Her nickname of “La Piba” speaks for itself: for Patricia Bullrich, it’s about having the character and the guts to make the changes needed to transform Argentina.
After opposition setbacks in the recent provincial elections, she speaks soberly with (in her own words) “an enormous inner calm” about the challenges that lie ahead.
Bullrich, 66, is convinced that society is ready. She knows she is. She believes she is the right person for a historic moment in the country’s history.
For the last six months, the former security minister, Montonero and PRO party chief has been climbing in the opinion polls, a point every month. She concludes: “These moments in Argentina are not for everybody.”
What do you feel when you see yourself climbing a monthly 1 to 1.5 percent in the opinion polls?
I feel all the apprenticeship of a life with good, tough and dangerous moments which have taught me a lot about our society, our way of life and our history, strongly consolidating and sharpening my ideas and a courageous conduct to face the challenges ahead of this country. And perhaps that courage is something which has been coming throughout my life, that accumulation of childhood anecdotes and school memories when all my classmates told me that I would be president.
In my political life I have never been obsessed with any objective. I’ve always thought that you have to go step by step with total and absolute dedication because if not, you end up being too distracted by that post to think of what lies ahead and you do not do your job properly in that post. So I started to drop that idea which I had had in childhood and adolescence. When I finished up at the Security Ministry, I thought I had the capacity and above all the clarity about what needs to be done in Argentina, an accumulation of experience as to how to go about constructing a political system in Argentina, a system of power and interests and how to pluck up the courage to trigger a strong change of regime in this country. That’s when I made the decision and started to march.
We’re talking about 2019.
In 2019 I left the Security Ministry with my last salary, which seemed pretty good to me within an austere political career. They told me that I would not be able to do anything because I had no money nor a party machine.
For a campaign around US$100 million is needed, for example.
OK, US$100 million were needed. I went walking [everywhere] and here I am today with enormous possibilities of leading this country.
One thing is to dream and desire something and to go looking for it and quite another to perceive that it is possible. Between last year and today, seeing your systematic growth in the opinion polls, when you lay your head on the pillow, do you reflect along the lines of “this time it seems it’s for real”?
Yes. At first after finishing at the Security Ministry in late 2019 and making my decision, I woke up some nights with a certain fear of that decision. To the degree that I went sorting out my core ideas, the things Argentina needed to do and the policies and strategies, the kind of struggle needed to change Argentina. Each time I felt more secure so what I have today, which I really feel profoundly, is an enormous inner calm since I know I’m going to have the strength, the teams and the social support to push through these transformations because I’m also saying things without mincing words. I’m not carrying out any marketing campaign but a campaign of truth about the things which have to be done in Argentina and what I’m going to do if, of course, the people elect me.
If we talk about the electoral cycle, we have recently had elections in several provinces with the provincial government winning in every case. How do you read that?
Argentina needs to return to a system with more social freedom. In the provinces public employment conditions voting. The [local] press also goes scaremongering. Before there was only one feudal province but now the concept of feudalism is all over the place.
Are you referring to Formosa as the original feudal province?
Or to Santiago del Estero, which was always seen as the most feudal province of them all with caudillos dating back to the 1960s. It seems important to me that we inject republicanism and democracy throughout the national territory, that is a very heavy pending debt. We have been moving towards less, not more democracy in many provinces.
Are you referring to successive re-elections?
Successive re-elections, permanent changes of electoral regimes, control of the courts and the press, namely those elements practising republican virtues.
Another element in these elections is the difference between the performance of Libertad Avanza and the voting possibilities assigned to Javier Milei. Do you think that the results coming from the provinces somehow indicate that Javier Milei’s electoral performance will be less than expected?
The performance in each province cannot measure his own adhesion, which seems individual to me. In some cases it might be adherence to his ideas, in other cases to his personality and in yet other cases some idea of ‘I couldn’t care less, let’s smash everything up.’
And what does that mean?
What it means.
As an instrument of protest?
Yes, as an instrument of protest. So it seems to me very difficult where there are no clear core ideas, when you do not go about consolidating your reasons for being in a determined political party because you are in a collective political entity where persons other than yourself can have access to the same representation.
Retaining the votes you might have.
Of course, because you are yourself with the baggage the party gives you, the ideas you represent and the coalition which you are in, something more than just you. So it seems to me difficult in his [Milei’s] case to transmit.
Another hypothesis of some pollsters: Milei is the saucepan-bashing vote of 2001, angry people expressing their annoyance in the opinion polls with him fulfilling the role of the saucepans as a sign of protest but when the time comes to vote, more people decide not to vote – the number of non-voters is growing – or directly vote for the option offering the most possibilities of governance. Do you assign some credence to that?
But what is happening is that he is not the only representative of that vote. I think that I also represent a vote where people say: “Now we are going to defend ourselves, we’re going to come out fighting, we’re not going to allow ourselves to be overlooked.”
A vote against party machines?
Against the party machines, the corporations, the fixes of politics for the sake of politics. I have that too...
What do you mean by that?
I feel that ingredient in this moment from a calmer position and with a more general outlook on all political issues, not only from an economic perspective. But I have that... without being an individualist but also carrying the baggage of a coalition.
Would your running-mate have to be an inland Radical? How would your ticket best solidify the unity of the different parties forming Juntos por el Cambio?
The first characteristic, beyond being inland or a Radical, is that they have to be a person committing themselves to change with the same profundity which I envision. It seems to me that profile has to be a very strong alignment with the decisions we are going to take to change Argentina. After that it is always better that they come from Buenos Aires Province or the hinterland because I’m City and if they come from a different political party, that is always better too. But the fundamental characteristic is for them to be a person with a representation and a decision in favour of change which does not undo the social legitimacy which I have been winning and who moves in the same direction.
Do you imagine the Radicals finally presenting their own presidential hopefuls in the PASO primaries or would they prefer to be the running-mates of PRO hopefuls like yourself and [outgoing Buenos Aires City Mayor] Horacio Rodríguez Larreta?
One thing is what I might imagine and another thing what they would want.
Please tell me both things.
I imagine that the Radicals are making an effort to have a candidate because after [Raúl] Alfonsín and [Fernando] de la Rúa, they are having a hard time finding presidential candidates. So that is a pending duty of the Radicals which they must be able to reconstruct. It seems to me something they are looking for and it also seems to me extremely legitimate that they do so.
As I see it, our next government, if the people elect us, must be a true coalition between the parties and sectors forming the coalition who must take a real part in the decisions. They should not be parties for consultation only, they should be parties joining in the decision-making because if that happens, the decisions will be carried forward. So in that sense I like combined tickets.
Is the Juntos por el Cambio brand losing value? Independently of the elections in different provinces, various pollsters are noting a downward trend in the Juntos por el Cambio vote. If that were so, to what would you attribute it?
I think that we perhaps had too big a fight over the City of Buenos Aires. Luckily that has already been sorted out and that perhaps riled some people because we were not reaching agreement. And so perhaps there have been some ups and downs for Juntos por el Cambio, but I think that with ordered, clean, transparent and fair competition, we will recover.
One thesis is that Juntos por el Cambio paid a political cost for its internal confrontation and thus lost some voting intentions. Another totally different hypothesis often raised by Jaime Durán Barba is that in no country in the world have elections been won after proposing tough austerity measures signifying an initial loss in the quality of life, even if recovering afterwards. Could the emergency of a person like Milei be driving Juntos por el Cambio towards a discourse more decided as to the level of austerity which would have to be produced and could that cause a certain fear among the voters?
In the first place, I would say that no sooner had we left office than we were strongly self-critical about having been very gradualist and for the need to have gone for more shock policies and clearer measures in every field. While it is true that Milei has emerged, we also came out [of government] with a different outlook.
Something also pre-existing Milei.
Regarding what is to be done, perhaps not all PRO. And secondly, the measures we are proposing today are the ones people know about.
I think it would be worse to lie to the people and tell them: ‘Look, hope and welfare are all going to be easy, you’ll live well, everything will be better’ No, straightening out a twisted, tangled country will have its cost, weeding is a complex task and people know that. There are also those lined up against us who are threatening all the time that they will set the country ablaze, that we won’t last a day and have to flee in a helicopter. I believe that people know that transformation is a struggle requiring much character and we are going to have to play hard and accept being protagonists. And also change.
Where is the austerity?
Austerity is downsizing a state which has doubled in the last 20 years and stolen the wealth of shops, whether a grocery or a bike store, of farming, oil and gas, mining, tobacco, etc. – they took money from all Argentines to create a bureaucracy [almost] twice as large, taking it from 23 percent of gross domestic product to 42 percent of GDP or 19 percent more to be exact. And that bureaucracy left you absolutely nothing, it did not give you more services nor remove its deadweight so that you might have better health and education. So at least I do not enter into the domineering language of Kirchnerism.
Austerity is what is happening now. People are adjusting so that the state can keep growing. While [Economy Minister Sergio] Massa should have come to downsize the state, he has swollen it in this last quarter. Massa should have stopped printing money but he is printing more, hence inflation and the most brutal loss of hope, expectations and money as such for people. So we have to get away from that dominant discourse. Instead of austerity we have come to adjust society away from a state which is a deadweight on the whole economy and life of Argentines.
Your prime attribute is linked to character whereas with Rodríguez Larreta it is management. There is a difference between what has to be done and how to do it. There is plenty of agreement over some of the ‘whats’ but the point of divergence comes with the ‘hows.’ There are two attributes for carrying through those ‘hows,’ one is character and the other management. Aristotle said: “We all agree over the ends, the problem is the means, we all want to be happy, the issue is how.” What weighs more in the current context, character or managerial experience?
In a stable country, managerial skill might well be the most important quality you could have. In a country which needs to come out of many years of crisis, character is what permits decisions which are not administrative but the transformation of a system to be taken so that there is a true transformation and a genuine leap in the history of a country. And I believe that is the moment in which we are and that’s why they are going to elect me because of that circumstance because we are not in normal times in Argentina. We are in a moment when we Argentines sense a terminal crisis and that’s why I was talking to you about weeping. In a terminal crisis you elect somebody with the courage and character to come out of it.
The semantic root of “courage” comes from cor, cordis – heart in Latin.
Braveheart, like that film in which the Scots put everything into regaining their homeland.
Hegel, referring to the spirit of history, said that leaders were chosen by history to be able to carry out their roles in the light of the attributes which were necessary at that time. Do you believe that Argentina in this day and age needs a person with your characteristics?
Yes, I’m convinced of that. Hegel’s phrase is a bit deterministic but I’m convinced that these times in Argentina are not for anybody.
Production: Melody Acosta Rizza & Sol Bacigalupo.