Two major milestones overlapped yesterday – it was International Human Rights Day, as it is every December 10, but in this particular year it was also the exact midpoint for the current Frente de Todos presidency of Alberto Fernández (thus concluding what his predecessor Mauricio Macri might call his Primer Tiempo). Which of the two milestones deserves pride of place might seem a tough call but for this humble offshoot of the now extinct Buenos Aires Herald (best-known for its defence of human rights under the last military dictatorship) there is no real choice.
Human rights involve so much more than filling the Plaza de Mayo on the day (even with the stellar presence of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) but they also transcend one of the various false dilemmas arising in recent years. All too many of the groupings spontaneously rallying behind human rights banners over four decades ago have been hijacked by an opportunistic political machine, subordinating their basic principles to ideology or worse. They should not be judged too harshly because they had every reason to feel indebted to a regime showing extreme generosity in return for co-opting their cause while giving it a much higher profile but it still boils down to a betrayal – as has become increasingly clear with the blatant double standards recently shown in favour of the leftist authoritarian likes of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba (yesterday marked the 38th anniversary of Argentina’s return to democracy, as well as International Human Rights Day). Yet all too often the justified critique of these double standards has been extended into a blanket rejection of human rights militancy as an either/or proposition, thus throwing out the baby with the bathwater – human rights have thus become another victim of political polarisation.
Like everybody and everything, human rights have a past, a present and a future, remaining incomplete without all three tenses. Whatever the subsequent deviations, the valour and the value of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in their day cannot be forgotten – nor can the general horror towards “old news” nowadays prevent us from celebrating that a cinematic dynasty in the person of Armando Bó should be enshrining the life’s work of former Herald editor Robert Cox. Yet nor can human rights issues remain frozen in that receding past with defence of a partisan interest filling the present. In the here and now we have the police slaying of Lucas González as one issue to focus while multiple others lie in the background – femicide, prison conditions, indigenous rights and a host of social injustices of all kinds. In every case there is a right and a wrong way of approaching these issues – all are vulnerable to being exploited and abused by those with a political axe to grind, as we have seen with human rights according to the narrow definition (opposing the state terrorism of the 1976-1983 dictatorship and its consequences), but all of them also offer an opportunity to rebrand human rights by renewing an identification with their most fundamental principles.
Neither the past nor this present should thus be allowed to cancel each other out, which leaves the future – this is not ours to see but that should not rule out preventive as well as corrective action on the human rights front.
Only a few lines now remain for the other milestone – the midpoint of the Alberto Fernández presidency. Yesterday also marked yet another watershed – the formal renewal of Congress with the new members swearing in, which can only have given the Frente de Todos leader a painful reminder of last month’s electoral debacle, especially with the virtually unprecedented interruption of the Peronist Senate majority. Filling the Plaza de Mayo might make some government supporters feel triumphant but a full square represents little over half of the 124,334 votes needed to elect each one of the 15 Frente de Todos deputies entering Congress for Buenos Aires Province yesterday. What might well turn out to be the highest growth rate in Argentine history this year has clearly not sufficed to undo the previous damage, the result of not only the pandemic itself but also its handling – only a third of the citizenry are expecting any economic improvement in the new year, according to opinion polls. Evidently this first half of the current presidency with its first year containing almost the worst shrinkage in Argentine history and the second perhaps the highest growth escapes any brief summary.
But in conclusion, it’s not just the economy, stupid – leave room for human rights.