Turbulence appeared in government circles after an electoral defeat of historic dimensions. Like Tony Blair’s New Labour, the eruption of a new Radicalism, under the leadership of the famous neuroscientist Facundo Manes, is a central part in a change of political culture. It explains the birth of the “Dar el Paso (‘step forward”)’ slogan, the logic of his movement and the “broad lines” of agreement with PRO. He maintains that the votes he received represent different ideas from those pushed by Cambiemos.
How do you view the emotional stability of both the president and vice-president? Is it possible to make an analysis which transcends politics?
First I must answer by saying how society is. Few people have had as much contact as I have with the pain in Greater Buenos Aires, the hinterland and the most vulnerable places. Society is weary, frustrated, resigned and does not believe in anything. Sunday [September 12] was exemplary. Despite their pain and the pandemic, people went out to vote.
What is not exemplary is a totally irresponsible leadership discussing its power interests and not heeding society. The problem is an anomalous way of sharing power. The person who has or had the most votes is not in the Casa Rosada but at the same time is weak because she lacked the steam to reach the presidency, And then there is a weak president without votes who has just lost an election – the worst election for a united Peronism in Buenos Aires Province since the days of Raúl Alfonsín. I see a society acting maturely, despite the pain and the lack of prospects, and an irresponsible leadership at each other’s throats.
It’s as if Argentina were in intensive therapy and the doctors, instead of dedicating all their efforts and energy to intelligent cooperation to treat the patient, entered into petty squabbles among themselves. The pandemic generated, as you well know, individual fears and collective uncertainty throughout the world and more so in fragile countries like ours. Leaders should inspire certainty but these ones brought far more uncertainty, not only for the markets, the retailers, the PyMES (small- and medium-sized companies) and for anybody with any savings who does not know what to do.
The only certainty within this uncertainty is a responsible opposition with no mind to add fuel to the flames. We will look after the institutions but the government must resolve its internal problems, which does not match what is going on in the street until now. In 2001 there was a crisis within society of which the leadership took note. Now society is acting maturely.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the one who had the most political capital and votes. She’s a person with the rational intelligence to make a determined type of decision, but in this latest situation she would seem to be demonstrating a very underdeveloped emotional intelligence so there is no way that she can emerge positively from this. Is it common for highly intelligent people to be betrayed by their emotions?
The problem in Argentina is that we are always talking personally. There are personal and narcissistic projects and not state policies, which are what we need. But nor do I want to dodge what I know about cognitive neuroscience.
Your question is very important for aspects of leadership and crisis. There’s a book which I shared with you some years ago by Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist at UCSD (San Diego) in which he studied leadership and emotion in personalities. I’m telling you this so you can see the importance of emotions. He relates how Winston Churchill was bipolar. Adolf Hitler was winning and all Churchill’s ministers were telling him that he had to surrender, if possible by elegantly cutting a deal. In A First-Rate Madness, Ghaemi says that the British prime minister was in a manic phase. He was the only one who said that the enemy must be faced without any rational evidence to continue the war but nevertheless, he won. That is a clear example of how emotions not only influence our conduct but are crucial in politics.
In Churchill’s case, it was fortunate that he was in a manic and not depressive phase but it could have been the other way round. Do emotions dominate a brilliant mind like Churchill’s?
Totally. Something marking the importance of discussing state policies is the need for an agreement, not only to save politics but also to define what kind of country we’re going to have in the next few years. Rational economics is needed, over and above the administrations.
An agreement marks the need for strong institutions. In a country where the institutions are weak or under political pressures from the government, where there are no rational economics nor national vision, emotional decisions do more damage than where there are strong institutions, rational economics and a plan. The important thing, and the reason why many of us “stepped forward,” is to start discussing less in personal and more in policy terms.
If Argentina does not adapt to the knowledge-based world of the 21st century with its capacity to add value, it will continue to be poor and unequal even if the greatest statesman in the world comes along. The question is why does everything here fail. Even if the greatest statesman did come along right now in Argentina, in five years time he would not be able to walk the streets because everything will have evolved backwards in economic, social and educational terms. It is one of the few countries which regresses without war. Syria has regressed but it had a war. Argentina’s per capita income is barely 10 percent higher than in 1974. In 1975 there was five percent poverty and today it is almost half the population. I’m 52 years old and I’ve lived 21 or 22 of those years in economic contraction.
I don’t like speaking of generations because it is not a question of age. But history places before the 40-plus million Argentines the challenge of changing our chronic decadence – we can take it or leave it. It’s not a question of stopgaps or of one person, one government or one coalition. It’s all about agreement, as you have been proposing in Perfil and many of us in civil society. Not a political agreement but what people in Greater Buenos Aires want. There they want to live in peace with a horizon, education and jobs. “We don’t want plans; we want security,” they tell me. Society’s agenda is more sensible than that of the leadership.
On September 13 you tweeted: “Yesterday the end of Argentine decadence began.” Was it also the end of Peronism as a model of electoral power? Paraphrasing what Mario Vargas Llosa said about Peru, when did Argentine decadence begin?
Argentina had a generation which constructed prosperity and long-term wealth. In 1895 we had the highest per capita income in the world and a year later La Plata was the only city with electricity in Latin America. We had an incredible railway system but we exported primary products, which were bought by European countries, which ended up in war or broke. Although they were poor in Argentine terms, they invested in science and research and development, what is known today as technology. In Argentina we were rich in terms of per capita income but we were already declining. We did not invest in what would generate wealth years later. Afterwards the good times continued a while longer with the income redistribution of Peronism.
You said that “the problem of Cambiemos was being monochrome.” How does a coalition avoid its differences not leading to implosion like in the current government?
Over and above coalition discussions, we must ask if Argentina wants to rebuild towards modernity. We already know the Kirchnerite paradigm. I’d like to talk about Santa Cruz rather than Venezuela, because Argentina has characteristics which will not convert it into Venezuela. That fear of the state controlling everything is valid. Santa Cruz has been governed by Kirchnerism for 30 years. It is a province with 300,000 inhabitants, great wealth and an important coastline...
Few inhabitants in a territory equivalent in size to Buenos Aires Province...
… to which I might add international tourism with the glaciers plus mining. Even so, its health system is bust while the educational tragedy of Santa Cruz is much greater than in the rest of the country. The press is muzzled and the courts enslaved. There is minimal private-sector activity and what little there is has links to the state. That’s the model we don’t want.
Juntos seeks a model of market democracy, those are the broad lines on which we are in agreement. Then the identities differ. I criticised the Cambiemos government from 2015 through to 2019. It did not advance from plans to work in progress like they said and nor did it unite Argentines, on the contrary, part of their electoral strategy was widening the grieta chasm. Nor did they launch any educational, scientific and technological revolution linked to production. Furthermore, there was poor reciprocity with coalition partners, dynamics which these recent PASO results will change.
We were David against Goliath within the coalition. We have brought together Ramón Lanús [possibly the next mayor of San Isidro] and former Congress speaker Emilio Monzó from PRO, Margarita Stolbizer from the Progressives and Joaquín de la Torre from the Peronists, as well as many Radicals like myself who have stepped forward.
I call myself part of Radicalism but I also belong to those of civil society who stepped forward. This was strong symbolism understood by society. That’s why we gathered so many votes in so little time, almost without funds and running against a phenomenal electoral machine.
Did the unusual and unimaginable number of people voting in a Radical primary in Buenos Aires Province send a signal?
Given the pandemic around 60,000 were expected for this primary and it ended up around 120,000. Many of the voters were not card-carrying members. It was an expression of Argentine middle-class values.
Was that the indication for you to step forward?
In that campaign I aided Maxi Abad and my brother Gastón from the start. I hadn’t reckoned on that either. What happened there was explained by Gastón in his interview with you. It was confusing. City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s partners were saying that there was not going to be any Radical protagonism and [San Isidro Radical Mayor] Gustavo Posse agreed with them by backing [Diego] Santilli. That’s when Gastón and Maxi stepped in, along with Daniel Salvador and Erica Revilla, to start working to place things in order. Those were Radicals who wanted to be protagonists. But at that point I was not thinking of becoming a candidate.
What happened was almost a soap opera. In the space of a week all the Radical big shots came to see me one by one – Gerardo Morales, Alfredo Cornejo, Mario Negri and Ernesto Sanz, for example. They told me I had to be a candidate. That encouraged me. It was a big responsibility. I told them that a commitment was necessary because we are in a pandemic and the crisis is unimaginable. Unfortunately, it will have an impact lasting for decades.
I did not become a candidate to represent what already lost out in 2019. Radicalism should convoke a centrist popular coalition, inviting PRO, Peronists, progressives and ordinary citizens. That’s what happened in our primary. After a newspaper headlined: “The Radicals are betting on Facundo Manes,” I felt responsible. My friends and even my mother begged me to run. I have clearly in mind what a pandemic means in a poor country. The leadership is denying that.
I was invited to a [Radical] National Committee rally where I did not assent either. I ratified what I had already said in private: if there is a centrist popular coalition which avoids the extremes, I’ll be there. So Radicalism was back on its feet with society accompanying a two-month campaign almost without funds and facing a phenomenal electoral machine. The result was extraordinary, defeating Kirchnerism. Many people did not want that, they wanted the list defined in a party office. Now they recognise that if we had not done that, Victoria Tolosa Paz would have won that Sunday. Diego [Santilli] picked up 22 percent of the vote.
For whom would your electorate have voted if you were not around?
They didn’t vote for me, it was a collective process. When I was growing up, there were three sectors: the Ucedé [on the right], the Radicals representing the middle class [now impoverished but which still thinks in middle-class terms] and the Peronists. I wanted to vindicate my origins. I’m not defined by an election, I’m defined by my fight for my beliefs and values. I wanted to fight for my friends, my cousins, my uncles and aunts. That was blurred. At one end I ran away with the middle class, while losing by 80 percent to 20 percent in the 'countries' gated neighbourhoods. The popular vote for me was incredible. We lost in Greater Buenos Aires because there was an electoral machine going back years. Many people voted for me who had always voted Peronist and were disappointed by Cambiemos.
Including people who had voted for Frente de Todos?
Our list added votes which had never opted for Cambiemos. I picked up many votes from very poor people in Greater Buenos Aires, although not in the countries. The centrist popular coalition is very important. Some readers of my books did not vote for me because they saw me as a rebel, instead of understanding that what I was doing was permitting us to beat Kirchnerism that Sunday.
Is what you call “centrist popular” the centre-left wing of Juntos por el Cambio?
My idea of centrist popular is moving from one extreme to the middle and picking up there. People want to vote for a possibility which inspires them, not merely against. We’ve already had Kirchnerism and a basically anti-Kirchnerite construction.
Would that be shifting from right to centre? Would you be to the left of PRO and would Radicalism be recovering that social democratic sector represented by Alfonsín?
Sure, but I would not see it in terms of the left but as capturing not a negative vote but one which wants a new paradigm.
That could be like the left wing of the Republican Party.
I do not see Juntos as a party equivalent to the Republicans. In the United States I would be a Democrat and in England I would vote Labour.
While Mauricio Macri would be a Tory in England and a Republican in the United States?
Perhaps, but the challenge in those countries is not the same as ours, which is to reconstruct a paradigm.
Would your problem with the 2015-2019 period be that it shifted too much to the right?
In the United States and Britain, their geopolitics is assured, no matter who wins. In Argentina the process is different because the model is Santa Cruz, Formosa or perhaps Venezuela. We should unite along the broad lines of a democratic and prosperous republic.
Many Radicals who think like you were annoyed with their party’s alliance with Mauricio Macri. Why not start a different party?
Our votes are exactly that – ours. Other votes vary, belonging to Elisa ‘Lilita’ Carrió, Mauricio Macri or María Eugenia Vidal who governed for four years. When they tell me I play a lone hand, I say that on the contrary, I see politics as medicine or science. Are there bad scientists? Yes, but there are good scientists. Ditto for journalism. There are bad journalists but some are very good. I wanted to give a sign that I was not against politics, that I wanted to transform and refresh politics. That also seemed good to me coming from Radicalism but a new Radicalism, like Tony Blair did with New Labour.
So is a new Radical being born, so to speak?
I believe that a new Radicalism must be constructed and I’m not the only one – that’s the spirit of the leadership. The spirit of the opposition coalition is changing and as of Sunday (September 12) is no longer monochrome. We’ll see how much they talk about teamwork when they’re no longer captain. That Sunday was the floor and it won’t stop growing because the majority want it that way. It’s something beyond me.
What will November be like and what are your prospects?
First of all, we’ll be together in the aim of defeating the model of a Kirchnerite country. If we maintain our identity, the percentage of votes will increase. If we merge totally, it will be bad for the coalition.
If you become an amalgam without any differentiation.
Becoming monochrome. Firstly, this is a cultural battle against prejudice. They told me not to run, that I wasn’t going to participate. Then they said: ‘Manes will break down in the face of the attacks.’ Nevertheless, here we are. Now they say we should merge. That would be an error. If we blended into the same thing, we could lose votes. We beat Kirchnerism because we did the PASO primaries the way we did. We broadened out and different people voted for us.
So is the defeat and the implosion of the government the result of the Radicals deciding to confront PRO in Buenos Aires Province?
Without a doubt. That wasn’t me but a Radicalism back on its feet and saying enough of the old dynamics. We went to a primary, inviting PRO, Peronists, progressives and civil society to join Facundo.
So was it in reality a Radical triumph?
The real triumph was civil society committing itself.