Mauricio Macri president of Argentina
Macri, a politician similar to the Brazilian João Dória, was unable to deliver his central campaign promise.

Macri's toothless magician and neoliberalism

How Pablo Cabaleiro, known as the "toothless magician", became a symbol of Macri's defeat during the country's primaries

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While surprised news anchors in Argentina tried to explain the overwhelming defeat of the current president Mauricio Macri during the country’s primaries. Macri is attempting reelection against the slate in which Cristina Kirchner is running as a candidate for the vice presidency. The news headlines and television channels across the globe focused on an iconic yet also melancholic image of the Argentinian primaries.

Argentinians have just participated in what is known as PASO. This phase of the primaries has over time become an important electoral survey that gauges voter intentions for the presidential elections, which will take place in October this year.

That the slate including presidential candidate Alberto Fernández alongside vice presidential candidate Cristina Kirchner would have an advantage was expected. What nobody anticipated was that the margin between both slates would be so large (15%), and that the province of Buenos Aires, with 15 of the 40 million Argentinians in the country–votes that are essential to govern–would also opt for Kirchnerism.

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Our Argentinian “brothers” are dealing with an inflation that has reached 55%, an annual interest rate that exceeds 74%, and other data that also paint a bleak future. One of every 3 Argentinians is poor, and 7% are considered destitute. Even with a loan of $ 57 billion from the IMF, Argentina’s GDP fell 2.5% in 2017.

Macri, a politician similar to the Brazilian João Dória, was unable to deliver his central campaign promise: a flood of foreign investments that should have stimulated the economy. A respected expert in the country recently claimed that in such a scenario, the chances for reelection were close to zero.

Neoliberalism–the crown jewel of the establishment from 1990 to 2000–has been revisited on occasions, yet seems to have expired.In such a context, the past seems to be the future of Argentina. While the coalition Frente de Todos, the slate of Fernández and Cristina, sung Peronist chants and the atmosphere was one of celebration, photographers captured an unexpected scene taking place among Macri’s supporters after the PASO results on Sunday. Sitting in an empty hall, there is a man dressed as a magician with a hat on, his head tilted down as he looks at the screen of his cellphone.

um mágico sentado no meio de um saguão de eventos
Pablo Cabaleiro, known as the “toothless magician” and Macri’s mascot.

The desolate image represents the end of an era. It did not take long for the press to identify the person photographed. It was Pablo Cabaleiro, known as the “toothless magician” and who is considered to be Macri’s mascot, since he is always present at all the party’s announcements and acts. He smiles a toothless smile.

The Kirchner family was in power for 12 consecutive years, with a mandate of the deceased ex-president Néstor Kirchner and two mandates of his wife Cristina. Coincidence or not, during the last mandate of Cristina Kirchner, the maxim used to explain what she called the “won decade” was “that it was not by magic.” Referring to the effort necessary to rebuild the country after 2001, when Argentina went bankrupt, she said that it was the product of the arduous work of her team that did away with neoliberalism, reinstating state-owned companies that had been privatized during the Menem era, maintaining control of the financial system and social subsidies.

Let it be said that Argentina was never, neither in the era of Cristina, nor of Macri, “a success story.” What they call ideological “gaps” result in the country rarely having State policies independent of the governing party. When Macri came into power in 2015, he established as policy to do exactly the opposite of what had been accomplished in the previous mandates, without considering the good or the bad of the prior policies.

If he wins the elections, Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner should adopt that same system of radical swings in policy. That is why the moment the toothless magician appeared on television, it was hard not to compare the scene with the market’s euphoria four years ago when Macri entered office. Newspapers wrote that on that occasion business owners had “lined up” to talk with Macri–only two months after being elected–at the Davos Forum in Switzerland, interested in investing in Argentina.

Months later, a local comedian joked on video about the hope Argentinians had that neoliberalism would flood the country with dollars. In the video, the comedian points to commercial airplanes that pass by and says “look at the foreign investments arriving.” In another scene, an old car passes by with a loudspeaker announcing “dollars, dollars.” The condition for receiving those dollars was that, whoever wanted them had to blow on a peanut until it reached the corner of the street. The video is a satire of the scandalous concessions that investors requested to bring their money to the country.

In Brazil, the news sent a shockwave through the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who openly supported Macri. The aggressive declarations of the Brazilian president shocked Argentinians and risked the survival of the Mercosul block in the case that Cristina Kirchner’s slate wins elections. Once again the continent is going through the hardships of staying united. Will we stay together? Will we fight at home? Argentina is Brazil’s third biggest commercial partner and Brazil is the first for Argentina. They say that if “Brazil sneezes, Argentina gets pneumonia.”

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The impact of Brazil in the region cannot be ignored. In this part of the world, Brazil is what brings together or pushes apart. In Peru, the scandals of Odebrecht brought down presidents, pushing some to committing suicide. Even Jesus Christ can fall from grace as a consequence of the scandals that began in Brazil. The “Christ of the Pacific” donated by Odebrecht in Lima has become a pebble in the Peruvian government’s shoe, since it symbolizes corruption.

As Brazilians, it is our responsibility whether or not we accept the sovereign elections of a neighboring country.

Neither the magic of Christina, nor the toothless magician can do away with common sense. There are no miracles, but we can hope that Latin America does not become toothless itself, with one country in–and another one out–of the important union of Mercosul. Mujica likes to say in interviews that there is no such thing as eternal victories, nor eternal defeats, and that history oscillates. Let us hope that this time the pendulum rests somewhere in the middle, not to the right, nor left, but simply pointing at governments that are able to reconcile economic growth with social justice. Governments without any tricks up their sleeve, beyond that of common sense.

Translation by Axel Diniz