A saying is going from cafe to cafe in Argentina like a drunk sailor bouncing between bars looking for a drink. “Brazil is becoming Argentina. Argentina is becoming Venezuela. Venezuela is becoming Zimbabwe.” That’s being a little rough on Brazil and Venezuela.
Argentina is in a perverse class of its own. A nation still addicted to that strange political brew called Peronism, Argentina is presently in an all-out war on believable economic data. Constant tinkering with the exchange rate has shut the country out from the world’s financial markets. Property rights have almost ceased to exist and the country is still wringing its hands over the war it lost in the Malvinas – more than 30 years ago.
Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, is unable, or unwilling, to shoulder her part of the responsibility for the country’s dire economic troubles. While in Cuba recently for a Latin American summit, Kirchner blamed the country’s problems on banks, exporters and businessmen. “It looks like there are some people who want us to eat soup again, but this time with a fork,” she posted on her Twitter. It was a not-so-veiled expression that is used throughout the land of Pampas to convey the idea of a swindle.
One hundred years ago, Argentina was wealthier than France, Italy and Sweden. Far richer than Japan, it looked down its nose at Brazil. Wide open spaces and nothing to fill them, combined with the world’s richest soil in the Pampas, Argentina appeared to European immigrants to have all the potential of America. The immigrants didn’t know that a military officer named Peron and his wife Eva (of “Evita” fame) would come along to twist the country with their delusions of grandeur.
Political scientist, Javier Corrales, said, “Argentina is a unique case of a country that has completed the transition to underdevelopment.” To explain it in psychological terms, Argentina is the child among nations that never got past puberty. Responsibility is not in the psyche of many Argentine leaders. While the middle class slid into poverty and the poor slid even lower, the leaders found there was much to be stolen. The country was so rich in grain and livestock that messy things like solid institutions and respect for the law seemed to be a waste of time.
Immigrants landed in Buenos Aires with foreign passports and were never expected to go through the nation-building process that was characteristic of Brazil, or the United States. Way down at the “bottom” of the world, Argentina was a fertile mass of land far enough from power centers to live its own lifestyle and drown its sorrow in Tango and mate.
Then along came Peron. Juan invented his own political idea. A weird concoction of nationalism, romanticism, fascism, socialism and a thousand other “isms.” What the misguided colonel brought to Argentina was backwardness, militarism, eroticism, irresponsibility and repression. The name of this new brew? Peronism. Argentina has been unable to shake off the years of Evita, Juan and the toxic sludge that bears his name.
Peron figured out the best way to boost a failed military career. Joining forces with the have-nots of Latin America, he started handing out cash. Peron was booted in the first of four post-World War II coups, only to be brought back later by a populace who felt free money and entitlements were more desirable than challenges such as personal responsibility, liberty and freedom.
When Juan Peron died, his widow, Isabel moved into Casa Rosada. A stripper in her home country of Spain, Isabel was ill-equipped for the duties of leadership. Without any talent, skill or aptitude for national office, she was wiped away by a military junta in 1976.
The direct result of the country’s leaders? Argentina in the 1980s was just coming out from under the blanket of terror brought on the military rule. An emblematic image of the country in the 80s is the unstoppable sobbing of Argentine women holding onto photographs of their children who had been taken away. The military junta made 30,000 people disappear in Argentina.
There hasn’t been a military coup since the last one broke up in the 1980s following the fiasco of the Falklands. What it does have is a run-down economy brought about by Peronists. Most recently the evangelists of this failed way of life was Nestor Kirchner and his wife, and successor, Cristina. While the carnival ride of military rule one week and civilian control the next has stopped, it’s been replaced with economic whiplash. Reckless spending in the good times and illegal activities in the bad have marked the failed decade to which the unwitting Kirchner points to with pride.
Hope lives in the human heart, but in Argentina the government works to kill the spark.
By Jerry Nelson