Patricia Bullrich, who chairs PRO, the main opposition party to the Alberto Fernández government, granted Perfil an exclusive interview this week. She didn’t hold back.
The former security minister criticised the president for comparing Argentina with Sweden, as well as his handling of both the pandemic and the economy. Bullrich also discussed the new leaders within her party, the relationship with former president Mauricio Macri and ex-Cabinet chief Marcos Peña, and what she thinks of trolls on social networks.
Today you no longer have any institutional state responsibilities but you chair PRO. How are you coping with that change?
It’s always good to be able to take some distance from what’s done and not remain stuck in the past, that’s a healthy attitude. What’s over is over. There are people who find it hard, who just look at what the new minister is doing, but it’s good to let go.
They had already given me this responsibility before I’d wrapped up as [Security] minister and I’m going for a highly active leadership – I’ve plunged into this head first.
My task is no longer to be responsible for the security of the citizenry but for managing a political party. Within this new context, where the country’s politics is entirely dominated by two coalitions, it is indeed interesting to give the opposition character, define its responsibilities and set standards.
Within both coalitions, sectors of hawks and doves may be distinguished. Recently this is being seen more clearly in the opposition. What do you think?
It seems to me an [artificial] construction. The government encourages this. It’s a government whose history we know: from 2003 to 2015 it tried to break up the opposition parties and steer them into government ranks, making them less of an opposition or directly recruiting them. What that generates is a monopoly of political discourse – the logic of a single party. That’s the way it was from 2003 until the crisis [of 2008] when the government clashed with the farmers. non-Kirchnerite Peronism all ended up within Kirchnerismo. They got in with 24 percent of the vote and had a parliamentary majority within a year. Instead of dialogue, they co-opt. You have to respect others for what they are, not convert them, otherwise there is no alternation [of government].
We believe in dialogue by nature but not if that implies trying to become part of this government. We’re not part of it, we have a social responsibility towards a large part of the community who see us as the check against generating a monopoly of government.
Does administrative responsibility make a difference among opposition politicians, for example, between deputies and governors?
There are shades of grey but we have it quite clear that Juntos por el Cambio is the opposition, which does not mean that we will always be against everything. That’s the role society has assigned us and we point things out. That’s not negative, quite the contrary. But we haven’t been invited to the table to discuss long-term policies with the government.
For now there is a necessary coexistence due to the exceptional circumstances. The government kicked off with an emergency law without taking our amendments into consideration. We were co-operative in voting for renegotiation of the debt. They wanted to take money away from Buenos Aires City over the transfer of the Federal Police, claiming a miscalculation of federal revenue-sharing. The government started out with a stance of wanting to impose its agenda without sitting down at the table with us.
Now with the pandemic there is a 'momentum' whereby they call up our governors, which is fine. That does not mean that there are hawks and doves or that we do not stress what we stress, like the issue of the prisoners [being released], the emergency decree handing over the Budget to the Cabinet chief, the delay in activating Congress, the overpricing.
It is necessary to point all this out, we cannot remain silent over abuses or excesses of power.
I ask because [City Mayor] Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and your governors have been criticised for working closely with Alberto Fernández. [Jujuy Radical Governor] Gerardo Morales has said that those seeking to provoke infighting “should go to a shrink.”
What can Morales do? He has to run his province. He has to ask permission to free activities in his province. That kind of institutional dialogue does not cause unease but it would if there were negotiations of another kind by any member of Juntos por el Cambio which changes the nature of our force.
As Security minister I spoke to all my provincial colleagues and 19 of them were Peronist or from provincial parties and nobody ever told them that there had to be connivance. That’s not the idea here, this is institutional dialogue.
And does this institutional responsibility give them a greater importance within the party? For example, to be leaders?
Well, let’s see. I feel that today the party has an important number of leaders and that delights me, that Larreta shows leadership, that we have deputies and party members with strong leadership qualities. That speaks of a lively party – despite losing power, it is alive.
The president has questioned those opposition sectors which raise the alert over the destruction of the economy, speaking of a "false dilemma" between health and economy. What is your position?
As we have said from the first day, there is a triangle of health, economy and republic, three fundamental issues. They say they have opened up the economy but everybody is scared because they say that at any moment they will close it down again. If I say open but then close again, demand goes down. It’s a contradictory message which does not seem positive to me. You have to give a message asking for the protocol to be heeded and everybody to be responsible. If it does not seem that the conditions for opening exist, that’s a message of uncertainty, that does not give work to any sectors with this fear.
Marking the importance of these three elements, as we have done from the first day, does not seem to go down well with the president. He should learn to listen, his is not the only voice or truth. All truth is relative, there are as many theoríes as doctors in the world. It’s time to try out things in the knowledge that the economy of a country is the construction of thousands of families over years. We cannot shut it down.
There also seem to be hawks and doves among countries in the logic of their measures to fight the pandemic. While the Donald Trumps, Jair Bolsonaros and the Boris Johnsons give absolute priority to the economy, China and Argentina focus on health with a stricter quarantine. With which position do you identify?
I’d prefer not to take up a position because the information is relative. We’ve asked the president twice for a meeting and never got one. It’s hard to be able to have the information necessary to judge – I don’t want to go on just what I read. I lack the elements, we should have had a more active participation in the analysis of the best system at any given time.
Nor was the comparison with Sweden good, there are so many factors when comparing. We live in the extreme south [of the world], you have to see if [the pandemic) arrives with the same force and patterns of behaviour as we await winter before saying something.
There is no doubt that Johnson’s theory changed, he himself changed but the effect is the same. If you keep everything open without measures, you halt demand because people do not go out and you end up with health problems, it is neither one thing nor the other.
Like Trump and Bolsonaro, which are cases which went over the brink.
Trump’s case is strange, the states [in the US] did what they wanted. The United States had an a priori problem because of the number of flights and people and the intensity of interchange, in relation to Argentina… it’s hard to compare. If the comparison is made with our neighbours, Paraguay is the best-off until now. Chile is not comparable because they tested more than us from the start. But all the same comparisons are odious and nor is it good that Sweden afterwards replied to Argentina.
Moving to the issue of prisoners [being released], on the one hand there were cases of convicts guilty of serious crimes being released, but on the other a certain misinformation about the number of rapists being freed, which upset people more, isn’t that so?
I don’t think the exact number of prisoners walking free matters. There were clear cases of aberrant criminals getting out. Our deputies in La Rioja told me of two cases which moved that province – one had killed a shopkeeper and the other a rapist. Then there was the case of the Burzaco rapist [granted house arrest] near his victim. The issue is the impunity in these cases; I never gave an exact number of releases because I did not have one. The important thing is the principle of not permitting impunity.
You have to take sanitary measures because there are also people not guilty of any crime in overcrowded conditions, such as shantytowns. You have to avoid contagion, which is very low in prisons compared with retirement homes or low-income neighbourhoods. We put forward some ideas from the start.
You must be well aware that for years there has been the underlying problem of prison overpopulation.
Yes, especially in Buenos Aires Province but not the Federal Penitentiary System where many new jails were inaugurated under the government of Maurico Macri and we were advancing in the project to move [the prison in] Devoto. We had an aggressive policy towards criminals of hunting down fugitives and fighting drug-trafficking. It’s OK to have more people under arrest if that’s the reason.
Why is it that [former Cabinet chief] Marcos Peña and you are always the targets over the trolls, the fake news and calling cacerolazo saucepan-bashing protests?
I don’t believe in trolls but I do believe in political construction and I think that’s happening in all the media where it should. It seems logical enough on the social networks, it’s a way of transmitting a message to millions of people who can read the position of our party or associated groups. We have territorial militancy and we have militancy in the social networks – they’re not trolls, they’re not ghosts, they have names and addresses. Taking up a political position on a social network is not being a troll, it’s just using another channel. In Juntos por el Cambio we represent 41 percent of the vote, so obviously we have hundreds of thousands of people on social networks who adhere to us and express themselves, often taking the initiative. And confusing that with a robot infinitely reproducing a message is not correct. We have a lot of people, that’s what it is.
The government also has a lot of people who try to sustain their positions, as well as virtually their own media like C5N [television news channel] which only gives government positions. I don’t criticise it, it’s one form of journalism, we’re not used to it but in North America it’s like that. There are Republican media and Democrat media. We’re mutating towards that communications model. But the government does not have trolls in C5N for that reason, it has journalists committed to a political position. They did it with 678 and partisan journalism – we’ve already got used to it so it’s not so shocking. But we don’t have our own media...
Well, on the contrary there are those who would say you have the Grupo Clarín.
That’s not so. Alberto has been a friend of Grupo Clarín and invited onto their programmes all his life.
Alberto yes but not Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner].
Maybe Cristina never agreed to go on those programmes. In any case [Luis] Novaresio interviewed her in 2017. We have no media and you can see that in our government, which was very fiercely criticised so we made a correspondingly high use of the social networks. Then there are also free-thinkers or those who adhere to our policies but come up with whatever springs to mind, there is no centre directing the social networks.
The President also governs via the social networks, where he can be found all day. He says: "Go to Twitter" but then he should be told: "Do you govern or are you on en Twitter?" Isn’t that contradictory? It’s a way of communicating.
How often do you talk to Macri? He’s lowered his public profile significantly.
Yes, I do talk to Macri, in general daily or every couple of days. Lowering his profile is a [conscious] decision. The government wants a punching bag so it’s logical that he lower his public profile. But he talks to the Radical party chairman, to economists, to deputies, he has a full appointment diary. He’s permanently in contact.
So he intends to keep participating in the party, now you’re in opposition?
He left before the quarantine to use his time partly for that and partly for the FIFA Foundation. But nor am I privy to all of his appointment diary.
And do you talk to Marcos Peña? He did not end up on good terms with many ministers in his Cabinet ...
I spoke to him some days before the quarantine about how we saw the future. It was a general chat, going over the past, present and future. He came from outside. He was Cabinet chief for four years. We drank coffee.
Does he forma part of this opposition?
It will be his decision as to whether he wants to participate in the opposition. It’s difficult for somebody with so much protagonism to leave it all behind. Perhaps he’s in a stage of readjustment.