argentina Normal Again
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s a steady hand after decades of eclectic, nationalist leadership.
By Wesley Tomaselli
Evening voices on Angel Justiniano Carranza Street in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires begin to build as you approach the Perón Perón Resto Bar. The joint is an homage to Argentina’s cultish leader Juan Domingo Perón and his 20th-century populist political ideology. Inside, there’s a stir, then a thumping military march busts out. “Perón Perón!” the people sing from their seats, pumping two-fingered peace signs into the air. Their voices grow strong. Then they fade.
In the two years since the slick, suit-clad Mauricio Macri took over Argentina’s presidency from Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the eclectic policies celebrated at this restaurant — policies that have defined this Southern Cone state of 43 million for nearly a century — are also fading. After living for decades under Peronist ideals — something of a working-class, protectionist nationalism — Argentines are looking to Macri to stop the push, and make their country normal again.
Macri, like the national doctor, was ushered in to administer economic cures, and so far, the patient is responding to early treatments.
Only there have been other pro-reformist presidents who’ve stepped onto the stage with promises similar to Macri’s. Take Raúl Alfonsín, Argentina’s first democratically elected president after the military dictatorship ended in 1983. Pledges to put democracy back on track and normalize the economy led to riots and hyperinflation. His successor, Carlos Menem, adopted the so-called Washington Consensus and set to work liberalizing markets. Again, the economy spiraled out of control. As a pro-reformist, Macri will have to defy that history.
The origin story behind the 58-year-old clean-shaven leader — in a show of seriousness, Macri shaved off his Magnum P.I.–style mustache — is far from working class. The son of Italian businessman Francisco Macri, who immigrated to Argentina in the 1940s, Macri studied civil engineering in Buenos Aires and later took business classes at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1991, he was kidnapped by corrupt police, stuck in a casket and freed 12 days later, after his father paid a multimillion-dollar ransom. Macri sells his kidnapping as a turning point, when life broke him out of his elite circle and made him more human, more normal.
It’s an acknowledgment that his elite roots are his Achilles’ heel. To reshape his image before launching his political career, Macri turned to sports. Running the massively popular Boca Juniors soccer club for over a decade garnered him the popularity and attention he craved. He used the perch to win election to Congress in 2005. In 2007, he became mayor of Buenos Aires, a stepping stone to the presidential palace, Casa Rosada.
His allies still see the need to humanize Macri. “He likes going to people’s homes and seeing how they live day to day,” says Juan Pablo Arenaza, a Buenos Aires city legislator and member of Macri’s Cambiemos movement. Arenaza grew up in Macri’s social circle and, sitting at a café not far from the Peronist enclave, he tells OZY that Macri has changed from his popularity-seeking, sports-management years: “He’s not bombastic. He doesn’t have to be in the middle of the room. He observes and he listens.”
Arenaza insists Macri is more “liberal democrat” than the neocon portrayed in the media. Macri is promising transparency, fiscal austerity and globalism — a major shift from the previous dozen years under Néstor Kirchner and then his wife, Cristina. Amid runaway inflation, Cristina blocked Argentines from buying U.S. dollars, the preferred currency for savings and big transactions like real estate. High import taxes made some goods like smartphones outrageously expensive. State subsidies grew, and so too did the budget deficit — reaching $22 billion in her final year.
Macri, like the national doctor, was ushered in to administer economic cures, and so far, the patient is responding to early treatments. Argentines can buy dollars again. More people are moving money from under their mattresses to banks, a sign of rising faith after decades of distrust. The government settled with American hedge funder Paul Singer after a long debt dispute, slashed barriers to trade and lassoed inflation, which has dropped from roughly 41 percent last year to 22 percent this year. Macri wants single digits by the end of 2018. His more open foreign policy is also a sharp turn. Speaking before the United Nations last year, Macri called on members to “think globally and act locally,” and insisted that “a world with more voices is a more just world.”
Yet having an elite background in a country that celebrates its middle-class populist leaders has fueled something of an identity crisis for the president. “One Macri wants to help the poor, fix the economy and make the country more modern.… The other Macri is the guy viewed as a monster because he’s born into money, out of touch with the Argentine working class and could never understand — or care — about their plight,” says Argentine political analyst Adrian Bono. “[Macri has] got to sell to his opponents that he’s not just governing for the rich. Class guilt is one of Peronism’s biggest problems.”
Close to 80 percent of Argentines self-identify as middle class, even if they are not in economic terms. Pro-populist Argentines are worried about what Macri’s shock therapy will do to their livelihoods. Gonzalo, 35, a cancer patient dependent on state subsidies (he asked that his last name be withheld for fear his medical treatment might be axed for speaking out politically), tells OZY: “Cristina’s system let me access the best doctors in the world … but if my cancer comes back now, under Macri’s cuts, I’ll be dead.” Gonzalo is also concerned about what’s really behind the new government’s economic reforms. “They dropped import taxes on champagne. Who benefits from that?” Robust economic numbers help, but Macri’s trick as he faces re-election in 2019 is to make sure that both the beer-hall patrons and the champagne crowd trust he’s on their side.