The Battle of Argentina (Nick MacWilliam/Alborada Magazine)

[Mauricio Macri's victory in the Argentinian presidential election has energised the right and dismayed the left in Latin America. Turbulent times lie ahead for a sharply divided country, writes Nick MacWilliam.]

The Battle of Argentina

Nick MacWilliam - Alborada Magazine (Issue 2 - Winter 2015)

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It is hard to see the election of Mauricio Macri to the Argentinian presidency as anything other than a pivotal moment in Latin American politics. Macri’s victory over his rival Daniel Scioli brings the curtain down on 12 years of progressive Kirchnerist governments and was achieved on a pro-business platform that his supporters say will bring stability to Argentina’s battered economy.

For both sides of the political divide, a historical context envelops the election result. It is the first major electoral loss for the Latin American left since the ‘pink tide’ movement was born in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Several other countries followed Venezuela in electing leftwing leaders in the subsequent years, an unprecedented development that resolutely challenged the traditional status quo.

The turn to the left inspired leftwing causes across the globe. Despite campaigns of destabilisation, which culminated in US-backed coups (with varying degrees of success) in Venezuela in 2002, Honduras in 2009, Ecuador in 2010 and Paraguay in 2010, the multiple re-election of progressive governments emphasised the positive impact of their policies. Through isolating the regional US hegemon and investing in social development programmes, the pink tide governments have reduced poverty levels and increased the political participation of previously-marginalised sectors. In the crazy world of politics, who could have imagined that if you represent the majority, the majority will vote for you?

The right reloaded

But Macri’s victory changes the complexion, energising the continental right and causing deep concern for the pink tide and its supporters. It is the biggest challenge to the left in the region since Chávez was illegally deposed for two days in 2002 before the Venezuelan people forced his reinstatement. It presents a greater test of the left’s durability than the moment Rafael Correa faced down revolting police officers in Ecuador and dared them to kill him. Or the recent protests that have sought to topple the governments of Correa, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Dilma Rouseff in Brazil.

Why is this the case? In each of those instances, the opposition was outnumbered by those who approved of what their government was doing. That is why elections exist. The lack of democratic channels through which to revert to the elitist model is evident in the anti-Dilma protests, where upper-class Brazilians openly call for a military coup while simultaneously demanding her impeachment on corruption allegations. When the democratic system fails to uphold the wealthy privileges it traditionally protects, new rules come into play. Ask Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, or the 21st century projects that have transformed much of Latin American society.

Macri’s victory, on the other hand, was achieved through the electoral ballot, and therefore represents an ideological shift in the electorate. Many previous attempts to reinstate the right have been conceived through anti-democratic means, essentially criminal acts. Macri, however, is the legitimate new president of Argentina. His victory has the left on the ropes, even if outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was quick to offer her congratulations, as was Rafael Correa. But Argentina is likely to move away from the multilateral cooperation of the pink tide towards the US, for whom the new president’s identity is tremendously good news.

Celebrations in Washington

The US has grown increasingly isolated from a Latin America no longer in thrall to its economic and militaristic dominance. Its history of intervention in the region, whether installing brutal regimes or exploiting people and resources, makes it a distrusted and unwelcome presence in regional affairs. Organisational bodies such as the South American Community of Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) were formed partly to counter the US’ disproportionate influence at the Organisation of American States (OAS). Independence from external meddling has allowed the progressive governments, supported by a network of neighbouring allies, to conduct their business as they see fit.

Before even entering the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, Macri sought to undermine this process. His call for Venezuela to be expelled from the Mercosur trade agreement was a clear attempt to ingratiate his administration with the US. Venezuela’s presence in Mercosur presents no valid reason for an Argentinian president to make such a move. It is, however, aimed at increasing the pressure on the Maduro government, a foe of Washington for its rejection of imperial doctrines.

Argentina is also of strategic importance in the geopolitical arena. Its southern location offers potential dominance of the south Atlantic for a larger power. As natural resources grow ever scarer, its energy reserves are an alternative to dwindling supplies elsewhere. Freshwater resources in Patagonia and Antarctica will become more crucial as this century progresses and unsustainable population growth increases competition between nations. Leaders of Macri’s ilk will help the US gain a foothold in the region.

Macri is likely to go ahead with plans for fracking in Argentina, home to some of the world’s largest shale reserves. In one of the more contentious policies of the Fernández de Kirchner era, the US oil giant Chevron signed a deal to exploit deposits in northern Patagonia. Chevron’s record of environmental destruction in Ecuador - where the company was hit by a multi-billion dollar fine, subsequently overruled by a New York judge - has hardly soothed people’s nerves over the ecological impact. Increased extractivism is highly likely and will have profound consequences for those living within the vicinity.

The election result also has implications for Argentina’s ongoing dispute with US vulture fund speculators. In 2001 Argentina defaulted on monies it borrowed during the economic crisis of the same year. Los buitres - the vultures - subsequently picked up Argentina’s debt at a fraction of its worth and launched claims for the full amount. With Argentina having reached agreement with bondholders over a form of debt restructuring, the vultures rejected the deal and were backed by a US court ruling in 2014 that Argentina pay up to $15 billion, which was rejected by the Fernández de Kirchner administration. That Macri will be more amenable to US interests is a given. That any monies used to pay off the vultures will probably be redirected from social spending and the sale of state services threatens to reverse many of the advances of kirchnerismo. Argentina’s free education system looks vulnerable.

Macri’s victory has delighted the rightwing at home. One of the most notable policies of Cristina Fernández and her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner’s governance was the decision to prosecute those suspected of committing crimes against humanity during Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-83, in which an estimated 30,000 people were killed or disappeared by the authorities. Military generals such as Rafael Videla and Jorge Anaya saw out their final days in prison. Leopoldo Galtieri died while awaiting trial. The final surviving military ruler of Argentina, Reynaldo Bignone, is also serving a life sentence. They are joined by hundreds of other lower-ranking functionaries who participated in the dictatorship’s horrific crimes. Under the Kirchners, Argentina implemented a judicial process that set an example to other Latin American nations struggling with their own truth and justice programmes.

Macri’s media

The day after Macri was confirmed as the new president, Argentina’s conservative newspaper La Nación published an editorial headed ‘No More Revenge’, which called for the release of those convicted of human rights abuses. Drawing parallels between the victims of the ‘Dirty War’ and the perpetrators of the recent Paris terror attacks, while also comparing the human rights movement to fascism, the anonymous editorial said that, for Macri, ‘There are two urgent issues to resolve. One is the shameful suffering of those convicted, accused, or even suspected by the commission of crimes committed during the years of subversive repression and who remain in prison despite their old age. More than 300 prisoners convicted for such reasons have died in prison, constituting a true national disgrace.’ To their credit, the following day La Nación journalists released a video in which they criticised the editorial and disassociated themselves from its publication.

Yet the editorial reveals the belief on the Argentinian right that Macri is ‘their guy’. Its immediate publication post-election indicates it was written in preparation for a Macri win. The editors of La Nación therefore had time to fully consider the implications of its publication. That the piece reads so dismissively and offensively of the human rights campaign is indicative of their confidence in it eliciting a sympathetic reaction from the new president. Shortly after, the renowned human rights organisation Mothers of Plaza de Mayo announced a rally outside the Casa Rosada for 10 December, the day of Macri’s inauguration. ‘We reject the presence of Macri in the House of Government, this is our right as a people’ said the Mothers’ president Hebe de Bonafini. Under military rule Macri’s family was part of a wealthy cabal that benefitted from neoliberal reform as the state used extreme repression to quell dissent.

Argentina is at a crossroads. Should Macri’s election foreshadow rightist advances in Venezuela and Brazil, whose governments find themselves under severe pressure, this will be seen by many as the moment the sands shifted. On the other hand, should the left reassert itself on the region, it will emerge stronger for having overcome its biggest challenge since the early years of chavismo. In the latest battle of ideologies in Latin America, first blood has been drawn by the right. Now it’s over to the rest of the continent to determine what happens next.

Nick MacWilliam is a freelance writer on Latin American politics and culture

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