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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-03-2021 07:57

A country caught in a time warp

Obsessed as they are by the world of almost half a century ago, Cristina and her admirers have little interest in the country they are now governing.

In other parts of the world, people are more inclined to celebrate the good things that happen to their country than the disasters it suffers, which is why most, even those whose compatriots were on the losing side, stage remembrance ceremonies to mark the day a major war ended rather than the day it began. This is not the case in Argentina. Year after year, the anniversary of the 1976 military coup attracts far more public attention than do the low-key events held to commemorate the demise of the ensuing dictatorship.

Although it is generally agreed that what followed the military takeover was an appalling disaster for all concerned, starting with the military themselves, many find it hard to hide the nostalgia they feel for a moment when, in retrospect at any rate, everything seemed far simpler to them than did what came later. They feel obliged to view the past through a distorting lens which makes some parts of it look far bigger than they once appeared and renders others almost invisible. As a result, the “memory” they pretend to cherish is a largely fictional account of what actually happened.

The most determined to refashion the past and give it what for them is its proper shape are the Kirchnerites. With considerable success, they have done their best to use the brutal conflicts of the 1970s as building blocks for their own personal foundation myth by insinuating that it was thanks largely to the heroism of Néstor Kirchner, his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and a host of urban guerrillas “fighting for democracy” that Argentina managed to free herself from the “right-wing” military yoke.

Historians and investigative journalists point out that, in fact, the couple collaborated with the regime or, at least, did nothing at all to annoy it, while devoting themselves to making money by taking advantage of one of its most controversial decrees, and that the Montoneros were as fiercely opposed to “bourgeois” democracy as any “hardline” member of the Armed Forces thirsting for subversive blood and were every bit as murderous, but their voices have been easily drowned out by those of activists or opportunists who repeat the official version of events. Soon after Néstor moved into the Pink House, the Kirchnerites took possession of human rights and the struggle against the dictatorship, which in reality only got underway when the military were already beating a retreat. They have no intention of letting such politically valuable trophies slip from their fingers.

In the 1990s, for most Western Europeans, World War II was almost ancient history. Even people who had played a commendable role in it wanted to put it behind them and concentrate on more immediate problems. They could do this because in the 45-plus years that had gone by since the fall of the Third Reich their countries had become far wealthier and most were far more democratic. Material progress was palpable and benefitted almost everyone. What is more, social welfare had been institutionalised and appeared to be working very well. By and large, life was good and few had any desire to go back in time.

Nothing like that happened here. As many have taken to reminding us, according to the available statistics Argentina was better off in absolute terms in 1976 than she is now, with a far smaller proportion of her inhabitants mired deep in “structural” poverty and the overall gross national product being more or less what it is today. Unluckily for millions of people, the consolidation of democracy did nothing to slow economic and social decline.

As should have been appreciated, the willingness of many bright and, on the whole, decent men and women to see military rule as a lesser evil was not the cause of the malaise that continued to have the country in its clammy grip but only an unpleasant symptom. The rot had set in long before the tanks rolled in yet again and the country the Armed Forces took charge of was already in an appalling mess, what with inflation running riot and political extremists of one kind or another gunning down people who disagreed with them in broad daylight, which was why most were more than willing to give Jorge Rafael Videla and the rest of them the benefit of the doubt.

Even so, it was assumed that if things did calm down for a while, a sensible government should be able to put Argentina back on the road to growth. These days, such cautious optimism is hard to come by. With about half the population unable to contribute anything positive to a modern economy and the country’s politicians – much like those of 1976 – too scared to face up to the main problems, there are many who fear that Argentina is doomed to follow Venezuela into the night, which is why businessmen and others who have the means to do so are moving elsewhere.

Obsessed as they are by the world of almost half a century ago – when throughout Latin America would-be revolutionaries who looked up to Fidel Castro imagined that their time had finally come – Cristina and her admirers have little interest in the country they are now governing. They may see themselves as progressives waging a holy war against “neoliberalism,” but the truth is that they are as conservative as they come. Instead of wondering what would have to be done to allow Argentina to prosper in an international order which is rapidly being transformed by technology and the resurgence of China, they want to refight the battles of the 1970s, which for them was a golden decade when they or their parents were younger and thought they could shape the future, in the hope that, this time round, everything will turn out differently. As far as they are concerned, what happens in the real world is irrelevant, which is why so many of them support the wretched dictatorship which has destroyed Venezuela. 

Were it not for the fact that the men and women who indulge in them are supported by a considerable chunk of the electorate, Kirchnerite fantasies would be of interest only to clinical psychologists. However, while Cristina and the individuals who either want to benefit from her share of the vote or are true believers in the strange creed she represents enjoy the electoral backing of about a third of the adult population, there are many Peronists who are well aware that she is bad news (as she has just reminded us by announcing that Argentina will be unable to honour her debts) but are reluctant to make common cause with an opposition led by individuals whose ideas most should find congenial. If the administration nominally headed by Alberto Fernández falls apart, as could well happen, the political class should be in a position to replace it with a government less enamoured of the rapidly receding past than the current one which is in thrall to a lady who clings to it and would be only too happy to drag the country back to the 1970s, if doing so helped keep her and her two children out of jail.


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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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