Mauricio Macri: don’t cry —I’m fixing Argentina
The din of protesters chanting and banging drums echoed along the avenue. Police had sealed off the square outside the palm-fringed pink palace. Inside, Mauricio Macri, the president, seemed unperturbed, reminiscing about games of golf with Donald Trump —and the days he spent as a hostage locked in a crate.
To the delight of his supporters Macri, 59, has reclaimed Argentina from populists who had brought it close to collapse. But now his plans to modernise the country risk being engulfed by a political storm and spiralling protests.
“The only thing we can do is transmit calm and not change direction,” he told me last week in Casa Rosada, the presidential palace where Eva Peron used to hold sway.
Keeping calm cannot be easy. Anti-government mobs gather each day beyond the palace gates, barbecuing sausages and baying for blood. But Juliana Awada, Macri’s wife, who has a background in textiles, and their daughter Antonia, 7, help him to stay “tranquil in the face of so many storms”, he said.
He is also well protected —two palace guards, swords drawn, keep watch at the end of the red-carpeted corridor outside his office.
Even so the crisis is taking its toll on Macri, who was recently obliged to negotiate a $57bn (£43.5bn) bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to keep Argentina’s inflation-wrecked economy afloat.
He is the first president to have emerged from the ranks of business rather than a traditional party and said the past few months have been “the worst of my life —the worst since I was kidnapped”.
He was referring to an evening in 1991 when, on the way home from playing cards, he was seized by gunmen who put a hood over his head and chained him inside a wooden box.
The ordeal, during which he was fed through a hole and forced to record messages for his family, went on for 15 days —“not the sort of holiday I would recommend to anyone”, he said with a grin.
His father, an immensely wealthy Italian immigrant who had made his fortune building bridges in the 1960s, ended up paying a $6m ransom. His kidnappers turned out to be corrupt policemen.
His experience in their captivity was partly what prompted Macri to go into politics: he is determined to put an end to the culture of the past seven decades in which police and judges have colluded with politicians at the heart of a criminal state. “All this brought us in 70 years, in spite of all our talent and resources, was poverty and inequality, “he said.
Macri, a former mayor of Buenos Aires, also wants to end the isolation inflicted on Argentina by his Peronist predecessors, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, who forged alliances with Iran, Russia and Venezuela in successive terms in office from 2003 to 2015. He took over in December that year.
In his campaign to bring Argentina back into the modern world, Macri can claim some success: he will host a meeting of the G20 in Buenos Aires in November in a sign of the country’s regained respectability.
“It’s been impressive, the help we are getting and the unheard-of level of support from the IMF,” said Macri, a former manager of the Boca Juniors football club, some of whose trophies he keeps in his presidential office.
At a recent gathering in New York he had expressed his gratitude to the French managing director of the IMF: “I hope the whole of Argentina ends up falling in love with Christine Lagarde.” It resulted in outrage at home, where austerity measures are hitting the poor hardest.
“The speaker before me at that meeting had said that everyone has a crush on Christine,” Macri explained. “So to make a joke I carried on with the theme.”
He said he was looking forward to meeting Theresa May at the G20. He will not renounce Argentina’s “legitimate claim” to the Falkland Islands but offered an “extensive and all-embracing” dialogue. “We each have reasons for wanting a more intense relationship,” he said, suggesting Brexit may offer an opening for talks.
Macri’s vital relationship, however, is with Trump. The future Argentine president was sent by his father to New York as a young man in 1984 to negotiate the sale of a 78-acre plot in Manhattan to the future US president.
“It was the start of a great relationship,” said Macri. “My father had wanted to develop the land himself. But we had a problem with our bank. I spent three or four months negotiating with Donald. He’s a golf fanatic, like me. We played a lot. The first time I won. After that I had to pretend to lose because he’d get very annoyed.”
According to some reports, Franco Sr was furious over the final deal that his son struck with Trump. Macri denied it. Trump, he said, “has shown himself to be a big friend of Argentina”. He added: “We’ve spoken a lot.”
A long list of woes, however, from severe drought to a run on the Argentine peso after the currency crisis in Turkey have combined to raise a question mark over Macri’s ability to stay in power.
“It’s turned into a perfect storm for him,” said Federico Pinedo, a senator and friend. “He’s suffered a lot, he’s aged. He looks like the grandfather of this guy,” he added, pointing to a 2007 photograph of Macri, a tall figure with sandy hair and a languid look.
An investigation into corruption has helped to unnerve foreign investors who fear it may delay the recovery of Latin America’s third-largest economy. Cristina Kirchner —her husband died in 2010 —has been indicted on charges of pocketing the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds in bribes. As a senator she is immune from arrest and her many followers expect her to run again for the presidency next year. She describes the charges against her as part of a politically inspired “witch-hunt”. Macri decries her depiction of events: “It’s quite scandalous the things that have come to light. A lot of things the former government did are hard to understand. Such things should never be allowed to happen in Argentina again.”
Amid an avalanche of scandalous headlines, judges accused of colluding with the Kirchners have been sacked. One resigned after a film surfaced of him cavorting in a “love hotel” with men dressed as Roman centurions.
“For once, public television is doing better than Netflix,” joked Macri.