The Taming of the Argentine Right?

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

Early in the night on Sunday, November 22, Mauricio Macri became the first leader of a conservative coalition to win a presidential election in Argentina since 1910. A sense of hyperbolic exhilaration has been flowing through conservative movements in the region ever since. Just a few hours after the victory, one Mexican tabloid, not without reason, hailed the event occurring all the way at the other end of Latin America as “the first blow in 15 years to the chavista bloc.”

Change likely lies ahead for much of South America. In the case of Macri and Argentina, the lesson for the region is how a conservative businessman, mayor, and former president of one of Argentina’s most popular soccer clubs, made use of a period of political and economic stagnation to radically revamp right-wing politics. His election gave new and powerful steam to the idea of a “democratic right,” even if the two concepts remain, for many, in uncomfortable tension. To do this, Macri’s Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition incorporated liberal democratic jargon and widely shared notions of social rights into a broad-based, but notably tamed, conservative rhetoric. In that sense, then, Cambiemos’s victory can be read as a bittersweet success for departing president Cristina Kirchner and her late husband, as it proves how far their populist governments moved the political mainstream to the left over more than a decade. But against Cambiemos‘s own narrative and the optimism of progressive forces about the endurance of populist legacies, what Macri will do in office starting next week could be a totally different matter.

When Sebastián Piñera became president of Chile in 2010, Argentines looked down disparagingly at their neighbors, criticizing the intrusion of a billionaire businessman into the realm of politics. In the early 1990s, Argentines laughed at the rise of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the Bolivian president who spoke Spanish with a marked English accent. Alas, what goes around comes around. Macri is the heir to one of the leading economic groups in Argentina. And like Sánchez de Lozada, his accent seems foreign to modern politics in the country. It contains little of the staccato of popular Argentine castellano. The new president’s words move fast and inward, the tongue one size larger than the mouth, the dispensable consonants buried under a free-flow of vowels that have typically characterized the accent of Argentina’s elites. It’s what Argentines, when mocking their country’s upper crust, refer to as “hablar con la papa en la boca” – literally, to talk with a potato in one’s mouth.

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