A matter of months before the 2019 elections, Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal gave an exclusive interview to Perfil network CEO Jorge Fontevecchia, touching upon such sensitive themes as la grieta (Argentina’s fierce political rift dividing society), her role in the ruling Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) coalition, her relationship and her differences with Mauricio Macri, corruption, those who vote for former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and a host of other issues underlying the national political agenda.
Why did you finally decide not to separate [Buenos Aires province’s] election day from the national one?
It was a joint decision together with the entire Cambiemos team. The first factor: a [separate] election would have to be financed by the Province, almost three billion pesos not allocated in the Budget, and we would have to make cuts in important and sensitive areas. Secondly, a certain fatigue in people about going to vote again after so many times. And thirdly, while separating the elections would have created an opportunity to discuss provincial issues, in the current scenario they would all have been nationalised anyway … But in future we should bear in mind that the Province deserves a debate of its own. And also that the Province can implement a different voting system because the electronic voting law has already been approved there.
Did hopes of some economic pick-up feature in the decision?
No. It would be underestimating the people to think that they vote on the basis of what happens in the last three months before the election. Votes are built up over a much longer period.
How much does it change your analysis whether or not Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner] is a candidate?
No, Buenos Aires Province already confronted Cristina in 2017. No, it wouldn’t change anything.
And what if Sergio Massa were a gubernatorial candidate?
He has never expressed that intention publicly and nor do we have any information on that. At the same time elections and electoral strategies should not be defined by the adversaries. You need to demonstrate to the voter that yours is the best option, not that the other is bad.
Does the emergence of Roberto Lavagna modify the electoral panorama in any way?
In Argentina, in general, it is difficult to set up a third party shortly before an election. In the final analysis, of course, it is the citizenry which chooses and there can always be surprises. But over and above the names – Lavagna or whoever represents that third way – it is difficult in a society as polarised as ours today to build a third option.
What would Cambiemos gain and what would it lose if there was a presidential primary between Macri and a Radical candidate?
Firstly, there is a natural leadership from Mauricio Macri and Cambiemos has yet to produce a figure who could challenge him in a primary. Buenos Aires Province is a very good example of that with Radicalism and the Civic Coalition. That does not mean that such a person will not emerge but they haven’t yet and nor are our allies putting anybody forward. I frequently attend Cambiemos meetings at national level and I’ve never heard a primary proposed by any Radical beyond certain public statements along those lines. [It’s] A very different situation from 2015 when Ernesto Sanz, Lilita Carrió and Mauricio Macri all had to start demonstrating that they were ready to maintain unity within the same primary.
To what do you attribute your positive image being 10 percent higher in the polls than the president’s?
The opinion polls are always a photo, a snapshot, but even when consolidated over a period of time, a governor’s work – contrary to what some former governors might want to make you think – is infinitely less than the president’s. The president takes decisions regarding foreign policy and the economy and those decisions condition the reality of any province. That’s the way it is. And I believe that the toughest decisions have fallen on Mauricio, especially in a situation where national utility subsidy rates are still being decided.
Nothing much going wrong with foreign relations. The lower approval ratings must come from the economy.
No doubt, we had a very tough 2018, very tough. In Buenos Aires Province, two-thirds of the families live in Greater Buenos Aires, which must be one of the most economically affected zones in the country, especially its PYMEs [small and medium-sized companies]. In contrast to the interior [of the country], whose wheat and maize harvests are starting to lead to a certain revival. There is no need to tell me because I live in Buenos Aires Province.
But that is not the result of the government of the last three years, of all the specific economic decisions taken, it’s the result of many years, even preceding the Kirchner presidencies, although also including them. We haven’t managed to grow for more than 10 years – not at a spectacular growth rate of six percent but a sustained three or four percent, as in all the developed countries. Nor have we managed to sustain single-digit inflation, nor to achieve a balance between what comes into the State and what we invest – and where we invest. And that’s not the fault of one set of politics but of several over many years.
I would describe it as a culture of the ‘short cut,’ trying to come up with an Argentine idea which is innovative, distinctive and makes us different from the rest. And the truth is that the rest of the world, many of the countries which we admire, with all their idiosyncrasies, with different histories, problems and economies, they all say in unison: ‘This is the way.” A very hard road but it’s the one they followed.
So as you see it, no president governing in that period enjoyed favourable social approval ratings due to the economic conditions?
No president had it easy, of that I have no doubt. From our starting-point, in a country still in default and with foreign currency controls and repressed inflation. Without even mentioning our inability to measure inflation or poverty because the INDEC statistics bureau was destroyed. Many economists, including recognised economists of the opposition – such as Miguel Bein, who is often linked to Daniel Scioli – admit that they would have done some things the same as the government. And it’s harder to do them when you’re a non-Peronist minority government in both chambers.
Does being a woman nowadays, whether it be you or Cristina, give you any advantage or disadvantage when it comes to popular approval?
There is at present a climate favourable to women because humanity has been governed by males for so many years and they’re trying out a change to see what happens. There’s a climate in which women’s rights are being discussed in public and that could be an advantage for some of us who are female politicians. In my eyes, that gives us more responsibility, because when a woman in politics, business or university life, has a decision-making position and gets it wrong, that affects women much more than men.
What do your daughters think of your stance on abortion?
The oldest is 18 and in favour [of reform], so in my home it has been debated. The truth is that I want her to think critically and decide for herself. Of course, I brought her up with my values, my way of thinking and my religion, but she’s already a woman and can decide for herself and we can live with that and many other subjects over which we disagree. And I’m still proud of her as a daughter and she of me as her mum. Democracy is not just something outside the house but also inside our home, without relinquishing the place which each one of us occupies within the family bond.
What is your relationship, in general, with feminism and the sisterhood?
For many years I did not take feminism on board, because I would say that I was more discriminated against for being young than for being a woman, in some decision-making circles. The phrase would be: ‘And this young thing is going to explain to me what to do?’
And both combined?
That too. When Mauricio made me [Buenos Aires] City social development minister, my first major public responsibility, that’s when I made a big shift towards a gendered perspective. The domestic violence services for women depended on me. That’s when I contacted [Supreme Court Justice] Elena Highton de Nolasco, who had recently started the court’s Office against Domestic Violence. I started listening to many women and also, as I was growing professionally, I experienced firsthand a certain discomfort and surprise among some men, as well as double standards and I became aware of it. But it was my daughters who ended up defining me along this road. Our daughters are not going to go through the same things we did. They will face less situations of discrimination and if they do experience them, they will be far more aware of them than I was.
Could it be that your higher approval ratings, with respect to the president’s, have something to do with you being born into a middle-class household, while the president is the first-born son of what was the richest man in the country at that time?
If that were so, it wouldn’t be good because it would be born out of prejudice. My parents remain a middle-class family – when the economy goes well, upper middle-class and when badly, lower middle-class. I don’t believe that people are good or bad according to their origins, and I’ve walked the poorest neighbourhoods, first in the City, and then in Buenos Aires Province, for more than 10 years every week of my life.
And this job also gave me the opportunity to know many people with Mauricio’s story. Your personal history has doubtless influenced you but – more than this history or the socio-economic origins – people are influenced by their values. For Mauricio it has been an enormous advantage, coming from where he does, in foreign policy. When you see how he bonds with the presidents of other countries, you can see that he was someone who was out in the world long before being president and who knows a lot of the world – China, for example. Somebody who has dealt with powerful and important people such as the president of the United States. Far from hurting us, it’s an enormous advantage just as it’s easier for me to understand people’s experience aboard the Sarmiento line because I took the Sarmiento for many years of my life as a student and I know what it’s like to climb in through the window.
Does that leave me at a disadvantage in other situations? Yes. Is one influenced by one’s personal history? Yes. Now does that determine whether one is a good or bad person, a good or bad leader, good or bad in government? Definitely not.
In your first year as governor you made public a series of threats against your life but recently not so much. Is that because there are less threats or because you decided not to disclose them any more?
I decided that some years ago. Firstly, for personal reasons, because as they were made public, everybody around me was having a very rough time. And on the other hand, it seemed to me to suit those who were threatening me. I didn’t want to play the victim with this situation; it’s part of my job. I knew Buenos Aires Province was like that when I presented myself as a candidate. The people of Buenos Aires Province have battled situations far more adverse than mine and if they don’t play the victim when they have been victimised by crime, when they have been infested with drugtraffickers who prey on their children, when they live in absolutely unprotected places, I’m not going to play the victim.
So there aren’t any less threats than before ...
[Jair] Bolsonaro won the presidency of Brazil with an image of taking on organised crime; Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has improved her public image thanks to her fame for being tough on crime. Could your identification also as a significant anti-mafia fighter be a prime component in your popularity?
I think that differentiates me from my Peronist predecessors who governed the province for 28 years.
How does your vision differ from Macri’s?
If there really are deep differences – and I don’t think there are – I would attribute them more to those difficult economic decisions because in everything else we have worked very closely together. The fight against drug-trafficking, against the barras bravas [football hooligan leaders], against corrupt trade union leaders… everything has been side-by-side and I could not imagine it any other way. That’s going to be very important in the election. I said in 2015 that working as a team with the national government was going to be a before and after for Buenos Aires Province, always thinking in terms of public works or the economy or how provincial employees are going to be paid.
No profound differences, but different nuances, especially in more progressive issues like the environment – I don’t know about sex education but in the debate over decriminalising abortion we’ve had our different nuances. He’s an engineer and I’m a political scientist. Mauricio looks at a spreadsheet of numbers and spots the error at once. He’s a great doer, a good planner.
Due to my background and my profession, I’m more into making the rounds of the neighbourhoods and being with people. But I don’t know if those are deep differences. I don’t know if I’d be as good as he at foreign policy – he’s brought Argentina back into the world.
What would you do better at?
It seems to me to be a bit of ego trip to say it. The people would have to say. In over 10 years I’ve seldom found myself arguing with him over deep differences because he has also been a very democratic person.
Has he changed much?
Not at all as far as our bond goes.
And in his vision of politics and the world?
Yes, today he is a more selfassured person but with an even greater capacity to listen. If power does not make you arrogant, it teaches you to listen more and that is a path we must follow. This has nothing to do with the presidency but I think that forming a second family has improved Mauricio enormously. Having a woman like Juliana [Awada] at his side, having had another child, all that has done him a lot of good.
A better stage is now approaching, if the people accompany us and vote for us again, because a second term is an enormous opportunity for greatness. When you know that after the next four years in power in the presidency, you’re going to have to say goodbye to politics in such a top position, you have an opportunity to be great which other past presidents did not take advantage of – but he can.
Can the grieta be overcome?
Yes, we Argentines can live another way. I’ve seen families and friends confronting each other. A party does not define whether you are a good or bad person. There are good and bad people across the political spectrum and I’ve met valuable people in parties other than Cambiemos. Fortunately, I think that there are many leaders in the opposition and in Cambiemos whom we can help and I think that Mauricio has an enormous opportunity as from December – if Argentines elect him again – to help heal the rift.
Would you criticise Macri’s spin doctor, Jaime Durán Barba, for exploiting that rift?
No. That would be assigning him a responsibility he does not have. He helped us a lot to grow as a political sphere and he has done his bit for Argentine politics from the moment he drove us to fight, to debate and to understand from another standpoint what is going on among the people – that politics is defined by the power of the people and not by the power of politics. That’s his big contribution to Cambiemos.
Your relationship with Pope Francis seems to differ from Macri’s.
The difference comes from the personal bond. Mine was built from my work in the City, when he was the Archbishop there, with both of us committed to the same causes – against poverty and exploitation. And I respect what he did.
Another difference: you get on better with Sergio Massa.
Politics is a human bond before all else. Then come the ideology, the differences, the political debates. But above all, there’s the human bond and that works better with some people than others.
But in general you get on better with most people.
(Laughs.) That’s also a preconception. I get on very badly with some people. With some I’ve differences that are hard to overcome, which have also gone public. I get on well with most mayors but with some not so much a nd t hat ’s publ ic knowledge. I’ve found it difficult to have a dialogue with Kirchnerism in all these years.
But always better than the president...
I don’t see it that way. The first year he succeeded in passing a whole bunch of laws with a minority government, through his own sense of vocation. In the second year he clinched a fiscal pact… Most people don’t know what a fiscal pact is nor its future importance and he agreed it with almost all the governors. I find it unfair that when there are agreements, they say that it’s thanks to his team and when there are disagreements, they become his responsibility.
How many points would you give the economic stewardship in these three years to date?
I think the hardest road was taken but that was because the hardest road will take us to a better place in the next few years without doing the obvious or lying. I’m also aware of the enormous effort being made by shopkeepers, PYMEs and people who find it hard to reach the end of the month after paying their utility bills or who directly cannot, but they are going to have a better country for their children and for themselves after the time it takes. But they will have that country for these tough decisions that are being taken and not by yet again taking a short cut.
Do you feel emotionally indebted to City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta for having started you off in politics?
My link with Horacio was quite a coincidence because I entered ANSES [social security agency] as a trainee but I was lucky to be assigned to the executive board, where Horacio was the director. We got to know each other there and it was he who taught me the most about public administration. I started off politically with Mauricio in 2003.
Who’s going to be the candidate in 2023, you or Horacio Rodríguez Larreta? Would you fight for that?
First, I would have to overcome a profound personal and political contradiction. The personal is whether I want to dedicate my life to such a self-sacrificing job because being president is full-time work with an enormous quota of responsibility. And the political is that Buenos Aires Province has suffered greatly from having governors who wanted to be presidents. Not that I believe in any curse preventing governors from being presidents. I rather think it’s the other way round – the governors wanted to be president and that made them choose the wrong priorities. That did a lot of harm to the people of Buenos Aires Province.
How can you explain that 30-year-old trainee now having the second-most important job in Argentina 15 years later, as well as having the highest approval ratings, above the president?
For that it was necessary not to resemble, in any way, everything which had governed the Province before. That is the lesson of 2015. How bad must everything have been for an unknown woman, who had never held a post in Buenos Aires Province, and without any party machine, to win an election which turned her into the hope of many people. That does not speak so much of me as the others.
To prepare my questions I looked over your most extensive audio-visual interviews, and I could not find there any ideology, vision of the world or Zeitgeist or anything different of yours in the field of political ideas. But always there was common sense and virtues linked to effort, dedication and self-sacrifice. To govern successfully in the 21st century, is it more important to transmit that you’re a good person than to be statesmanlike?
Urgency has no ideology. Both are important, but one is the condition for the other. I don’t think anybody can be a good statesman without being a good person and being a good person is not enough. In general, there’s not too much to debate about the urgent and most of my work has had to do with the urgent, of which there is plenty in Buenos Aires Province. Perhaps that led me into not getting into any profound ideological debates. Given the velocity of the society in which we live, it is much harder to sustain ideologies over time. A far greater capacity of adaptation is needed to understand what is happening to those around us – I don’t know if that’s just emotional intelligence.
Apart from your children and parents, who or what else is there in the personal sphere of María Eugenia Vidal?
There’s room for friends I’ve had all my life and who have always accompanied me. Above all, my friends before I was governor, many of whom have known me since I was very small. And there’s also the extended family – aunts, cousins and one of my grandmothers is still alive. I have a group of people who know a non-political María Eugenia and when they meet up with me, they do so on that very healthy basis, which I protect as much as I can.
I have little time for anything else. I miss reading a lot, I read much less than before. I like TV series but I dedicate what time I can to my loved ones and my children.
Is it possible in Argentina to govern Buenos Aires Province, to fall in love and even to have children again?
I’d like to think so because I’m going for another term and I wouldn’t like to spend four years single! (Laughs) I’d love that. Having a partner and a stable love life makes us better. True love makes us better.
I hope it happens. I wouldn’t like to think that you have to choose one thing over the other. It will come when it has to come.