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OP-ED | 24-12-2022 06:45

Christmas this Sunday or last (or both)?

The word “catharsis” has been overused in the past month because of its tempting overlap with the World Cup host country’s name but the shoe fits – there was an element of catharsis for a country still emerging from the coronavirus pandemic and enduring over a decade without any sustained growth since that 2010 bicentenary.

Today is Christmas Eve, normally marking the climax of any year but in this week it has been both eclipsed and enhanced by the glory of Argentina reaching a trinity of World Cups in Qatar last Sunday. The explosion of ecstasy was expressed by a multitude out in the streets without precedent in national history (and very few worldwide, surpassed on only seven occasions and always in Asia, a continent with 100 people for every Argentine) – up to five million people on Tuesday as against perhaps a third of that number on the day of the triumph, two million for the Bicentenary in 2010 and around a million each at the closing Radical and Peronist rallies in the 1983 elections amid all the exuberance of the return to democracy.

But those are just numbers which tell us little or nothing about a moment whose emotional depth is hard to explain. The word “catharsis” has been overused in the past month because of its tempting overlap with the World Cup host country’s name but the shoe fits – there was an element of catharsis for a country still emerging from the coronavirus pandemic and enduring over a decade without any sustained growth since that 2010 bicentenary. Growing political disenchantment has created a vacuum into which acclaiming a team showing results rushes all too readily, reflecting a nation’s dreams far more than any partisan rhetoric. Dreams always end upon awakening but perhaps this dream can also be seen as a wake-up call.

Even such great moments as this come with criticisms, most of them valid, but the sheer magnitude of the celebration should outweigh them. The organisation, if any, of the frustrated victory cavalcade from Ezeiza Airport to the city centre (whether the Casa Rosada, as craved by President Alberto Fernández, or the Obelisk) was obviously deplorable with little learned from that other great explosion of the passion of multitudes, the fiasco of Diego Maradona’s funeral two years ago. Yet the blame game (into which this editorial will not stoop to delve) does not work here – the governments and ministries were at fault at all levels, national, provincial and municipal. Easy to criticise but do any of the many critics really have better ideas on how to control five million people?

Tuesday’s controversial public holiday was also a flawed decision. Surely the best celebrations emanate from spontaneous individual decisions, not state decrees. It was also poor federalism, as was shown by the eight mostly Peronist provinces spurning the call (some of which quite logically chose to celebrate the day after, not Tuesday, being hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from Ezeiza or the Obelisk). Yet at the end of the day the opportunistic presidential and other political bids to ride this triumph backfired, only underlining their isolation, so they were really punishing themselves. And if there was no real harm or major damage after all the chaos, this was perhaps not so much a miracle as a tribute to the marvellously positive public mood, despite being denied a direct sight of their idols.

Beyond the specific criticisms lie the deeper question of whether the World Cup glory actually changes anything. Does this superb tournament culminating in a marvellously dramatic final unmarred by any serious incidents with excellent football and a record number of goals (172, despite everything disallowed by VAR) make Qatar a better country, sweeping aside all the previous debates about the corruption clinching this controversial venue, the slave labour and the treatment of women and minorities? And now that this World Cup goes to Argentina, does it do anything to reduce inflation, remove corruption, end crime, pull anybody back above the poverty line or improve real wages (apart from the vastly upgraded market values of the winning players)? Not only has it done nothing but there have been more turns of the screw precisely in this World Cup month – the 20 months of consecutive growth since the almost double-digit slump of 2020 have come to an end with two months running of negative data. Even more strikingly, the latest numbers show the fiscal deficit of 2.5 percent of gross domestic product demanded by the International Monetary Fund to be in sight, thus showing that a populist government is really biting the bullet on austerity at the expense of public works, pensions, universities and much else because inflation is too high a price to pay.

So should we be celebrating? Definitely, for another week at least with the week after not only another week but another year.

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