Former Foreign minister Felipe Solá, who suffered a bizarre ouster after the midterms which fractured the ruling coalition, explains how it happened.
The veteran Peronist, 71, analyses political tensions within Frente de Todos as well as detailing his rapprochement with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, assuring that there will be a trend towards unification in the government as the 2023 presidential elections draw closer.
You defended the resignation of Máximo Kirchner as chairman of the Frente de Todos caucus in the Chamber of Deputies [over the IMF agreement]. Today, in hindsight, do you still think the same?
Yes, because it is a personal appreciation but a political rather than a personal appreciation of him. What does a politician do when he knows that he lacks the conviction to defend a bill and is the only one who cannot avoid speaking on the day it is voted? He has to speak ardently in order to convince, he has to show leadership as the caucus whip. He had to defend an agreement in which he did not believe. It seems to me that he did the right thing.
If you had had to vote, would you have voted in favour of the agreement?
Yes, I said so because there was absolutely no other path. The government’s error was not to make a nationwide broadcast in which the president briefly explained to Argentines everything which could happen if it was not signed.
[Economist Carlos] Melconian has called the context ‘Saint Pandemic,’ because he said that without the pandemic, the economic conditions could have permitted Alberto Fernández a government with plenty of economic growth. Did the conditions imposed by the pandemic, plus the IMF debt which had to be renegotiated, make any agreement within Frente de Todos difficult or impossible, because what one wing was demanding was impossible to implement?
Not impossible because next year there will be elections from June onwards with our every focus on how to face them. The lists will close in June with an agitated prelude in the preceding months and there is sure to be a trend towards unity in order to confront the other side. So not impossible although it seems very difficult today.
You were saying that the moment to close ranks has arrived.
Yes. I don’t know about Alberto or Cristina but we’ll be rallying around a [presidential] candidate, although I do not know who that might be. Or if not, the PASO primaries and we’ll accept what comes out of them.
So will everybody finally close ranks around whoever wins?
Does the explicit dissidence affect the economy and make the possibility of Frente de Todos winning more difficult?
Yes, it does. There are some very concentrated sectors in the Argentine economy about which nobody talks but they have a captive market for everything which we Argentines must buy – food, crockery, domestic appliances, school uniforms, etc. You buy from those markets which the consumer cannot dodge.
Inelastic, as the economists say.
It reaches a stage where it is inelastic – you can stop eating meat but you have to eat. When we look at food, that ties in with the accelerated increase of those prices in Greater Buenos Aires and other urban centres. We should stop talking about inflation and start talking about those who push up prices, who are people of flesh and blood, in times when demand is not very high. Returning to your previous question, political instability does affect the economy because while everybody else is discussing that, the shysters can mark up prices even more.
You said that the time has come for Peronism to unite behind a candidate. Do you think that will be resolved by the PASO primaries or by agreement on a single candidate?
More likely by the PASO than a single candidate because I see the people as very heterogeneous, something which Peronism did not know how to take advantage of last year when it weighs much more in midterms.
So not using the PASO was a bad strategy.
Worse than a bad strategy, it is an extremely bad habit.
[Roberto] Lavagna, who was also minister under Alberto Fernández [when he was Cabinet chief], thinks that Fernández was always better at public relations than at executive decision-making. What’s your opinion? Is he somebody who finds it hard to take decisions and risks?
He’s a mistrustful person who denies information to those below him a lot. I totally advocate the opposite, creating a strong base of support among the ministers and sharing information with them. He seems prone to doubt although perhaps he does not doubt so much as hide his decisions.
I agree with Roberto Lavagna that Alberto was always more an intermediary for very tough decisions taken by Néstor Kirchner, which he toned down or played up as an intermediary, than a born decision-maker. But at times I think he believes that the decisions were taken jointly, not so.
Tell me about your own experience. Are you disappointed with Alberto Fernández from the manner of your exit from the Foreign Ministry?
Not just the manner, which was the worst. Being abroad and having a person who has been your friend for many years with a very similar outlook regarding events as from 2007 not even being able to tell you himself that you cannot represent the country when 23 presidents and foreign ministers were awaiting me at a summit was very hard but he did not have the courage to call me himself. He was not a close friend but we had a good friendship. Eight months have gone by since then and nothing. But that was how it ended, in the meantime he did not trust me, did not propose having a fluid relationship with me and made things difficult for me. I was out of contact with him for a long time because he did not answer me to resolve questions and tried to dilute the government’s foreign policy. That made me think that they had thrown me out of a post where I was already suffering. I felt greatly honoured when he offered me that post and I was very grateful to him. I’m sure that I committed errors in the personal relationship, only that one tries not to see them and if you asked him, he’d say the same. But he knows that I’m a frontal, honest and hard-working person.
At times talking to him as if he were a friend and not the president.
Was there some ideological difference too? You say that you thought alike to Alberto Fernández but was there something he did not like about your international policies?
We both had a nationalistic outlook on external problems but the priority for him was friendship and ideological affinity with others while objective interests were the priority for me. We had those two separate tendencies and that generated discussions.
The differences in form are sometimes more important than the ideological when we were saying that the economic and geopolitical thinking behind the international policies of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is probably more similar than, for example, that of Sergio Massa but at the same time the differences in character are harder to overcome than the ideological.
Yes, to paraphrase [Bill] Clinton: it’s not the ideology, stupid, it’s the politics, the political capacity. I see a number of militants and politicians, above all on the centre-left, and now this species of anarcho-republican is also making an appearance, seeking permanent ratification on a daily basis by presenting their ideological slant on everything via the social networks. How many of them know that politics is all about approaching other people, convincing them and negotiating? Very few.
What is politics?
Politics is the knack to do just that. Sergio Massa has it. It’s not the capacity to represent others because that’s very difficult, a semi-magical element because you can feel represented by one person and not by another. The link with the people is something you either have or not and you have to respect that semi-magical condition which we call charisma and which sometimes turns into something much stronger, as in the cases of [Juan Domingo] Perón and Cristina with their people. Now that political knack is not the capacity of representation – it’s the capacity to negotiate, the capacity to accept reality and transform that acceptance. If you do not accept, you cannot transform.
And I’ll tell you something else – if you do not love, nobody can transform what they do not love. That was the drama of [Mauricio] Macri’s team – they were technocrats with Excel who did not love Argentina, so they could not transform what they did not know well. The main defect of the government which arrived in 2015 was that their heads did not love Argentina the same way.
You lectured at the Instituto Patria last month. Does that indicate a rapprochement between you and Cristina, closer than before?
There was an interest on my part, I drew closer to some ministers who were friends of mine while others ignored me for fear that the president would find out. People of weak character do that but others are loyal friends like [Defence Minister Jorge] Taiana or Chivo [Agustín] Rossi or [Science Minister Daniel] Filmus, to name three. I don’t want to forget anybody but there are many more. Linking up with Kirchnerism was a need of mine. After 34 years in politics, they told me that I was looking for a job but I’m not, I’m seeking to influence, discuss and live.
You did not mention [Treasury Prosecutor Carlos] Zannini...
I didn’t mention Zannini because I discovered him some years ago. I discovered a well-rounded, affectionate, intelligent, brilliant, humble, gifted and courageous guy, also hermetical when need be. There’s a Zannini which must come from his times of hardline militancy, hermetical, which I respect. I’m not a personal friend but I have great affection for him. I found a very different man than what he appears from afar.
And was it mostly him who drew you closer to Cristina?
No, I drew closer after joining a protest of Juan Grabois because I have affection and admiration for him; he’s a very valuable, honest and courageous person, very necessary. And I understand that it was Grabois who transmitted my unease over Kirchnerism shutting in on itself.
From there I got a reply from [Senator Oscar] Parrilli, so I went to the patio to give an inaugural chat on a course where nobody asked me about the situation of the government or its infighting, evidence of a very great respect. That made me feel comfortable. Máximo [Kirchner] called me up after I had requested an audience, we met and talked. I complained that Cristina had not called me when I was fired and he immediately told me that Cristina was expecting me on such and such a day and I had a very long chat with her.
How would you compare her with the person you saw two years ago in 2019, when you were even a presidential hopeful before deciding on Alberto Fernández?
I never saw her with anybody else, except the first time. After many years in 2018 I asked her to introduce me to [then-Avellaneda mayor Jorge] Ferraresi because one day at breakfast I was given to understand that he was looking at me. At that time I had been covering the country for the last 18 months as a presidential hopeful so that was very useful for unity. Rossi did the same on his part and we became very friendly, conversing over what we both needed to do.
Was Ferraresi the bridge?
The first time, yes, in 2018 because he thought of calling me, we did not know each other. He had been a municipal councillor aligned with [former vice-president Carlos] Chacho Álvarez but afterwards they quarrelled. I asked him to take me to Cristina, requesting an audience for July 31, which was granted for the following day when the ‘cuadernos’ [notebooks corruption scandal] exploded that same morning (August 1, 2018). I thought that the interview would be cancelled and then I thought that, appearing on that day after so many years, I wouldn’t be able to explain why or how but then I thought that if I don’t go, I’m a coward, so I went. There was nobody at the door, I went in and she was waiting for me. It was very cordial and I was thrilled to see her. This does not mean that I’m a friend of Cristina, nor in any way in her inner or even outer circle, but it does mean that we’ve put the past behind us.
At that point she was very weak ...
At that point I thanked her for attending me on a day like that. Her level of courage, resistance and fortitude is uncommon.
You saw her in 2018 when she had lost the [midterm senatorial] elections to Esteban Bullrich, and the ‘cuadernos’ charges had just erupted when it was unimaginable that she could make a comeback. Compare her then with now.
She’s the same, she looks to the future.
And what do you think she sees when she looks to the future?
That’s why I say that her style is passing from the dogmatic to the pragmatic. Above all, she is dogmatic in her words and pragmatic in her actions.
Just as Néstor Kirchner said to the then-United States president [George W.] Bush, ‘Don’t pay attention to what I say but what I do.’ I repeat the question: how do you think she sees the future?
I think that she agrees with her husband as to two major forces, one on the left and the other on the centre-right, which was a prediction of Kirchner and she must be thinking whether she can construct or whether she has to run herself.
Whether she can construct disciples ...
Whether she can construct one or more candidates but boosting the total, the overall, which gives added value to the space.
Or if not?
Or if she herself drops out, I suppose that she must be tired.
But you don’t rule out that alternative ...
I don’t rule out anything. When I say ‘no’ to Alberto, I’m not saying that he cannot [run] because he can, anybody who wants can – [Daniel] Scioli can. I didn’t like the way Scioli governed [Buenos Aires Province, 2007-2015] but I see him with plenty of spirit now. I disagree with the attitude of [dissident Peronist deputy Florencio] Randazzo but he’s no fool. Yet politics is all about putting the past behind you and seeing the good side of everybody. I say the same about Massa, who has turned out to be an excellent power-broker – if he knows anything, it’s that, but it’s also alienated him a bit from the people, which is not what he wanted. Now he has to be the best at that.
Let’s turn to international affairs. Was it imprudent of President Alberto Fernández to go and see [Vladimir] Putin a couple of weeks before the latter invaded Ukraine and did he commit some error in how he positioned Argentina in that conflict?
It wasn’t me who was advising him but in hindsight, yes, it was imprudent and even without hindsight, he picked the wrong words. His conversation with Putin was enthusiastic instead of rational, trying excessively to win his affection, as he does in almost all his meetings with other presidents. At that moment Putin was the centre of attention and had not yet attacked but it was widely foreseen. The North American and European intelligence services were telling their bosses and governments that the attack was imminent – so much so that I was thinking that they wanted him to attack. Evidently they were right.
Would you have advised him not to travel?
Not to see Putin at that time, it was dangerous.
So you would have advised him not to go.
I’m sure of that although, of course, that’s speaking after the event. He would have ignored me for sure and I would have had to travel with him. The impression given is of two giants in decadence exchanging blows in a place like Ukraine. One of them, who does not care if Ukraine is destroyed as long as they can send arms there, which is the West but directed by the United States because the European Union has ceded to Washington the control of NATO. So Ukraine is going to be like Syria or Iraq, a battleground for others. But if you think about it, Russia and the United States – who are seven percent of the world population – are generating chaos and a negative modification of conditions for those who have least in the world – for the migrants, for the poor, for workers, for those who have nothing to eat. That seven percent of the world’s population is provoking famines in benefit of a third party, which is obviously China. The elites have failed because Putin committed an extremely serious mistake, he is dead for the West as a person while at the same time if there is something which Russia has already wanted, it is to be Western and if there is is something which has always been denied Russia – whose aristocracy spoke French in the 19th century – it is the advance towards the West, placing missiles all over the show, rushing into NATO all the countries leaving [the Russian sphere of influence] after 1989. The United States did not win the Cold War in 1989, Russia collapsed all by itself. But the United States lacked magnanimity in its triumph, as Churchill would say, it was the king of this explosion.
From the fall of the Berlin Wall.
From the globalisation beginning with the fall of the Wall and with the phenomenal technological change in communications headed by the United States, which did not win a battle but Russia lost its epaulettes and was no longer in the inner circle of the great world decisions. [Former Brazil president] Fernando Henrique Cardoso told me many years ago: Putin has no seat [in that inner circle] and if somebody knows where he wants to go, it’s Putin. And I also thought of something which Cardoso, who was an authority to say so, told me eight or 10 years ago: “They’re committing a grave mistake.”
With your experience in the Foreign Ministry, what should Argentina’s next government do in terms of international relations?
Think that its problems are not the same as the problems of the United States, that you should not take an ideological attitude against the United States but a nationalistic and pragmatic attitude. Firstly, not to be distracted by an international outlook, the quest for international positions and not to go flocking again to Plaza Francia, as my parents did on the day Paris fell or again on the day Paris was liberated, as the symbol of everything. We must try to have an Argentine outlook without ideology. The United States has many internal problems which they resolve by attacking Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Vietnam, going from one defeat to another. Just as Europe wanted to resolve its problems and did not see Sarajevo coming nor Hitler’s invasion of Poland and what it meant. Russia did not see what would be the 1962 missile crisis, which I experienced and which scared me – I was 12 and frightened of nuclear war – until [Nikita] Kruschev ordered the Russian fleet to reverse course in the face of the firmness of [John] Kennedy, who was also playing all or nothing. Now we are faced with far less decisive and visionary people. In that sense the world has produced far weaker elites than their predecessors. Previously Russia and the United States respected each other due to MAD [Mutually Assured Destruction].
Which generated mutual dissuasion…
Mutual dissuasion due to the capacity for mutual destruction – ‘MAD’ in the sense of the English word. Now the question is not only how it came to that but what is the capacity of a Putin who must have measured his internal support and may have some honourable exit strategy for negotiation. I’m not asking that he be pardoned, I’m asking that we be pragmatic so that there is a ceasefire in Ukraine and that requires a magnanimous negotiation, firstly, for the sake of those who are dying and secondly, to offer a way out to the cornered tiger.
Production: Sol Bacigalupo and Natalia Gelfman.