Thanks to a combination of extraordinarily lengthy lockdowns which brought an already creaking economy to its knees, deepening poverty and pressures from the reliably obstructive teachers’ unions, most young Argentines have been left to their own devices for almost a year and a half. As a result, they, like many others in countries with an unresponsive public sector, have fallen further behind their counterparts in the more developed parts of the world. Even if they were to decide they must make a determined effort to catch up they would find it desperately hard to do so, but it would appear that poverty has made most of them apathetic.
Long before the pandemic struck, the rapid decline of Argentina’s once fairly efficient educational system greatly worried those who feared for the country’s future. They understood that much would depend on making good use of the available “human capital” (that is to say, brain power) which, in the brave new world of the “knowledge economy” we are already living in, matters far more than any number of shiploads of soybeans, barrels of oil or tons of lithium.
This being the case, what can be done to save what could well be Argentina’s lost generation, and with it much of the rest of the population, from the miserable fate that is looming before it? Will young people, of whom 60 percent now scrape by somewhere below the poverty line, be left to fend for themselves after the money to pay for the threadbare social-welfare programmes which are currently being applied has been vaporised by inflation, as is all too likely to happen in the coming months? While some men and women will contrive to keep above water by continuing to do odd jobs, for most this is not a serious alternative.
Are the politicians who are out there campaigning for the votes they need to stay in business doing their best to come up with viable solutions for what is surely the biggest problem facing the country? They certainly should be, but if any are, they are keeping what they have in mind to themselves, no doubt because they suspect it could be electorally costly for them to make practical proposals because any such would inevitably entail a degree of coercion.
Most play it safe by sticking to uplifting banalities; they agree that decent jobs are better than handouts and that education is a very good thing, but this is about as far as most are prepared to go. Saying “work or starve” unless you can prove you are genuinely incapable of doing anything to earn a living, or making it mandatory for kids to study whether they like it or not, would not go down very well in places where hardly anybody has ever held a steady job. Argentina’s politicians like to pose as kindly folk who are reluctant to tell people they really ought to shape up rather than expect a charitable public sector to look after them for life.
In other parts of Latin America, leaders who are considered to be every bit as populist as are most Argentine politicians can be more forthright. For example, Pedro Castillo, Peru’s new president, is a former primary school teacher who takes pride in his peasant origins and has been typecast as a wild left winger; nonetheless, he is well aware that it would be folly to leave things as they are, which is why he has just announced that, unless a youngster is gainfully employed or getting an education he will have to serve in the military.
Some years ago, Sergio Massa – who now plays a frontline role in the coalition put together by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – made a similar proposal but nothing came of it. Neither did the version put forward by the hawkish opposition leader Patricia Bullrich. However, while putting kids in uniform and making them run about and obey orders given by overbearing and on occasion sadistic NCOs may strike many as a waste of time, it does at least keep them off the streets and, as many found when it was almost universal, if well handled national service can broaden the horizons of youngsters from poor families and even provide them with opportunities to learn a useful trade.
When in power another Latin American populist, the Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa, took education seriously enough to have it constitutionally enshrined as an essential public service, a move which, needless to say, infuriated the teachers’ unions by making it risky for them to set about organising strikes. Back in 2014, Gabriel Marrioto – the Kirchnerite who was deputy governor of Buenos Aires Province under Daniel Scioli – wanted to emulate Correa, but unfortunately for millions of youngsters the idea was quickly dropped: like members of the Democrat Party in the United States, here the Peronists have little interest in confronting the unions. However, in view of what the country will be up against in the very near future, the more realistic among them must be having second thoughts.
When the Covid pandemic was in its initial stages, optimists told us it would help bring communities closer together, not only in individual countries but also in the world as a whole; after all, to keep the virus at bay everyone would have to collaborate. They had a point, but the latest consensus is that it is having the opposite effect, especially in the international arena. To protect themselves, countries have been taking measures that harm others (especially the weaker ones) and, as is the case here, some governments have used the pandemic to get at groups of people they dislike, which is why about 14,000 middle-class Argentines remain stranded abroad and Buenos Aires City has been deprived of a big chunk of money.
For good or ill, the pandemic coincided with a paradigm shift in which the “knowledge economy” is quickly taking over from the one based primarily on material resources. Despite having plenty of these (or because of the attitudes possessing lots of them encouraged) Argentina did far worse than any other country which did not have the misfortune to be ruled by Communists. Can she be expected to do any better in a fiercely competitive economic order in which the ability to make good use of brainpower will be key?
Some think she could, but for them to be right, something drastic would have to be done to ensure that most of the upcoming generation not only receives but also takes full advantage of an education as rigorous as that of its contemporaries in China, South Korea, Japan or parts of Northern Europe. Unless it does, Argentina’s future, when the pandemic is over, will look more like what can already be seen in Venezuela or Haiti than anything even the lugubrious critics of the country’s performance ever dared to imagine.