Geopolitics

Between AMLO And Bolsonaro, Can Argentina's Macri Hold Center?

While Mexico lurches left and Brazil shifts right, Argentina, under Mauricio Macri, will try to stay a centrist course — at least until next year's presidential elections.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri in Puerto Madero, Argentina
Argentine President Mauricio Macri in Puerto Madero, Argentina
Luis Gregorich

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — Brazil's president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has just joined what can be imagined as Latin America's core triangle of influence and power.

Brazil is one of the region's three preeminent states, along with Mexico and Argentina. Its incoming leader, in this analogy, will represent the right-hand side of the triangle. On the left side is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican president-elect. That leaves Argentine President Mauricio Macri as the remaining edge that connects the two — the center, as it were.

Of the three, Macri is the only serving president. He's been in office for nearly three years and plans to seek reelection in 2019.

Starting next year, the triangle will change completely.

It's no secret that the West's political systems and traditional parties face huge challenges right now. The exception, at least so far, is the United States, where a two-party system has survived for almost two and a half centuries. But places like Spain and Italy — the two countries, incidentally, that have most contributed to creating the Latin American conscience, though from different historical perspectives — are facing threats of territorial separatism and new manifestations of fascism.

The Latin American triangle has managed to renew itself through a drastic transformation of the system in which certain declining political groups will disappear while others will have to move, with all their weapons and baggage, into new spaces. And starting next year, the triangle will change completely, with the arrival of new actors and departure of others.

In Argentina, for example, a coalition is governing for the first time and includes one member, PRO, that is entirely new to the national stage. In Mexico, the founding party of modern Mexico, the PRI, was practically crushed in the 2018 general elections, with its candidate coming third. The winner was MORENA (National Regeneration Movement), a new left-wing formation, led by López Obrador, that emerged from the ashes of the PRI's progressive aspirations.

Then there's Bolsonaro's victory, which is of particular interest to Argentina. The "how" and "why" of this triumph is no longer so important. Nor is his archaic anti-communism, or his incendiary language, which he has toned down, in any case. What matters most, rather, is what he does.

Brazil's new president-elect Jair Bolsonaro — Photo: Cris Faga/ZUMA

Evidently what he says or does (or will do) is his responsibility. He'll soon be the president of Brazil as a whole, so playing just to his base — the millions of indignant people who've had it with government corruption and ineptitude — won't suffice. As he comes to face the specific demands of governance, he should therefore mitigate his tendencies toward verbal extremism, as this could prove counterproductive.

I must confess that if I were Brazilian, I could never have voted for Bolsonaro. Where he stands politically (and it's his prerogative to do so) is in stark contrast to social-democracy, that modest ideology embraced by so many citizens, myself included. Indeed, we have very different ideas about how the state should be organized, and about things like income distribution and respect for minorities of all kinds, be they racial, social or religious groups.

What will the third leg of the triangle do? What role is there for Mauricio Macri?

But it's also true that Argentina — in accordance with the norms of foreign affairs and for the sake of good neighborly relations — will and should treat the new president with the respect that the office (and the 50 million Brazilians who voted for him) deserve. His appointment of the anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro as the next justice minister should be noted here in his favor. In the meantime, Argentine and Brazilian economists have already begun quietely to meet. We are trading partners and should remain so.

Still, the question remains: When Bolsonaro and López Obrador are sworn into office in the coming weeks, what will the third side of the triangle do? What role is there for Mauricio Macri?

Undoubtedly, his is a most difficult task, especially given Argentina's current economic crisis. Macri will have to tackle the problem without ceding to pressures from various quarters or corporations, while meeting as far as possible the needs of the most vulnerable sectors. Then, he must relentlessly pursue the fight against corruption, working with the legal system as far as the law allows and implementing swift and effective prosecutions. Finally, he'll have to pay maximum attention to education at all its levels, regardless of the sacrifices to be made elsewhere.

As the central portion of the triangle — the one that's neither right nor left, that deliberately occupies the space in between — Macri can send a message of moderation, and champion cohabitation as an alternative to the social and political rift that is becoming more dangerous by the day. Hopefully he can keep violence and intolerance at bay, and project this middle-ground approach into the future. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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