Former president Mauricio Macri evaluates the Frente de Todos government, Argentina’s future economic outlook and the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition in an extended interview, first broadcast on Modo Fontevecchia (Net TV and Radio Perfil 101.9 FM).
Macri, 63, is currently celebrating the release of his second book in three years, Para Qué. He discusses communication, truth and details the challenges facing Argentina.
Your book seems to have a purpose, its own “Para qué.” Does it aim at transmitting your experience to the Juntos por el Cambio leaders who have already decided to run for the presidency?
My book aims at taking advantage of acquired experience. Some people place a central value on “having been there.” All those who have already shown vocation may see what paths are worth exploring and which have been explored without result. The objective is to share the experience of leadership with those who have accompanied me all my life.
In it, you affirm that “gradualism” was the label tagged onto the political weakness of your government. What leads you to think that a future Juntos por el Cambio administration will be stronger than in 2015?
In 2015 we were only given a “partial” mandate. With the decline of institutional quality and the abuse of power on the part of Kirchnerism, people were calling for a government respecting institutions with a healthier culture of power. I think that was the biggest success of our government, we never rang up any media to bring being critical into question.
On the economic front there was a denial of the crisis, it was all asymptomatic, there was no awareness. Now there is, and that will permit us to return to power with a complete mandate for profound change. Today the people want more change and more liberty. They want us to apply in-depth measures because every time we wanted to advance in our previous presidency, we were met with 14 tons of stones.
You also express that, in 2015, there was no time to reach agreement with your other allies in Cambiemos beyond the defence of the Constitution and republican institutions. Is there more agreement now or have the differences, on the contrary, broadened?
In Juntos por el Cambio the differences which were always there have become manifest and are being debated with a view to finding meeting-points. In our first term we had one point in common, which was to defend the Republic. Today there is a greater awareness of economic problems. We must continue deepening the debate so that we enter government with compact convictions and without internal criticisms which most weaken us.
I see a process of positive evolution. But I also believe in competition and there will be competition, perhaps between one proposal of profound change and another proposal of more gradual change over time and the people will have to choose between them.
I’m convinced that Argentina needs a profound change. It seems that the only thing which worries the [political] leadership is how to be in power. There’s no commitment, no ethics. That’s why I highlight the integrity of [my 2019 running-mate] Miguel Ángel Pichetto, who left Kirchnerism to defend ideas. All my life I’ve been a dreamer, a builder of new realities. We are here to transform people’s lives. When I see so much negation, opportunism and short-term thinking, such as giving away energy only for the country to collapse down the road, those are examples of petty, destructive politics.
You state in your book that your ideas on reform are known to the members of the círculo rojo [“red circle”] establishment who have all manifested their support, always with the exception of those reforms which affect their own interests. Can you govern and transform Argentina without the support of the establishment?
It’s not easy but I’m optimistic. I saw it again only yesterday while travelling around Entre Ríos where the people are way ahead of their leadership. They understand that all those who plugged the state were just fraudsters exploiting the state for their own benefit. The people want the truth and to place their stakes big time on the work ethic. The people see their children leaving [the country] because other societies respect the work of others. This has generated a change in popular awareness which makes me very optimistic.
Can you distinguish between holding back out of fear of taking a wrong step or not being ready as when you decided not to run [for the presidency] in 2011 and stepping away out of a wise and fruitful generosity, as might be the case next year?
In 2011 I came out fighting against ideas which were destroying Argentina. Today I’m at a point where I believe that I have to fight for ideas above all. I may have planted the seed but today there is a tree with millions of Argentines debating how we move forward.
If instead of saying “Yes, we can,” you had said “We already know what not to do,” would that perhaps have contributed to not “everything” being expected of the government?
In hindsight we lost in 2019 due to not having been able to manage or meet the expectations. Today we need to manage the expectations more than ever. We need to talk about what we have. In our favour we have the awareness of the people, the learning curve of Juntos por el Cambio, many things, but we also have against us these people having destroyed everything we constructed and aggravated everything we could not solve.
How do you handle the relationship between ambition and greed? Could you work your personal grievances into becoming empathy with and compassion for others?
It was my fortune to be born into a family with power so that I could see what power did to my father for the worse and the degree to which he could not handle it. That has led me to constant check-ups with psychoanalysts to achieve self-knowledge and reflect on “What is power?” It is a unique tool for getting things done and transformation, as well as virtuous combinations of human and economic resources, producing innovations to improve things for most people. Because of all that I can handle this issue of power with great peace of mind but also with much respect.
Are you alive to your narcissism not preventing you from asking, learning and listening?
Triumph and disaster are two impostors. I always stayed away from the big celebrations and I always surrounded myself with healthily independent people with the courage and the marvellous capacity to say the magic word: “No.” Politely, of course.
In presidential democracies like ours, two-pronged leaderships like [Juan Domingo] Perón and [Héctor] Cámpora, [Néstor] Kirchner and [Eduardo] Duhalde, [Alberto] Fernández and Cristina have never worked. With the current experience, Argentines now understand that a president bossed by Fernández de Kirchner brings problems, they’re going to want to elect a president who is not subordinate to anybody. Since you are the great protagonist of the Cambiemos leadership approving the candidates and announcing in your book what the next president should do, isn’t there a risk of the voters believing that if the next president comes from Cambiemos, they will be subordinated to you? Isn’t there the risk of the people wanting to elect a real president? If you are the protagonist of the campaign and overshadow the candidate, would that help your candidate or your opponents?
The president is the president who, upon being elected, must take responsibility and lead. We must get away from that vision of one enlightened person coming along to solve all our problems. The next president must be based on a voluminous team of highly responsible people who will take charge of pushing the cultural change. That is my vision of what will happen.
I have to honour my word. I feel that my  support of 41 percent [Ed. – 40.28 percent, to be exact] has grown and we are committed to not abandoning them. Many people find it hard to understand why I have taken the position I have, but I tell them all that I’m going to help them to understand what we are doing and to decide whom to trust.
I’m working along those lines, far from thinking that I’m going to have a role which I will not have. The president is the president and history demonstrates that wherever I went, I always let my successors carry on with the job, whether as president of Boca Juniors or City Mayor. When they wanted my advice or to debate with me, they came to me.
In Argentina we have had many leaders who have been control freaks. I believe in the complete opposite, in training squads and generating new leaderships. I enjoy it, it fills my soul with joy to see people growing in value and that you can highlight them so that others get to know them. It’s difficult for people to get to know the new leaders so you have to give them space so that they can shine and not be the protagonist all the time yourself.
[Political veteran] David Owen has theorised over the syndrome of hubris which afflicts most presidents. Some think that in the second half of your term you lost your simple style and the common touch. From the fraternal visits to ordinary people and sharing the ñoquis of the 29th, which was the centre of your campaigns, you passed to a more pretentious style, very much the G20 president monopolising the truth and that helped to determine your defeat in 2019. What do you think of that?
That’s one opinion. I don’t think so. I left the presidency as I entered it, I have the same friends. But as from the 14 tons of stones [against pension reform], the unification of Peronism against the government, the systematic aggression like the [Santiago] Maldonado case or exploiting the tragedy of the [submarine] i, we were very battered, perhaps placed on the defensive and trying to be the first [non-Peronist] government in 92 years to serve out our term, even in a minority, against a very savage version of Peronism.
Some of your aides advocated shutting down the AFI intelligence services as an uncontrollable source of problems. They said it was wrong to place an inexperienced personal friend [Gustavo Arribas] at the helm of AFI and this is one of the issues on which your government has been most criticised. Was that decision correct?
There has never been any real leadership over AFI [previously SIDE] since 1983. It’s an insoluble issue and many governments have come and gone since then. We had some successes, resolved some problems. On the external front we earned Argentina a degree of respect which it has never had before. We achieved integration between our intelligence agents and all the anti-terrorist networks worldwide. All the G20 reports praised our work.
When you sought to change the pension system, there was agitation and an enormous demonstration hurling tons of stones at Congress. Do you think that if you had promoted far more radical changes, such as labour reform, the [social welfare] plans and others defended in your book, you would have been able to serve out your term?
Possibly not. After we won the biggest [midterm] victory [for a non-Peronist government] since [Raúl] Alfonsín in 1985, they virtually staged a coup d’état. I remember my Production Minister [Francisco Cabrera] receiving a CGT delegation which told him: “You lot won’t reach November.” That’s how bellicose Kirchnerism was against our government.
Besides, the average Argentine did not feel the need for profound change. They did not see that our standard of living was based on consuming Central Bank reserves, AFJP pension funds savings, etc. They thought that it was the product of good government by Kirchnerism.
Those who say that if we had done more, we wouldn’t have been able to serve out our term might well be right. Others say that we should have done more even at the cost of not completing our term. Those are opinions. But at the end of the day, Argentina is on the point of leaving behind decades of populism because, for almost the first time, a non-populist government could finish its term. That has its value although not much for me because I aspired to help all Argentines end this history of frustrations. But I believe that it will have a fundamental value starting from next year.
Donald Trump in the United States, even Magdalena Andersson in Sweden – nowhere has a candidate won defending a programme of government proposing austerity. Will Argentina be the only country to vote for a programme inspired by Max Weber’s Protestant ethic?
I’m optimistic. We’re the only country which has passed from being one of the five richest countries in the world to being among the poorest, but today we are absolutely clear as to which ideas have been destructive for us.
It’s an error placing the focus on persons, the failure comes from the ideas pushed by Kirchnerism. Anybody applying those ideas would have caused the same failure for Argentina as they did. There is much to be learned there. We cannot continue allowing ourselves to be cheated in order to sustain ideologies presented in sentimental terms, as is the case with [state airline] Aerolíneas Argentinas. The planes must be private and the state must regulate this sector so that there is competition. That is what we are understanding and it is going to open up enormous possibilities for us looking ahead.
If that means beginning to emerge from the catastrophe into which they have led us, saturating Argentine society with privileges and Mafia styles of behaviour, it must be done because if not, there is no future. To stop our kids from leaving, we must have the courage to make a stand and prevent them from trying to take over the country and ruin it. If nobody invests in this country, there are no jobs, credit or savings, just inflation. We need our kids not to leave the country but to give ourselves another opportunity to change Argentina. Succeeding in your country with your family and friends is priceless, it’s worth this final battle.
In the introduction you say: “This book deals with that mysterious road to happiness.” How would you define happiness? Have you found happiness?
Happiness is not a permanent state. We do not value the permanent things. I feel at peace. I experienced a turning-point with my kidnapping – that taught me that it is much more important to be than to have, to give than to receive, to share. If you have nobody to share with, how diffícult it is to be happy.
Why do you refer so much to Boca Juniors for metaphors and political comparisons? At one point in the book you say that you learned to lead in order to be able to play football. When did you turn into a leader? Do you think that leadership on the pitch can be compared with business or political leadership? What are the similarities?
The experience of managing Boca was an apprenticeship for politics. I found very few things there that I had not seen previously in Boca. Argentine football is very intertwined with politics.
What you end up learning is that a good leader is capable of having a dream and getting many people to make it their own. A good leader has to know how to assemble a team in order to turn things into reality. A good leader must be resilient and not fold in the face of the first change of fortune and he must be fair. Fairness means administering the rewards and punishments well. A good leader will really know why he’s there and will know when to say “No” and not take the easy way of saying “Yes” because it suits him, even if it is not the right thing.
The book harps permanently on making dreams come true and on juggling between passion and reason. You even dedicate a whole chapter to “saying no.” How much denial and how much reason is necessary for leadership? And how do you combine reason and denial in making dreams come true?
There are many leaders who have achieved incredible things through denial because they turned reality on its head and were lucky. But I don’t believe in that model. I believe that one must be permanently aware of reality and succeed by doing things well. When there is no contact with reality, success is temporary and then everything goes to hell.
The book has two leitmotivs: leadership and power. Even if you begin the second half by saying that those concepts go hand-in-hand, you place leadership more in your stage as businessman and president of Boca, mentioning power for the first time when you speak of your start in politics. Is power uniquely political?
Power is everywhere, even in the relationship of couples. It is something which accompanies us, innate to human beings, we have to learn to deal with it. The secret is: when you have it, don’t abuse it. If you want to test the character of a man, give him power. That is where you see the true nature of a human being. That is why you have to know yourself because if not, you can do some very bad things if you do not learn how to handle the situation to give benefit to lives when having a quota of power.
Those proposing to lead at different levels should know that humanity faces a level of complexity as never before and should understand that they are going to govern in an ultra-complex situation. It would be an absolute error to underestimate or minimise that context. That is something I put to people every day. There is no such thing as magic or a saviour, etc. There is a complex world full of complex situations which will have to be managed on a day-to-day basis.
You also dedicate a complete chapter to [the 2004 nightclub fire tragedy] Cromañón. How much influence did that tragedy have in your political life? It certainly did in mine because from that moment we began to discuss whether we should be making a contribution to politics or not. The whole system wanted the situation covered up and made us feel like outsiders. They told us: “It would not suit you [Macri] because if [then-mayor Aníbal] Ibarra, who cannot be re-elected, does not carry on, [his deputy mayor Jorge] Telerman would be a very tough candidate.” Again the dilemma was what suits you versus the correct.
There were leaders who showed honesty and balance in the face of grief-stricken parents. Nothing compares to your kid going to a nightclub and never coming back. That breaks your heart, it was real anguish. I was new to politics. There was a flood of people wanting into the lists of Compromiso para el Cambio [as Juntos por el Cambio was then called] because the lists and candidates were piling up very abruptly. It was an extreme situation and having defended the truth ended up generating a party which would be a protagonist in Argentina nationwide for many years to come. With ([ormer vice-president] Gabriela Michetti at the head, there were leaders who really put their backs into it against a system which treated us as idiots, telling us that we did not understand anything.
You also dedicate a chapter to communication. Is that one of the changes which PRO brought into politics?
Without doubt, we innovated in communication. I think that has a lot to do with my personality. I’m one of those people who believes in sincericide. The shortest route to happiness, the perfect union between two points is telling the truth. I never believed in grey areas. Black and white have huge value because they construct what moves a society. The most important thing for a society is confidence. When you come out of the grey areas and give people certainty, everybody knows how to manage. When everything is a matter of opinion, it’s a disaster.
Communication has been pivotal for us, always close to the people, ringing door-bells, which was started after a flood and which I never stopped doing. It’s all about understanding for whom you are doing things and how they see it. Communication today is more complex than ever because the level of information which we receive every day is a challenge which can never be met.
Despite having done some very good things, one established criticism of our administration was a lack of communication. Something is always lacking. We did innovate and everybody recognises that but at the same time many people feel that it was not enough. There is always room to communicate still more.