AP Interview: Argentine leader says outraged by corruption
PETER PRENGAMAN & PAUL HAVEN
Mar. 16, 2016
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina's president said Wednesday he is outraged by corruption that seeped into all facets of society during his predecessor's administration and believes next week's visit by Barack Obama will be a new chapter that could lead to billions of dollars in investment.
President Mauricio Macri assumed power in December after campaigning on promises to crack down on graft, open up Latin America's third-largest economy and reverse many of the populist policies of his predecessor, Cristina Fernandez.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, the former Buenos Aires mayor and son of one of the country's richest businessmen said he was particularly perturbed by rampant corruption at all levels.
"I feel the same as the majority of Argentines: rage, disenchantment and helplessness," Macri said, reflecting on a video this week that allegedly showed the son of a businessman with close ties to the former president counting what appear to be tightly wrapped stacks of dollars, euros and Argentine pesos at an illegal exchange house. "There will not be a repeat of this kind of embarrassing corruption, these abuses of power."
Macri cast the two-day visit by the U.S. president as an opportunity to show the world that Argentina is cleaning up its act and hopes to open its doors to billions in investment. The last state visit by an American president was by Bill Clinton in 1997.
Such a trip would have been unthinkable under Fernandez, who during her eight years in office aligned herself with socialist leaders in Cuba and Venezuela while often being outwardly antagonistic toward the United States.
Unlike several other Latin American leaders, Macri sidestepped questions about the U.S. election and the controversial candidacy of leading Republican candidate Donald Trump. Macri said he knew both Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton personally and would be able to work with either should they reach the White House.
Hours before the interview, the lower chamber of Argentina's Congress approved a negotiated deal on repaying bonds held by a group of creditors in the United States, a step toward ending a long-standing fight that made Argentina a financial pariah and kept it on the margins of international credit markets. The legal battle had its origins in Argentina's financial collapse in 2001-2002, when it defaulted on $100 billion in debt.
Creditors led by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer refused to accept bond swaps with lower values. Instead, they took Argentina to court in New York and won. While Fernandez branded the group "vultures" and refused to negotiate, Macri made reaching an agreement one of his top priorities.
"It's the first step. It's as important as opening the door," Macri said. "We need to stop arguing about things that don't help Argentina grow."
In the weeks since assuming power, Macri's administration has rewritten much of the country's social contract. It lifted export taxes on the agricultural sector, effectively freeing up one of the world's breadbaskets, and it lowered import taxes, devalued the Argentine peso, cut energy and other subsidies, and fired thousands of public workers.
Macri agreed his administration has yet to make good on his promise to curb inflation, which approached 40 percent last year. Prices that were already skyrocketing jumped even more when the peso was devalued in December.
The president said his economic changes need more time to bear fruit.
"A year from now, we hope to be growing, and we hope to be receiving investments from all over the world," he said.
As he often did during the campaign, Macri blamed Fernandez for overseeing "700 percent" inflation over the last several years.
When asked whether he wanted to see Fernandez prosecuted for several alleged corruption scandals during her administration, Macri said he would not get in the way of any investigation, while noting that she has not been charged with any crime.
Macri also said he hoped investigators would get to the bottom of the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found shot dead in his apartment early in 2015. Days before, Nisman had accused Fernandez of helping Iranian officials hide the Middle Eastern nation's role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and wounded hundreds.
Fernandez has denied the allegations and the case against her was thrown out by a federal judge.
Nisman's death, which has yet to be solved, shook Argentina. For many, it was one more sign of a justice system that doesn't work, of impunity without limits.
"Everything that happened made us look weak in the world," Macri said. "But now we are determined to bring what happened to light."
Associated Press writer Debora Rey in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.
Peter Prengaman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/peterprengaman
Paul Haven on Twitter: http://twitter.com/paulhaven