When CEO-politician Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s 2015 presidential race, international analysts were tripping over themselves to pronounce the Latin American Pink Tide dead. But today, approaching the end of his four-year term, Macri’s once lauded set of talking points — hitting restart on the national economy, leaving behind “seventy years of populism,” and welcoming a “flood of investment” — have all but vanished.
The official death knell was sounded on August 11, the day Macri was trounced in the country’s primary elections. The shocking results were all the more staggering for the magnitude of Macrismo’s defeat, and for the fact that polls had predicted a tie between the opposition party Frente de Todos and Cambiemos, Macri’s ruling conservative coalition. Instead, with a seventeen-point national advantage, the progressive Frente de Todos coalition, headed by Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is all but guaranteed a huge win in today’s general elections.
With the end of Macri’s government now in sight, Argentina faces both a political opening and an uphill battle. While many hope for a reversal of the most extreme measures implemented since Macri took office, his party has wrought such havoc that recovery will be difficult. For one, Macri has returned Argentina to its pre-Kirchner status as a serial IMF debtor; in just three years, Macri’s monetary policies prompted Argentina to sign a $56.3 billion financing deal with the IMF, the most extensive rescue package in the organization’s history. Argentina is now the most indebted country in Latin America (with a debt that rose to 77.4 percent of GDP in 2018). Making matters worse, annual inflation stands at nearly 60 percent, and the risk of default is ever-present.
If the country faces enormous obstacles, however, the good news is that those forces that beat Macri at the polls are also the best bet to build a transition away from Macri.
Building the New Right
Despite feeble attempts to cast Macri as a South American Barack Obama — even repurposing Obama’s “Yes We Can” for the campaign trail — Argentina’s right shares many of the same reactionary postures typical of Salvini, Trump, and Bolsonaro.
Macri has, on the one hand, always been a typically neoliberal politician: a crusade against state interventionism, redistributive policies, and basic regulations has been central to his agenda. However, shortly after taking office in 2015, Macri began to betray his more overtly authoritarian side. Defying the nation’s long-standing “democratic consensus,” he began to rely heavily on the most brazen forms of state violence. This included the arbitrary use of the judiciary to persecute political opposition and social movements, not unlike measures used by the Brazilian right.
Meanwhile, the president turned a blind eye to his government’s dubious dealings with big business, banks, and corporate functionaries. Among the most sensational cases are the government’s licentious relations with energy corporations, its manipulation of the national mail service to favor the fortunes of the president’s powerful family-owned business, and its complicity in money laundering through the British investment bank HSBC.
In the lead-up to the 2017 midterm legislative elections, Cambiemos could still rely on broad popular support. The public was wary of economic instability and outraged at corruption, and it was willing to give Macri a chance to deliver on his promises of change.
Tempering the crisis of neoliberal capitalism with harsher doses of neoliberalism still appeared to be electorally viable. Images and slogans were marshaled on the campaign trail to divert attention from the real causes of the crisis. A weak “culture of work” and excessive social spending, it was claimed, were at the root of Argentina’s economic crisis; someone had to pay the bill racked up by thirteen years of “populism.”
Macrismo sought to fuse its various ideological strands — social individualism, political authoritarianism, and cultural conservatism — into a single right-wing vehicle. Argentina had never before seen a confluence of these three political currents in a party that was also capable of taking power democratically.
Having hit on its formula, Macrismo launched an ideological battle on three fronts. First, it promoted the “virtues” of risk and insecurity in both the workplace and at home. Second, it sought to legitimize the abusive and arbitrary use of police force. And third, it waged a war against those social sectors it could conveniently scapegoat for the country’s political and economic crises.
Guns and No Butter
To cement the new coalition, Macrismo’s political leaders launched a campaign of education reform that was best summarized by Education Minister Esteban Bullrich. In a 2017 speech, having already compared the economy to an “adventure” full of “risks,” he announced that Argentina’s schools would “educate boys and girls for something different.” He specified that some students would be taught to become “the creators of employment,” “those who will contribute to society,” while others would be educated to “live and even enjoy a world of uncertainty.”
This was an educational plan drawn against the backdrop of a proposed labor reform bill that, as Employment Secretary Miguel Ángel Ponte put it, would create a world in which “hiring and firing would be as natural as eating and ‘uneating.’”
At the same time, Macrismo gave inordinate power to the nation’s repressive forces. This was a sharp policy departure from the governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner. Their administrations had placed security forces under the control of democratic authorities, and prohibited police officers from carrying firearms in political demonstrations, all while setting a new standard for human rights policies.
The consequences of Macri’s escalated repressive policy include the death of activist Santiago Maldonado, which took place in the context of ongoing persecution of the Cushamen Mapuche community. His death, which was obscured by an official government campaign, was followed months later by the murder of the Mapuche youth Rafael Nahuel at the hands of national police. These crimes were accompanied by a general increase in police shootings. When one police officer, Luis Chocobar, murdered a young man fleeing a robbery, he was championed by Macri and received a presidential congratulation in the executive Pink House.
All the while, Macri’s government continued to emphasize the “problem of uncontrolled immigration,” blaming migrants for the country’s economic issues. In 2018, Macri’s security minister boasted of having deported more foreigners that year than in the entire preceding decade.
Having tasted the harsh neoliberal medicine meted out by Macri, the people of Argentina delivered a resounding “no” at the polls in August. Today’s election will consolidate that rejection.
With Macri’s defeat, the Argentine experience shows the strength of popular mobilization, and its capacity to beat off the advances of the Right. Argentina’s trade-union sector and its broad spectrum of labor organizations refused attempts to naturalize austerity and labor deregulation. Macri was ultimately unable to impose the kind of structural reforms that have been implemented in neighboring Brazil: a pension reform bill was effectively struck down by a popular uprising in 2017, and labor reform was deemed politically unviable.
Protesters rejected Macri’s repressive policies that undermine human rights, championing instead a policy of “memory, justice, and truth” that stretches back to the anti-authoritarian struggles of the 1980s. The powerful women’s movement has put its foot down on government attempts to foster a culture of social stigmatization and hostility.
In Ecuador, Chile, and across the continent, working people and popular sectors are rising up against the deeply undemocratic nature of neoliberalism. Argentina, for its part, is finding its way along the electoral path. The current Argentine experience shows the vital importance of maintaining and fostering democratic counterpower in all spheres of life, where popular power in the streets can be translated into institutional forces capable of resisting the neoliberal onslaught, and perhaps pointing to an alternative road, beyond neoliberalism.
It will be up to those popular forces to ensure that Frente de Todos honors its popular mandate.