BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – 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, conservative President Mauricio Macri has caused anger and saw an investigation opened after he signed an executive order that forgives his father’s $4.5 billion debt to the Argentine State.
Macri, who assumed power in December of 2015, has been embroiled in controversies (apart from his faltering policies) during his time in the Casa Rosada.
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.
He did not include these companies in any income reports but did outline close financial links with Nicolás Caputo and Néstor Grindetti, two of his close friends (and political allies) who have also been implicated in the Panama Papers for illegal offshore accounts and money laundering.
Both men are accused of committing these acts (and using the ill-gained money to fund political campaigns for over the last decade) during the time they worked under Macri when he was mayor of the capital; Caputo was Macri’s primary advisor (and is the current vice-president of Macri’s conservative PRO Party) and Grindetti was Finance Minister.
Furthermore, Macri’s head of intelligence and PRO colleague Gustavo Arribas, was also named in the Panama Papers for having an illegal bank account registered in New York. Arribas was then involved last month in the massive “Lava Jato” corruption scandal in Brazil for money laundering and tax evasion through a private company and another illegal account in Switzerland as an “intermediary” to Argentine public officials in Buenos Aires (when Macri was mayor).
Among other accusations levelled at the President was the fact that several oncessions to major public works in Buenos Aires (and now nationally) were awarded to companies under control of (or related to) his father’s holding group SocMa, including those of his cousin Ángelo Calcaterra in the form of a $3 billion train project.
Macri was further involved as Sideco Americana (the construction wing of SocMa) owes significant funds to Meinl Bank, an Austrian financial institution based in Antigua and Barbuda that was acquired by Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant at the heart of the “Lava Jato” scandal, as a means to launder money. The funds that Arribas received illegally to his Swiss account came from Meinl.
Now, Macri is embroiled in controversy involving financial exchanges yet again as he has signed an executive order that forgives his father’s $4.5 billion debt to the Argentine State.
In the 1990s, SocMa, whose main industries included construction, real estate, automotive production, waste collection and other services, branched out and purchased Correo Argentino.
The company, which was the national mail service known as ENCoTel (and later ENCoTeSA), was privatized in 1997 by then-President Carlos Menem and purchased by SocMa. The company, named Correo Argentino, began accruing debt as early as 1999 and 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 in June of 2016 that essentially sought forgiveness for a whopping 98.82 percent of the remaining debt owed by the company now known as Grupo Macri; the company’s first proposal, which was denied, asked for a debt forgiveness of 99.16 percent. Only the tiny remaining segment of 1.18 percent still has to be paid off but not until 2033.
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.”
Gabriela Boquín, the head prosecutor of the National Chamber of Commercial Appeals, then 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 will be opened that will examine the agreement signed between the government and Grupo Macri.
The government argues that they are basically getting what they can get from Grupo Macri and moving on from an ongoing disagreement that was not being resolved. This, the government argues, is tantamount to “putting public interests first.”
Furthermore, the government said that it disagrees with changing of the figure due to monetary differences between 2001 and 2017. This discrepancy still does not point out the fact that even if the 2001 figure of $300 million is used, Grupo Macri would only pay back $35 million (over 17 years), a tiny sum to a company estimated to be worth $5 billion.
Many in Argentina are equating Macri’s financial action to those taken by officials during the latter end of the violent right-wing military dictatorship (1976-1983) when the ruling junta transferred nearly $18 billion of debt accrued by over 200 private enterprises to the State (and onto the taxpayers) as the national economy was mired in its worst crisis since the Great Depression.
Macri’s political opponents have already said they will file lawsuits against his government for the debt relief agreement while Boquín said she will take her case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.