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OP-ED | 02-03-2019 09:49

Editorial: Better and worse

Macri’s underlying message was that Argentines are really better off despite being worse off for now, which confuses far more than it convinces.

The only fair way of assessing President Mauricio Macri’s state-ofthe-nation speech yesterday is to measure it against what this annual opening of Congress is supposed to be – the presentation of a road map in general and a legislative agenda in particular for the rest of this year. Critics were quick to dismiss his address as a campaign harangue but this is inevitable for any president eyeing re-election the same year – more serious were the lack of any plan against the ongoing stagflation or any bills to occupy the future parliamentary sessions. Thus Macri floated a target of US$200-billion worth of exports for the year 2030 but the subject was 2019 – concentrate, Mr President, concentrate.

Macri would doubtless justify this neglect via his diagnosis of Argentina’s failure to grow for the last several years as a structural not a cyclical problem requiring a long-term vision, but this attempt to take the high ground ran into various contradictions. The speech began with a self-definition of his presidency as the first to face problems, avoid short-cuts and take responsibility but only a few minutes later he was allocating responsibility elsewhere when he blamed the failure of gradualism on international capital markets, last summer’s drought and the “cuadernos” corruption cases in court (perhaps the first time he has presented these negatively as presumably demoralising big business rather than as a breakthrough for the independence of justice).

The big picture also clashes with this being an electoral year. Virtually the only announcement – the child benefit hike (an administrative not a parliamentary decision so that Macri was almost telling legislators that he could govern without them) – points to a potential collision course between yesterday’s renewed “zero deficit” pledges and his electoral ambitions, especially when seen in conjunction with bringing ahead the minimum wage increase from June to this month (not good news for the small businesses Macri claims to be helping). The short-cuts are already starting, it seems.

The speech met with widespread criticism both deserved and undeserved (not all detractors seem to have listened carefully) and little praise beyond the mindless applause of the Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) caucus – so what can be said in its favour? At least Macri departed from the script written in advance by most pundits, whereby in the absence of any positive economic news he would hammer away at crime-fighting and corruption, the former as cheap electioneering and the latter to polarise the electoral race against Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (notably absent yesterday) in the hope of being seen as the lesser evil amid faltering popularity. Macri was neither demagogic on crime – in particular steering largely clear of the xenophobia which has often tinged his administration’s immigration policies – nor overtly confrontational with Kirchnerism (at least not in his written text although it contained various digs), striving to present an image beyond the negative politics of simply not being the former president.

Towards that end he chose three main areas – foreign policy, tourism and state modernisation – to complement the well-worn crime and corruption issues. Foreign policy was predictable enough, given the success of last December’s G20 Leaders Summit, and domestic tourism (highlighting the much-vaunted “aviation revolution”) also figured prominently in last year’s speech, boosted since by devaluation, but state modernisation was something of a surprise as almost the engineer’s pet topic this year. Here he could boast various achievements which sound more spectacular than they are – thus the percentage of digitalised municipal governments rising from 10 to 90 since 2015 is certainly impressive, but technology worldwide is changing at that pace too.

All the above was in aid of Macri’s underlying message that Argentines are really better off despite being worse off for now, which confuses far more than it convinces. But reality is more complex than a polarised political world is prepared to admit. Recession, inflation and poverty (all sidestepped by Macri rather than denied) warrant a clearer answer but the Argentina depicted in his speech is not just wishful thinking – there really is lithium and solar energy in the north and wind energy and Vaca Muerta shale in the south and there are really thousands of start-ups (even if the current data point to many more businesses going under).

The political year officially began yesterday but how it will end at December’s presidential inauguration remains an open question.

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