Former president Mauricio Macri made an eventful, controversial and surprising trip to Paraguay on Monday, receiving criticism both at home and abroad despite adopting a measured tone.
In the headline takeaway, the Juntos por el Cambio leader – who has mostly stayed out of the public eye since leaving office in December until breaking his silence last week – adopted a diplomatic tone to tell a television channel that his successor in office, Alberto Fernández, needs to be “given time” to turn around Argentina.
"I think you have to give them [the Peronist government] time to show what their ideas and proposals are, see the results. You have to be respectful," the ex-head of state told the GEN cable channel.
Macri was in Paraguay for less than 24 hours at the invitation of former Paraguay president Horacio Cartes (2013-2018). He flew off to Asunción on Monday, using a Cessna Citation 650 XLS private jet owned by his host’s tobacco company, and returned later the same evening after a 40-minute meeting with Paraguay’s current leader, Mario Abdo Benítez, at the presidential residence.
Afterwards, Macri called Cartes and Abdo "two important leaders" in the region, saying they “are eager to continue contributing and helping their country move forward, with the same passion that I have for Argentina to find the path back to growth."
The former president said that leaders needed to trust healthcare professionals and be responsible in leading their nations through the coronavirus pandemic.
"We talked about how to move away from fear," Macri said after the meeting with Paraguay’s president, saying that the virus crisis could lead governments to take “hasty decisions that can be harmful."
"In my meeting with Abdo, I underlined the importance of [the] Mercosur [trade bloc] not losing the dynamism of recent years and that it advances in all the free-trade agreements initiated with the European Union, Korea, and Singapore," he added.
Macri’s whistle stop trip was billed as a chance for him to talk with Cartes about his work leading the FIFA Foundation, an education programme run by football’s governing body that has a budget totalling US$100 million.
Though the two leaders shared a period when they were both in office together, the duo go way back, having known each other from their times leading football clubs (Cartes with Club Libertad, which he still leads, and Macri with Boca Juniors).
However, according to a report in Perfil on Monday, the two leaders used their time together to also discuss the possibility of setting up a conservative-leaning regional alternative to the left-leaning Grupo Puebla, which Fernández is a member of.
The idea, sources in Paraguay told the outlet, would be to ensure aligned governments have a stronger voice on Latin American political issues, such as democracy in Venezuela.
Cartes, who as well as being a former president is one of Paraguay’s wealthiest businessmen and an influential power-broker, posted on his Twitter account that he had "a pleasant chat [with Macri] on issues related to regional news."
Despite its short length, Macri’s trip did not pass off without criticism – both at home and abroad.
In Paraguay, some media outlets questioned the importance of the trip, given that it occurs while the country has banned the entry of foreigners as a preventive measure in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Government officials said that presidents, former presidents, doctors, nurses and those involved in humanitarian matters, both national and foreign, were exempt from the prohibition.
"People who enter can stay 24 hours and must be accompanied by health personnel," said Federico González, an advisory minister for international affairs attached to the Paraguayan Presidency.
In Argentina, meanwhile, Macri was also criticised for departing the country and “breaking the quarantine” while an almost total lockdown is in place for the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA), with cases of the novel coronavirus on the rise. Commercial flights have been banned until September 1, with limited exceptions authorised on a case-by-case basis by aviation authorities.
Some criticism at home also arose given the choice of Macri’s means of travel. The private jet used for the trip, which carried only two passengers, is owned by Tabacalera del Este SA, of which Cartes is the majority shareholder.
According to investigative reporting in Paraguay, Tabacalera del Este SA produces many more cigarettes than are consumed in the country and the majority of its stock ends up being sold illegally on the black market in Brazil.
The company, which recognising that contraband cigarettes do reach the market, denies the allegations and says 90 percent of its production is sold in Paraguay. Researchers, however, have cast doubt over that claim.