Sian Lazar: “The happiness revolution”: Argentina and the end of post-neoliberalism?

This post is part of a series on the Latin American pink tide, moderated and edited by Massimiliano Mollona (Goldsmiths, University of London). 

In mid-October 2015, it appeared as though Daniel Scioli, candidate for the Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory, FPV) would win the Argentine presidential elections relatively easily.[1] He was comfortably ahead in the opinion polls and had won the open primary elections of the previous August by a margin of 8 percentage points. Some of my friends thought he might even scrape through in the first round alone, for which he needed to gain a lead of more than 10 percentage points over his nearest rival, Mauricio Macri, businessman and governor of the city of Buenos Aires. In the event, in a result that shocked many if not most observers, Scioli won the first round with a lead of only 2.9 percent, meaning he would face Macri in a second round runoff vote, the first in Argentina’s democratic history. In response to this news of the run-off, Macri tweeted that “the happiness revolution” had begun (Macri 2015), and despite considerable anti-Macri mobilization in the weeks between the first and second round votes, Macri had clearly gained momentum and eventually won by 51 percent to 49 percent.

Scioli is a race boat driver turned politician and traditional Peronist, who was Carlos Menem’s minister for tourism in the 1990s and then rose to the position of governor of the province of Buenos Aires, via the national vice presidency during Néstor Kirchner’s first regime from 2003 to 2007. He was announced as President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s chosen candidate in the middle of 2015. Macri is the son of a businessman, who retained his entrepreneurial spirit through his chairmanship of the popular soccer club Boca Juniors, as well as his governorship of the city of Buenos Aires (Forment 2007). In his 2015 electoral campaign, he promised a return to orthodox economic policies, accompanied by a commitment to transparency, happiness, and—most of all—change. Anti-Macri campaigners feared that he would return Argentina to the neoliberal policies of the 1990s (when Menem was president), turning back from what they considered to be progressive developments under the Kirchner regimes from 2003 to 2015. They worried that public sector workers would lose their jobs, that wealth would again be redistributed more from the poor to the rich, that investments in university education and research would be curtailed, and so on.

So, given that Argentina under the Kirchners was hailed by some as one of the broadly leftist, even “post-neoliberal” regimes in the region (e.g., Grugel and Riggirozzi 2012), does this mean that Argentina has now swung back to a kind of 1990s neoliberalism? As one colleague put it half-jokingly, is this the beginnings of a “cyan” tide in the region as the pendulum swings back from the “pink tide” of the last decade and a half (Drinot 2015)?

Well, the vote for Macri does emerge in part as a result of some of the tensions from the redistributive and populist character of the Kirchner regimes of the past twelve years. Néstor Kirchner came to power in 2003, after a period of deep recession that culminated in severe economic crisis in December 2001, when food riots, bank controls, and mass mobilizations prompted the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua (Muir 2015). Argentina had five different presidents over the space of ten days and began to stabilize under Eduardo Duhalde from the beginning of 2002 only with a debt default and massive devaluation of the Argentine peso, which depreciated by 70 percent. From 2003 onward, Néstor Kirchner and, from 2007, his wife Cristina, presided over a remarkable economic recovery: under their watch, per capita income rose from $3,680 in 2004 to $13,480 in 2014,[2] poverty fell by maybe as much as 80 percent, and unemployment was reduced by over a half (Weisbrot 2015, cited in López Levy 2015). The economic recovery was fueled to a large extent by increases in global commodity prices and trade in minerals, oil and gas, and agricultural goods (especially soy), with its principal trade partners being Brazil and China. The Kirchner governments redistributed some of the wealth gained by taxing this trade, in the form of social policy plans like cash transfers, public sector jobs, and investment in higher education, among other measures.

But, particularly since around 2008, these and other measures provoked considerable opposition from large corporate powers in the country, especially those associated with agricultural exporters and, from mid-late 2009, the mainstream media. And in more recent years, key commodity prices have begun to drop, the Chinese and Brazilian economies have slowed down, and government revenues have consequently fallen. Expenditure didn’t, however, and over time, inflationary pressures became so acute that the government introduced currency control measures to try to prevent capital flight (in mid-2012). What this meant for many ordinary people was that prices would rise by around 25 to 30 percent per year, and if they wanted to save money in dollars, or to travel overseas, they faced restrictions on purchasing dollars at the official rate, and so a black market flourished, known as the “blue dollar.” Toward the end October 2015, the official rate was close to 10 Argentine pesos to the dollar, while the blue dollar was 14.50 to 15.[3]

All this was a problem for middle-class people who wanted to travel overseas or import goods for personal or business use. They faced high import tariffs and currency controls. In early 2014 the government even introduced a restriction of $25 per year on tariff-free online purchases from sites such as Amazon or eBay; beyond that amount, import duty was set at 50 percent. But it was also a problem for poorer people, such as migrants from Bolivia, who had obligations to their families incurred in dollars (remittances, debts) but were having to earn more and more pesos to pay them. While some salaries, especially in the formal sector, kept pace with price rises and preserved consumers’ purchasing power, others didn’t. Some people I knew also just felt that this was not a serious way to run an economy, that the inflation and currency controls were out of step with normal contemporary economic practices, and the upshot of this heterodox economic policy-making was to bankrupt the country, as foreign currency reserves dropped to dangerously low levels. Many thought that Scioli would need to undo some of these economic policies anyway, should he become president; an adjustment was inevitable, they thought.

Couple those economic tensions with a fierce media campaign accusing the president and her associates of serious corruption—or exposing their corruption and relations with drug trafficking, money laundering, and dirty real estate deals, depending on your point of view—and the stage was set for periods of quite extreme polarization between strong supporters of Cristina and her opponents. That was already the case in late 2012, as opponents of the regime took to the streets in pots and pans protests (Lazar 2015), or in early 2015, when protesters blamed Cristina for the murder of a critical public prosecutor, Alberto Nisman (Faulk 2015). While Cristina’s supporters love her with great passion, many of her opponents demonstrate quite a visceral hatred of her.

And yet, on the other hand, the final presidential vote does not actually indicate a major swing away from a leftist regime and toward neoliberalism among the electorate. Rather, it indicates that the Argentine electorate is currently split right down the middle. “There are two halves to the electorate, nearly equal and opposed,” as Marcela López Levy summarizes it in an unusually balanced and highly insightful analysis. What might characterize that split?

For many of my informants, who are generally pro-Kirchner public sector unionists, it was crystal clear: Macri’s voters came from the clase media, which translates as “middle classes” but does not really mean middle income sectors in a quantitative sense; rather in practice it refers to quite wealthy people. In contrast, they said, the “popular sectors” and their allies are the ones who voted for Scioli. A number of my friends agreed with a statement made by Cristina a few days after the first round election, when she said—they told me—words to the effect that when things go well, the middle classes attribute it to their own efforts, but they blame the government when things go badly.

The problem with this analysis is that while most of the votes for Macri were to be found in the wealthier parts of the country, there were plenty of areas where enough poor people voted for him to at least destabilize that conclusion. Importantly, Macri’s candidate won the governorship of the province of Buenos Aires, which has been solidly the preserve of mainstream Peronism for decades. Some people thought that part of the issue there was the candidate’s own personal suitability, and in the first round Scioli won more votes in the presidential election than the FPV candidate for governor did.[4] But overall, the second round picture even in Buenos Aires is one of a fairly even split between Macri and Scioli, with the exception of some districts of the conurbano—that is, the poor suburbs of Buenos Aires, where Scioli won between 50 and 65 percent of the vote in the second round—or the very wealthy parts of the city such as Recoleta, where Macri gained 79.5 percent of the vote. But it was not only the wealthy parts of BsAs where Macri gained significant numbers of votes—he even polled 35.6 percent in the very Peronist conurbano district of La Matanza.

And so I want to propose another two sets of possible divisions that might partially explain his victory. The first would be that between those who gain their living from the state and those who work in the private sector. The former would include public sector workers at all levels (including academics), as well as those in popular neighborhoods who receive income from social plans such as housing and work programs. The latter category would include very small-scale business people in the informal sector as well as people working for multinational corporates or elite think tanks. While the first group generally did well out of the government’s redistribution measures, the second group suffered from inflation, gradual currency devaluation, and import restrictions, without seeing much benefit from the state to compensate. My Bolivian migrant friend, who sews sweatpants for a living, lamented the lack of imports of material and metal rings, and frequently complained to me about constantly rising prices, lack of sales, and uncertainty about dollar exchange rates. Of course, this is not to imply that all members of each group voted in the same way but rather to indicate a general trend that might explain some of the divisions.

Another significant division might be that between those who are organized collectively in social movements such as labor unions, neighborhood associations, work cooperatives, territorial campaign groups, and so on, and those who are not part of that highly organized space of political, social, and cultural activity. The two divisions might overlap, of course, as for example many of the housing and work benefit programs were organized through cooperatives. Scioli negotiated with many of the collectively organized groups, from cooperatives to unions; Macri bypassed them completely, setting up his own “movement” of people whom he called “volunteers”—making a clear contrast with the militantes (best translated as activists) of the organized social forces (see also Lazar 2013).

Furthermore, while it was clear that Macri would likely continue with the kinds of right-wing approaches he employed when he ran the city of Buenos Aires, and while his economic advisers came from an obviously orthodox background, his actual election campaign was rather more ambiguous. He campaigned simply on the grounds of “change” in government regime—for “happiness” (alegría) and for working together as a team. This last point drew on a common criticism of Cristina for not consulting widely outside of a small circle of her most trusted associates and therefore being rather dictatorial.[5] All this, and the “volunteer” discourse, made it a very post-political campaign, in classically Mouffian terms (Mouffe 2005).

And Macri’s regime has to date been similarly “post-political,” drawing on the language of business rationality, transparency, and efficiency to justify what might seem from another perspective to be ideological policies. As of February 2016, not two months after he assumed the presidency on 10 December 2015, he has removed the restrictions on dollar exchange, meaning the rapid harmonization of the official and the “blue” rates. He has reduced the duties on large-scale agricultural exports and proposes to drastically cut government subsidies on public utilities such as gas and electricity for all but an extremely small group of those considered poor enough to be on a “social tariff.” Those measures may be considered part of an adjustment that Scioli would also have had to make sooner or later. All of them have been carried out by presidential decree, because after the election, it was evident that the FPV would control Congress.[6] There have since been splits within the FPV,[7] but it is too early to tell how this will play out as sessions proceed.

The first big test won’t be long in coming, though: in February, Macri and his economics minister, Alfonso Prat-Gay, reached an agreement with the so-called vulture funds, that is, hold-out groups of debtors who have been using the United States legal system to oppose the debt restructuring that Argentina agreed with 93 percent of its creditors in 2005 and 2010, after the default of 2002. If they can get it through Congress, the government has agreed to pay the four biggest funds $4.6 billion,  and the terms of the US court require that this happen before 14 April. Prat-Gay proposes to finance this and their other plans through issuing around $15 billion of debt this year—in what the FT has described as the largest emerging markets bond issue since 1996.[8] The logic of all this is to return Argentina to the international capital markets so that the government can borrow again, opening up Argentina to foreign investment and of course subjecting itself to the policy conditionalities of major creditors like the IMF should that happen. Again, maybe Scioli would have been forced to do something like this, too, although he would have found it hard, as the refusal to negotiate with the vultures is one of the Kirchnerist policies that are most popular, with a number of high-profile economists, as well as with the Argentine public. Many fear that those debt holders who accepted the earlier haircuts will want to return to the negotiating table (or law courts), as a result of this precedent.

In addition, possibly around 24,000 public sector workers were fired between December 2015 and February 2016, as the regime “trims the fat of militancy off the state,” in the words of Prat-Gay. It’s a controversial phrase, which has racist undertones for many. The government has been defending these measures in the media on the grounds that those fired are ñoquis, a term for state employees who do not work but are still paid. The term comes from a tradition of eating gnocchi at the end of the month, and the idea is that the person just turns up to the office at the end of the month to collect their salary. The implication is that ñoquis are merely political appointees, part of the clientele of whichever faction was running the government department at the time they were hired, and there are accusations that the Kirchneristas hired many new people right at the last minute before the regime change. It’s possible that a number of those fired were somewhat political appointees in one sense, as it is quite common to get a job in the Argentine state on the basis of political or family connections. But they need not as a result be ñoquis in the sense of absent salary extractors, and the majority are probably just normal workers. Still, one could argue that Macri’s functionaries need to make space available for their own political appointments.

January and February are a good time to fire people from state employment, as temporary contracts are up for renewal and people are on holiday and therefore difficult to organize. But workers have protested and in some instances have been met with rubber bullets. Workers cooperatives have also experienced delays in or cancelations of payments of benefits, according to how close they are perceived to be to Kirchnerism, aggression at their places of work, evictions, and confiscation of goods.[9] And a popular social movement leader from the north of the country was arrested at a pro-cooperative protest.[10] One of the main public sector unions called a well-attended national strike and day of street protests for 24 February.

Times are uncertain. Perhaps Macri will continue along what appears to be a fairly hardline trajectory; perhaps he will be blocked once Congress resumes and the FPV asserts its remaining political power; perhaps the historical power of the organized social forces like trade unions will reassert itself over time and ameliorate some of the excesses. For now, my Facebook feed is full of posts from friends expressing their anxiety about the political climate and confirming that Macri is fulfilling the worst of their fears.

Sian Lazar is Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is author of El Alto, Rebel City (Duke, 2008) and has been conducting research with public sector trade unionists in Argentina since 2009.


[1] Thank you very much to Dolores Señorans and Virginia Manzano for comments on an early draft of this piece. Any errors that remain are of course my own.

[2] World Bank data, GNI in current US dollars.

[3] The blue dollar rate varied according to where you exchanged pesos for dollars. The official rate changed subtly from day to day.

[4] A process that involves a complicated procedure of cutting the ballot paper in order to vote for different slates.

[5] This discourse can be seen as early as 2008 in an article in The Economist.

[6] The justification for government by presidential decree is that ordinary sessions of Congress begin on 1 March each year. Some opposition forces point out that it would have been possible to call “extraordinary sessions,” arguing that this would have been appropriate for measures of such national importance (Virginia Manzano, personal communication).

[7] Thanks to Dolores Señorans and Virginia Manzano for pointing this development out to me.

[8] Mexico issued $16 billion worth of bonds in 1996.

[9] This has been accompanied by a marked process of militarization, as federal and metropolitan security forces have for example evicted manteros—that is, people selling on the streets (with their wares displayed on mantas, or blankets)—and confiscated their merchandise. One of the most fiercely resisted evictions was on the Avenida Rivadavia in the neighbourhood of Caballito, where the manteros had recently organized themselves within the Confederación de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (Confederation of Workers in the Popular Economy). Security agents have been placed at a number of locations in order to preserve the evictions, leading to a noticeable militarization of the urban environment, according to some (Virginia Manzano, personal communication).

[10] Virginia Manzano and Maria Ines Fernandez Alvarez, personal communication.


Drinot, Paulo (@paulodrinot). 2015. “Ok, you saw it here first: the cyan tide.” 23 November. 12:40 a.m. Tweet.

Faulk, Karen. 2015. Truth and meaning-making in liminal politics: Unraveling the death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Denver, Colorado.

Forment, Carlos. 2007. The democratic dribbler: Football clubs, neoliberal globalization, and Buenos Aires’ municipal election of 2003. Public Culture 19(1): 85–116.

Grugel, Jean, and Pía Riggirozzi. 2012. Post-neoliberalism in Latin America: Rebuilding and reclaiming the state after crisis. Development and Change 43(1): 1–21.

Lazer, Sian. 2015. “This is not a parade, it’s a protest march”: Intertextuality, citation, and political action on the streets of Bolivia and Argentina. American Anthropologist 117(2): 242–256.

Lazar, Sian. 2013. Citizenship, political agency and technologies of the self in Argentine trade unions. Critique of Anthropology 33(1): 110–128.

López Levy, Marcela. 2015. Argentina: Hello from the other side. Latin America Bureau. 16 December.

Macri, Mauricio (@mauriciomacri). 2015. “Empieza una revolución de alegría en la República Argentina. #HayBalotaje.” 25 October, 7:52 p.m. Tweet.

Mouffe, Chantal. 2005. On the political. London: Routledge.

Muir, Sarah. 2015. The currency of failure: Money and middle-class critique in post-crisis Buenos Aires. Cultural Anthropology 30(2): 310–335.

Weisbrot, Mark. 2015. Why Macri’s win is bad news for Argentina. Fortune. 24 November.

Cite as: Lazar, Sian. 2016. “‘The happiness revolution has begun’: Argentina and the end of post-neoliberalism?” FocaalBlog, 17 March.