Few people take Mauricio Macri that seriously when he says he wants to reduce poverty to “zero.” Most shake their heads in disbelief, not because they think it impossible but because they assume he has always been a rich kid who cares only for people who are rolling in money. The sceptics could be in for a surprise. Macri’s proclaimed objective may be absurdly utopian, but for sound practical reasons his government is pursuing policies that, on the whole, favour the poor far more than they do the middle class which, by and large, voted for him.
Instead of scrapping the welfare programmes millions depend on, as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her supporters said he would, he has expanded them. And, as he has been at pains to make clear, the utility rate increases that are causing such a ruckus hit people who are moderately well-off by Argentina’s grim standards much harder than they do those who somehow manage to survive below the poverty line.
Macri has chosen to follow a course which might have been expected had he been typecast as a man of the centre-left rather than the fearsome right-wing destroyer of the progressive imagination, not just because he is unimpressed by the country’s uncompetitive business community and wants to shake it up, but also because circumstances are pushing him that way. He knows that unless he prevents inflation from picking up more steam his own fate, and that of the country, would be in the balance. That means he has little choice but to take measures that are bound to anger many people who, without realising it, are used to giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Though from time to time a trade union leader or a mischievous economist can be heard saying inflation is not that bad because it helps liven things up, many assume that an overwhelming majority of Argentines hate it and want to see it stamped out. Do they? Unfortunately for Macri who, like most of his predecessors since Juan Domingo Perón unleashed the beast 70 or so years ago, is aware that his government’s future could depend on his ability to drive it away, inflation has plenty of allies. While few are brazen enough to cheer it on, many, perhaps most, are more than willing to try and thwart the efforts of anyone who tries to fight it.
The prevailing middle-class consensus is that, while inflation is terribly harmful, austerity is even worse. Most take it for granted that a decent government should be able to coax inflation back into its cage without depriving anyone of anything much. As a result, Macri is under attack both for failing to stop the cost of living from rising month after month and for taking the kind of measures that, if the experience of dozens of other countries is anything to go by, will be needed for him to do just that.
By now, Macri and his fellow CEOs must have realised that they simply cannot stand by and let inflation continue its rampage. Unless they slow it down fairly soon, the country could once again find itself slithering toward a hyperinflationary abyss, but for what may be described as political reasons they are reluctant to do more than chip away at public expenditure, mainly by making people pay more for the energy they consume.
As many who sympathise with the government have pointed out, in most parts of the country utility rates remain low in comparison with those in Uruguay, Chile and Brazil not because Argentina is a big producer – she was until the Kirchnerites decided middle-class people in key districts like Buenos Aires City should pay less for a month’s supply of gas or electricity than they would for their morning cups of coffee – but because for a time it seemed politically convenient to have it that way. Attempts to explain this to the many who have suddenly found themselves obliged to pay a stiff sum for what they had come to regard as something of a freebie have not been that successful.
Energy Minister Juan José Aranguren has long been under fire for putting the government’s case too bluntly, but even if he were to shed some tears and swear that he deeply sympathizes with the folk out on the street beating pots and pans, the response would be much the same. Not only here but in most other countries, there is never a shortage of politicians willing to make the most of discontent by accusing the government responsible of incompetence, heartlessness, and other shortcomings. Macri’s supporters say the opportunists who are gleefully attacking the government should be ashamed of themselves because it is largely thanks to them that Argentina is facing an energy crisis.
That is true but political memories tend to be short. What might have worked adequately two years ago is not much use today. The government has every right to blame the Peronists for the unhappy state of Argentina’s economy, but many are beginning to feel it is only looking for a way to deflect attention from its own contribution to the mess. Such insinuations are hurting Macri. According to the opinion polls, he is losing ground in what is supposed to be his political base, the country’s middle class.
Government strategists do not seem particularly worried by this; they think that by the time the election season gets into full swing the economy will be in a sprightlier mood and, in any case, middle-class Argentines would be unlikely to vote for anything smacking of populism. More significantly, they hope to make inroads into the densely populated traditional Peronist strongholds, many of which remain in the hands of loyal Kirchnerites, of Greater Buenos Aires.
The enterprise they have in mind is not a pipe dream. By all accounts, Maria Eugenia Vidal is liked by the inhabitants of the rundown districts that over the years supplied Perón, Carlos Menem and Cristina with election victories, not just because she appears willing to pass the time of day with them but also because she has enough resources to carry out a much-needed public works programme that greatly improves their standard of living. Needless to say, the money she is spending does not come from the pockets of the people thus benefitted but from those of middle-class taxpayers who thought Macri would give priority to their many needs.