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October 19, 2017
Monday, March 20, 2017

The government takes a conspiracy shortcut

President Mauricio Macri, pictured on his recent trip to Spain.
President Mauricio Macri, pictured on his recent trip to Spain.
President Mauricio Macri, pictured on his recent trip to Spain.
By Marcelo J. García
For The Herald
Until very recently, government spokesmen would say that President Mauricio Macri did not read the newspapers, that he did not care what was written about him and that the administration was satisfied with spreading its message directly to the public over social media. But this is no more, it seems.
A remarkable decline in the president’s approval ratings during the summer is putting to the test all of this government’s beliefs. The average of all public opinion polls published last month shows Macri’s public support moving slightly below 40 percent in February, the lowest since he took office.
The president is said to be mad at the way the government “informs the public” about the way things are going. “More government officials have to come out with conviction and defend the government in public,” the president told his staff.
Blaming any political ill on “a communication problem” is the first natural reaction for any government in trouble. Why? Because it is technically easy to solve. The Cabinet Chief’s Office took up the presidential order verbatim and decided to launch a new communications channel. But alas! It is not as modern as your Twitter, Facebook, Instragram or Snapchat accounts, and somehow it’s more old-fashioned too: a letter.

The usual
“Welcome to the Cabinet Chief’s Letter,” the text posted on the Casa Rosada’s website (http://www.casarosada.gob.ar/cartajefatura) reads, “a new communications channel where we want to share documents on public policy and strategic analysis on the government’s actions.”
The first “letter” was published on March 3. It is an 11-page paper under the title of “A solid base for Argentina’s economy.” It broadly outlines the government’s vision of the economy. Its four-bullet executive summary condenses what is likely to be the government’s midterm campaign language this year. It reads:
 
1. The government inherited in December 2015 a stagnant and distorted economy, whose normalisation requires a difficult but necessary transition.
2. This year the economy will grow again, but the challenge is to start a process of sustained growth, with less inflation, more productivity and less poverty.
3. The government reaffirms its will to stick to a gradual but firm path in the reduction of inflation and the deficit.
4. If we reach ample agreements and we are patient, and if we avoid shortcuts, the Argentine economy is ready to take off.
 
The first three points are the government’s usual economic talk. The fourth one too, but it hides some of the riddles the ruling party faces as the August/October midterm vote nears. The “ample agreements” the government claims to seek are nowhere to be seen — on the contrary, the country is as divided and its leadership as fragmented as it can be. “Patience,” meanwhile, is starting to falter, as the government has had very little good economic news to show off so far.
In 15 months in office, the Macri administration has mutated from trying to avoid depressing Argentines with bad news to scrambling to find good news to give, while denouncing that the bad news of today is the result of a past that is increasingly distant. The way out is also simple, but maybe too simple: to complain of a conspiracy.

Lending a hand
The mainstream press is lending the administration a hand. The biggest newspapers, Clarín and La Nación, have over the last few days toyed with the idea that there is an attempt to “destabilise” the government. This is arguably the greatest language “shortcut” the government is taking to explain its political and economic problems. Even the president fed the line into public discourse during an interview with Luis Majul on América TV last Sunday, saying that “Yes, there are clearly people who want to (destabilise the government).”
Blame it on Donald Trump — or thank him. Presidents these days can say whatever they want and they will not be fact-checked. In more ordinary circumstances, if a president said that somebody was trying to rock his constitutional boat, the press and the public would likely want to have a few more details about what he really means and knows about such plans. The line did not catch the press’ attention the next morning, maybe because it had been the same line the mainstream press columnists had used throughout the weekend. The president was just repeating them.
What Macri continues to take for granted is the fact that the biggest newspapers will play softball with the government and report its vision as reality. They do most of the times. Clarín has taken a nearly militant stance in its headlines against the teachers that are striking for salaries at the start of the school year in the province of Buenos Aires, leaving more than four million children without classes. It also failed to run on its front page the news that there are now 1.5 million more people living under poverty since Macri took office.
But in the government’s inner circles they know and acknowledge that the clock is ticking fast for the government’s capacity to turn Argentine history around and succeed — meaning a re-election that would be unprecedented in almost 100 years for an elected non-Peronist president.  The administration is going through a test of character that it is unlikely to pass by means of “open letters” in neat PDF files.
We do not know when the next Cabinet Chief’s letter will come out. But as usually happens, the problem is not about communication.                               w
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