Mauricio Macri is trying to regain control of the situation. The market appears to have settled down after the president all but secured additional funds from the International Monetary Fund. Having burnt through Luis “Toto” Caputo in a few months, Macri has replaced him with Guido Sandleris at the helm of the Central Bank, who is applying a monetary torniquet to battle inflation, while trying to blame the IMF for the severity of the coming recession. On the electoral front, the loss of popularity suffered by the leading Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition seems to have found a floor, and projections still put Macri above Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in a hypothetical 2019 run-off, meaning the fragmented Peronist front represents a harmless threat. Yet Macri once again faces a big problem within his so-called coalition: Elisa Carrió.
Lilita, as she is known, is one of Macri’s strongest allies. She won her seat in the Chamber of Deputies by a landslide during the 2017 midterms, and remains one of Cambiemos’ best performers in the polls, with a 45-percent approval rating which is essentially above everyone else except Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal. Coincidentally, Lilita’s core followers are concentrated in middle-class sectors of the big cities, which is where Macri’s image has suffered the most on the back of a worsening economic situation. From an electoral standpoint, Carrió is the glue that keeps Cambiemos together.
“Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos,” yells a brilliant Joker, interpreted by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, “I’m an agent of chaos!” Lilita, like The Joker, is unpredictable many times. She’s the self-proclaimed protector of the Republic, battling corruption from the inside. During the Kirchnerite decade, Lilita was many times alone in her battle against the decrepitude of institutions. Today, she has found her place at the centre of Cambiemos, which many times causes headaches to the “founding partners” of the coalition, Macri, Vidal, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña.
Last week, Perfil published what was the beginning of Carrió’s most recent eruption, in which she gave President Macri an ultimatum, suggesting she could break up Cambiemos. She was infuriated by the removal of certain key personnel in the AFIP tax watchdog that she considered political. Then, she threatened Justice Minister Germán Garavano with impeachment. After leaking the impeachment proposal to the press, she backtracked, noting that she would postpone her actions against Garavano and describing her threats to the president as “a joke.”
Behind the scenes, the root cause of Lilita’s anger had to do with what she believes is political and judicial protection for presidential cousin Ángelo Calcaterra and even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The story that Perfil broke last week explained how Leandro Cuciolli, the head of the AFIP tax agency, had removed six senior officials, among them the team investigating the kickback scheme surrounding the Sarmiento rail underpass, a massive public works project in which Calcaterra’s Iecsa had partnered with none other than Brazil’s Odebrecht, Italian firm Ghella, and the Spanish company Comsa. Among those fired were Horacio Catagnola, Jaime Mecikovsky, and Carlos Bo. Less than a week before their displacement, Carrió had had a private meeting with Cuccioli where she explicitly asked for the trio to be allowed to work freely. Cuccioli said yes, but after lunching with the president, went ahead with the dismissals.
The team had presented evidence to two federal judges on the suspicious movements of US$4.495 million, which an Iecsa executive had transferred between September 2011 and December 2012 to Spanish firm Detección De Riesgos Técnicos Control De Calidad Y Supervisión De Obras De Edificación SA, which has been identified as a front for the payment of bribes to public officials. The money had been transferred to the Banca Privada de Andorra, a financial entity well-known for its role in Odebrecht’s money-laundering operations.
Her anger at Garavano stems from an interview the justice minister gave in which he said: “It’s never good for a country to have a former president in prison or with a pending arrest warrant.” Publicly, Lilita claimed Garavano was interfering with the Judiciary with regards to expresident Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s embattled legal status. Judge Carlos Bonadio has asked the Senate to revoke the former president’s parliamentary immunity after Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli asked for preventive prison for the current senator to be remanded in custody. According to Carrió, the Macri administration is engaging in electoral speculation, relying on their strategy of antagonising Cristina while keeping her out of jail in order to avoid a sympathy vote. Behind closed doors sources suggest Lilita and her team wanted control over influential bureaus, including the federal prosecutors, but were shunned by Garavano, or Macri.
Carrió is a necessary evil for Macri. A double-edged sword, he needs her in order to gain legitimacy in the battle against corruption, and for her attraction to middle-class voters, many of which feel disenfranchised by Cambiemos and its erratic economic policy. Sly as a fox, Lilita knows when she has the advantage, striking at the right time and making sure the government doesn’t let its guard down.