Whatever President Alberto Fernández tells the nation over this weekend, we can safely rule out that he will be quoting the “Happy Easter, the house is in order” of Raúl Alfonsín a third of a century ago now. But a comparison of the two Eastertides might be one way of placing this in many ways unique pandemic crisis into some kind of perspective.
If people are scared now, they were also running scared in 1987, although with different kinds of fear – based on the past back then and looking ahead to a more than uncertain future now. Until the 1987 Army mutiny was quelled just in time for Easter, people feared a return to a brutal military dictatorship still fresh in the memory – in the half-century since 1930 there had been frequent civilian interludes between the juntas so why not 1983-1987 as another such interlude? While it’s still early days for the coronavirus pandemic, with the death toll yet to reach three digits, the carnage of the 1970s had already been revealed to the world by the CONADEP report and the junta trials in the years just before the Easter rising. If over 1,500 people perished from political violence and almost 1,000 disappeared even before the 1976 coup, state terrorism multiplied that slaughter several times even according to CONADEP and several times more according to human rights groups. If there was no lockdown in those years, green Ford Falcons on the prowl were a disincentive to go out, especially at night. The military cure (also including de-industrialisation, a quadrupled foreign debt and a lost war) was worse than the disease by common consent, hence Alfonsín. Whether today’s lockdown cure (even if bloodless) will likewise come to be seen as worse than the disease further down the road is one of today’s nagging questions.
But today post-pandemic Argentina can only be written in the future tense – what does Argentine history 33 Easters ago tell us? In hindsight the first half of Alfonsín’s “Happy Easter, the house is in order” was far truer than the second. On the day the mutiny was well and truly crushed – it had no chance against a united civilian front (with current Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero’s grandfather playing a key role in rallying the Peronist opposition behind Alfonsín’s Radical government). Sheer firepower might win battles and coups but it cannot run countries (“You can do anything with bayonets except sit on them,” as Metternich observed). But the price-tag for this success in the form of the “due obedience” amnesty law protecting all military officers except the juntas from human rights trials passed two months later proved fatal since it destroyed Alfonsín’s moral credentials, his main defence against Argentina’s chronic economic disarray – in the 1987 midterms five months later he won just two provinces (“What does UCR stand for? Unicamente Córdoba y Ríonegro” was the political joke then).
By the same token while President Fernández could never call this Easter happy, he can like Alfonsín claim a measure of success in keeping the pandemic at bay until now. But, also like Alfonsín, he has reasons to worry whether it will be the same story five months down the road. If misery loves company, Fernández is far from alone in the world with most of his problems. While the global death toll from coronavirus is only just now passing into six digits as against at least 75 million dead in the two world wars (not to mention almost as many from Spanish flu a century ago), this pandemic is unique for being truly worldwide (even with African data sparse until now). Jobs and companies at risk due to massive corporate losses, collapsed chains of payment, aviation and tourism obliterated, sports cancelled etc. – an endless list of problems with no frontiers (even if closed worldwide).
But Fernández also has at least one political as well as many economic problems – unlike Alfonsín’s solidly Radical administration, he heads a coalition government whose extreme wing finds its ideology dovetailing neatly into a hidden agenda within the anti-coronavirus campaign without moving a finger. Thus the economic havoc from prolonged quarantine is the perfect alibi for default (even the centre-right opposition advises against paying Paris Club debt) while the “combatting capital” of the Peronist march is served by limiting state relief to the poor and small businessmen, allowing those “too big to fail” to fall. But who today can tell the future?