TIME foreign affairs columnist Ian Bremmer had a chance to speak recently with Argentina’s reformist President Mauricio Macri. His piece is in this week’s edition of TIME—what follows is a transcript of their conversation in full:
Argentina is undergoing a transition and a process of economic and political change. Some of these changes have been painful for segments of the population. How do you evaluate the results so far, and what do you think are the major challenges ahead?
We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, there’s still a long way to go, but we are pleased with the results, they show we’re moving in the right direction while ensuring we don’t leave behind the most vulnerable and in need. The situation we inherited was complicated: the economy had been stagnant for five years with rampant inflation, while politics was too focused on conflict and competition; there was little respect for groups of people who thought differently, and absolutely no dialogue.
Immediately, we started to eliminate obstacles to growth and reduce inflation, and we are starting to see the fruits of this: inflation is clearly on a downward path, investments are picking up and there are signs that economic activity is recovering. Optimism amongst the business community here is the highest it’s been in 15 years. It was also very important for us from day one to try to bring about a change in the way politics in Argentina is conducted: we’ve opened up political dialogue, we’re placing a very high value on cooperation and teamwork – both within the administration and with people outside our government – and, importantly, we respect the law and our institutions.
This economic and political transition we are going through is in line with the main goals of my government: uniting Argentina and advancing towards zero poverty. The challenges, of course, are many, but I would point out two: (1) injecting vitality and innovation into our economy, creating millions of jobs as the principle means to reduce poverty; (2) continuing to strengthen our institutions and building long-term consensus, which will ensure that rights are guaranteed and reduce uncertainty.
Politics in Argentina has traditionally been fairly unstable, the country has experienced a large number of crises, and policies have been volatile. In this context, while abroad most people see ongoing changes positively, they still fear they will be reversed at some point. What do you say to those that have those concerns?
I think the most important thing is to realize that these changes in Argentina are not limited to a new administration. What has really changed is our society. This time, unlike in 1989 or 2002, we didn’t need another major crisis to change. Today, with growing information channels and increasing travel overseas, our society is more and more connected to the world; we see what’s out there, we know we can live better, and we want to live better.
The election that brought us to office is proof that this change had already started in society; we represent that will to change. The productive year we’ve had in Congress is proof that the political classes are heeding this change. All in all, we are confident that this will make for a better environment for investment and job creation, which will help us pursue our goals of uniting Argentines and advancing towards zero poverty.
We won’t change everything in a day, a year or an administration. But we are making progress. And I’m very confident that this shift will become more evident as we start to consolidate more economic and institutional reforms.
For many years Argentina didn’t play a major role in regional or global politics. It’s clear you want to change that. What do you envision Argentina’s role could be? in which areas?
Argentina has a long tradition as a force for development and for peace in the region and worldwide: Argentina, for example, helped keep Latin America free of nuclear weapons, and played a part in the search for peace in the Middle East.
Since we live in a more connected and interdependent world, we firstly want to ensure that our relationships with all countries are mature, intelligent and mutually-beneficial. And, we place a high value on striving for peace and dialogue. Argentina is now playing a role in supporting the Colombian peace process, and we want to do more to help humanitarian crises, particularly the refugee crisis, where we want to make our contribution by receiving refugees from Syria and the region. Closely linked to peace, interreligious dialogue is also an area where we have a strong track record and where we feel we can play a role at global level. Our country is wonderfully rich in its ethnic and religious diversity. We are home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America, the largest Muslim population too, and of course our pope is Argentine. And we live peacefully together.
With respect to other global challenges, it is clear that more and more the world needs food security and sustainable energy supplies, and here we have much we can bring to the table. We already produce food for 400 million people and we expect to double that production in the next five years. In energy production, our potential is enormous: we have the world’s second largest shale gas and fourth largest shale oil reserves, the third largest wind reserves. We have great solar potential and we are also one of the main producers of soybean biodiesel. By helping the world tackle these types of global challenges ahead of us, we are convinced that we will also help Argentina towards our goal of zero poverty.
I want to add there are many, many other areas where we feel we can play a leading role, especially in Latin America. Climate change and environmental conservation, for example, are important to us. We were one of the first countries to ratify the Paris Agreement, which was passed unanimously in Congress. And, last, but by no means least, we are working hard to stamp out violence against women. We want to banish the cultural practices and societal attitudes that normalize such behavior, and we would hope one day that we can serve as a model for other countries in the region.
You have said you want to change how politics work in Argentina. What are the challenges in doing such a broad change that implies establishing a new political culture? How can this be done?
As I said before, the real change is happening in Argentine society. The people of Argentina have changed, just like the world has changed, the way we interact with each other, relationships, the way we communicate and work together. Look at social networks for example: more equality and less hierarchy, more conversation and fewer monologues. We represent that in politics. We believe in getting together with different people, discussing opinions and ideas. We don’t believe that any particular individual has all the answers.
This type of change in political culture will take time. We’re building on it through example; with dialogue and consensus-building. We’ve been doing this from day one: meeting with governors and mayors, looking for pragmatic agreements on legislation and listening to everybody, from opposition parties to civil society. As I said, the legislative agreements we have arrived at in Congress show that these changes in society can translate to the political world. This agreement and consensus will help us build the future that we want, creating many, many more jobs and reducing poverty.
Politics in the region seem to be in flux given recent events in Brazil, Colombia and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. How do you evaluate these changes, and what role do you think Argentina and the U.S. can play?
After years of reaping the benefits of high commodities prices, we now have the challenge as a region of returning to sustainable growth with a strong emphasis on inclusion. Since we are a peaceful continent with very low levels of conflict between states, huge natural resources, human talent and energy, I think we can achieve this. We need to invest more in infrastructure and connectivity between our countries in such a way that we guarantee long-term growth and development.
From Argentina’s perspective, our commitment to regional development is a long-term commitment, it goes beyond crises and changes of government. Our role is to accompany and support the growth and innovation of the region to adapt to the realities of the twenty-first century. And in this, the support of the United States will be very important. Besides being in the same part of the world, we share a strong commitment to democracy, equality, respect for human rights and the rule of law, building strong and healthy institutions, guaranteeing the freedom of expression and of the media.
We are happy with the advances in the relationship between Latin America and the United States. The new relationship with Cuba, for example, is a reflection of a vision that prioritizes intelligent and pragmatic relations. And in our case, the visit of President Obama in March marked the beginning of a new chapter in rational and mature bilateral relations that will be beneficial to both our counties.
There is a growing trend against free trade in Europe and the U.S., and it seems that the opposite is happening in South America. Are you concerned that these trends could thwart South America’s efforts?
Trade is weak at the moment and in all countries we are seeing reduced growth. In many cases, this produces frustration in people, and tendencies like protectionism and isolationism start to emerge.
We believe in the opportunities that interdependence brings, and we believe that the best way to tackle the challenges the global economy faces is through building open, sustainable and inclusive trade relations, based on clear rules.
We think that countries should base their efforts on strengthening the multilateral trade system and supporting the World Trade Organization. A strong, open and inclusive trade system, together with stable and coherent national policies, are important to ensuring that investments have a positive impact on global economic prosperity.
Mercosur is our platform to the world, both by tradition and choice. We believe that it is essential to update it to the realities of the twenty-first century and broaden its agenda of external relationships to the greatest number of actors as possible, particularly with the Pacific Alliance partners, since there are common agendas that can be beneficial for both.
How are you viewing the elections in the U.S.?
We are closely following the campaign and we will respect the decision of the American people at the elections. We want to continue to cooperate in all areas that we can, to advance our main objectives of zero poverty, defeating drug trafficking and uniting the Argentine people.
I want to point out that today, in the twenty-first century, we must all be strong in our commitment to democracy, equality and respect for human rights. Whoever becomes the next American president, we hope that he or she will support those values and that we can work together for a fairer and more prosperous world.
What’s your view of Argentina-China relations and the role that China plays in Latin America?
Argentina today is looking to have broader, more mature and predictable relations with the world; China is a major player in this world and will be even more so in the coming years.
With China our relationship is strategic; we want to continue our cooperation in all sectors with good growth potential that will benefit both countries. In Argentina we are interested in more balanced commercial exchanges with China, where we export more services and sell more value-added products on the Chinese market.
For Latin America on the whole, its challenge is similar: building a sustainable, long-term, mutually-beneficial relationship.