Almost three years ago Mauricio Macri reached the presidency on the strength of a pledge underlying his various campaign promises to end several decades of stop-go, boom-and-bust cycles in favour of steady growth based on consistent ground rules, but all we have seen this week is one U-turn after another. And not just on one front either. The week started with a strong backlash (on both sides of the political fence and among the general public) against a gas surcharge announcement sneaked in right at the end of last week in the hope that it would be forgotten over the weekend. But not even the shockwaves from far rightist Jair Bolsonaro’s massive first-round advantage in Brazil could stop the boomerang. No sooner had the government backtracked from this political blunder with a humiliating loss of face, it was squirming again with the bewildering contradictions of maverick deputy Elisa Carrió, at all odds with her image as the self-anointed moral and political conscience of the republic.
The gas fiasco highlights functional problems within the ruling coalition, but also an underlying collision course between economic strategy and electoral tactics. We can only assume mobile telephones had been disconnected within the government (several days ahead of the problems reportedly looming for next Thursday), given the total lack of communication. Why was President Mauricio Macri emphasising that bills had to be paid in the morning if a U-turn was coming later that afternoon? What was the point of the drastic streamlining of the Cabinet (which also pooled the various economic portfolios) if Energy Secretary Javier Iguacel could go ahead with his resolution to slap the surcharge on future household gas bills to compensate utilities for their devaluation losses without consulting Economy Minister Nicolás Dujovne? Such decisions need to be co-ordinated with broader considerations of investors, the markets and wider economic strategy, not least passage of the 2019 budget which would have been jeopardised without the ignominious retreat.
The Macri government needs to embark on some overdue self-criticism on these points, which does not mean they need succumb to the cheaper opposition critiques. Those who complain that gas bills have risen ninefold under the Macri presidency should also look at the starting-point – thus if it was not uncommon for these bills to be the price of a cup of coffee three years ago, due to Kirchnerite subsidies, should a month of gas for the price of nine coffees be considered totally unreasonable? The government will torpedo its chances of attracting overseas potential to the vast shale potential of Vaca Muerta, for example, if it constantly submits the energy utilities to politically driven regulatory changes. Yet even the most important long-range plans also need to incorporate the short term – to impose this surcharge within the stagflation of a recession projecting well into next year plus a 100-percent devaluation does not look like very intelligent timing.
Carrió’s antics do not have any mitigating circumstances, unlike the gas surcharge blunder’s saving grace of seeking to attract foreign investment. Space does not permit a detailed list of this week’s numerous torrents gushing in opposite directions but perhaps the worst was Thursday’s “just kidding, folks” attempt to calm the storm that she herself had raised – most people are not in a jocular mood amid a crisis of these dimensions. Her main target was Justice Minister Germán Garavano (sometimes seeking his resignation and sometimes his impeachment in a “you cannot quit because I’m firing you” spirit) but neither is this pressure justified nor is Garavano the real target – if her real problem is with Boca Juniors chief Daniel Angelici as a judicial operator, why does she not say so? Garavano’s misgivings about remanding ex-presidents in custody (if Carrió interprets this as preserving ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as the ideal electoral rival, the minister is hardly alone in this logic) are questionable but hardly grounds for dismissal. All noise which hurts the government without advancing her crusade against impunity.
The success of the Youth Olympic Games, currently being hosted in Buenos Aires, is perhaps this week’s most positive note and the mature attitude of the competitors has been anything but amateur. The same cannot be said of some of the government’s representatives over these past seven days. Maturity and improved dialogue would be most welcomed.