Prof. Atilio Boron analyzes the situation in Argentina, where President Macri is pushing drastic neoliberal reforms against widespread resistance from unions and social movements. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson visits to give Macri backing and to urge anti-Venezuela sanctions
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, launched a tour of conservative Latin American governments on Thursday. His first stop was in Mexico, where he met with President Enrique Peña Nieto. His next stop is in Argentina, to meet with President Mauricio Macri. He then goes on to Peru and Colombia.
Tillerson’s visit to Argentina is significant because it comes at a time when President Macri is trying to push through sweeping neoliberal reforms in Argentina against strong opposition from unions and social movements. Also, Tillerson is trying to rally support for US efforts to isolate the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Joining me from Buenos Aires to analyze Tillerson’s visit and to the current situation in Argentina is Professor Atilio Boron. Atilio is professor of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Buenos Aires and he’s written extensively on Latin American politics and social movements. Thanks for joining us today, Atilio.
ATILIO BORON: Hello. Thank you very much for your invitation.
GREGORY WILPERT: Let’s start with the current situation in Argentina. Earlier this week, President Macri had to backtrack on his labor and pension reforms due to the massive resistance from unions and social movements. So first, what were these reforms about? And second, what does his backtracking mean? Does it mean that the reforms are defeated?
ATILIO BORON: Well, Macri didn’t expect such a very strong opposition to the pension reform. He thought that the pension reform would pass very easily in the Parliament, in the Congress, but there were two huge demonstrations on Thursday, December the 14th and Monday, December 18th, in which hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating against the reform. That brought about a very very strong confrontation with the police, which exerted an incredible brutality in the repression of the demonstration never seen since the times of military dictatorship, ok?
As a result of that, what happened was that in the congress there was an approval of the law by a small margin but the problem is that the implementation of the reform is in question because hundreds of organizations presenting their people, the retired people, the old people, are suing the government because what they see as a major infringement of their right. There is a constitutional prestige in Argentina that once you are granted the right, the right cannot be taken away by any government. So, there is what they call the progressive building mechanism in the constitution. If you’re granted the right to be a retired person at 65, then no government can say that, from now on, you can retire only when you’re 70 because this would be an encroachment of rights …by the constitution.
So, to sum up: even though the law was approved, there is a lot of questions regarding the application of the law, the implementation of the law in the months to come.
The other story, the labor reform, which was withdrew from the agenda of the congress, that president Macri wanted in extraordinary detail of session of the congress. That means…to discuss the law, but the…group in the senate was very very important. Yet not only Kirchner’s but also the non-Kirchner’s…agreed that the law cannot be discussed yet, that it is necessary a new round of confrontation with labor unions and secret society. So, we have a sort of stalemate as of now.
GREGORY WILPERT: What other neoliberal economic measures has Macri managed to push through so far? I understand that hundreds and thousands have been laid off in the past year. What has been the reaction to these reforms that have happened so far and what has been the effect on Argentine society?
ATILIO BORON: Well, the project that the Macri government has is clearly imparted in the most reactionary versions of the American politics. I mean, for instance, Ronald Reagan and now Donald Trump, an indication of the Europeans in American… There is a very systematic touch on the labor leaders and labor unions. The idea is that to go to one of system of complete labor flexibility, a… of labor. But this is a country with a degree of organization of the working classes and the laborer, is very very slow… in Latin America. So, even though there is a serious suspicion that many of the big labor unions are led by corrupt leaders, still they had the possibility to make various strong statements and also carry out political actions with your friend, the basic income of the…
So, Macri is stumbling against this rock but he’s determined in face of government with this … determined to go in front of any obstacle in order to promote the neoliberal agenda. The neoliberal agenda means a very drastic reduction of the fiscal deficit that is quite high in Argentina. Historically is not the question of the last years or something which can be attributed to Cristina. It’s a chronic problem like you know the chronic problem in Argentina is in place, and when you combine both of them, then there is a lot of unrest in the people, especially the salary workers, those who have fixed income, and the senior citizens who also have a fixed income such as a pension because what the government is trying to do is to reduce inflation, reduce in the fiscal expenditure. But the problem is that most of the fiscal expenditures are devoted to providing social benefits which cannot be cut without provoking a very strong reaction of the people who are affected by those.
So we are in a very very delicate moment. The government has fall in a massive …with the help of American friends. We are providing a lot of money but not in producing investment, but taking advantage of the financial regulation. In Argentina, it is really a sort of paradise for any big investor because here you can pay in dollars. You buy dollar, which is quite steep in Argentina, and then you move from dollar to pesos, and you put your pesos in a special form of safe deposit. 30 days, 60, 90 days. And the effect… the price of interest are staggering. You are talking about rate of interest in the vicinity, in real terms, of 10 percent in dollar. So, there is a lot of money coming but very very little of that money is directed to work. We’re not investing in creation of jobs, which are not created under Macri or the fight against poverty which has remained…uneven, there is more tendency to become more and more important.
GREGORY WILPERT: If the reforms are affecting large segments of the population negatively, why is it that in last October Macri’s party won significant a segment of the vote? I believe it was 41% of the vote which is more than any other party, including the former president Cristina Kirchner. What explains this relative success at the poles last election?
ATILIO BORON: Well, When Macri got in this last congressional election, which is the first of the …office is basically the same percentage which was obtained by Alfonsín and that of Kirchner. So, the propaganda, the regime is very very prone to make propaganda sound special in the field of public policy. They say that there was a fantastic performance. When you look in comparison, both Alfonsín and Kirchner obtained in the first parliament and the congressional election after they took over the presidency, they got more votes and more proportion of votes. Not much more, but more.
But what can explain this is, in a way, it was an important success. Well, the important success is because the positions of parties completely divided. …is in disarray, Kirchner is also in part in disarray. Not completely, but is in disarray. And because there was a very bad choice by Cristina, which decided not go in the ticket with somebody, with millionaires on what we call a “paso,” which means internal elections within a political pole. She decided not to admit any competition with Mr. Randazzo, Florencio Randazzo, who is minister. And therefore, Cristina, without Randazzo, was not ever to match the force of the official formula, which were really held by two people without any political gravitation.
Neither… nor Mrs. Gonzalez, were people known in the province of Buenos Aires. But there was Cristina, was competing against the Cambiemos frente. Cambiemos… is something that you put in there and people know what that means, no matter who are the candidates. The candidates is an American…to the province of Buenos Aires. We are two completely unknown candidates. However, there we were able defeat Cristina by three percentage points.
But that was a mistake error in the campaign. Otherwise Cristina may have been the winner in the province of Buenos Aires. That created a momentum, very very important. But in December, on the basis of that momentum in last October, the government saw that the people were be quiet, no more demonstration, no more picketing, no more nothing. And they made a fatal mistake, they spoke like they have already get hold completely of the situation. But they underestimate the importance of the reaction which will take place in Argentina when you start to introduce this kind of policies.
This country is very different from all the Latin America. They… Brazil, in which you have much more acquiescent or passive laboring class. In Argentina it’s quite the contrary. So, the government thought that the electoral outcome was enough for them to go ahead in the program, and they didn’t think that the reaction would come out. And the reaction came and was very very strong. So now, we are in a sort of limbo. And they game will start in full force in March, this march.
GREGORY WILPERT: Let’s turn to the US secretary of State Tillerson’s visit through Argentina. Here’s a clip of what Tillerson had to say about Venezuela just before he left the US for Latin America.
REX TILLERSON: The corrupt and hostile regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela clings to a false dream and antiquated vision for the region that has already failed its citizens. It does not represent the vision of millions of Venezuelans, or in any way comport with the norms of our Latin American, Canadian or Caribbean partners. Our position has not changed. We urge Venezuela to return to its constitution, to return to free, open and democratic elections. And to allow the people of Venezuela a voice in their government.
GREGORY WILPERT: So, that was Rex Tillerson. I should add that Tillerson also said, in reference to deposing the elected president of Venezuela, he said, “In the history of Venezuela, and in fact, the history of Latin American and South American countries, often at times, it is the military that handles the transition to get rid of a president.” Atilio, how is= the Trump administration, given the position that Trump is taking and Tillerson is taking, how is the Trump administration being perceived by Argentine government and how likely is it that they would support sanctions or other kinds of isolation against Venezuela?
ATILIO BORON: Well, you know, the Macri government is very…proxy of the US government. Nothing would be more easy, or more pleasant, for Mr. Macri to be designated as your special representative of the United States in Latin America in order to lead the crusade against the Venezuelan government. He made the issue of Venezuela, in his political campaign in the presidency and everything took over. The president in Argentina, the attack on Venezuela was a constant. The crusade was the only main direction of the foreign policy of Argentina.
The Argentine government is strongly concerned with Venezuela, but they don’t give a damn for what is going on in the countries like Colombia, in which popular leaders, social leaders, are ill by hundreds every month, according to fiscal statistics, which are very well known. Or this government is not concerned about the killing of journalists in Mexico. Nine journalists were killed last year in Mexico. This is not a problem of freedom of the press or freedom of the speech, no, it’s a problem with…
So, Macri is part of…the US, he’s an important piece. He’s an important because his government, when you compare with the government of Mexico, we have an awful image of a very very corrupt government. Or with the government of Columbia is the other one is also many people thinking that either Mexico and Columbia are narco states. That means states which have been absolutely raided by the narcos. The role of Macri is strongly enhanced for the Trump administration because he is the only government with the second state. He’s a government which came to power through honest elections. This is not the case in Mexico and there are many doubts in Columbia. Brazil cannot see of any help because Mr. Temer, his a government which came up a sort of coup d’etat, or… as they say.
So, the only one which has some degree of levitation in the region is Macri. This is why Tillerson is coming here. This is not because Argentina is very important in the economic or political term for the United States, but it’s a very important ally in this offensive against Maduro and against Venezuela. This is why Tillerson is coming here. I know the president of the region will meet here in Buenos Aires, or in… when Tillerson is here, we don’t know exactly where the meeting will take place.
But of course, this obsession with Venezuela and these attacks on Venezuela, a country in which the people cannot express, is ridiculous because, you know Venezuela the country which has scalped more than 20 elections in the last 19 years and most of the elections were elections where there was no one saying that was a corrupt election or they were fraud. Like for in Sunday, the horrendous fraud which was part of the demonstration of Honduras, which, however, did not bother the Trump administration.
So, we know very well these policies of the US in Latin America. And it is also something which is the historical record, the US has… everywhere in Latin America, to create a single democratic government. The contribution of the American foreign policy in Latin America was essentially to dismantle democratic government and not create new democratic government. So, we are not expecting nothing very different from Tillerson visit now.
My concern is the…of Venezuelan people, because, as Tillerson has said, the proof of the success of our policies is that now the Venezuelan economy has collapsed. So, all this stories that the Bolivarian government was saying about the economic warfare was true because it was the government of the US who has said, very proudly, “we succeeded because now the economy in Venezuela is in shambles.” This is really quite immoral and I am not sure that the people in Venezuela will be very very happy with this sort of statement by Tillerson, which in general also was repeated by the chief of the CIA, and also by ambassador Liliana Ayalde, in the southern command.
GREGORY WILPERT: In the little time that we have remaining, I just want to address one more issue. Last year, when we interviewed you, you said that the presidential election in Ecuador was the Latin American left’s Stalingrad. Now, the election was won by the center-left in Ecuador at the time, but since then, the government or the movement that is, has been split between a Correa faction and a Moreno faction. Now, how do you see the situation that is in Latin America as a whole? Did the Latin American left lose this battle of Stalingrad after all?
ATILIO BORON: Well, I am not sure that the battle has stopped, and has finished. There is in general two or three very important small battles to be played… I mean, a part of the general battle, which is the Mexican battle, in which Andrés Manuel López Obrador is clearly the frontrunner. But in Mexico you can win the election, but then all the political tricks may produce a completely different result. In Brazil, Lula is clearly the frontrunner with 51% of both… 15 of Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, which is the second one.
And so, we should wait what happens here in order to pass a definite verdict about the Stalingrad battle. I think that still there are a few combats which are very important in Mexico, in Brazil, of course, can you imagine if Lula wins in Brazil and is not prohibited to participate in the election, that would be a major impact over all the region in Latin America. The same if they can stop Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
And even in Columbia there is a very close race in number, in which Gustavo Petro, representing the center-left coalition, is practically a second in the race, but very very close to the frontrunner. And there will be a second round in the elections in Columbia, that may imply that Petro could eventually become president in Columbia. So, I would say that it is a little bit earlier to start to pray to the funeral, the prayers for the left in Latin America. You have to wait. This year absolutely crucial.
GREGORY WILPERT: Okay, unfortunately we’re going to have to leave it there, but we hope to have you back on again. I was speaking to professor Atilio Boron of the University of Buenos Aires. Thanks again, Atilio, for having joined us today.
ATILIO BORON: No, it was a great pleasure to be in this conversation. Bye-bye now.
GREGORY WILPERT: Bye. And I’m Greg Wilpert for The Real News Network.