President Mauricio Macri delivered a robust defense of his austerity policy on Friday in a State of the Union address to Argentina's Congress ahead of a reelection bid in October. Macri went on the offensive in a turbulent session that featured shouts and heckling from opposition lawmakers, declaring there was no turning back on his policies.
Today Argentina is better off that in 2015. We continue to make profound changes. We have left the swamp behind us, he said in a vehement speech punctuated by ovations from his Cambiemos (Let's Change) centre-right coalition.
Speaking loudly and at times angrily, the president said he remained committed to a zero fiscal deficit as part of a US$57 billion International Monetary Fund bailout earlier this year.
He took pains to justify severe public spending cuts which has seen the economy shed 200,000 jobs in the past year.
The fiscal deficit is what causes inflation and poverty, he said.
We are on the right track, he underlined.
However Macri announced a 46% increase in subsidies for poor families with children, the only new initiative included in his speech.
Opposition lawmakers held up posters saying Macri Out and There is another way. Others interrupted with shouts of Liar.
Macri's angry riposte was that your insults speak for you more than me.
The centre-right leader will seek reelection in October's presidential election, but the latest opinion poll shows Macri with a 64% disapproval rating among voters.
Since his election in 2015, the market-friendly former Buenos Aires mayor has launched important economic reforms to balance years of spending by the previous populist government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner - but his promises to defeat inflation and place Argentina on the path to sustained growth have proved empty.
Latin America's third-largest economy shrank 2.6% in 2018 and inflation reached almost 50%, topping 3.0 per cent for the month of February alone.
The economy suffered two currency crashes last year that saw the peso lose half of its value against the dollar.
Outside congress, thousands of demonstrators marched. Activists carrying banners and banging drums included union workers, social organizations and leftist groups opposed to Macri’s fiscal tightening program.
Police used metal barriers to block access to Congress and control the crowd, which snarled traffic and caused road closures at main intersections in the city center.
Ex president and now Senator Cristina Fernandez was not present for Macri’s State of the Union. Nobody at present knows exactly who the president will be facing off against in October. The biggest question mark is whether his biggest rival in the polls, former president and Senator Cristina Fernández will run.
At one point, the president trained his fire on the senator for Buenos Aires province in his speech, contrasting his government's approach to the Venezuelan government, now led by Nicolás Maduro, to the former head of state's policies.
Macri said Fernández de Kirchner's government had decorated Maduro with honors, despite the Venezuelan leader's lack of respect for human rights.