Argentina: Macri Cancels Controversial Forgiveness of Father’s Debt

Photo: Ricardo Mazalan / Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – In response to the overwhelming public response and anger to his executive order that forgave his father’s $4.5 billion debt to the Argentine State, President Mauricio Macri said that he has annulled the decree.

Last week, Macri signed the order in the midst of an economy heavily slowed by a drop in industrial production, rising inflation, an increase in joblessness, a rise in poverty and growing divide between rich and poor.

The conservative politician, who assumed power in December of 2015, has been embroiled in controversies involving his father before.

Macri appeared last year on the list in the Panama Papers as a director of several undeclared companies, but denied any wrongdoing or involvement in illegal offshore accounts or shell companies established in the Macri name.

He said that any companies linked to him actually belong to his billionaire father Franco Macri and that he only has a collateral interest in those companies and does not receive any compensation.

Last week, he and his father (and his father’s holding group SocMa) were back in the public eye after he signed the executive order forgiving the company’s debt.

In the 1990s, SocMa, whose main industries included construction, real estate, automotive production, waste collection and other services, branched out and purchased the national mail service known as ENCoTel (and later ENCoTeSA).

The company was privatized in 1997 by then-President Carlos Menem and purchased by SocMa, who then renamed it Correo Argentino. In a short time, SocMa mismanaged the company and began accruing debt as early as 1999. After mass layoffs, the company had stopped paying its tens of thousands of employees by July of 2001.

Prior to privatization, ENCoTeSA had over 20,500 employees and no public debt. By 2001, however, SocMa had cut the workforce to less than 13,000 which led to them being overworked, a situation compounded by the fact that the company eventually stopped paying its employees. The company went from being debt-free to virtual bankruptcy, which resulted in necessary monetary aid from the government.

In 2003, Néstor Kirchner assumed the presidency and terminated the 30-year concession contract with SocMa. He then nationalized the company, naming it the Official Mail Services of the Republic of Argentina but he kept Correo Argentino as its trademarked name. In its first year of functioning under State control, Correo Argentino registered a profit and has managed to stay successful since then in competition with several smaller, private companies.

When SocMa left Correo Argentino in ruins in 2001, it owed a debt of over $300 million to the national government as the peso was pegged to the dollar. SocMa, which was still worth billions, offered only to pay off a small fraction of the outstanding debt; this meant that the taxpayers would have to pay the remainder and Kirchner rejected this notion. Thus, the debt, transferred in bonds to Macri’s four children, remained unpaid.

With the peso not being pegged to the dollar since 2002, the value of the debt, when coupled with inflation and the new exchange rate, has climbed to just under $4.5 billion.

In a release recently made available to the public, it was revealed that Macri had received a proposal through his Communications Ministry (responsible for the mail service) in June of 2016 that essentially sought forgiveness for a whopping 99.16 percent of the debt owed by SocMa, the company now known as Grupo Macri.

When this first proposal was rejected, a second proposal of 98.82 percent debt forgiveness was received. Only the tiny remaining segment of 1.18 percent was still to be paid off but not until 2033 and under very lucrative interest rates.

On February 8, the day of Macri’s birthday, the State officially accepted the proposal and Macri signed the executive order ratifying the agreement. Macri’s predecessor and political opposite, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), said that Macri had “gifted himself and his family $4.5 billion of public funds on his birthday.”

What followed was a hefty dose of public outrage and polls that showed that nearly 65 percent of Argentines believed that Macri’s order amounted to an impeachable offense of corruption. In addition, leading prosecutors and opposition political groups and organizations were actively seeking for investigations to be opened into the agreement.

Gabriela Boquín, the head prosecutor of the National Chamber of Commercial Appeals, asked the Attorney General’s Office for Administrative Investigations (PIA) to look into the act as it “puts private interests over the interests of the Argentine public.” The law says that “no public official with a relationship with a company can accept a proposal that directly or indirectly benefits this company,” she said.

Sergio Rodríguez, the head of the PIA, said that “there could have been a factor of influence peddling” and that this theme is “certainly something to consider.” As such, an investigation was to be opened that would have scrutinized the agreement signed between the government and Grupo Macri.

While the government initially deflected criticism and argued that they are only getting what they can and moving on with the debt issue through the agreement, Macri has now “realized” the glaringly obvious issue Argentines would have with an agreement that directly benefits his family’s personal business interests and immense wealth.

Shortly before he leaves for a trip to Spain, Macri decided to face the press and disclose that he asked Oscar Aguad, the head of the Communications Ministry, to “annul the agreement and start over,” essentially negating the deal but opening the door for another agreement that would still prove to be very lucrative for his family.

“In the end, nothing happened. No debts were forgiven and no debts were paid. We will go back to the table and look for a solution to this problem, a solution that works for everybody,” Macri said.

“It has been 14 years since this problem appeared and the debt is still not solved. We have to solve this problem because if we do not, it will harm the State,” he added, seemingly ignoring the refusal of his family’s own company to pay back its loan to the State by simply holding out and refusing to pay.

Despite the fact that the majority of Argentines were angered by Macri’s clear intentions to use his presidential powers in order to benefit his family and his family’s interests, he still defended his plan even though he annulled it.

“We accepted the solution that they proposed to us and we only had good intentions, which were to solve this State issue. Technically, we did this well, but we will start again,” he said.

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