When I visited Argentina in Spring 2001, one peso equaled one dollar. How much things had changed when I returned to Buenos Aires last week, after way too long an absence from a country I love, for the Annual Summit of the Forum of Young Global Leaders and Alumni and the World Economic Forum on Latin America. The peso now trades at about 15 to the dollar.
The demise of dollar-peso convertibility and the peso's dramatic fall was part of the events that eventually inspired THE GRAY RHINO. The book's central question -why some leaders respond to obvious problems and others do not- arose from the difference between the missed opportunity to head off the chaotic 2001 Argentine debt default and the reasonably orderly 2012 restructuring of Greece's debt.
For over a decade after its financial collapse, Argentina retreated from the global economy, until the 2015 election of President Mauricio Macri. He opened this year's Latin America Forum, themed Responsive and Responsible Leadership, which included discussions on practical solutions to reduce poverty; how to deal with "fake news"; the economic and social implications of the technological disruptions accompanying the Fourth Industrial Revolution; education; combating climate change, and political risks.
The much weaker Argentine peso wasn't the only change since my last trip. A whole new sub-city had sprouted along the waterfront. Visitors might be forgiven for mistaking the shining new buildings for a part of Dubai.
Looking beyond bright and shiny objects, however, Argentina -like its Latin American neighbors- remains a profoundly unequal society. The 2001 crisis led the country to embrace populist nationalism, under the Nestor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidencies, long before the current wave that has upended politics in the United States and Europe.
Macri's election -and indeed the hosting of this year's Latin America Forum- represented a step toward re-embracing the world as part of a plan to revive the economy. He repaired Argentina's relationship with its international creditors and has pledged to deepen integration with the world. But the challenges are daunting: boosting anemic economic growth, attacking 40% annual inflation, combating poverty, and reducing a budget deficit to which politically sensitive public sector salaries and pensions contribute --all with reserves and government finances depleted by his predecessors.
Speaking at the Forum, Macri envisioned "a future based on the truth, on putting problems on the table and solving them," and called trust "the driver for growth in any society." He spoke of his administration's efforts to attract investment, channel human capital and generate innovation while re-embracing globalization.
If voters' patience wears out, the path he has outlined could easily be reversed. As if to make that point, a general strike shut down the airport April 6th, the day I was due to fly home. Though I was not exactly disappointed to "have to" spend an extra day in Buenos Aires, the strike illustrated the difficulty of the path ahead. Its timing, coinciding with the Forum, drove home how wide the remaining gaps are between the working and wealthy classes, keeping the themes of economic inequality and populism front and center.