Argentina’s Berlusconi and the Triumph of Soccer

Buenos Aires has just elected a mustachioed, millionaire mayor who owns Argentina's most popular soccer team. Mauricio Macri is Argentina's answer to Italy's Silvio Berlusconi or New York's Michael Bloomberg. The only difference being shades of ideology, gradations of fabulous wealth and the fact that Macri's high-profile business is not media, but sport. In the fractured Argentine capital where the sentimiento for soccer is virtually the only language that cuts across class and ideological differences, that counts for a lot.

Teo Ballvé

Buenos Aires has just elected a mustachioed, millionaire mayor who owns Argentina's most popular soccer team. Mauricio Macri is Argentina's answer to Italy's Silvio Berlusconi or New York's Michael Bloomberg. The only difference being shades of ideology, gradations of fabulous wealth and the fact that Macri's high-profile business is not media, but sport. In the fractured Argentine capital where the sentimiento for soccer is virtually the only language that cuts across class and ideological differences, that counts for a lot.

  The "Bombonera" stadium in the heart of La   Boca, a working-class Buenos Aires   neighborhood. (Credit: CABJ)

Macri holds the keys to the Bombonera, the legendary stadium near the old port where the city's scruffy, most trophy-decorated team plays: the Club Atlético Boca Juniors, or Boca. The team could fairly be described as the New York Yankees of Argentine soccer. Macri used his Boca credentials to full advantage during the mayoral campaign, appearing alongside the team's stars and at big games whenever possible. Boca, for its part, cooperated by winning, as is its custom. Just days before the June 24 mayoral runoff election, Macri's team won the prestigious pan-American Libertadores Cup by whipping a Brazilian side, Grêmio.

Boca is a winner. And now, so is Macri, the team's president. In the runoff he crushed his rival Daniel Filmus—a factotum for left-leaning President Néstor Kirchner—by roughly 22 percentage points.

In the language of sports, it was a blowout.

With October's presidential elections fast-approaching, Macri's landslide was interpreted as a sign that Kirchner's lock on re-election was perhaps not as sure as some had thought. His party, Frente Para la Victoria, controls most of the still-formidable Peronist Party machine, and is favored to win. But it was decided less than two weeks after Macri's victory that Kirchner's wife, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, would be the party's candidate—a new face to oppose the increasingly organized center-right opposition, which now has Macri as its most prominent figure.

But who is Mauricio Macri? Above all, he is a money man, and is generally in favor of anything good for business. Alongside other cronies of President Carlos Menem, he fed at the corruption-splattered trough of privatization schemes in 1990s Argentina. That era is reviled now for its kleptocratic government and ill-advised obeisance to Wall Street I-banks and the International Monetary Fund. The unproductive, liberalizing binge of the 1990s set up Argentina for the economic debacle of late 2001. On December 20 of that year the country—gutted by the privatizations and an anemic monetary policy—basically went up in flames. The president resigned in the face of mass protests, and then one mediocre politician after another tossed the unwanted presidency from lap to lap like a hot potato.

In early 2002, Argentina was an international pariah after going through five presidents in less than a month. The next year, President Kirchner was elected and things finally began to settle down. In 2003, the incredible shrinking Argentine economy effected a shrieking 180-degree turn and began to grow at an accelerated pace. There was no way to go but up, and Argentina is now booming, fat with soybean exports, tourism and real estate dollars.

Throughout the race, Macri's sophisticated campaign propaganda specialized in conflating his image with that of Boca Juniors. To that end, Macri's people chose yellow as the campaign symbol. To use both of the team colors—yellow and blue—would have been too heavy-handed, but yellow on its own got the message across well enough. After all, it is the same exact color emblazoned as a horizontal band across the chest of Boca stars like Juan Román Riquelme and Rodrigo Palacio (who play with the beloved Argentine national team as well).

  "Gabriela and Mauricio," official   campaign photo.

Macri's other task was to rehabilitate his reputation as a reactionary, money-grubbing impresario. First, he selected a running mate with physical disabilities—a photogenic city legislator in her early forties who cruises around City Hall in a wheelchair. His and Gabriela Michetti's smiling faces against the Boca-yellow background were a ubiquitous presence on billboards and bus-shelters in the months and weeks before the elections. Another softening touch: throughout the campaign, whether in ads or while campaigning, Macri and Michetti only used their first names. They were Gabriela and Mauricio—friendly, accessible, nice.

One event in particular shadowed this campaign, the "Cromañón" nightclub fire in December 2004 that killed hundreds of young people and eventually led to the impeachment of Macri's predecessor, Ánibal Ibarra, leaving a caretaker city government in power for a year. Macri utilized the nightclub fire as a metaphor for the damage that can be done by a dysfunctional, inefficient and non-transparent city government.

Finally, Macri's nascent political party was re-baptized "Pro," short for the more cumbersome Propuesta Republicana. "Pro" was genius as a form of double-speak. The right-wing Macri suddenly seemed to be moving toward progressivism without actually having to offer any concrete evidence of it. In Spanish as in English the prefix "pro" is associated with a slew of positive-sounding words. Macri, a political newbie, suddenly seemed profesional (like the team) and progresista (progressive, as his opponents claim to be); also, Macri was full of propuestas (proposals) and proyectos (projects)—an idea man.

One of Macri's campaign videos combines a whiff of Boca fever with a pointed stoking of Argentine nationalism, and then ties a "Pro" ribbon around these sentiments. "What is Pro?" the ad asks rhetorically, and answers: "That the most popular soccer team in Argentina is also admired around the world, that is Pro." After that grandiose pronouncement the rest of the ad sounds like a throwaway: Oh, and Pro is good health care and schools too, by the way.

During this mayoral race, those wanting to blow the whistle on Macri's pseudo-progressivism pointed at his congressional record. Macri, who won his congressional seat after his first unsuccessful run for mayor, has distinguished himself with feeble attendance and a dismissive attitude toward the legislature as an institution. His voting record is solidly right wing. For example, he voted against a reproductive health law and against human rights trials for Dirty War-era torturers. He focused on promoting himself as a crime-fighter, a free-market booster and a defender of Catholic family values. He went on record saying jail-time might be the best solution for the cartoneros, as the city's vast army of impoverished, desperate trash recyclers are known.

For those with a bit of memory, Macri's zero-tolerance platform smacks of the reigning ethos in the latter half of the 1970s, when a mustachioed law-and-order man in a military uniform, Jorge Videla, oversaw a state-sponsored kidnapping, torture and murder apparatus, producing Argentina's 30,000 disappeared. In reference to these atrocities, Macri has told his followers to “look forward” and forget the "ghosts of the past." It was in that era that Macri's father amassed the family fortune, largely through contracts with the milicos, as Argentines call the juntas. Back then, Catholicism, Western culture, and the free market were used as justifications to brutally root-out "leftist subversives" who supposedly threatened to drag the country into chaos and Soviet atheism and obscurantism. These days, the enemy seems to be the under-class, the cartoneros, the unemployed, petty criminals—shadows that remind well-to-do city residents that Argentina is still dragging around the scourge of poverty, despite the recovery.

The progressive intelligentsia of Buenos Aires was appalled by Macri's trouncing of his more left-leaning opponents. They like to describe Macri as a neo-fascist, and compare him to Hitler and Bush. Opposition groups followed the lead of progressive blogs, who photo-shopped mustaches onto images of Mr. Burns from the TV cartoon series The Simpsons, by pasting posters throughout the city asking: “Would it be good for Mr. Burns to be mayor? Don’t forget who Macri really is.” Santiago Llach, a Buenos Aires poet who writes a blog called “Monolingua,” referred to the "March of the Yellow Shirts" in a post on election night, equating Macri's supporters to Hitler's brown-shirts. Other critics mock Macri's practice of giving interviews and planning his campaign from the gilded sands of Punta del Este, a beach resort in neighboring Uruguay.

These critics aren't necessarily enthusiastic about President Kirchner's peronist-populist style or the candidate he handpicked to run against Macri (Filmus, the long-faced, bearded Minister of Education). Yet neither can they satisfactorily explain the Macri landslide, even in traditionally anti-Peronist Buenos Aires. Ever since the Macri victory was celebrated with fireworks over the Boca stadium, the lefty smart set has been hyperventilating in political columns and TV interviews, deploying convoluted theories to explain why porteños, as residents of Buenos Aires are known, chose Mr. Burns. What are people thinking? Is this a city of amnesiacs? Has everyone forgotten the nightmarish 1970s, the disastrous 1990s, eras that are synonymous with the name Macri? What happened?

Soccer triumphed. In Buenos Aires as elsewhere, this is not the age of reason, but the era of spectacle. Macri mounted an impressive spectacle in which soccer glory occupied the center ring. It doesn't matter that soccer has nothing to do with the effective governing of a chaotic, socially heterogeneous city teeming with three million residents and millions more who pour into its stressed-out infrastructure to work and shop everyday. Soccer is meaningful on a visceral level. Soccer is the one realm of reality that brings satisfaction to millions of Argentines, a satisfaction they can share with others in the street, at the office, in the elevator. Week after week soccer serves as an escape valve for decades of individual and national frustrations framed by economic and political disasters. Boca Juniors, the soccer team, is basically the only consistent winner in a country that has been embittered by a long losing streak (even the national team is disappointing lately). Macri managed to convince the public he can do for Buenos Aires what he did for Boca. Argentines want to win. For voters, Mr. Burns and his yellow-shirts seem like the only team in town.

Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, he edited, with Vijay Prashad, Dispatches From Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (South End Press, 2006).

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