Sergio Massa, the lower house speaker whose deal-making cleared the agreement permitting the rescheduling of Argentina’s US$44.5-billion debt with the International Monetary Fund through the Chamber of Deputies, speaks of his role as mediator between the ruling coalition' and the opposition, as well as the future of Frente de Todos in next year’s elections.
The Renewal Front (Frente Renovador) leader, 49, discusses how to return to constructing an Argentina which boosts the middle class, while rethinking Peronism in the 21st century.
How was the dialogue with the different factions of Frente de Todos and the opposition to seal the deal? Did you get any sleep?
No, I was awake the whole night thinking about how I was going to tackle one or the other. It cost me a lot of sleep, above all because I felt the weight of institutional responsibility.
That Saturday prior to the Juntos por el Cambio Zoom session [discussing the deal], did you think that the opposition might end up voting against?
On Sunday morning, I went through the entire Juntos por el Cambio opposition spectrum. I was quite clear as to the enormous will and responsibility with which [Jujuy Governor Gerardo] Morales and other Radicals approached this issue, as well as the firmness and determination of Coalición Cívica-ARI. I had spoken with [opposition Peronist] Miguel Pichetto, which gave me a certain calm. I remain worried by the uncertainty among some PRO sectors planting themselves against accompanying this bill, not by voting against but by abstaining.
Is it true that instead of celebrating the 202 votes in favour, President Alberto Fernández was more worried by the 40 or so deputies from La Cámpora and other supporters of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner [voting against]?
No. For the first time in democratic history, the president had the valour to send a public debt for Congress debate after over 20 agreements between Argentina and the IMF.
Now there’s a law to oblige it.
Of course, but the National Constitution makes loans a prerogative of Congress and until now that clause has been omitted. There are two sectors here, those who caused the problem and were now responsible for helping to resolve it, basically due to the 2018 loan, and those whom Argentine society elected in 2019 to govern with the responsibility of resolving it. The appearance of different outlooks as to what might be the best path, always within a ruling coalition, is worrying but it is healthy that there is debate around these issues.
You have now made manifest differences within the ruling coalition which they were attempting to conceal.
There was no dissimulation, simply different shades of opinion. I don’t think the same way as Alberto or Cristina in everything nor does Cristina think the same as Alberto or me. And that means we can think differently while being part of a ruling coalition, each complying with their institutional responsibility.
You have already told how your deputies voted against the rest of Frente de Todos over mayoral re-election.
A dozen of our deputies voted against indefinite mayoral reelection but when they did, nobody singled us out and nor did it signify a coalition crisis . Everybody somehow knew or assumed what our stance would be. I remember the insults of [Elisa] Carrió towards [then-caucus chief Nicolás] Massot when she withheld the votes of her Civic Coalition deputies from political party legislation. A law governing the attorney-general which PRO, the Peronists, the Radicals and my Renewal Front had agreed during the Mauricio Macri Presidency was halted by the rejection of her Civic Coalition. We have to get used to common denominators within coalitions but also shades of opinion and that’s not a serious worry.
Within PRO there is a narrative that Macri never disagreed with approving the agreement with the IMF and that rumours of his urging a vote against it were unfounded – all part of an understandable bid to conceal the differences. But you seem to be doing much the same thing when you try to justify the differences of Cristina and Máximo Kirchner.
I’m not trying to hide anything, which would indeed be impossible since the result of the voting shows different opinions.
But you publicly justify differences within the coalition, even over issues which are not only crucial but urgent.
That’s how I took it and that’s how we resolved it, over and above the different opinions within the coalition. I knew what my responsibility was – to give Argentina an exit from a grave error of the Macri government and a failure of the IMF programme. Understanding the diversity of our opinions, I knew that I had to construct the highest level of agreement possible and I worked towards that.
How do you imagine the [IMF] quarterly reviews from an electoral standpoint? Could they end up being used electorally?
We’ll have to see if the IMF has the vocation for serious technical work or if it seeks to influence politically. In the latter case, Argentina or rather Frente de Todos will respond politically. If it is willing to work technically alongside the Argentine authorities, I have no doubt that the government will work shoulder to shoulder with them.
And what form might a political response take?
As from the IMF recognising its political influence and the error of many of its shareholders in voting for the 2018 report imprudently given to Macri, some of those shareholders have expressed political positions replacing the IMF’s. If the time is right, it would be our responsibility to deploy such mentions and votes politically together with the political responsibility lying ahead.
Your image paid political costs for joining Frente de Todos with opinion surveys referring to your changeability – in simple terms, passing from Margarita Stolbizer to Máximo Kirchner with just two years of difference. Has your leadership in clinching the votes to approve this agreement improved your image?
I stopped basing my politics on newspaper articles or opinion polls a long time ago.
Regardless of whether you pay attention to them or not, do you notice in the street that people view you more kindly?
I do notice in the street the affectionate glances of those who feel relieved because we resolved a problem which seemed insoluble for Argentina.
I would imagine that you tried to convince Máximo Kirchner of the contrary. Was his vote just against the IMF or did it represent a broader divergence with the government’s general economic line?
You’d have to ask him that. I try to keep my private chats private.
Did it affect your relationship with him?
No, not at all.
And how is your relationship with Cristina these days?
Very respectful and very professional, a good relationship.
But does she answer your telephone calls?
I’d have to take that as a trick question.
The presidential spokesperson has explained that the vice-president does not respond to his calls.
I have neither the political stature nor the personal links of sufficient dimension with them to meddle in the relationship between them. If we institutionalise the Frente de Todos leadership and there is a political sphere where we can discuss the course, then yes, I feel that I have a responsibility to give opinions, convince and influence. Now if it’s about personal human relationships, of what I know from talking to them, I’m not going to air that because it’s part of what has permitted me to weave agreements such as for this vote.
If the presidential spokesperson says that the vice-president does not attend the presidential telephone calls, that becomes a significant factor within the coalition with political consequences, not a personal matter between two friends who would have all the right to request privacy. Do you think that we are heading towards a stage wherein the differences which the ruling coalition previously tried to dissimulate become more marked?
We ought to have the capacity to end this mania for off-the-record comments and washing dirty linen in public.
But this interview is not “off the record” ...
Yes, I borrowed an old phrase from a provincial official but in reality I often hear things placed in the president’s mouth and when I ask Alberto afterwards whether he said or thought any such thing, he tells me: “No, I really had no idea.” These things hurt coexistence. I have no problem in saying that I have differences with Cristina and Alberto but I resolve them face-to-face, not via the media. When I have a different stance, as over Nicaragua, Venezuela, the release of convicts, judicial reform or Argentina’s position in the war between Russia and Ukraine, I have presented them in public because I came to Frente de Todos as a movement adding a certain vision of Argentina and the world and I don’t intend to lose that.
You proposed to the president voting for the text of the agreement without the programme of [Economy Minister] Martín Guzmán so I’d like to understand your vision of the economic plan.
They are different things, the law needed a strong consensus. I had a talk with the IMF staff and understood that the best way of giving the Extended Fund Facility a strong consensus was to place three core elements in the law.
Firstly, that this programme came to heal the failure of the 2018 stand-by, secondly that Congress was underwriting the Extended Fund Facility which Argentina was signing and thirdly, that the government was authorised to implement the policies to carry this programme forward. Those three objectives were contained in the text of the law, which was the most important thing.
I talked with a whole bunch of economists such as Roberto Lavagna, Martín Redrado or Emmanuel Álvarez Agis to ask all of them for their opinions. From my dialogues with the opposition, with economists and IMF staff, as well as my work with the Executive Branch, we developed a legal architecture which was more than sufficient for Argentina to advance. The programme was not in debate. Argentine society voted for us to draft a programme. We have a different outlook from Juntos por el Cambio regarding federalism, free public education and inclusive development. We believe that a certain percentage of Gross Domestic Product should go on science and technology and two percent of GDP should be assigned to public investment because public works are a phenomenal economic motor for a country needing growth.
I’m going to ask you the same question as I did the president a few months ago. Since we cannot agree over raising taxes or spending cuts and given that we cannot go further into debt, wouldn’t it be more useful to tell society that the only alternative is to print more money?
I disagree because the most efficient alternative for Argentina to resolve its problems is growth. To say that since the pie is small, we have to see who stops eating is an outlook absolutely lacking ambition. We’ve passed an Agroindustrial Law to lift exports 40 percent in the next five years.
It would not be necessary to print money if you had grown more but when you have no other alternative...
In 2019 we made a contract with Argentines which unfortunately we have to keep in the midst of the two most dramatic elements which geopolitics and the global economy have to offer, pandemic and war, which produce three things – increased commodity prices and also increased poverty because wealth becomes more concentrated and the gap grows.
When you say that you do not think the same as Alberto Fernández or the economy minister, would that include the agreement being reached in less time, for example?
I feel that it might have been better for Argentina and the president to discuss the reform of statutes and a change of programme, including in international forums, with the IMF assembly due in a month but installing that discussion in a year when we knew we had this deadline made us lose muscle in negotiations. Anybody can comment in hindsight.
Just like [Buenos Aires City Mayor] Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, you always had presidential aspirations. Do you see yourself as a presidential candidate next year?
No, because I feel that I still have to complete a path of reconciliation with a sector of society. Today my responsibility within the coalition is too big to allow me a petty outlook limited to my personal future.
Furthermore, I have learned to enjoy every moment of my life. I spent much of my life running ahead of myself in search of goals instead of enjoying every stage of my life. The death of a very close friend made me think – you’re the son of Italian immigrants from a middle-class home, you could go to a good school and university, form a family, carry out a fabulous change of paradigm in social security administration, become the youngest Buenos Aires provincial deputy since the return of democracy and the youngest mayor in the history of Tigre. All that, highly marked by the death of Diego, somehow made me take pause and look at things differently.
Speaking of 2023 presidential candidates, does it seem natural to you that it should be Alberto Fernández?
We lost the 2021 midterm elections with society sending us a message. The best thing for Frente de Todos would be the government reaching a level of acceptance making us competitive.
That would include the natural candidate having to be the president.
If we don’t resolve the problem of inflation and recover real wages, any possibility of our candidacy will be diminished. Under the Macri government, real purchasing-power fell by 20 points. If in this period we have ahead of us we do not succeed in restoring incomes, the hope which society deposited in us will be transformed into frustration. We respect that the presidency needs strengthening but we also understand that the coalition needs an executive board and a sphere for discussion.
So if the economy does not improve, will the Frente de Todos presidential candidate be irrelevant because the government’s chances of triumph have shrunk?
The election is a world apart. We could reschedule the debt and restart the motors of the Argentine economy. We have six or seven laws offering long-term revival to construction, tourism, oil and gas, mining and farming as well as creating new economic activities like cannabis and [electric] cars. Argentina set records for auto production in the midst of the pandemic and is one of the world’s most important players in that sector. We have to make all that trickle down into people’s lives – that is our electoral contract, restoring hope to a society which between the Macri government and the pandemic fell into despair.
Will the PASO primaries be useful for Frente de Todos presidential hopefuls? The president has said that he will be among them and since you’re not going to run, who else could?
I did not say I was not going to be a candidate. I understand the Fontevecchia game whereby no can be yes and yes no, I’ve already done several of these interviews.
What I’m proposing is that none of us should have an individual project, we must all form part of the Frente de Todos framework within the unity of the coalition, the best offer to society. If you ask me: ‘Is it in your head today to be a 2023 candidate?’ my answer is: ‘No, not now,’ neither ruling out nor affirming anything. But the question is absurd because it is futurology – previously there are conditions to be met which have to do with changing people’s lives.
Does it seem to you that each sector of the coalition should run a pure ticket or that there should be a presidential candidate from one sector and a running-mate from the other?
The president has the right to run and if he overcomes the pandemic, the war, the slump and the catastrophic debt left behind by Macri, he will also have the right to try governing in a normal term.
I must confess that I haven’t thought about it but I don’t want to leave you without an answer. Both in government and the opposition we are learning what it is like to be a coalition. A priori I would like the 2023 contract of Frente de Todos with society to define the responsibility of each one, who will take charge of education, who will take charge of social security, who will take charge of defence, etc.
So that each part of the coalition has complete ministries in the Brazilian style?
Sure, so that the construction of the coalition is vertical and not transversal so that we are able to show which contributor to the coalition shines most. Then it would be good that the coalition, with a letter of intent regarding what the country wants, defines the names along with a programme previously agreed with all the candidates. Then the people know that there might be shades of opinion but also a core of consensus.
Did I understand correctly? Do the candidates compete for elected positions but the operational posts are already agreed within the coalition?
Within politics, defence policies are one thing and science policies another.
How is power distributed in specific areas so that the Renewal Front ends up with transport, tourism, etc.?
No, because that would imply posts being shared out which would shock society.
When you were talking about “who shines most,” what were you referring to then?
That each branch of the coalition, via its management and the policies chosen, can show results to society and the coalition.
So then each leg of the coalition would have a sector.
Or not, depending on the menu chosen by the president.
Imagining hypothetically that society perceives an economic improvement come 2023 with logically the same presidential candidate, would it also seem useful to you if the coalition repeated the complete ticket with the vice-president also running?
You’d have to ask the entire coalition, I am defending my own end and in any case you’d have to interview Cristina or Máximo so that they tell you. I’m nobody’s spokesman.
Morales has publicly praised your performance as a consensus-builder in the passage of the law supporting renegotiation with the IMF. Some kind of convergence towards the centre has begun between the so-called PRO doves, the Radicals, your Renewal Front, the governors and traditional Peronists. Is there a future for the broad avenue of the middle ground or has Argentina definitely remained in the hands of two coalitions? Could there be a future possibility of an alliance between the two moderate sectors of both sides being created?
For a long time I was criticised for the limitations of my system of personal relations with the leaders of different political parties. And in reality it is that system of human relations which permits the construction of those agreements which at times seem impossible like with the IMF.
Much of the political leadership is sick of the grieta chasm. Those who run people down and shout the loudest may be newsworthy for the media but they do not change people’s lives. If politicians do not find agreements to improve Argentine reality, society, already at boiling-point due to those who shout the loudest, will end up throwing everybody out.
What regional context would be indicated by a Bolivia governed by Evo’s party, Peru by Pedro Castillo and Chile by Gabriel Boric, probably followed by Colombia with Gustavo Petro and Brazil with [Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] as the most likely winner in October?
In some article we did previously, we spoke of this topic, anticipating a changing outlook on Latin America on the part of the Joe Biden administration.
What would a second wave of governments which could be dubbed progressive or centre-left mean for the region?
This is the response of the region to the asymmetries. The most serious problem of right-wing governments in the region is their lack of sensitivity and their failure to construct a protective arm for those outside the system. The response in each country is different. There is a revindication of Brazil as a world power which Lula once led with an additional factor – the embrace between Lula and [ex-president Fernando Henrique] Cardoso, which constitutes the idea of a balanced Brazil thinking of development with inclusion.
Argentina has to find the mechanisms for 10 years of development with inclusion, no matter who governs. A generation which reconstructs the ideas which brought my parents here to Argentina, of a prosperous country where you can progress and buy a house.
Is there a difference between this less confrontational new progressive wave which is, one might say, more social democratic and the wave centred on [the late Hugo] Chávez?
The grieta is not a disease limited only to Argentina. Jumping out of the friend-and-foe logic to heal the rift which it causes in countries is a process of maturity and development. We have to heal the disease of the grieta to have 10 or 20 years of growth and development, which is what people need to live better. Being stuck in a friend-and-foe spiral ends up in a political back and forth which has happened to many countries and many governments in Latin America.
So might we say that there is a centre-left tendency?
I see a centrist trend in the face of governments which lack the capacity to make the state respond to those citizens who are excluded. When the state is absent, the citizenry rebels against the government at the ballot-box. That’s inexorable.
Does Argentina need to lower taxes?
First we need to construct a more progressive system. Incredibly enough, in Argentina those who pay the most earn the least.
Would Argentina have to reduce the tax burden?
Argentina needs to review its tax system, simplify it, reduce the informal sectors and lower the tax burden.