Thursday, January 18, 2018

Authoritarian tendencies in the Argentine government of Mauricio Macri

With authoritarian-minded governments and movements in ascendancy in various places of various types, there's a lot of speculation about an wide-reaching authoritarian trend internationally: the US under Trump and his pliant Republican Party, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia of course, Austria, Brazil, the Phillipines, Argentina to some extent. Most American would probably include Venezuela in that list, and that's partially accurate. But the reporting on Venezuela in the US is pretty pathetic. And with it, we can never forget, "Venezuela claims the world’s largest proven reserves of petroleum, an estimated 298 billion barrels of oil." (Michael Klare, The Desperate Plight of Petro-States TomDispatch 05/26/2016)

Such trends are hard to measure. Marc Plattner gives his version of such concerns in Liberal Democracy’s Fading Allure Journal of Democracy 28:4 (Oct 2017). That publication's website states, "The Journal of Democracy is part of the International Forum for Democratic Studies, housed within the National Endowment for Democracy." The NED is rightly suspected of an excessive enthusiasm for regime change in countries in which US neocons and "humanitarian hawks" disapprove of the government in power. I mention that not to suggest that their arguments be disregarded, but rather that they should be understood in the broad context of NED's outlook and practice.

Plattner is looking back at the triumphalist "end of history" narrative after the fall of the eastern European Communist governments after 1989 in what former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer once called revolutions by implosion.
Looking at the global situation today, a quarter-century later, we see a vastly different picture. Those same principles and practices, which by the 1990s seemed to have fully regained their former attraction and to have spread to a much wider range of countries than ever before, now seem again to be losing their luster. Today liberal democracy is clearly on the defensive. Authoritarian regimes of various stripes are showing a new boldness, and they appear to be growing stronger as the confidence and vigor of the democracies wane.
Plattner expresses particular concern about the rise of populism in Peru:
In April 2016 in Peru, voters handed a landslide congressional victory to Popular Force, the party of populist former dictator Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a 25-year prison term for severe human-rights violations committed during his presidency. The party’s 2016 presidential candidate, the former leader’s daughter Keiko Fujimori, won a very substantial plurality in the April first round—almost 40 percent, nearly twice the vote share of second-place finisher Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Yet this still left her well shy of a majority, and she was forced to face Kuczynski in a June runoff. She lost to him by less than a single percentage point, but her party’s legislative majority means that her influence on Peru’s political direction is considerable.
While the Peruvian case is important, the election of the rightwing/oligarchic government of Mauricio Macri in Argentina (end of 2015) and the "soft coup" in Brazil (2016) are currently notably more significant in terms of their effects on democracy and the neoliberal policies that undermine it.

Neither Argentina nor Brazil has abolished elections or political parties. And the "soft coup" that put current President Michel Temer in power in Brazil was more authoritarian in nature than the straightforwardly democratic election that brought Macri to the Presidency in Argentina.

But Macri's government is a great example of predictably bad economic policies - although of the kind approved and insisted upon by the IMF and the "Washington Consensus" - and how they are easier to maintain in more authoritarian conditions than in democratic ones. Macris's government came after 12 1/2 years of kirchnerismo government, i.e., left social-democratic Peronism under the Presidencies of the late Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Although Macri in his 2015 campaign made gestures toward Peronist perspectives and was supported by a Peronist faction (Peronism is a complex political phenomenon, to put it mildly), his economic policies have been the textbook neoliberal playbook of budget cuts, privatization, low taxes for the wealthy, and lower salaries and wages for the majority. The results, of course, have been high inflation and a slumping economy.

Kirchnerismo was notable in having broken with the Washington Consensus on free trade and debt by maintaining capital controls and refusing to pay vulture funds for debt that had to be defaulted on after the financial crisis of 2001. The goal was to develop the domestic economy and in particular to develop Argentine industry. Foreign debt has been a problem for Argentina as a block to national development and independence from foreign control since the "unitarian" government of Bernardino Rivadavia took a major loan from the British Baring Brothers bank in 1824. Developments in Argentina would later touch off what became known as the Baring Crisis of 1890-91, which "originated in Argentina but it was felt all over the world, first in London." (Gerardo della Paolera and Alan M. Taylor, Straining at the Anchor: The Argentine Currency Board and the Search for Macroeconomic Stability, 1880-1935 [2001])

The Elliott Management hedge fund of Paul Singer, an American vulture capitalist and one of the largest contributors to the Republican Party, bought up defaulted Argentine debt and sued in American courts, getting a bizarre and genuinely radical decision in their favor from Federal Judge Thomas Griesa in a ruling upheld by the Supreme Court. Once Macri was elected President, he quickly made a settlement that was extremely favorable for Singer's vulture funds, taking on new debt to pay it off. (The Vulture: How Billionaire Rubio Backer Paul Singer Made Billions off Argentina Debt Crisis Democracy Now! 03/11/2016; Katia Porzecanski, Singer Makes 369% of Principal on Argentine Bonds in Debt Offer Bloomberg Markets 03/01/2016)

Time magazine of 05/02-09/2016 included Macri in its list of 100 Most Influential People, with a two-paragraph tribute from Mauricio Macri:
Argentina is rich in natural resources and human capital, but its economic progress has been hobbled by the ineptitude and corruption of its political leaders. Over the past decade, the policies of Argentina's ruling duo, Nestor and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, led to rampant inflation, falling currency value and capital flight. The result was the 2015 election of the reformist Mauricio Macri.

Macri has removed Argentina's currency controls, allowing more freedom for trade. He has pledged to reintegrate Argentina into the global economy, seeking private investment from abroad. And he has taken action to end the 15-year default that has kept the country in economic exile since 2001. Macri still has important tasks ahead of him, including taming inflation. But if he lives up to his promise, Argentina may finally do the same. [my emphasis]
At that time, the Macri government was raising regulated prices on public utilities and the economy was slumping. Macri's supporters were telling everyone to be patient and wait for the segundo semestre (second half of the year). Argentina is in the first half of Macri's third year as President. But still waiting for the segundo semestre. This video from the beginning of his second half-year in office mocks, "The second half was born dead." Segundo semestre de Macri 07/01/2016:

There have been some disturbing signs of political repression.

Gastón Chillier and Ernesto Semánmarch wrote about the concerns that were already emerging in Macri's "first half-year" in What Obama Should Know About Macri’s Argentina New York Times 03/23/2016, including the already-iconic case of indigenous activist Milagro Sala. Obama left the general impression with US voters and a political press that's largely oblivious to Latin American affairs that he had a left-leaning policy on Latin America, largely because of his pragmatic abandonment of the long-standing, failed Cuba policy. But actually his Latin American policy was generally conservative, including welcoming the political-military coup in Honduras and the extra-constitutional soft coups in Paraguay and Brazil. Obama's relations with Cristina's government was distant. But he made a point of embracing Macri after his election:
Mr. Obama’s historic trip to Cuba has all the pageantry of a farewell to the Cold War in Latin America. His visit to Havana will serve as a symbolic climax in the normalization of American relations with Cuba’s Communist government. But his excursion to Argentina has a very different resonance.

Shortly before Mr. Obama’s arrival in Buenos Aires, his administration announced the declassification of United States government documents relating to Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship. Yet the visit is not about the current state of human rights, but about free trade and hemispheric security.

An acknowledgment of the malign role the United States played in the early years of the dictatorship is welcome, if overdue. But to ignore the red flags on human rights raised by the recent actions of Argentina’s new ruling party is a worrying reminder of that legacy. For Mr. Macri, Mr. Obama’s visit is already an endorsement. [my emphasis]
There have been some questionable legal investigations of senior officials from the previous government, including Cristina herself. The details of such cases can be difficult to judge from outside. The allegations against Cristina herself always looked fairly thin to me.

But after the 2017 midterm elections which brought her back to Congress and gave her a stronger position as leader of the opposition, the questionable arrests escalated and included the previous Foreign Minister and former Vice President Amado Boudou. And a new legal charge against Cristina Fernández that didn't result in her arrest because of her new parliamentary immunity. But the charge related to a sensational suicide of a prosecutor named Alberto Nisman in early 2016, who had been working for years on the AMIA bombing case from 1994. I know enough about the details of that case to say with confidence that those charges are bogus. So those are not good signs.

There have also been some questionable acts of repression against some of the many demonstrations against Macri's policies. Those are also difficult to judge from afar. But it's a pattern that is certainly disturbing from the standpoint of democracy and human rights.

And the borrowing that has historically been such a burden and trap for Argentina is continuing. Axel Kiciloff, currently a Congressional deputy from Buenos Aires city, the last Minister of Economics under Cristina's government and still a close ally of hers, warns that Macri's government is taking on a "colossal" amount of debt that, in his formulation, is being used for speculative purposes and is of "little benefit for the national economy." Kiciloff also charges Macri with trying to evade constitutional procedures and attempting to govern by decree. ("El DNU es anticonstitucional" Página/12 14.01.2018)

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