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ARGENTINA | 02-03-2019 08:04

‘No turning back,’ declares Macri in turbulent speech before Congress

President goes on offensive in turbulent address to Congress as he lays out case for re-election, saying his administration won’t roll-back on austerity.

In the last state-of-the-nation address of his current term, Mauricio Macri fervently defended his government’s austerity policies yesterday as he re-opened Congress, indicating his belief that despite the economic crisis, Argentina is on the correct path.

In a turbulent session in Congress – which featured heckling from opposition lawmakers, calls for silence and verbal crossfire – the president went on the offensive, indicating that his administration’s policies were irreversible as he laid out his case for re-election.

“Today Argentina is better off than in 2015 [when I took office.] We continue to make profound changes, we have left the swamp behind,” he said in a speech that was greeted with regular applause from politicians in his Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) coalition.

Macri made these claims while admitting that those who felt worse off than four years ago with “everything costing more” were right, throwing in some implied self-criticism for prematurely stating in last year’s state-of-the-nation address that the “worst is over.”

To back his assertion that Argentina is nevertheless “better off,” he cited a letter from a Greater Buenos Aires woman who said that she had been unable to afford going on holiday this summer but now had sewage and running water for the first time (one of 1.5 million people according to his figures).

Almost bereft of any positive economic data to boast, Macri had been widely expected to bang the drum on crime and corruption but both issues ended up occupying smaller chunks of his speech than predicted with relatively brief mentions of advances against drug-trafficking and his asset recovery decree as well as calling for the reform of an outdated Criminal Code.

Instead he devoted rather more time to state modernisation (removing red tape for businesses) and the tourist boom (with domestic aviation records broken monthly for the last 28 months) to reinforce his claim that Argentina was “better off” despite an economic crisis he only obliquely mentioned.

Foreign policy was the other strong point he chose to play up, highlighting last December’s G20 Leaders Summit and reiterating his government’s backing of Venezuela’s self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó, whom he met later that day at the Olivos presidential residence.

NO LOVE LOST

The weight of the electoral year hung heavy in the address to lawmakers from both chambers of Congress, with no love lost between the opposing sides.

The president often spoke loudly and at times angrily,clearly frustrated by repeated attempts to interrupt him from opposition lawmakers, who showed little sign of respect for the PRO leader, ignoring requests from Vice-President Gabriela Michetti to refrain from interrupting.

Macri himself even responded to the insults, especially calls that he was a “liar.”

“The insults say more about you than me,” he replied angrily on several occasions, reminding his audience that he had been “voted into office.”

Many opposition politicians sat with signs reading: “Hay Otro Camino” (“There’s another way”) and “Macri fuera ya” (“Macri out now”).

Justifying severe cuts in public spending, Macri said that “the fiscal deficit is what causes inflation and poverty.” Gradualism had worked well until a year ago, (creating 700,000 jobs, he claimed), blaming capital flight from emerging markets, last summer’s drought and (perhaps for the first time) the fall-out from the “cuadernos” corruption scandal for derailing the economy.

But now there was no alternative to “zero fiscal deficit,” his government’s committed objective, as stated to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), he said.

‘NO TURNING BACK’

Macri argued that Argentina had long lived beyond its means and asked the country for more time, saying that “deep changes require patience.”

“There is no turning back” on the policies that are being applied, he added, despite recent data indicating that the country is now in recession. Inflation reached 47.6 percent last year.

Macri acknowledged the tough times at present, admitting that poverty was on the rise and declaring he would do his best to improve conditions for industry, with factories and businesses continuing to close.

He also confirmed that the Universal Child Allowance (AUH) welfare benefit would rise by 46 percent, from 1,800 to 2,644 pesos as from March.

The president trod carefully on economic ground, pointedly not saying that “inflation is low,” as he did a month ago. Official statistics showed prices rose 2.9 percent in January, which increased the year-on-year accumulated figure for the last 12 months to 50 percent, the highest in 28 years. Almost 200,000 employees were fired in 2018, according to official figures.

Macri, however, said he remained positive. “We are on the right path,” he reiterated.

Close to Congress, on the streets outside, Olga Alderete, a 46-year-old cleaner who earns 6,000 pesos per month ($150), said: “May Macri leave. We cannot go on, everything increases. People are getting fired. Factories are closing. Now school starts and it’s a problem because there is no money to buy the supplies.”

“Macri told lies about industry, employment [levels] and workers,” said Agustín Rossi, the head of the Civic Unity (Kirchnerite) caucus in the Chamber of Deputies.

SOMOS lawmaker Victoria Donda described the speech as “of a president who is leaving power.”

ELECTION YEAR

Macri declared in his speech that he saw Argentines “with hope and strength,” but the recent economic turmoil is testing his support base. One of the largest pollsters in the country, Poliarquía, recently revealed that 64 percent of people disapprove of the president’s management of the country.

Nobody at present knows exactly who the president will be facing off against in October. The biggest question-mark is whether his biggest rival in the polls, former president and Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, will run.

At one point, the president trained his fire on the senator for Buenos Aires province in his speech, contrasting his government’s approach to the Venezuelan government, now led by Nicolás Maduro, to the former head of state’s policies.

Macri said Fernández de Kirchner’s government had “decorated Maduro” with honours, despite the Venezuelan leader’s lack of respect for human rights.

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