Fresh winds seem to be blowing in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, bringing some welcome change. 

I was there the week of February 1 with a group of Central American municipal officials on an exchange to learn about Argentina’s citizen security programs.  Not only are there signs of progress in that sector, but also remarkable changes in domestic and foreign affairs. 

On November 22, 2015, Mauricio Macri, the sitting mayor of Buenos Aires was elected president in a runoff election.  It was the first time a non-radical or Peronist had been inaugurated since 1983 when Argentina emerged from military dictatorship.  His term follows 12 years of highly centralized rule and populist policies established by the late president Néstor Kirchner and wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. 

Macri comes from a business background and was head of the popular Boca Juniors soccer team. But his political chops were largely developed while serving as chief executive of a city that had become something of an experiment in democracy and decentralization.  Traditionally mayors had been appointed by Argentine presidents until 1994.  After political reforms, Buenos Aires began electing its own heads of government. Macri ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2003, but later won a seat in the nation’s lower chamber of congress.  In 2007, he won the capital’s mayoral race on the Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal or PRO) ticket, a pragmatic center-right party he created. 

As mayor, he focused on service delivery—building up infrastructure, modernizing public transportation, expanding bikeways, and establishing a metropolitan police force.  Up to that time, the federal police patrolled the city and did not exactly respond to city hall, or local citizens’ needs.  Controversy erupted between the city and the Public Security Ministry over police jurisdiction.  The Buenos Aires government advocated more local control while the Fernández de Kirchner administration was in favor of keeping centralized control. Macri’s initiative followed an emerging trend among Argentine municipalities (partly the focus of IRI’s exchange) to create community police forces accountable to local government. 

Campaigning for the presidency, Macri promised to reduce poverty to zero, fight the illicit narcotics trade, and unite Argentines.  Coming into office, he inherited a stumbling economy, a bureaucracy loaded with fictitious political jobs, entrenched corruption networks, organized crime, growing drug trafficking problems, and a foreign policy that had soured relations with several western democracies. 

In a month, he reorganized the analysis and dissemination of national statistics to give a more accurate picture of the country’s economic health, he allowed the peso to float against the dollar and stabilize the exchange rate, his administration let go thousands of government workers who had no discernible assignments or places to work (some had been hired just before Fernández de Kirchner left office), and abolished taxes on exports which were depressing the country’s once mighty agricultural sector.  Moreover, he realigned the country’s foreign policy to expand trade with world markets and be more supportive of democratic states in the region.  And he invited some political opponents to join his administration. 

Still ahead are measures needed to combat corruption from city halls to government ministries, improve public education to develop a more competitive workforce, aggressively fight drug trafficking that undermines communities from the Bolivian border all the way to Buenos Aires, and fix a weak electoral system that suffers from a confusing electoral calendar, poor coordination among authorities, and weak management.  If Argentina’s new federal government can make headway on these challenges, it will prove beyond doubt the value of alternating administrations and the notion that government can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.  

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