So much has been omitted from a vacuous campaign debate that it might seem easier to list what has been included, but perhaps nothing is more central to achieving sustainable growth than modernising the country’s hopelessly outdated logistical infrastructure. In an age when digital communication is so paramount, it becomes easy to lose sight of the importance of simple physical communication but the “One Belt, One Road” label which China has given to its core economic strategy is no accident. Neither export-led growth nor globalisation are such easy options as their keenest advocates might argue but when it costs as much to transport goods from some inland provinces to the ports as from there to China, these options are just not on the table.
While earlier regimes merely neglected the transport network, the governments of the last three decades have been regressing in various aspects. The privatisations of the Carlos Menem era were actually beneficial for modernising various areas of infrastructure, such as the telephone system and the power grid, but not for transport – his virtual closure of the railways beyond suburban commuting delivered a stranglehold on freight movements to a sector dominated by the teamster union of the Moyano clan. The Menem decade was followed (after a chaotic interlude) by a dozen years of Kirchnerism and while public works were given a fair chunk of the budget, they also became a synonym for corruption – however strenuously this might be denied by their candidates in this campaign.
The current Mauricio Macri administration came to power determined to discontinue as many negative Kirchnerite mechanisms as possible, including among these the Federal Planning Ministry in charge of the shady public works contracts – this was effectively replaced by a newly created Transport Ministry (which even retained its ministerial status when Macri halved his Cabinet last September). Unfortunately, this has ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater in the form of public works. From the start Guillermo Dietrich’s Ministry made passenger transport its priority and though it has achieved various advances there, notably in air travel, this did not help freight.
Dietrich’s portfolio was not Macri’s only substitute for the Federal Planning Ministry – he also envisaged a bold Belgrano Plan to develop northern infrastructure under the Tucumán Radical José Cano. But the Belgrano Plan lacked any autonomous funding or any real planning committee and finally even Cano himself, who resigned after 20 months – in that period little had been achieved beyond a major expansion of Tucumán Airport. The next bad news for infrastructure was last year’s standby agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when public works became the shortest cuts (or rather the biggest) to the austerity required. Of course, it would be wrong to say that Macri has eliminated public works, along with their corruption, but as the first engineer to be president since General Agustín P. Justo over 80 years ago, he must surely be disappointed with his professional footprint on the country.
Since we are not engineers like Macri, we do not intend to give any blueprint of the public works required – instead this editorial is an appeal to all candidates to give the country’s logistics the urgent priority they deserve if Argentina is to have a truly federal and national economy. With all due respect to Antonio Machado of “Caminante, no hay camino” fame, the road should not be made as you go along.