A tale about honesty ends
Macri managed to dilute his past and play the role of the champion against corruption — a now depleted strategy
Before Mauricio Macri had even thought of running for president, he was already a well-known figure in Argentina. First, as a young executive and partner in the companies of his father Franco Macri, who made his fortune out of state contracts from the last dictatorship onwards; later as president of Boca Juniors; and finally (having already taken the plunge into politics) as national deputy and Buenos Aires City mayor.
The emergence of today’s president into the public limelight dates back to the early 1990s. He was presented as a young big business face then showing enthusiasm for the presidency of the neo-conservative Peronist Carlos Menem. Not in vain since Socma (Sociedades Macri) had obtained lion’s shares of its fortune via privatisations and public service concessions.
But this business role also had its bitter taste for today’s president, such as being sent to trial for the contraband of cars via Uruguay in 2001 although this case was ultimately dismissed by the Supreme Court handpicked by Menem. Mauricio Macri’s face while negotiating sewage construction with a corrupt Peronist mayor of the Greater Buenos Aires district of Morón had also left an indelible mark on the young executive.
Macri’s more political (and successful) facets — as president of Boca and mayor — also clouded the clean image of the PRO founder. Dubious transfers abroad of players from Argentina’s most popular soccer club, the continuity of abusive garbage collection and traffic control tow-truck contracts and an illegal espionage system mounted by the Metropolitan Police sketched some of the key features of the Macri mayoralty.
Toward the end of the last decade, when the PRO founder’s presidential run was beginning to take shape, the Kirchnerite government of that time was already turning its back on declaiming against corruption. Its swollen intellectual entourage failed to send alarm-bells ringing, instead arguing that the epic struggle against the corporations did not permit attention to such minor details as 10-percent kickbacks.
After the biggest socio-economic débacle in history, the promise of an honest government permeated Néstor Kirchner’s inauguration speech on May 25, 2003. His words to the Legislative Assembly: “Responsible change, institutional quality, a stronger role for the institutions in compliance with the Constitution and the law and the firm struggle against impunity and corruption should command not only the actions of the government which is about to begin but also the entire institutional and social life of the Republic.”
As the linguist Ivonne Bordelois points out, “the struggle against corruption” started to go missing Kirchnerite discourse. In just a few years the cases of embezzlement, the misallocation of contracts and conflicts of interest reached staggering proportions. The protagonists included both old cronies from Santa Cruz and newer figures jumping onto the Victory Front bandwagon.
Meanwhile, amid all these twists and turns, the old hands from the “contractual fatherland” — like Franco Macri, his sons and nephews — managed to keep on lining up succulent business deals on the premise that “governments come and go but contractors stay.”
Mauricio Macri’s presidential candidacy was taking wing and it was time to pardon the past. Leaders like Elisa Carrió and the UCR Radicals, who years before had dismissed Macri as a representative of the “corrupt right”, started knocking on PRO doors to form an alliance. Without further delay the anti-Kirchnerite press opted to click the lock of its own archive. One after the other they began to portray a new Mauricio Macri — “republican, honest” and even ready to be a “class traitor.”
And so the 2015 presidential elections came round. The government candidate Daniel Scioli showed zero interest (or rhetorical flair) in making the corruption issue a campaign platform plank (he may have had his motives for such discretion) while the reminders of Macri’s past by more militant Kirchnerites proved to be damp squibs for at least half the electorate.
Against the weakness of the ruling party candidate on the corruption front the Macri campaign strategy showed skill in diluting the sins of the past in a sea of balloons, post-truth statements and scenes staged for Facebook, alongside a friendly press.
Between the defects of others and his own merits, Macri succeeded in capturing the “pro-honesty” vote, that ideologically diffuse notion which proclaims that Argentina’s problem is the combat between the honest and the corrupt. The supreme fallacy that a millionaire does not need to reach government to continue making money convinced some minds.
December, 2015, and the influx of CEOs and company owners into government offices beyond Macri himself was turning conflict of interest into a chronicle foretold. Macri’s allies chose to close their eyes and construct a narrative about the “technical skills” of those who had done business (some of it more than dodgy) in the private sector. In a question of weeks worrying signs were emerging of financial speculators reaping profit from the devaluation instrumented by themselves or energy company executives proposing utility bill increases of 1,000 percent or negotiators who weeks before sitting down at a table with “vulture” funds in the name of the Argentine government were offering state bonds.
Last April nobody could have been too surprised when the Panama Papers exposed that the entire Macri family, its surrogates and dummy owners as well as a great part of the government had accounts and offshore companies in tax havens. “Poor President, his sinister dad registered him in a firm without consulting him,” ran the official line. Weeks later would arrive the state-financed mega-contract for the Sarmiento rail underpass to be carried out by Macri’s cousin and partner Ángelo Calcaterra together with Odebrecht, the mastermind of the Condor Plan for corruption in Latin America. “Poor cousin, is he now supposed to stop working?”
This was followed by the presidential siblings Mariano and Gianfranco trying to wipe out the traces of their secret account in Germany (again an international revelation). Neither would Mauricio Macri’s close friend, tenant and spymaster, the shady Gustavo Arribas, leave him in any peace. This time a Brazilian whistleblower from the Lava Jato scandal singled him out as the recipient of a US$594.000 kickback.
“He sold a flat in Sao Paulo, I just don’t get the connection with Odebrecht”, said the president, this time responding himself. Spin doctor Jaime Durán Barba’s mantra, aided by the lack of follow-up questions, now became “everything is crystal-clear.”
Last week there were pathetic arguments attempting to explain the multi-billion debt silently condoned by the state headed by Mauricio Macri on behalf of a Macri family company. Insulting interpretations of bankruptcy law (that interest is suspended indefinitely) which, if true, would make the economy completely dysfunctional. Just Macri’s bad luck that one of the main spokesmen for his arguments should be one of his least prepared ministers: Oscar Aguad (Communications). But not even the slickest in the Pink House could find a way out of the odious position whereby it was not clear which Macri was which — the debtor or the creditor.
Macri’s spin doctors have tried everything — smearing the prosecutor standing up to the agreement, dodging the subject, denouncing a pact between Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Franco Macri, shifting the responsibility to lower levels...
The die is cast. Progressive deputy Margarita Stolbizer and other “reasonable” members of the opposition, who have accompanied the government’s main policies, tried registering their disappointment — Macri had “learned” from the previous government and not kept his promise of transparency, which had created so much hope among Argentines.
The court dossiers on Kirchnerite corruption (some serious and others invented) keep making headlines but we might well be at a turning-point. The images of the Kirchnerites José López and Lázaro Báez handcuffed were crushing and their crude explanations disgusted many Argentines. A key element in a year which went from the revolution of joy to the shortages of recession.
But the second year of Macri’s term is now beginning. Appealing to the inherited burdens is starting to lose its bite as, in the sphere of corruption, nobody can forecast with any certainty the electoral effects of CFK being the next one arrested.
The conflicts of interest held by Macri and his officials are a minefield. Rather than fade away, the suspicions of corruption are likely to go increasing in quantity and gravity. Those playing the honest guys (which nobody should confuse with the legitimate call for honesty, a duty of the press and the courts) need a new narrative.