Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Nicolás Massot

Featured image: World Fellow Nicolás Massot.

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By Yilin Chen

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Nicolás Massot is a politician and economist from Argentina. He previously served as General Director of Political Reform in the Buenos Aires City Government and led campaign efforts for President Mauricio Macri in Córdoba Province. Currently, he represents Córdoba (the second most populated province in the country) at the Chamber of Deputies of the Argentine National Congress, where he was also the majority leader for Macri’s party, Propuesta Republicana (PRO). 31 years old when elected in December 2015, he is the youngest majority leader in Argentine history. Nicolás founded and currently leads the Parliamentary Friendship Group with Africa, based on his profound belief in South-South cooperation.

Q: What has brought you to Yale as a World Fellow? What has your experience been like here at Yale?

A: My experience has been excellent. The World Fellows Program is unique—you won’t find anything similar in the US and in other places of the world. It’s a very well-structured program that gives you very good resources in leadership, communication, writing, etc. It exposes me to the global affairs content at Yale. The program also gives you spare time to choose among the almost infinite resources of the university, such as auditing courses you’ve never taken before or deepening your knowledge in a particular field. I ended up here because of a former World Fellow who’s also in politics. We shared some years in Congress together. He told me about the program and here I am!

Q: Has the transition from a political to academic environment been hard?

A: The rhythm is different, but for me, it’s not a difficult transition. I’m going back to politics again after this. We’re having some interesting and very particular moments in Argentine politics right now, and it looked like the right time for me to do this program.

Q: Could you elaborate on what you mean by “particular moments in politics?”

[Background information: In the 2019 Argentine general election, the current President Mauricio Macri (center-right) was challenged by his rival Alberto Fernández (center-left). The interview with Nicolás Massot was conducted in October. In the election on October 27th, Fernández defeated Macri.]

A: Argentina is about to experience a transition in government. We have elections next Sunday, which are quite unfavorable for the current government [President Macri]. Two months ago, we [President Macri’s party] lost the primaries by 17% of the votes, and the primaries are quite a good proxy for what’s going to happen on Sunday, because there were no other candidates going for primaries in the two main parties. It’s a very difficult challenge to reverse that result next Sunday.

The two governments [of Macri and Fernández] express very different politics. We’re having some flavor of this all around the region. In the last decade in South America, we saw a boom in the prices of commodities that our countries greatly rely on, though in different ways. Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador rely more on oil and gas; Chile, Peru, and Bolivia rely more on mining; Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay rely more on agribusiness. Most of these countries rely on their tax collection, public expenditures, commodity exports, and commodity price floors. At the beginning of the 2000 decade, these countries experienced an incredible boom, thanks to the expansion of China.

This boom coincided with the rise of many center-left governments that used that money without any provision for the future, without expanding pension or making the healthcare and education systems more accessible. These governments did not worry about sustainability. When the prices of commodities started declining five or six years ago, we started seeing huge fiscal and trade deficits in the region. Due to these crises, governments in most of the countries shifted to center-right. Those governments, mainly Macri in Argentina, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Piñera in Chile, and Moreno in Ecuador, tried unpopularly to equilibrate deficits and cut expenditures. But that was not being achieved through political agreements with the opposing politicians, the ones who executed those expenditures in the first place. The region is becoming totally polarized in a very unsustainable way.

Nowadays, what’s happening in Argentina is just that: Macri made a quite unpopular series of reforms that aimed to cut inflation and make public expenditure sustainable. He cut taxes in order to boost investments and job creation. But of course, that takes time and the economy didn’t go well. People changed their votes, so now we are probably going to see a new change in short term politics. This is how the whole region is stagnating and unable to grow.

Q: You served as the General Director of Political Reform in the Buenos Aires City Government. What reforms did you implement?

A: We mainly focused on electoral reforms, implementing primary elections to boost competition within political parties. The vice-mayor is not elected in the primary. This position is left for the winning mayor to choose among the loser of the primary in order to reunify the party.

We also implemented electronic voting. The main objective of this measure is to improve transparency and obtain results faster. The advantage is that we can avoid the controversy that Bolivia is undergoing right now with systems that take a week or ten days in knowing who won. In the case of Argentina, you can have the results in 45 minutes.

Q: You represent Córdoba at the Chamber of Deputies of the Argentine National Congress. What do you find is the most meaningful part of that work?

A: We [the PRO] were the first government in Argentine history to rise to power with a minority in both chambers of the Argentine National Congress, in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. It was quite a challenge and we were quite weak institutionally. My job was not in a particular field. In a very polarized context, I was in charge of making agreements and building this minority. It was very challenging but also very interesting.

Q: I notice that you’ve mentioned the term “polarization” several times. Is it a very difficult situation to work under?

A: It is. But again, we’re not only seeing this polarization in Argentina. It is also happening in the US, Brazil, France, Italy, etc. Polarization is a modern phenomenon in many western democracies in the last decade. [It] goes against the goal of democracy: democracies were designed to build minorities, not to polarize them.

Q: What exactly is the political polarization in Argentina like?

A: The polarization mostly involves the ruling party, the Cambiemos [an Argentine political coalition that includes the PRO], and the Peronist party, a more traditional party in Argentina. It has two axes. The first axis is corruption versus republicanism. The Peronist party has been blamed for many corruption cases for the last twelve years. The voters in favor of Cambiemos were mostly the middle class that prioritized republican values and honesty.

The other axis involves the economy. The Cambiemos has a more liberal approach, and the Peronist party is more keen on boosting expenditure and increasing taxes. This would be fantastic if the practice were sustainable. The crucial problem is that Argentina never escapes the vicious cycle of inflation and external debt crises. Those are actually two faces of the same coin: they are two different ways of financing the structural fiscal deficits that we incur through social expenditures. In the end, you end up with either hyperinflation or debt defaults.

Q: In terms of your work in the PRO party, what would you consider the most challenging part of your work, particularly when leading campaign efforts in your province for President Macri?

A: Our party was born in Buenos Aires and didn’t have any development in the other 23 provinces. We had to build a party from scratch, searching for the good candidates and alliances to win the presidency. Those were five long years of electoral designing. It was very challenging and interesting at the same time. It allowed a lot of people to enter politics and refresh the political generation, which is a very positive thing.

Q: You founded and currently leads the Parliamentary Friendship Group with Africa. Could you tell me a bit about what the friendship group does?

A: Friendship groups are a form of soft power to facilitate and strengthen relations between two countries. They take into account the fact that usually international agreements must be voted in congress. When you have congressmen directly speaking with each other, it’s easier to pass those agreements.

For me, Africa is one of the biggest opportunities for Argentina to develop an export strategy that’s not only built on food and raw agricultural materials. Nowadays, most African countries are net importers of food and their populations are growing incredibly fast. I’m mainly interested in exporting agricultural technology. Africa currently has eighty percent of the world’s unused fertile land surfaces. Instead of thinking of Africa as a buyer of what we produce, we can design this win-win solution, a trading collaboration, in which the Argentinian and Brazilian agricultural sectors can export technologies that are cheaper and more environment-friendly. We can export those added-value services rather than just exporting our food. For African countries, this can alleviate the monetary trap in which they spend the profits from cocoa and oil on food that they can actually produce by themselves. I see it as a regional south-south cooperation, an opportunity for both African and South American countries.

Q: You traveled for a year through over a dozen African countries in 2010. Did your trip change some of your previous impressions of African countries?

A: Definitely. I think there’s a lot of ignorance surrounding African countries stemming from prejudice. Africa is a vast continent of 56 countries that differ greatly. They may appear to be struggling but they are making very impressive progress. I’m quite optimistic about Africa. The best examples of political and economic development for the next several decades will be 3 or 4 African countries.

Q: Can you elaborate on this South-South cooperation? In what ways does it involve other South American countries?

A: The cooperation should involve the region, but South American integration is not that easy. We have different international blocs, including Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance. Additionally, the crisis in Venezuela is dividing the region. Brazil has a lot of tradition with Africa, but Peru and Chile, as Pacific Ocean countries, are more keen to cooperate with Southeast Asia and China.

In the case of Argentina, this cooperation should definitely involve Africa, because of its proximity and the synergies. Africa demands the agribusiness development in Argentina. It’s one of the few sectors in which we remain international leaders.

Q: What are your plans after leaving Yale?

A: In 45 days, I go back to Argentina. I will continue to work in politics, trying to find long-lasting agreements between political parties. I hope the agreements can prevent us from going back and forth between the left and right political extremes. Sadly, I think the most effective way [to reconcile the left and the right] involves crises [in the country]. Sometimes the only way of putting politicians to work is when things go bad.

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Yilin Chen is a first year in Timothy Dwight College. You can contact her at yilin.chen@yale.edu.