One of the curses of an election year is the way real problems are immediately politicised instead of triggering a quest for permanent solutions. Take last Wednesday, for example. Very much wearing his cap as a presidential hopeful, Economy Minister Sergio Massa met up with CGT trade unionists and sought to deflect attention from sagging real wages by accusing the opposition of, among other things, contemplating labour reforms at union expense and slashing pensions (the latter a central part in his own success in trimming the fiscal deficit and even meeting International Monetary Fund targets last year, he neglected to mention). But instead of clarifying their own proposals, the opposition immediately accused him of “scaremongering” when all their economists speak incessantly of labour and pension reforms. Both are huge problems with current labour legislation strangling any job creation outside the underground economy and pensions accounting for roughly 40 percent of public spending – instead of denying doing anything about them (or fudging it in the form of tough talk lacking any substance), the opposition should be seeking and explaining the alternatives.
That same Wednesday saw a subway strike during three peak hours to press for a shorter working day – just one example of the many hindrances to the freedom of movement which so often make it impossible for ordinary citizens to have any clock for their working or private lives. By no means limited to this city if we look further afield to the pickets in Jujuy destroying that province’s tourist industry and denying the outside world the beauties and indigenous culture of the canyon of Humahuaca – only the most visible instance of obstructionism nationwide. But instead of addressing this existential problem, the media have tended to focus on PRO presidential hopeful Patricia Bullrich bidding to regain ground from the embarrassing flop of her gubernatorial candidate in last weekend’s Santa Fe PASO primary by underlining this failure of City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta’s consensus approach in her arch-rival’s own stronghold while asserting: “With me that’s all over.” Is it so simple?
Magnifying the focus of the political and electoral lens, it might be pointed out that the subway strike hit Rodríguez Larreta in his home base (as did the luggage-handling strike in Aeroparque downtown airport on the cusp of winter holidays earlier this month) while Jujuy is the province of his running-mate, outgoing Radical Governor Gerardo Morales – looking at this week’s blockades of frontier passes to Chile in Mendoza, another opposition-ruled province, it would be easy enough to construct an analysis of the picket movement as purely political mischief. Yet media coverage is highly arbitrary – far less attention to Mendoza than to Jujuy and even less to Salta where the month before the uproar in its neighbour the Peronist provincial government had passed very similar legislation to limit protest but since “all” that happened in reaction was a 19-day teacher strike (as if three weeks without classes were a minor consequence), this passed unnoticed in the rest of the nation.
This arbitrary media coverage creates a vicious circle because it sends a message that the louder, the more aggressive and the more destructive of the social fabric a protest, the greater the impact while these demonstrations of force not only hamper the freedom of movement but arouse fears in the citizenry as to the violent consequences of any corrective pushback. Nor is the damage always visible – the teacher strikes with classes lost in all but one province this year are slowly but steadily eroding the quality of Argentine public education. Yet one way or another the citizenry at large is being turned into hostages for conflicts not of their making while foreign investors are being given one more reason not to risk their dollars here.
If the next generation is to be given any incentive to remain in this country, both these problems and these fears need to be faced. Both a consensus approach and firm action are potentially valid avenues to a solution but both are also means towards ends and will depend entirely on their results – by themselves they are merely vapid campaign rhetoric. If scaremongering is the most effective politics, as Massa seems to imply, this is due to a deep-seated and widespread fear of change and it is these politically exploited fears holding the country hostage which need to be overcome – not so much by the politicians as the people themselves.