Mauricio Macri fights Argentina’s tradition of handouts for votes

The president is changing the country’s political culture

JUST off Leonardo da Vinci Avenue, a long street of modest shops and foul-smelling gutters in the district of La Matanza outside Buenos Aires, stands La Juanita, a co-operative. Founded by unemployed workers in 2001, it occupies a former school. It runs a free kindergarten, a microcredit programme, a call centre and, nearby, a large community bakery, all with the aim of helping the unemployed get work. Since Mauricio Macri, a former businessman of the centre-right, was elected as Argentina’s president in 2015 La Juanita has become part of a political experiment.

La Matanza is in the heart of the conurbano, a sprawl of poor and crime-ridden suburbs around Argentina’s capital which contains some 10m people. It was a bastion of support for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the populist Peronist president from 2007 to 2015. Peronism long controlled the conurbano through clientelism, providing handouts in return for political loyalty. This system stopped offering social mobility, argues Héctor “Toty” Flores, a founder of La Juanita. The conurbano has become home to an underclass preyed on by drug gangs and dirty cops.

Mr Macri has attracted attention for his effort to stabilise and open Argentina’s economy while avoiding shock therapy. Yet in the medium term his impact on his country’s politics may be even bigger. The victory of Mr Macri’s Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) coalition in a legislative election last October means that everybody except diehard kirchneristas now thinks he will become the first elected president who is not a Peronist to finish his term since the movement was founded by Juan and Eva Perón in the 1940s. Barring accidents, he has a good chance of winning a second term in 2019. “He has created a new equilibrium in the party system,” says Juan Cruz Díaz, a political consultant.

It helps Mr Macri that an ally, María Eugenia Vidal, unexpectedly won election as governor of Buenos Aires province (which includes the conurbano) in 2015 against a weak kirchnerista candidate. Mr Macri and Ms Vidal promise a new kind of politics, with two pillars.

The first is more efficient delivery of public services to places that lack them. Mr Macri has built a rapid-transit bus line in La Matanza. “People didn’t even demand sewerage here because they couldn’t get it,” says Mr Flores. “In a year they will have it.” Officials say that they are able to spend more on public works, even while reducing the fiscal deficit and taxes, because they are cutting out waste and corruption. Marcos Peña, Mr Macri’s chief of staff, cites a big tender for medicines this month, which he says came in 80% below the previous cost.

La Juanita now gets official support. A dozen of its members draw government salaries. The labour ministry has set up a small office there to help the unemployed draw up CVs. An IT training school will open next month. Ms Vidal’s people see La Juanita as a model. “If they can do it here, we can do it in other places,” said Gabriela Besana, a visiting provincial legislator.

The second change is philosophical. The state will do different things. Mr Macri’s people stress pre-school education and changing the physical and social environment in poor areas. The government will soon require jobless welfare recipients to attend school or training programmes. “We don’t ask anything [else] in return,” says Mr Peña. “Clientelism demands the subjection of the poor, rather than lifting them out of poverty,” he adds. “Our main aim is to offer these people the dignity of the middle class.”

Plenty could go wrong. Cambiemos has won over former Peronist political operators and risks lapsing into the same methods. La Juanita could itself become a vehicle for clientelism. Mr Flores is a congressman for Cambiemos. Then there is corruption. “Off the record, this is a very honest government,” says a political scientist, who fears any such statement in Argentina is a hostage to fortune.

Mr Macri’s bet on economic gradualism could also be derailed. The middle class—Mr Macri’s own political base—has felt the squeeze of higher utility bills as subsidies are withdrawn, but not yet many benefits from an economy that is growing at a rate of less than 3% per year. On the streets of La Matanza scepticism still outweighs hope. The divided Peronists may unite around more moderate policies. Perhaps the biggest risk is that success goes to the heads of Mr Macri’s team of bright young technocrats.

Yet the potential prize for Cambiemos—and for Argentina—is great. Mr Macri is building a movement founded on the values of opportunity and aspiration, not dependence. If he succeeds, his example will echo around Latin America.

A Fight for Power in Southern Mexico

By Jacob L. Shapiro


In the early hours of March 23, 20 assailants rammed a truck into the main gate of a Coca-Cola Femsa distribution center in Mexico, hoping to breach the entrance and burn the center to the ground. Forces from Mexico’s National Gendarmerie intervened in time to prevent the facility, located in Ciudad Altamirano, from being destroyed, but 19 of the attackers still managed to escape. The attack was the second in three days against the distribution center, which had only just reopened on March 21 after a two-month closure due to extortion threats. Coca-Cola Femsa subsequently announced it would shut down its operations in Ciudad Altamirano indefinitely because of what it described as “the absence of law and order.”
Geographic Hurdles
Ciudad Altamirano is a small town on the border between Guerrero and Michoacan, two of Mexico’s most violent states. In 2017, Guerrero had one of the highest murder rates in Mexico. A mayor of a small town in the state was assassinated last December, and a candidate for mayor in another small town was gunned down a few days later. In November, Mexican soldiers were deployed in Guerrero to guarantee the safety of students and teachers at school, and in May, a vigilante force made up of 150 civilians was formed to protect homes from the same type of attacks Coca-Cola Femsa experienced last week. As for Michoacan, 1,200 Mexican soldiers deployed there a week ago to combat the Los Viagras cartel.

Some of the lawlessness in the region can be attributed to the fact that Guerrero state is outside of Mexico’s core. Ciudad Altamirano sits in a valley in the Sierra Madre del Sur, a mountain range between Mexico City and the Pacific coast. In fact, most of Guerrero state is mountainous. It takes roughly five hours to drive from Mexico City to Ciudad Altamirano, even though they are only 175 miles (280 kilometers) apart. The center of Mexico is a plateau, and anywhere outside that core region is hard to control, even a state like Guerrero, which borders Mexico City.
But even considering the area’s problems with violence, underdevelopment and poverty (Guerrero has one of the lowest incomes per household in all of Mexico), the attack against the Coca-Cola Femsa distribution center is a disturbing omen. In the past, the border region between Guerrero and Michoacan was fought over by two cartels: Guerreros Unidos (a splinter group of the Beltran Leyva Organization) and La Familia Michoacana. But recently, two more cartels have joined the fight: the upstart Jalisco New Generation cartel and the remnants of the Knights Templar cartel, of which the Los Viagras cartel is a splinter.

These groups are battling over Ciudad Altamirano because controlling the town is a key part of controlling Guerrero and Michoacan. Ciudad Altamirano is on the Guerrero side of the border and stands on the Cutzamala River, which feeds into the 479-mile Rio Balsas, south-central Mexico’s dominant river. The town is also located at the intersection of two major highways, Federal Highway 51 and Federal Highway 134, making it an attractive location for companies like Coca-Cola Femsa. From Ciudad Altamirano, roads fan out in all directions. If one controls this intersection, it is a clear shot to Mexico City, the Pacific, or farther into Guerrero or Michoacan.
Many businesses that operate in the parts of Mexico that are largely outside of government control have to make certain compromises to ensure their continued safety and prosperity. Coca-Cola Femsa’s decision to withdraw from Ciudad Altamirano demonstrates that the company no longer sees these compromises as cost effective – and it’s unlikely to be the last to make that decision. As for the cartels, this marks a change in behavior. The presence of large, profitable companies in their areas of control is generally beneficial. Just as a national government can tax citizens and businesses, cartels can and do levy “taxes” of their own to boost their revenue and assert their authority over the areas they control. Pushing a business out of the territory, as happened in Ciudad Altamirano, could therefore mean one of three things, none of which bodes well for the future: the cartels may be rich enough that bribes offered by companies aren’t attractive anymore; the company may have refused to pay up and therefore had to be made an example of; or the cartels have more ambitious plans, and the presence of a multinational company complicates those plans.
The Deeper Question
It is unclear at this point exactly who attacked Coca-Cola Femsa and why. But what is clear is that Coca-Cola Femsa believed its operations were so threatened that it could no longer safely (or profitably) do business in the region, despite the fact that Mexican police were able to thwart the most recent attack before much damage could be done. Ciudad Altamirano is a strategic spot for anyone seeking to dominate regional transportation routes, and multiple cartels are not only disrupting the already variable rule of law in this part of Mexico but are also battling each other in a conflict that appears to be getting bloodier every week. Some may say this is making a mountain out of a molehill – we are, after all, talking about just two small attacks in a region rife with violence – but the increasing violence throughout this region is getting harder to dismiss as business as usual.

The deeper question is why this is happening at all. We could blame it on geography: Guerrero is a mountainous region that’s poorly connected to the rest of the country. But this explanation is insufficient. The core territory of the United States is the Mississippi River, and if geography were perfectly determinative, Washington should have had (and should still have) great trouble asserting its writ past the Rocky Mountains. Say what you will about the differences between California and the East Coast, but the rule of law is consistent in both. Why, then, was the U.S. able to overcome its geographic challenges, while Mexico is still trapped by its?
To be honest, I don’t yet have the answer, only the question. That is as good a place to start as any. In the meantime, a large multinational company is pulling out of south-central Mexico because competing cartels want to control that distribution network for their own purposes. And that means the next Mexican president, to be elected in July, will face a major test early in his or her presidency.

‘America First’ Bears a New Threat: Military Force


The incoming national security adviser, John R. Bolton, vowed that he would find ways to execute the policies that President Trump was elected on, but that he would not tolerate slow-walking and leaks from bureaucrats he dismissed as “munchkins.” Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times 

WASHINGTON — The incoming national security adviser has called for the “swift takeover” of North Korea by the South. He and the newly nominated secretary of state have urged withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The pick for C.I.A. director once oversaw interrogations in which terrorism suspects were tortured.

The two generals celebrated by President Trump for their reputations for toughness are now considered the moderates — and at risk of falling out of favor.

Not since the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, have key national security leaders so publicly raised the threat of military confrontation if foreign adversaries do not meet America’s demands.

But George W. Bush’s war cabinet was responding to the biggest direct attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. The current moment of peril arises from Mr. Trump’s conviction that the United States is being pushed around by adversaries who need to understand that “America First” means they have a brief window to negotiate a deal, or force may follow.

Now, the members of Mr. Trump’s newly constituted team are about to face multiple, simultaneous tests of their past proclamations and sometimes conflicting instincts. North Korea and Iran pose the most immediate challenge, with Mr. Trump setting negotiation deadlines that are only months away.

Over the longer term, they must straighten out the strategic incoherence surrounding Mr. Trump’s approach to Russia and China, defining the meaning of the administration’s policy declaration earlier this year that “great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”

Washington is now consumed by a debate over whether Mr. Trump’s new team plans to govern as far to the right as it talks.

So far, the incoming national security adviser, John R. Bolton, has declared that his past comments are “behind me.” Hours after his selection was announced, Mr. Bolton vowed that he would find ways to execute the policies that Mr. Trump was elected on, but that he would not tolerate slow-walking and leaks from bureaucrats he dismissed as “munchkins.”

Some who know Mr. Bolton and his operating style predict titanic clashes.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the retired general who has argued for keeping the Iran deal intact and warned that military confrontation with North Korea would result in “the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes,” told colleagues on Friday that he did not know if he could work with Mr. Bolton. The White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, another retired four-star general, was also unenthusiastic about Mr. Bolton’s hiring.

President Trump with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Friday. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times 

Mr. Bolton’s harshest critics — mostly Democrats, but their ranks include some members of the Bush administration — argue that the odds of taking military action will rise dramatically when he becomes the last person a volatile American president consults.

“John Bolton is not some gray bureaucrat whose views are unknown to us,” said Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Moscow under President Barack Obama, and now a Stanford professor and the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

“He’s very clear that there should be regime change in Iran and North Korea, and military force should be used to achieve those goals,” Mr. McFaul said. “If you hire him, you’re making a clear signal that’s what you want.”

But others who have worked for years with Mr. Bolton argue that Mr. Trump knows exactly what he is getting: leverage, not conflict.

“I think this notion everybody talks about, that the risks of war have gone up, is wrong,” said Stephen J. Hadley, who was Mr. Bush’s national security adviser and a major architect of the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. “This is the peace-through-strength crowd who want to make clear to people that they’re tough and that no one should cross them. But the reason for that is to deter war.”

Dov Zakheim, a former senior Defense Department official who has known Mr. Bolton for 35 years, wrote on Friday that Mr. Bolton “may be a fire breather, but he is a man who cares deeply about his country,” in comparison to his boss, who “cares deeply about Donald Trump.”

Whatever Mr. Trump’s motives, his selection of this team would have been hard to imagine when he first came to office declaring that the continued American presence in Iraq was a “disaster,” that he was comfortable with Japan and South Korea getting their own nuclear weapons so the United States would not have to defend them, and that America would no longer be the world’s policeman.

Mr. Bolton has come to the opposite conclusion.

He not only fervently advocated the attack on Saddam Hussein from his post at the State Department during the Bush administration, but he also defended its aftermath, and has said he remains convinced it was the right decision. Over the past three years, Mr. Bolton has advocated bombing Iran, attacking North Korea, and carving a new state out of Iraq and Syria.

Mike Pompeo, the nominee for secretary of state, said at the Aspen Security Conference in July that the most dangerous thing about North Korea was the fact that its young, moody and reportedly ruthless leader, Kim Jong-un, controls its weapons.

“So from the administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right?” said Mr. Pompeo, who at the time was months into his current job as C.I.A. director.

“Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent, and break those two apart.”

Assuming that Mr. Pompeo is confirmed, he and Mr. Bolton, the two most forceful, aggressive new members of the policy team, will have to decide in what order they can risk those confrontations. The Trump administration has said it is open to direct talks with Mr. Kim by May — the same month by which the president has said he will scrap the Iran nuclear accord.

“Even if you are going to be a superhawk, you can’t do all these at once,” said Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former C.I.A. station chief in Moscow who later hunted down Pakistani nuclear technology as the Energy Department’s chief intelligence officer. “And if you want to go to war with Iran and North Korea, you have to expect to alienate your allies and run headlong into the Russians.”

William J. Burns, a longtime American diplomat who was Mr. Bush’s ambassador to Russia and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state, predicted that if the new team exits the Iran deal and confronts North Korea, the first beneficiary is likely to be President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“He looks for splits,” Mr. Burns said of Mr. Putin. “He knows he will benefit if we walk away from the Iran deal, because it will put a wedge between us and our European allies.”

On North Korea, Mr. Burns said, Mr. Putin is seeking “splits between the U.S. and China. We are doing his work for him.”

In fact, it is in dealing with Mr. Putin that the new team is likely to run headlong into Mr. Trump’s reluctance to ever say a critical word about the Russian president. As C.I.A. chief, Mr. Pompeo has embraced the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the election, though he changes the subject quickly when asked about it.

Mr. Bolton, by contrast, has ranked among Mr. Putin’s harshest critics. Last July, days after Mr. Trump met Mr. Putin for the first time at a summit meeting in Germany, Mr. Bolton wrote that the Russian interference in the 2016 election was “a casus belli, a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate.”

Mr. Trump did not view it that way.

He emerged from the meeting in Germany repeating Mr. Putin’s observation that the Russians were too skilled at cyberoperations to be caught if involved. Last week, Mr. Trump called Mr. Putin to congratulate him on winning a Russian election widely viewed as a sham, making no mention of the recent nerve-agent attack that Britain concluded, with American agreement, was a covert action by Moscow.

If it was, it was being planned out as Mr. Pompeo was acting as the host to the directors of the three major Russian intelligence services in Washington earlier this month.

The unknown factor in the new mix is Gina Haspel, the career intelligence officer who has been nominated to be the first woman to run the C.I.A. Since she has spent much of her career undercover — details of which the agency is just beginning to release, in an effort to lobby for her confirmation — her foreign policy views are largely unknown.

Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, who has been nominated as secretary of state, is a harsh critic of the nuclear accord with Iran. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times 

But her record in the terrorist detentions and interrogations following 9/11 is well documented. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was tortured as a prisoner of war, this past week pointedly asked in a letter to Ms. Haspel, “Do you believe actions like these were justified, and do you believe they produced actionable intelligence?”

At a moment when Mr. Trump has sided with the economic nationalists in his administration and ordered the imposition of tariffs on China to counter its restrictions on American companies and the forced transfer of American intellectual property, Mr. Bolton has gone one further.

He has questioned whether the United States should abandon the “One China” policy that has been the underpinning of relations since the two countries resumed diplomatic relations.

In 2016, Mr. Bolton wrote that confronting China “may involve modifying or even jettisoning the ambiguous ‘One China’ mantra, along with even more far-reaching initiatives to counter Beijing’s rapidly accelerating political and military aggressiveness in the South and East China Seas.”

It is unclear how that squares with Mr. Trump’s campaign argument that the United States should pull its forces back from Asia unless South Korea and Japan pay more of the cost of keeping them there.

But the most immediate decision facing the new team will be the benefits and costs of exiting the Iran deal. Mr. Trump cited his differences with Rex W. Tillerson on Iran in firing the secretary of state.

Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo have been among the harshest critics of the nuclear accord, but they have not said how they would manage the international backlash if Mr. Trump decides, by a May 12 legislative deadline, to resume the sanctions that the United States suspended when the deal was reached.

If Washington breaches the deal, Iran may declare it is now free to resume producing nuclear fuel in unlimited quantities — limits it agreed to, for 15 years, in return for economic normalization. If so, that could put the United States and Israel back where they were in the years before the accord was reached: threatening military action to destroy Iran’s facilities, even at the risk of another Middle East war. That was the path Mr. Bolton advocated.

In August, when Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis wrote a joint op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal describing the merits of building economic pressure on North Korea in a policy of “strategic accountability,” Mr. Bolton said he was “appalled.”

“Time is not a neutral factor here,” he said on Fox News, where he was a contributor. “More negotiation with North Korea? I think they’d say ‘bring it on.’ More time to increase the size and scope of their ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.” He will now be preparing Mr. Trump for that negotiation.

Nothing Exceeds Like Excess

by Jeff Thomas

The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.

—Ernest Hemingway

Military spending is the second largest item in the US federal budget after Social Security. It has a habit of increasing significantly each year, and the proposed 2019 defense budget is $886 billion (roughly double what it was in 2003).

US military spending exceeds the total of the next ten largest countries combined. Although the US government acknowledges 682 military bases in 63 countries, that number may be over 1,000 (if all military installations are included), in 156 countries. Total military personnel is estimated at over 1.4 million.

The reader could be forgiven if he felt that a US military base was rather unnecessary in, say, Djibouti or the Bahamas, yet the US Congress will not allow the closure of any military bases. (The Bi-partisan Budget Act of 2013 blocked future military base closings under the argument that they’re all essential for “national security.”) And Congress has a vested interest in keeping all bases open and consuming as much in tax dollars as possible (more on that later).

Of course, those bases need to be kept well-stocked with small arms, tanks, missiles and aircraft. Yet, in spite of the admittedly incredible number of US military bases across the globe, the additional stockpile of weaponry is so great that the government has difficulty finding places to put it all.

One storage location is pictured in the photo above—Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. In spite of the size of the photo, it shows only a portion of the aircraft located there. (And bear in mind, such aircraft often cost over $100 million each.)

If asked, the military states that, although these aircraft are in dead storage and many have never seen any use whatever, they might possibly be called up for service, “if needed.” Of course, if they’re needed, they’re unlikely to be of use if located in Arizona. And, in addition, they may not be useful for warfare, as war technology has moved on since the days when such aircraft designs were suitable.

It’s been said that generals are forever fighting the last war, and this is certainly true. Even a layman can observe that such conventional aircraft will never see use, as they serve no purpose in modern warfare.

And yet, these storehouses are being dramatically added to every year.

This year, production will be increased for the F-35 and F/A-18 aircraft. To get an idea of the cost of such expansion programmes, the F-35 Joint Strike aircraft alone will cost $400 billion for 2,457 planes. However, most of this cost will be for development and testing, not the planes themselves.

To save you the arithmetic, that’s about $162 million per plane. (I’m guessing that Henry Ford might have been able to produce them a bit more cheaply. It’s difficult to imagine what they could possibly be made out of to justify their extraordinary price tag.)

But, even though a staggering amount of money is spent on such aircraft, only to then send them to storage facilities at some point, why not, at the very least, sell off the surplus cheaply or scrap them and close down the costly bases that warehouse them?

Well there’s a bit of a snag there. If they were to be scrapped, it would be necessary to admit that they weren’t really necessary. And if they weren’t necessary, why were they purchased?

It may well be that the answer lies in the fact that the military industrial complex is a major political contributor, paying heavily into the campaign funds of both political parties.

It’s probably safe to say that, in doing so, they’re likely to expect something in return, and of course, that’s just what they get. As stated above, the “defense” budget is far beyond what it would cost to defend the US, and ridiculously so.

However, as far as the military industrial complex is concerned, the ideal situation might be for the US to enter into a policy of perpetual warfare with vaguely-stated military goals, and to do so on many fronts globally. If Congress were to approve a budget that would allow for that, the amount of kickback to the military industrial complex would not only be maximized, but it would be ongoing, from one year to the next.

So, is that what has occurred?

Well, if we look back at say, World War II, the most costly war in history, we see a war that was fought on three continents and cost the lives of between fifty and eighty million people, yet it was concluded a mere four years after the US joined.

By comparison, the undeclared war with Afghanistan has been a minor one, costing roughly 150,000 lives. Again, based upon arithmetic, as compared to World War II, it should theoretically have taken just over two months to conclude, yet to date, it’s been ongoing for seventeen years, and its daily cost has far exceeded that of a world war.

So, are we to conclude that the US military has become so inept that it can’t fight a war and win, no matter how much firepower they have and no matter how much time it takes?

If this is not the case, then there’s only one other conclusion to draw. (As Sherlock Holmes often said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”)

In this case, what remains is that winning the war is not the objective and, in fact, never was the objective. The objective would be to consciously create perpetual warfare; to extract billions in tax dollars each year from the electorate, in order to pass the revenue on to the military industrial complex in the form of armaments contracts. Whether those armaments are needed, or even useful, would be of minimal importance.

In recent years, the US military has gone far beyond its original concept of “defense.” It’s invaded more countries than ever before in its history, often with no direct provocation whatever, on the basis of “making the world safe for democracy.” (It should be borne in mind that invading a country, largely destroying it, then installing a puppet government is not exactly “democracy.”) In addition, these have not been actual “wars,” as, under US law, only Congress can declare war and has not done so since 1942.

In addition, the “enemy” in each case has been vague indeed. The US is not at war with any country specifically, but with “terrorism,” a non-specific enemy, one that’s even more vague than George Orwell described when writing 1984.

If nothing succeeds like success, it’s also true that nothing exceeds like excess. If this thought is troubling now, it will be even more troubling when the US makes good on its threat to attack North Korea, a small country next door to China, or to invade Iran, an ally of both China and Russia.
When the fur really starts to fly, it will be highly doubtful if the American taxpayer is able to pony up the further cost of a true world war, which would be far beyond what they’re shouldering at present.
And, since the loser in a war is almost always the country that runs out of money first, and the US is for all purposes broke, the outcome of such a war would not be in favour of the US.