Formerly an economy minister of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and an ambassador to the United States for Mauricio Macri, Martín Lousteau today considers that the role of Juntos por el Cambio is systemic, provoking an improvement in the quality of debate and policy proposals in Argentina. In that sense the arrival of neuroscientist Facundo Manes adds volume and critical mass to progressive ideas, he reasons. For this economist, a centrist agenda is constructed by thinking out the role of the state and its limits, while also needing an active social democratic contribution.
In 2009, in one of the three long interviews we did, you said: “I have an enormous intellectual respect for [political theorist and philosopher] Ernesto Laclau and it seems to me unfair to say that the Kirchners are influenced by him.” What is the difference between his thinking and the Vulgate as it is translated by the Kirchners?
There is an intellectual varnish to many decisions which deep down come from gut feelings, and the Kirchnerite idiosyncrasy and these decisions are viewed through that intellectual prism. The duty of the intellectual is to stir controversy, ask questions, bring things out in the open and provoke. That their thinking is unfurled by somebody does not imply that is definitely what that same thinker would do if he had the power to modify certain things.
In another recent interview, [psychoanalyst and author] Jorge Alemán, a very close disciple of Laclau and an intellectual touchstone for Kirchnerism, said: “The ideas of Latin American populism are not very different from European social democracy.” Do you agree with that outlook?
No. I know Jorge, at some stage we had several chats in Spain. I disagree over various issues. What is the difference between conservatism and social democracy? To simplify this question, the former says that the status quo is OK, while social democracy believes that it should be modified. According to the school of thought from which I most like to drink, Fabian socialism, this is built by constructing institutional capacity as a gradual, cumulative and evolutionary modification. What he [Alemán] must be saying is that if the reality to be modified finds the institutions of populist countries anchored in certain powerful sectors, the way to change that is populism. I don’t believe that is so. The populist quest often has negative feedback which prevents it from emerging from where it is. Social democracy is the opposite of populism, which when it extends a right, it is often done so precariously that this right is later at risk, either explicitly or tacitly. There is no permanent construction.
Macri has just said that populism is against the work ethic. Do you agree with that phrase?
Again no. I’d prefer to describe it as a political movement which arrogates to itself the total representation of everybody without possessing it.
Quite literally. They say “We represent the interests of the people.” But who are the people, one might ask. The people we represent, they would reply. It’s quite tautological.
And the people are a whole. Does populism take a part for the whole?
Yes. After a crisis, people wake up to not having the expected level of progress and accumulated prosperity for some unknown reason. That’s fertile ground for somebody saying that they will defend everybody against that with a directly emotional appeal. It’s a phenomenon we’ve observed elsewhere in the world.
Does such violent populism achieve the opposite of what it seeks? Is it self-destructive by being so aggressive?
Every action is followed by a reaction. Without even reaching its more extreme version, populism appeals to fantasy. The defeat of the others has to be total.
What did you think when during his interview in this same series, Alberto Fernández said that he saw himself as a social democrat?
Everybody has the right to see where they want to try and change the system. Social democracy and Kirchnerism are incompatible. Social democracy tried to incorporate the social demands of the hard left in an institutional and sustainable way. Little or nothing of that is reflected in Kirchnerism.
You were Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Economy minister in her first presidency overlapping with Alberto Fernández. When proposing you [for the post], she said that some things were going to change. They did not and he also had to go.
I had many arguments with hardcore Kirchnerism when president of Bapro [Buenos Aires Provincial Bank], as well as [then-senior officials] Guillermo Moreno, Julio De Vido and Ricardo Jaime. We’ve forgotten all that because a lot of time has gone by. But Cristina, when she won in 2007, said she wanted to construct a social democracy like Germany with Angela Merke as her model. Later she went way off course.
Is there a problem of design in the subdivision of the Cabinet?
There are structural problems. Amid such urgent needs, having so many ministers does not send a message concurring with what one would want to transmit to society. That kind of design presents problems. One is that we do not know which issues we wish to resolve. The design of a cabinet has to address the times in which we live and the problems we want to resolve. To resolve a problem, you must have a diagnosis. One of the problems of coalitions assembled against the clock in order to win an election is that they have not had sufficient time walking in step. Moreover we still have 19th century cabinet designs interspersed with a bit of colour from these times. Thus there’s a Ministry for Gender but we have to resolve health, education and public works. The risk is crisscrossing interaction or spheres. Cells must be formed to work differently.
[Jujuy Province Radical Governor] Gerardo Morales said: “The citizenry is watching a PRO soap opera.” Was he exaggerating?
That’s a metaphor which could be applied to almost any political grouping. There is a visible discussion. There does not seem to me anything wrong with that, it happens in today’s world. Let’s see how a force capable of consolidating itself continues in the future – a force which is in opposition save in three provinces and the City of Buenos Aires. By virtue of its 2015-2019 experience it wants to see how it can contribute systematically towards modifying what is happening in Argentina. It seems very important to me that different visions be debated, sufficiently massaged and ironed out.
Is the debate between progressive and conservative stances?
Yes but not only that. There are even people who do not form part of Juntos por el Cambio who can contribute to that vision. Some people are approaching us with a great sense of vocation, like Facundo Manes. It is important that everybody who feels identified with Juntos por el Cambio but might have differences with some of its components should approach, thus contributing to a better debate and diagnosis. I’m left-wing and want a bigger state so that my duty to make the state function well is much bigger than it is for libertarians. We have to take care of the state, not having undue spending, that it does not get its priorities wrong and that there is no corruption. That duty is much greater for those of us who want a state capable of modifying reality.
When I interviewed you in 2016, you said that in 2015 you had voted for Margarita Stolbizer, who recently said that she found Facundo Manes very interesting but not Macri... Is there a shift in Juntos por el Cambio towards more progressive thinking? Is the discussion also ideological?
There are many things. There is a greater awareness among many people that we need a greater critical mass in order to be capable of changing Argentina. We should not act like the mirror image of the other, broadening the grieta chasm. Argentina’s urgencies include a state role but we further need to incorporate the perspective that the state is also a cost.
A serious and modern social democracy has much to contribute there to the other sectors of Juntos por el Cambio. To that should be added a difference in electoral tactics. Some of us think that in order to win and govern differently with the agenda of middle-of-the-road Argentina, we have to go looking for that middle of the road since those who are in one extreme will have to accompany us in the run-off. Others think that you have to generate a far more emotional identification with part of the electorate, obliging the centre to opt for that. That is one of the problems of the state when it modifies the government agenda, making it more extreme.
We need to construct a middle-of-the road agenda. Given Argentina’s circumstances, we would like a more potent social democracy. Others are a bit more centre-right but these are two outlooks on two simultaneous roles of the state but in unison as to the need to improve it.
The pristine PRO, including Ricardo López Murphy and Acción Republicana, was more identified with the classic thinking of the liberal conservative right but as it went gaining critical mass, it became more moderate and modern. The role of Alberto Fernández with the Kirchners was perhaps filled by [former Cabinet Chief] Marcos Peña and possibly [spin doctor Jaime] Durán Barba. Has it moved right again?
You will be aware of the differences I had with the political and economic approach of Cambiemos. The magnitude of the inconveniences facing Argentina are being underestimated when they are blamed on somebody else. That’s not a problem of a particular vision tagging labels to make things more digestible for people. It’s a philosophy of convenience.
The coalition for which you were a deputy had two socialists, including even Pino Solanas at one time. Facundo Manes says that he sees himself as the opposite of Macri and to the left of [City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez] Larreta in a progressive direction towards what he calls the “popular centre.” He believes that Radicalism is an inherent force which only needs a catalyst to regain the mass appeal it had under [Raúl] Alfonsín and reach 40 percent by including republican Peronists, PRO and also socialism just as the Frente Amplio-UNEN of 2014 teamed up the Radicals, the Civic Coalition of [Elisa], Hermes Binner’s socialists and Proyecto Sur. Does that represent the ideological context better?
That’s the context for which I have always fought. We represented that. When the shelf life of UNEN came to an end, Emilio Monzó came to see me to ask whether it seemed to me that UNEN and PRO could make one big primary to defeat Kirchnerism and my answer was yes. He also consulted me as to whether others were in agreement. I then had my doubts about Carrió but he said: “Lilita will be there.”
That is the aspiration of many, the process we are continually travelling. In 2015 I competed outside Cambiemos, which was already installed at national level. They did not want us. In 2017 I told Macri that I was going to compete again and called for primaries within a single space and they told us no. I had conversations with many socialists and many of us believed in constructing a heavyweight social democratic pole within Juntos por el Cambio to balance the agenda and install a debate as to how to resolve the problems. To the degree that Radicalism does not carry more weight with candidates and capacity of governance with the vocation to cope with the discomfort governing implies and is not comfortable with being a minority within a coalition or the opposition, it will be very difficult to improve Juntos por el Cambio. That is a discussion which we must have within Radicalism. The manifestation of Facundo’s vocation seems to me great news. It’s the debate within the bigger space which must be produced.
Can Manes beat whoever PRO presents?
As a candidate when I look at this from the outside, I’m very respectful of the electoral process. It’s the people who vote. I kept on repeating that in the run-up to the 2015 election when we were underestimated and the opinion polls were saying things which were not happening. Besides, campaigns take on a life of their own. Some candidates grow huge in campaigns while others do not shine.
I like that primary, I find it enriching. One of the challenges facing Juntos por el Cambio when the primaries are discussed so much is that it seems a discussion less oriented to the future than the past, trying to resolve past situations. You have to show with projects, ideas, diagnosis and people that there is an agenda for the future. The participation of Facundo Manes in the PASO primaries in Buenos Aires Province opens up space, makes it all bigger. It’s a great incorporation.
Let us conjecture: Facundo performs splendidly for the Radicals but in the end the PRO machine squeaks through to win. Should Facundo be granted something quasi-presidential like a kind of Knowledge Ministry on the basis of his project to convert human resources into something more important than Vaca Muerta [shale]?
I have no doubt of that. Juntos por el Cambio owes itself an internal discussion other than the economy with a more integral approach to education. Instead of reacting to Kirchnerite initiatives, it should display its own ideas on every question. Facundo’s speciality is highly important for thinking through the future of Argentina. When Rodolfo Terragno chaired the Radical party, he introduced the British tradition of a shadow cabinet. That’s not much use in terms of marketing or communication but it is valuable as a form of interacting with the government, obliging us to say realistically where we are heading. Juntos por el Cambio cannot just react to government initiatives. That seems an error to me although it goes down well with an annoyed sector of the electorate. Nobody describes themselves by what they are not.
In this series of interviews, Julio Cobos said that you wanted to be a presidential candidate without being City Mayor first and that you should run to head the City first. Does your answer about Manes say something about yourself?
Julio is talking about other discussions within the alliance but it doesn’t matter. Although I do not see that there is only one single quarry for sculpting good presidents. There were some very good presidents, not just in Argentina, who never imagined themselves as such.
You said that you would have liked to have been economy minister when older.
I resigned because in the discussion about the state and the economy and inflation, we had very profound differences in diagnosis, what was happening and what had to be done. It’s very difficult being an economy minister without carrying your own political weight. The president makes the pick although you have the right to decide further down the line. Experience and the popular mandate makes the president responsible for the whole table and not just a corner of it. An economy minister with political weight gets much more of a hearing.
Will there be economy ministers in the future with political weight, after Domingo Cavallo or Roberto Lavagna?
You mention two ministers who put through very important transformations or who had to deal with very adverse circumstances and were successful, over and above their errors. If you’re guided by something, you should do it. It’s very probable that at some given moment the economy minister does not have to be an economist. Many pieces need fitting together which require different skills and comprehension. In successful countries like [South] Korea the minister is generally not an economist – lawyers, for example.
Would it be a good decision on the part of [former Buenos Aires Province governor] María Eugenia Vidal to run in the City instead of the Province?
I see pros and cons. This is an election in which we have to clinch as many votes as possible as the top priority and begin to mark out an agenda for the future. We see María Eugenia’s potential as a candidate. She is very highly valued within Buenos Aires. From an institutional standpoint or what we call principles, it does not seem to me the best choice. If your candidate in Buenos Aires Province until the emergence of Facundo is the deputy City mayor while your candidate in the City is the former Buenos Aires Province governor and both are PRO with a very close affinity to Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, in order not to repeat experiences of the past and arouse sensitivities, you need to send very clear messages that the future is much more collective – that they can come from other districts with new people. Facundo resolves that dilemma.
Do you agree with Macri that it would be better to maximise the number of votes and respect the institutions, given that it was her former district?
She’s already made it manifest that she doesn’t want to be governor again. It would be important for her to point out how she sees her future. I hope there’s a PASO primary between [Diego] Santilli and Manes. It would be a great primary and then a great general election in the country’s most important district.
Does a City PASO primary between her and Patricia Bullrich also strike you as enriching?
Let’s look at it the other way around. If Facundo had not emerged, we’d be talking about PASO primaries between [Vicente López Mayor] Jorge Macri and Diego Santilli in Buenos Aires Province and Patricia Bullrich and María Eugenia Vidal in this city. Without extra ingredients that would not be a sign of opening up.
Does the emergence of Manes make it more logical for Vidal to run in the City?
I would say that all the new protagonists, the signs of opening up, the promotion of Radicals like Rodrigo de Loredo [city councillor in Córdoba] or Marcos Ferrer [a mayor of Río Tercero], Alejandro Cacace [deputy for San Luis] 0r Maxi Pullaro [a pundit from Santa Fe] show other things which can be put in motion. That’s the Radicalism I like – the kind which wants to govern.
The message that only PRO is in discussion is not good for Radicalism nor for the coalition as a whole. That’s what Gerardo Morales was referring to. What PRO does is not my concern – I want to busy myself with what Radicalism does. And I want to have potent candidates everywhere and better balance in a possible Juntos por el Cambio government. You do that with more, not less amplitude.
Would she [Vidal] want to be a mayoral or presidential candidate?
I don’t know. She has made manifest her desire to be president. But discussing what will happen in two years seems science fiction to me.
In UNEN I underwent midterm elections where everybody wanted to decide where they wanted to go ahead of knowing what they wanted collectively. There were then seven presidential hopefuls with none of them installed in reality. We must demonstrate within the rules and organisation the attraction we generate through others coming from outside. We must demonstrate that we are ready to construct a space on the basis of a common diagnosis.
Would you like Juntos por el Cambio to be more like Chile’s coalition, which between 1990 and 2010 had presidents from both sides – Christian Democrats Patricio Aylwin and Eduardo Frei and Socialists Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet.
I’d like that. Without being patriarchal, I’d like Juntos por el Cambio to be our surname, then we can be Juntos por el Cambio PRO, Juntos por el Cambio Radical, Juntos por el Cambio Coalición Cívica but always with a collective objective because it is very difficult to transform a society without one and a predisposition to pay individual costs towards that collective objective. Juntos por el Cambio has to show that it can do that.
If the presidential candidate is PRO and the running-mate Radical or vice-versa, and ditto for the Cabinet chief, would you like to be the running-mate or would you prefer to be the mayoral candidate in this city?
I’d go where I’d contribute most collectively, where we had the most chances of winning nationwide and transforming the country. No post in Argentina is worthwhile if not accompanied by a greater vision. I’d like there to be PASO primaries because there is no unity list, the lists should go criss-crossed. There should be a senatorial candidate for one party, the second from another with the list of deputies headed by another. That amalgam reinforces what I was telling you beforehand, that we feel part of a collective space where the differences are not partisan.
I like the PASO primaries because they bring people like Facundo Manes closer to the parties. The long-term duty, as Ricardo Lagos once told me, belongs to the party. Presidents are tempted by the short term, that’s why the parties must be reinforced. The party is the channel through which a candidate must pass but the parties, to be attractive and show new ideas, need new people. We must be capable of generating that collectively. Which is the best candidate? The one who wins the PASO primaries where everyone is voting. There I have run in every PASO I could, trying to bring in people to collectively defy the leadership. That makes for better parties and candidacies but a profounder diagnosis is required. If not, it’s just electoral alchemy without any deeper effect on the metal we want to transform.
‘Alberto Fernández should know that when he speaks, he is representing all Argentines and not himself’
In what way is Alberto Fernández different and in what way the same as the man you knew as Cabinet chief?
I see him as very similar. I don’t notice much difference from the man I knew in a different role. Some errors are more natural than others. At that time he was a kind of Cabinet chief consigliere to cushion or modify the more tempestuous decisions of Néstor or Cristina Kirchner. The same thing now, except that instead of cushioning from below he is doing it from another place but his role remains the same. Today he should be taking the decisions.
Do you see Alberto Fernández as more like Fernando de la Rúa in recent weeks?
He’s very different, both in origin and personality. Fernando de la Rúa was always very circumspect when talking. He was different in not being up to tackling the crisis facing him for whatever reason, whether the impossible virulence of that crisis or his own characteristics.
Is it unfair to De la Rúa to compare him with Alberto Fernández?
The presidential bloopers are inexplicable because they are easy to correct, over and above the stress of the pandemic. It strikes my attention. He has a very big team at his disposal. Somebody should be weeding out these avoidable errors before they occur. Due to the magnitude of the presidential word, they generate unnecessary internal and external problems. Alberto Fernández should know that when he speaks, he is representing all Argentines and not himself.
Did you imagine him intellectually capable of committing those errors?
It’s difficult to know what’s going on. There’s something in that process which comes from the campaign. We like to think that presidents are human and that everybody is spontaneous when campaigning.They are human and spontaneous. But as a candidate he dispensed with all planning, among other things because it seemed to him good marketing, a way of confronting the Jaime Duran Barba model. But the responsibility is different.
I’ve had posts of institutional responsibility where you have to curb your own freedom. A Central Bank governor who speaks without clear guidance and chooses not to read risks gratuitous financial market reactions. I was an ambassador [in Washington]. I don’t like wearing suits but I wasn’t representing myself. When I spoke, I knew I was representing 45 million people so I did not improvise. I have even seen United States presidents in campaign action. Everything which seems nice and spontaneous is a teleprompter. They cannot make a single mistake.