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ARGENTINA | 15-04-2023 06:43

María Eugenia Vidal: ‘When paths of upward social mobility break up, deeper crises are produced’

National deputy and former Buenos Aires Province governor on her presidential ambitions, hawks and doves, her recent marriage and learning from defeat.

National deputy María Eugenia Vidal, Buenos Aires Province’s first-ever female governor and the first non-Peronist to head the provincial government in 28 years, has accumulated plenty of experience over the years. 

Recently remarried, the former deputy mayor of Buenos Aires City is now preparing to compete in the PASO primaries as a presidential hopeful – though she says she is yet to make her final decision.

Vidal, 49, says that governing the nation’s most-populous region gave her the necessary experience to lead Argentina – and losing her re-election bid was “an enormous political apprenticeship.”

 

You recently said in a programme that you would be deciding your [presidential] candidacy at the end of April. Why, what do you expect to be happening this month between now and then?

I feel that now is not the moment. It’s not that anything will be happening later this month which is not happening today. But I do feel it much closer.

 

You have said: “The real grieta rift is between the politicians and Argentines.”

Yes, I really do believe that. I believe that 40 years of democracy have not been able to resolve such highly structural questions as poverty, the deterioration of the educational system – quite the opposite of resolving it, deepening it – and the difficult access to formal employment.

The other day I heard a specialist say: “Before those living in a poor home knew what it took to reach the middle class, which was [hard] work and education.” When I was small and living in a middle-class household, they told me: “If you finish secondary school, you’ll get a job and if you get a job, you won’t be poor.” That has broken down in Argentina. Those finishing secondary school in today’s Argentina will probably find it very difficult to land a formal job and even if they do, they will probably end up poor. So when those paths of upward social mobility break up, deeper crises than the cyclical are produced. And if the representatives of democratic politics seem to be inhabiting an alien reality with their own inward-looking discussions, without proposing a vision of the country, it becomes very difficult for people to feel that there is a way ahead, a horizon.

 

I’m hearing you criticise the political system in a way somehow resembling [libertarian Javier] Milei and I see you nodding. Let me remind you of my 2019 interview with you in which you said: “To be firm you don’t need to shout; for many years this was confused with bullying.” You were obviously then not talking about Milei but Kirchnerism. Is Milei, with another ideology, using the same shouting techniques you criticised beforehand?

I share the justification of the annoyance, above all not so much in other political leaders as in Argentines. And I also feel annoyed at times, I feel interpellated and in some cases ashamed when having to expose myself as a politician in this context of the system. But I also say: “What are we going to do with this annoyance?” I want to end the destruction with this annoyance, not to continue destroying. What we do with this annoyance is consistent with what I said in 2019. Conflicts are not resolved by shouting, which is not synonymous with having better arguments or more character or being firmer.

 

[William] Shakespeare has one of his characters say: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” as an example of people shouting too much to be right. 

A very good quote. 

 

There are trends also within PRO to more bombastic speeches and ideas a bit more to the right. The “hawks and doves” is not a media invention. Are you in the middle of these two sectors, a synthesis of both?

I have always said that this “hawks and doves,” dialogue versus firmness, seems to me a false dilemma. What defines the limits of dialogue is conviction, some things are not negotiable. That is what happened to me when [I was] governor. No negotiating with drug-traffickers or trade union mafia like [union leader Juan Pablo] Pata Medina or corrupt courts – nothing to negotiate or agree there. These are not questions subject to dialogue. What’s right and what’s wrong, at least from the moral viewpoint, has to be clear because when that line is crossed all the time, societies enter into crisis, as we are undergoing today. 

We reached the absurdity of wondering what happened to Daniel [Barrientos], the murdered bus-driver. Was he the victim or was it [Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel] Kicillof? Because when a bus-driver was killed, not in an exceptional crime but as part of the failure of government security policies, that [provincial] government responsible for security, instead of saying: “Our policy is the wrong one, we’re going to correct it, meanwhile our condolences to the family and we’ll be getting down to business,” they responded: “They dumped a corpse on us.” So that’s why it’s important to be clear about what is right and what wrong, what must be changed, where there can be dialogue and where not. 

Equally I can also say that when I was governor without a majority in either chamber throughout the four years, I reached consensus over, for example, limiting indefinite reelection to public posts – not just the mayors, which is the most controversial, but all the names on the list. As well as requiring an annual public sworn statement, not only from the governor, which was not enforced by law, the cabinet and everybody managing provincial government funds but also all the top brass of the [provincial] police and the penitentiary system and the judges. We had no prerogatives with the latter as an independent branch of government but we reached an agreement obliging them to publish their assets annually. Just as this was achieved via dialogue, so was the repeal of privileged pensions. And these were questions which if I had proposed to put through before beginning my term with a minority non-Peronist government for the first time in 28 years, they would have told me it was impossible.

 

María Eugenia Vidal

 

I perceive your discourse as being closer to [Buenos Aires City Mayor] Horacio Rodríguez Larreta than to [PRO chair] Patricia Bullrich.

Both are leaders whom I respect. With Horacio I have a friendship stretching back more than 25 years, as is public knowledge. Like Mauricio [Macri], as I always say, he was my political father because he gave me my first state job. But I also said in the book I wrote in 2020 that I had left home many years ago to start my own path in which I try to be faithful to my convictions, beyond my personal links. And I really believe that there are situations in which you have to be very firm and not enter into dialogue and others. I believe dialogue to be a very valid tool which should not be belittled. And I believe both [leaders] have contributions to make to politics while Horacio also has eight years of mayoral experience. But I don’t want to have to choose, I’m pursuing my own path.

 

In that mid-2019 interview, when you were the Argentine politician with the best image and there was ‘Plan V’ for Vidal instead of Plan B whereby you would replace Macri as presidential candidate since there were serious indications, which later proved to be real enough, that he could lose while they could manage to win with your candidacy. I asked if you wanted to be President and you said: “Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, not me, has been preparing all his life to be president.” Almost four years have now gone by. Do you continue thinking that Rodríguez Larreta is the best prepared to be president or, on the contrary, having had to govern the most difficult district, you have the best credentials to occupy the presidency?

It’s difficult to talk about oneself and be objective. Furthermore, there is so much ego in politics that you have to ask yourself all the time before saying what you think if what you are going to say is correct, but in terms of experience there is no doubt I have it after having governed half of Argentina if you add the three years as deputy mayor of Mauricio, whom I always had to accompany in the conflicts more than the successes, to the four years governing 17 million Argentines in what I believe to be the most difficult place in the country: BA Province. I have no doubt that this experience in crisis on the largest scale has been transmitted to me. That is not, of course, the only variable when discussing the presidency,  there are many variables in play. I feel that experience as being something I could contribute to Argentines should I decide to run, that phase of having governed such a difficult place and fought many fights, some of which I won and others which I lost but the latter taught me lessons even if they did not grant me success. Patricia and Horacio will have other qualities which I probably do not have to offer, each one in their place.

 

I have heard you say repeatedly that BA Province is a concluded stage and at the same time I’ve heard you say that things cannot be fixed in four years and that more than one term is necessary. I could understand that if you had been re-elected but you weren’t. Why do you think that stage of yours in BA Province is over?

There is one characteristic of mine, more personal than political, never to be more than four years in the same place. When I was Mauricio’s Social Development minister, my first important job in the City, and he proposed to me becoming his deputy mayor, I remember thinking to myself for a moment that if I wanted to be, I could be deputy mayor and Social Development minister at the same time because there was a precedent [2006-2007 City mayor Jorge] Telerman, who had held both posts. And in that moment I said to myself: “No, I’m going to concentrate on doing one job well,” and I feel that in those four years I gave the best of myself. 

If you repeat yourself, I don’t know if you have the same audacity and urge for change as in the first four. Perhaps the person coming to replace me, in this case Carolina Stanley, would bring a new impetus and energy. When I was deputy mayor of the City, I could not imagine four more years there even if I still did not even dream of becoming Buenos Aires Province governor. So I believe it to be an imprint of mine to feel that four years – or six if we are to return to the old Constitution – is a reasonable period to exercise power. Because furthermore power is something which should be respected, not feared but respected. Staying too long in one post does not mean that policies should not be continued by the team. Part of what Argentina is showing today is that after the protagonism of Cristina [Fernández de] Kirchner and Mauricio for such a long time, if there is one thing that the political system is now making evident, it is that Mauricio succeeded in constructing a succession and Cristina Kirchner didn’t. The discussion within Juntos por el Cambio is because there are many candidates, not because they are lacking. Kirchnerism has to see if it can construct a dark horse a second time round, as was Alberto Fernández [in 2019] because there are no evident successors. And I believe that one virtue of leadership is to construct a succession. 

That is said from a personal standpoint – from the political, in particular with Buenos Aires Province, my experience was that this province is a place whose structural problems are much better resolved from the Presidency than by its provincial government. The tools and levers which a governor has to change the reality of Buenos Aires Province are far fewer than those of a president. Greater Buenos Aires in particular, where two-thirds of the provincial population live on five percent of the territory, is a place where economic crises always arrive first and leave last. Even if its governors rule over far more people, they have far fewer tools than other governors, apart from the structural problems of financing. 

BA Province contributes 36 percent of the gross domestic product and today, with the recovery of the Greater Buenos Aires Fund, receives close to 24 percent. That asymmetry is not experienced by the rest of the country and for these structural reasons when I was talking to Mauricio as a governor, even when he was bidding for re-election, I said to him: “How about a Buenos Aires Aires Province Ministry?” Not because such a ministry was really going to be created but because Greater Buenos Aires in particular required a national outlook and national action. We’re talking about two-thirds of the provincial population and not just about the territory of that province but the rest of the country. Because when you walk around Greater Buenos Aires, you meet Argentines from other parts, from Corrientes, Jujuy and Santiago del Estero. And now that I’ve travelled over 60,000 kilometres [around the country], I’ve met up with Argentines elsewhere who find no opportunities in their towns and come to Greater Buenos Aires looking for it. Which is all beyond the political scope of a provincial government.

 

María Eugenia Vidal

 

Looking beyond the PASO primaries, the ideas of those candidates with less votes who did not win and they themselves should remain within the coalition and not emigrate. For example, as some analysts fear, if you don’t run and Rodríguez Larreta beats Patricia Bullrich, could a significant number of her votes go to Milei?

First of all, that depends on how we handle the PASO primaries. 

 

If there is a confrontation.

Whether confrontational or not, unless we use the PASO to discuss proposals and teams. If we spend all the PASO primaries saying that our adversaries within our own party are not up to being president, it will be difficult to ask their voters the next day to join us. Either we were lying beforehand or are lying afterwards. So I do not think that is the way. 

Now with a healthy PASO primary campaign over visions and ideas, there need not be so much discussion the next day. Yes, I think it’s worth it, not this year, of course, because I do not believe in changing the rules in an electoral year but in the future. I think that it would be interesting if the PASO primaries could define the presidential candidate, as in the City [for mayor] and then that candidate can place on the ticket whoever they like, regardless of whether they ran in the PASO. Because it could be valid to put on the ticket somebody representing a sector of society who would like to be president. I think that is something to be borne in mind in the future. 

 

How do you see [Economy Minister Sergio] Massa, his economic policies and his chances as one of the probable candidates?

I think that there are structural differences between the economic programme on which PRO is working, the current administration and the past [model] of Frente de Todos, but above all the current one. Juntos por el Cambio is working on an economic programme to resolve Argentina’s structural issues so that it can return to sustained growth over time. What Frente de Todos is doing is administering its exit with stopgap plans to reach December. The objective is not to modify structural conditions but to guarantee political stability until this government ends. And that changes absolutely the form of facing up to problems. So we’ve had three “soy dollars” in the past seven months and we have more than 15 different exchange rates. If I had to explain today, and I consider myself to be an informed person, how many exchange rates there are and how they are applied, I don’t know if I could answer that question with any precision. We have an inflation rate which is not, of course, going to adjust itself to the controls on supermarket shelves and whose momentum is taking us to over 100 percent this year. We have increasingly more state regulations to control an uncontrollable situation. And all this to gain a month, playing for time to reach the elections and December. This does not enable Argentina to have a serious and consistent programme over time. That was happening before the arrival of Sergio Massa because the government never had a serious and consistent economic programme. It does not have one today and has not had since the first day.

 

Do you not see a certain parallelism between reaching December by scraping the bottom of the barrel with whatever instruments such as peso debt these days while to reach December Mauricio Macri resorted to the International Monetary Fund, each one with the tool at hand but reaching December has become a habit for the last two governments and the only novelty is that for the first time this is happening to Peronism?

No, I think that reaching December began the day after the [2019] PASO primaries when, as Mauricio said so well, our government had to govern with the expectation of what Kirchnerism was going to do, not ours, so that the dollar shot up to 60 [pesos]. That’s why everything which happened happened, making it necessary to adopt emergency policies. 

 

But it [the dollar] had gone up from 20 to 40 [pesos] beforehand.

Yes, that’s true but it went from 20 to 40  [pesos] in three years and from 40 to 60 in a week.

 

From 20 to 40 in a year, you could even say from 20 to 40 in four months [in 2018]. Afterwards it more or less stayed put.

That does not take away from our economic policy errors but even when mistaken, what always guided us was to resolve Argentina’s structural problems. There was never in our government any idea of hiding or papering over problems. We are passing through the end of a cycle, not only of 20 years of Kirchnerism but a deeper cycle of 40 years of economic failures because you can no longer bury your head in the sand.

 

I heard you say in another interview that your decision to marry at 49 was the result of saying ‘yes’ to being able to believe in love. Is there a relationship between being able to believe in love and the idea of also being able to believe in politics?

Beyond any doubt. There is a book about the optimism of hope which speaks negatively of optimism and positively of hope, which is not an illusion but hard work towards that end. And what I mean by that is that I am a person who places hope in politics, in life, in love and the family. I consider myself to be somebody facing something which does not satisfy me but calls me to action, not somebody keeping quiet in the face of something which does not satisfy them. And I have also found myself, and something of life, with a marvellous person who has given me this second chance, Enrique [Sacco], who helps me a lot in politics as well. 

I, who have been a governor and have known what it is to come home and have nobody waiting for you. Of course I have my children but my children are there for me to support them, not for them to support me. I think that now I’m going to be a better politician having somebody waiting for me every night.

 

Let’s go back to that March interview in 2019 when you were in your prime and rejected replacing Macri as candidate, saying: “Let Horacio go, he always wanted to be president” and at the same time you told me that you’d rather have a boyfriend than be president. You already had that idea in your head, was that because something inside you was telling you that first you had to advance in your personal life in order to be able to advance later in politics?

Without a doubt, today I’m much more prepared than I was then, both personally and politically. Politically because today I can see administering Buenos Aires Province with more perspective from what I learned because undergoing defeat is an enormous political apprenticeship. 

 

Defeat always teaches while triumph sometimes stupefies. 

A whole lot more and I believe the apprenticeship which defeat gave me will be an asset in my political career. And without doubt I feel better prepared to face difficulties with a more solid family. Above all because the upcoming Argentina for whoever becomes president will be an Argentina of enormous difficulty and pain and that will require great strength, a strength you have when you know you have a home and a family to which to return with the priorities of life resolved. Because finally these posts and these cycles which seem so dramatic pass away. 

As we were saying before the interview, time vanquishes space but the family remains. And secondly, for all this apprenticeship which, I believe, has made me stronger. 

 

Production: Melody Acosta Rizza & Sol Bacigalupo.

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Jorge Fontevecchia

Jorge Fontevecchia

Cofundador de Editorial Perfil - CEO de Perfil Network.

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