BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – During the first 100 days of his administration, conservative President Mauricio Macri has overhauled many of the signature policies that his populist predecessors spent 12 years implementing for Argentina.
But the former Buenos Aires mayor becomes particularly animated when talking about possibly his biggest challenge: cracking down on rampant corruption that has long scarred the South American nation and many argue has gotten worse over the last decade.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Macri expressed outrage at often flagrant impunity and said he would be quick to fire anybody in his government who isn't honest and transparent.
"I feel the same as the majority of Argentines: rage, disenchantment and helplessness," he said, reflecting on a video this week allegedly showing the son of a businessman with close ties to a former president counting what appear to be tightly wrapped stacks of dollars, euros and Argentine pesos at an illegal exchange house. "There will not be a repeat of this kind of embarrassing corruption, these abuses of power."
Macri assumed power in December after campaigning on promises to break from the shady ways of the past, open up Latin America's third-largest economy after years of isolation and reverse many of the policies of his left-leaning predecessor, Cristina Fernandez. The considerable changes he has implemented over the last three months have gotten the attention of world leaders, including Obama, who is making a visit next week.
Macri, the 57-year-old son of one of Argentina's richest businessmen, cast Obama's two-day stop as an opportunity to show the world that Argentina is cleaning up its act and hopes to open its doors to billions in investment. The last state visit by an American president was by Bill Clinton in 1997.
Such a trip would have been unthinkable under Fernandez, who during her eight years in office aligned herself with socialist leaders in Cuba and Venezuela while often being publicly antagonistic toward the U.S. Fernandez's predecessor and late husband, President Nestor Kirchner, also clashed with world leaders and financial institutions.
Macri has been criticized by several Argentine human rights activists about the timing of Obama's visit. Obama will be in the country on March 24, which marks the 40th anniversary of a military coup that ushered in one of the region's most brutal dictatorships. Activists argue that Washington backed dictatorships across Latin America, including in Argentina, and thus Obama's presence will be an insult to the thousands who were killed or tortured.
Such opponents "need to realize that important world leaders have a very busy schedule," Macri said, adding that Obama has been a staunch defender of human rights and should be welcomed.
Unlike several Latin American leaders, Macri sidestepped questions about the U.S. election and the candidacy of Donald Trump. Macri said he knew both Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton personally and would be able to work with either should they reach the White House.
Hours before the interview, the lower chamber of Argentina's Congress approved a negotiated deal on repaying bonds held by a group of creditors in the United States, a step toward ending a long-standing fight that made Argentina a financial pariah and kept it on the margins of international credit markets. The legal fight had its origins in Argentina's financial collapse in 2001-2002, when it defaulted on $100 billion in debt.
Creditors led by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer refused to accept bond swaps with lower values. Instead, they took Argentina to court in New York and won. While Fernandez branded the group "vultures" and refused to negotiate, Macri made reaching an agreement a top priority.
"It's the first step. It's as important as opening the door," Macri said. "We need to stop arguing about things that don't help Argentina grow."
In the months since assuming power, Macri's administration has rewritten much of the country's social contract. It lifted export taxes on the agricultural sector, effectively freeing up one of the world's breadbaskets, and it lowered import taxes, devalued the Argentine peso, cut energy and other subsidies, and fired thousands of public workers.
Macri agreed his administration has yet to make good on his promise to curb inflation, which approached 40 percent last year. Prices that were already skyrocketing jumped even more when the peso was allowed to float on the open market, and quickly lost about a third of its value against the U.S. dollar.
The president said his economic changes need more time to bear fruit.
"A year from now, we hope to be growing, and we hope to be receiving investments from all over the world," he said.
Macri said he hopes investigators solve the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found shot dead early in 2015. Days before, Nisman had accused Fernandez of helping Iranian officials hide Iran's role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and wounded hundreds. Fernandez has denied the allegations.
Nisman's death shook Argentina. For many, it was one more sign of a failed justice system.
"Everything that happened made us look weak in the world," Macri said. "But now we are determined to bring what happened to light."
Associated Press writer Debora Rey in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.
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