Interview: Argentine president Mauricio Macri looks to end confrontational politics

The president of Argentina says his austere approach can revive the economy and turn the page on mistakes of the past
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Mauricio Macri’s high-ceilinged office is unexpectedly warm. Lately, the new president has been on a crusade to drill into Argentines that they should get used to the idea that monthly electricity bills should cost a bit more than a cup of coffee. Mentioning the subject whenever he gets the chance, he even chastised the organisers of a recent public event as the television cameras were rolling, complaining it “wasn’t cold enough” and insisting the heating had been turned up “a couple of degrees” too high.

“Today it is not so cold. The rain and humidity help,” says Macri, gesturing towards the windows of his office in the Casa Rosada presidential palace, which reveal the late afternoon gloom of a rain-drenched Buenos Aires. Despite a harsher than usual winter, Argentina’s centre-right president is unapologetic about his austerity drive and presses his point home. “We have to commit to consuming as little [energy] as possible,” he says, well wrapped up with a jumper and jacket over his open-necked shirt, in keeping with his technocratic administration’s business-casual style.

Argentina’s energy crisis is proving to be one of Macri’s biggest challenges since he took office in December 2015. It lies at the heart of the tangle of intractable economic problems his government inherited after 12 years of populist rule under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. They had kept utility prices frozen since the grinding recession that followed Argentina’s economic meltdown in 2001, while inflation rose by about 700 per cent.

The Kirchners’ lavish subsidies pushed Argentina’s fiscal accounts deep into the red, and Macri is well aware that regular economic crises over the past century, ultimately caused by profligacy, have all too often led to the undoing of governments.

“I understand that many of the decisions I have taken are not so easy for many people,” says the 57-year-old millionaire and oldest child of one of Argentina’s most prominent industrial tycoons. His move to increase utility tariffs by as much as five times has met with intense opposition: this July, for the first time since Macri came to power, Argentines returned to their time-honoured tradition of taking to the streets to bang pots and pans in protest. “If there were any alternative to increasing tariffs, I would have taken it, but there is not,” he says.

Despite the tricky situation — his name’s appearance in the Panama Papers exposé only fuelled criticisms from political enemies — Macri is doggedly confident that things are going according to plan. He repeats that his government is heading “in the right direction” three times during the interview. “We must keep going down the road we have chosen,” he insists.

Although Macri is noticeably less exuberant, he has not wavered from his optimistic message since he last spoke to the Financial Times, at the end of his eight-year run as mayor of Buenos Aires. At the time he had just achieved an unexpectedly strong performance in the first round of presidential elections in October. But gone are the giddy days when Argentines cringed as the Freddie Mercury fan seized every opportunity to dad-dance a jig to celebrate his narrow victory over the ruling Peronist party.

Macri is the first civilian president in a generation who is not a lawyer © Ignacio Colo

“My concern is making things work. It is what my people need,” says Macri, who trained as an engineer. His down-to-earth, problem-solving attitude has been celebrated by many Argentines relieved that he is their first civilian president in more than a generation who is not a lawyer. Macri, scorned by his detractors as an aloof playboy, may lack the oratorical flair of his populist predecessors, but he takes pride in his no-nonsense approach.

“I promised to tell people the truth,” he says. “I don’t believe in messianic leaderships but in teamwork,” he adds in fluent English. His linguistic skill is a break from Argentina’s recent tradition of monoglot presidents; Fernández once described her English as “absolutely Tarzanesque”. As if to ram home their points of difference, Macri removed from the president’s office the independence-era paintings installed by Fernández, replacing them with jazzy modern Argentine art.

So far, Macri thinks things are going “quite well,” despite “a very difficult starting point”. “It is not so easy to [rebalance] an economy after a decade of lies. They were taking Argentina towards the same kind of problems that Venezuela is facing now,” says Macri, referring to the mass shortages and nigh-on hyperinflation laying waste to its economy.

There have been impressive early successes, prompting US President Barack Obama to describe Macri approvingly as a “man in a hurry” during a visit to Buenos Aires this year that was itself a big foreign policy coup for the new government. But inflation remains stubbornly high and the economy has yet to reignite. “Things cannot change in just seven months, but every day we improve a little bit more,” says Macri, who is optimistic about growth projections of 3 to 3.5 per cent for next year, after an expected contraction this year.

Macri’s big bet to revive Argentina’s stagnant economy is to boost foreign investment, which sunk to historically low levels thanks to the Kirchners’ hostility towards the private sector. Macri bats away concerns that investment is not arriving quickly enough, arguing it is increasing in a steady flow, rather than one abrupt step-change. Sitting bolt upright, he uses two fingers to trace two lines that gradually get wider apart. “You see? Every day there is more good news,” he says.

As evidence that Argentina is a “very attractive place for investors right now”, Macri points to Argentina’s success in pulling off the biggest emerging market bond issue ever for $16.5bn, in its much-vaunted return to the international capital markets after resolving a decade-long creditor dispute. “There is no other country in the world with as much upside as Argentina,” he insists.

Mauricio Macri says has ‘a lot to put on the table’ in world affairs © Ignacio Colo

The drive for foreign investment is part of a broader attempt to reconnect with the world, after many years of isolation under the Kirchners when relations with western powers such as the US and the UK collapsed. “We want to be part of the world, part of the future, part of the solution,” says Macri, rattling off an ambitious list of issues where he believes Argentina can contribute, including food security, energy, drug-trafficking, terrorism and nothing less than world peace. “We have a lot to put on the table,” he says.

Closer to home, Macri reserves special criticism for the “disaster” in Venezuela. “I can’t understand how people can say they are practising democracy — that’s not democracy,” he says, shaking his head and rejecting any suggestion that he has softened his stance against the administration of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president, since taking power. He insisted he had fought for a referendum to remove Maduro, as well as for the “freedom of political prisoners”.

Perhaps the latter issue has special resonance for Macri, who has a large photograph of Nelson Mandela beside his desk. He gave his ministers copies of Knowing Mandela, John Carlin’s biography of the South African leader, to underline his more conciliatory approach after more than a decade of confrontational politics under the Kirchners. Indeed, Macri was once a prisoner himself, albeit at the hands of rogue police officers who kidnapped him for a fortnight when he was 32.

He has said that the experience of being jammed in a coffin for days on end convinced him to go into politics — though not before a successful 12-year stint, starting in 1995, as president of Argentina’s legendary football club, Boca Juniors. Trophies from that era also decorate his office.

“I always say football represents very clearly what happens in society,” says Macri, who compares his job to a groundsman’s — someone who ensures the pitch is well tended so that teams can play by the “rules of the game”. He is most at ease when talking about Argentina’s favourite sport. Like the country he inherited, he says the state of Argentine football was “in a mess, full of corruption and a complete lack of professionalism”.

But he says Argentina will be “more than ready” for the 2018 World Cup — the same year that Argentina will host the G20 summit. “We will have our revenge against Germany,” Macri jokes, hoping that Lionel Messi, “the best player in the world” will be part of the team he recently announced he was quitting. “I told him I would be very happy, proud and honoured if he [stayed],” Macri says with the reverent tone he otherwise uses for Pope Francis I, whom he describes as “the most important Argentine”.

Macri’s telephone rings. His helicopter is about to land, to take him back to the presidential compound in the leafy suburbs of Buenos Aires, a couple of minutes ride up the River Plate, where he lives with his third wife, Juliana Awada, a 42-year-old fashion designer. Photographs of her and their young daughter Antonia, his fourth child, occupy prominent positions in his office. There is time for one more question: after so many false dawns in Argentina in recent decades, why should things be any different this time?

Macri laughs. “It is the same question I get asked in Berlin, in Davos, in Silicon Valley. I really believe that finally we have learnt from our mistakes,” he says, leaning forward. He points to the fact that all the major laws the government has sent to congress this year have been passed with an “incredible” majority as evidence that the Peronist party “supports what we are doing”. Regional opposition governors are working with the government and often travel abroad with the president.

“This shows a different Argentina. There is a new generation in politics that wants to be part of the 21st century.”

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