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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-10-2019 10:15

Mauricio Macri: High hopes now looking grounded

At the start of the century opportunity knocked in the form of Argentina’s 2001-2002 economic meltdown leading to a total “begone with them all” disenchantment with politicians and a political vacuum, into which Macri stepped.

President Mauricio Macri spent much of his first term with high hopes of a second grounded largely on two premises, both now in tatters.

The first was that a re-election strategy based on relentless polarisation against his predecessor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (a rival with whom he has almost nothing in common, save a birthday in the shortest month of the year) would be “condemned to success” in a run-off – the Alberto Fernández presidential candidacy put paid to those plans.

The second was that pro-market policies and the firm defence of free trade (despite which Argentina remains one of the most closed economies in an increasingly protectionist world) would be rewarded with growth and investment. Such hopes seemed crowned late last year (even if Macri had already gone to the International Monetary Fund at that point) when Argentina appeared to earn its G20 membership for almost the first time by proving a highly successful summit host. Argentina’s economic plunge over the last year is too long and too sad a story to tell here.

Mauricio Macri (no middle name, not even a single letter like Harry S. Truman, whose 1948 comeback win he hopes to emulate tomorrow) was born in Tandil, southern Buenos Aires Province, on 8 February, 1959. The eldest of six children, Macri was born with not so much a silver as a golden spoon in his mouth. His father, Roman-born conglomerate tycoon Franco Macri, who died last March in his 89th year, was a leading figure of the “contractual fatherland.” The creator of an industrial empire with a six-digit payroll, he was at least the second-richest man in Argentina three or four decades ago, if not the richest. Mauricio’s mother Alicia Blanco Villegas came from another industrial dynasty. His parents separated in 1980.

The family soon moved to the capital, where Macri was educated at Cardenal Newman college and the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA), where he graduated in civil engineering (followed by brief postgraduate studies in the United States at Columbia and Wharton)– a solidly Catholic education which nevertheless seems to have left no footprint on his philosophy of life (in the less troubled days of gradualism he was often typified as a Zen Buddhist).

Macri’s private and family life since then is on public record but has aroused surprisingly little attention – thus whoever had heard of his younger brother Mariano, before he was robbed in the small hours of Wednesday? Apart from the offshore financial dealings of Gianfranco, alongside his presidential brother as reported in the Panama Papers and elsewhere, his surviving siblings (also including sisters Alejandra and Florencia) have zero profile either. Ditto for his children Agustina, Gimena and Francisco, by his first marriage to Ivonne Bordeu and for his second spouse, the model Isabel Menditeguy (both marriages lasting a decade). Even the youngest child Antonia has faded from public view, although the president’s current wife, Juliana Awada (since 2010, the same year his trademark Freddie Mercury moustache vanished), is a constant presence at “#SíSePuede” rallies.

His engineering degree was quickly followed by entry into the family business where he spent almost 15 years – first SIDECO construction and then Sevel cars (which he presided by 1994), also becoming the general manager of the Socma Group family holding in 1985. Not the happiest or most successful years of his life – despite his genes, Macri faced a steep learning curve as a businessman.

Back in 1993 Socma was the local partner for Thames Water, bidding for the privatisation of Aguas Argentinas against the French SuezLyonnaise des Eaux, who won the tender by bidding exactly half a cent below Thames Water so they obviously knew the rival bid. This did not surprise me in the least because even I also knew, thanks to attending a reception at the British Embassy residence where a garrulous Macri was telling every man and his dog exactly what the Thames Water bid was.

Indiscretions, of course, can be excused and the president has at least one traumatic experience in his locker – the consequences of a dramatic kidnapping in 1991, when he was held for 12 days by a gang of rogue police officers until a multi-million-dollar ransom was reportedly paid. He has said the ordeal is what inspired him to go into politics.

In 1995 Macri began a 12-year presidency of the Boca Juniors football club (in which he had previously invested), simultaneously giving him a springboard to political popularity and freedom from family business responsibilities. Performances were patchy until 1998 when the “Viceroy” Carlos Bianchi became coach with seven national titles and eight international cups over the next seven years – glory days sorely missed by the club ever since (not least this week after Tuesday’s disappointment).

At the start of the century opportunity knocked in the form of Argentina’s 2001-2002 economic meltdown leading to a total “begone with them all” disenchantment with politicians and a political vacuum, into which Macri stepped by founding the centre-right Commitment to Change party in 2003 and running for Federal Capital mayor the same year. Success was immediate with victory in the first round but incumbent Mayor Aníbal Ibarra won the runoff – those were times in which even such a staunch current ally as Civic Coalition chief Elisa Carrió was saying: “My limit is Macri.”

Things would turn. Following two years in national Congress he won both rounds in 2007, the start of two mayoral terms in which the Metrobus, the city’s own Metropolitan Police force and turning a blind eye to Argentina’s first same-sex marriage in 2009 were among the highlights. In all that period he largely held back his party (renamed PRO Republican Proposal since 2005) from national politics, allowing the opposition to Kirchnerism to be headed by a dissident Peronist in both the 2009 and 2013 midterms, while himself refraining from tossing his hat into the 2011 presidential ring against the sympathy vote for the recent widow. Instead Macri shrewdly timed his presidential bid for 2015 when an unconvincing Peronist rival (Daniel Scioli) and voter fatigue after 12 years of Kirchnerism gave him a narrow run-off victory by just 2.7 percent.

In the last four years a bittersweet Macri presidency has seen both successes and failures with the latter considerably more visible than the former. In the very first days of his presidency he made a bold start by scrapping currency controls and ending most export duties while a settlement with debt holdouts soon followed but all these advances have been reversed one way or another in the last year or so.

The term ending in December leaves a smaller but more ordered economy. The “twin surpluses” of the first Kirchnerite term destroyed in the next two are on their way back – much closer to fiscal balance which became a reality for almost every province last year when only four or five were in the black in 2015 while there is a growing trade surplus with energy exports making a comeback after over 15 years – but these long-term gains draw less notice than the everyday ravages of an incessant inflation or the debt crisis. And for those who see growth as the bottom line, three of the last four years have seen the economy shrinking (with recession also a factor in the positive trade figures).

Obviously to describe this presidency in any detail would require another page or more – but this piece is more about “Mauricio” than “Macri.”

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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