For over half a century, most Argentines took it for granted that should an elected president prove unable to solve the country’s problems, the Armed Forces would be fully entitled to take over and do whatever they believed was necessary to get things back on track. That was the way things were. While some politicians thought coups were bad on principle, Peronists – whose movement was the product of a right-wing military dictatorship – had little choice but to regard them as part of the natural order. What is more, many were quick to learn that it could be in their interest to let the men in uniform do what they called the “dirty work” that would periodically be required to repair an accident-prone economy because, while about it, they would make themselves so unpopular that, when elections were finally called, voters would return the Peronists to power.
This arrangement broke down in the early 1980s, when the military regime disgraced itself by failing to put an end to the country’s already painful economic woes or win a war it had started in a desperate attempt to recover the prestige it had lost; the systematic violation of fundamental human rights that blackened its record did not become a major issue until “the Process” was already on the ropes.
In any event, since December 1990, when Carlos Menem saw off an uprising led by the swashbuckling colonel Mohamed Ali Seineldín (who, as it happened, was a devout Roman Catholic), hardly anyone has considered military rule a genuine alternative to a civilian administration, no matter how incompetent it might be, despite the fact that according to the opinion polls the Armed Forces now have a far better reputation than any political organisation. However, like people who have lost a limb but feel it is still there and they can move it, many politicians have retained the mental habits they, or their predecessors, acquired when they could comfortably assume that, should things go badly wrong, someone from outside the system would step in and try to put them right. In other words, decades of military rule bred a culture of irresponsibility that is still very much with us.
For true believers in the Kirchnerite gospel, the “dirty war” is far from over though, fortunately for the rest of the country’s inhabitants, they are not waging it with guns and bombs but with propaganda designed to reshape the recent past to make it accord with their pretentions. Many trace their cult’s beginnings to the Montoneros, a terrorist band which started life on the quasi-fascist Catholic nationalist right but then, along with other groupings influenced by “liberation theology,” quickly veered left. After the military regime departed, they got away with claiming, most implausibly, that all along they had taken up arms to defend democracy and human rights, but because they still needed a sinister enemy, they decided that Mauricio Macri was Jorge Rafael Videla’s spiritual heir. The way things are going, he could soon be succeeded in this role by Alberto Fernández. As far as the Kirchnerites are concerned, anyone who disagrees with them is by definition an enemy of the people.
Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is not the only person who thinks Alberto’s government is a shambles. Much of the population shares her view. Nonetheless, a considerable majority blames her for its deficiencies, attributing them to her attempts to make it concentrate on dismantling the country’s legal system in time to save her from spending the rest of her life locked up when it should be making an effort to keep the economy afloat. She has also surrounded members of the government suspected of being loyal to Alberto with political commissars whose business is to make sure they toe the approved Kirchnerite line.
Like the military brass, and most politicians, of former times, Cristina and her diehard supporters cling to the notion that a bad government deserves to be overthrown by force, which is why they are bombarding Alberto, Economy Minister Martín Guzmán and other individuals they have come to dislike with insults in the hope of dislodging them so they can be replaced by activists belonging to La Cámpora, the top-down organisation headed by Fernández de Kirchner’s son, Máximo, which specialises in the colonisation of public institutions and by so doing has contrived to get its hands on a great deal of money.
For some time now, pundits have been doing their best to assess Alberto’s chances of surviving in office until December next year, when his constitutionally-allotted term finally runs out. Their doubts have been growing stronger with every day that passes and difficulties of all kinds continue to mount, with much talk about the possibility of a “legislative assembly” being convoked in order to sort out the mess by booting the president out and bringing forward the elections, There is also speculation about what would happen if Alberto, demoralised after being treated cruelly by the lady who gave him his job, suddenly decided to quit. Were this to happen, Cristina would be in line to take his place, but the last thing she wants is to be in charge when, thanks in large measure to her efforts, the country’s economy could well be about to sink beneath the waves.
Die-hard Kirchnerites are currently behaving much as did some of their forerunners 50 years ago, when, with Isabelita Perón in the Pink House, they knew that it would not be long before the military moved in to take charge. Then they felt that as they had nothing to lose, they might as well treat everybody to a free lunch or its equivalent in the hope they would eventually be rewarded for their generosity, but times have changed. Much as many dislike the idea, elected politicians have to take full responsibility for managing the country’s economy.
For understandable reasons, Cristina would much rather lead the opposition than have anything to do with the government she put together. This is why she has declared war on the agreement Guzmán reached with the International Monetary Fund. She knew this would make the leaders of Juntos por el Cambio squirm by obliging them to rubber-stamp measures that are certain to be unpopular because, unless they do so, the country would run the risk of parting company with the world’s financial system by refusing yet again to honour its debts. It was a cunning move, but it could easily backfire. If Alberto’s government does collapse well before elections are due to take place, the Kirchnerites would be hard put to avoid being buried under the rubble.