When, as periodically happens, Argentina finds herself clinging by her fingertips to a frighteningly steep cliff, whoever is president at the time tells the rest of the world that it would be a terrible mistake to let her plunge to her death below because, were that to happen, many other countries would suffer the consequences of such a tragic event. The women and men in charge of the International Monetary Fund evidently agree, which must be why of late they have been treating Argentina kindly.
This, more or less, is what Alberto Fernández was hinting at a few days ago in a video conference with some high-flying US businessmen. For him, the choice facing “the world” is between contributing to a disaster and, by acting wisely, become part of what will soon be a highly profitable enterprise.
Like Mauricio Macri and many of his predecessors before him, Alberto is appealing to the self-interest of both creditors who want their money back and potential investors, if there are still any out there. He is trying to persuade them that, at long last, Argentina has a government which is determined to do what it takes to put her back on her feet, so they should give him what he is after because, once the country is back in working order, those who backed it when the outlook looked grim would stand to make a great deal of money.
For a time, Macri got away with a variant of this spiel, in large measure because nobody thought he was a Peronist, but when the word got round that, for what his aides said were sound political reasons, he would be unable to do much more than tinker with Argentina’s decrepit economy until voters gave him a second term in office, the chronically jittery financial world suddenly decided to give him the cold shoulder.
Macri’s experience suggests that Alberto’s chances of convincing the moneymen that it would be in their interest to lend Argentina a hand right now are close to zero. As well as being a card-carrying Peronist, which in the eyes of foreign businessmen, technocrats and academics is bad enough, he heads a government in which Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her supporters have enough power to make him do whatever they want and, what is more, they are fully prepared to make full use of it. This in itself is enough to scare off many who otherwise might be tempted to take his words seriously. The consensus in many parts of Argentina and elsewhere is that Cristina is a bit of a fruit-cake who enjoys smashing everything in sight because she knows it upsets many respectable people, a penchant she has in common with a certain Donald J. Trump.
While it is reasonable to assume that, deep down beneath the often contradictory verbiage he has come up with over the years, Alberto really would like Argentina to become a “normal” capitalist country with a decent public sector such as can be found in northern Europe, for Cristina such an outcome would be a defeat for what in her present incarnation she imagines she represents. Though her evident fondness for the trappings of wealth makes one suspect that she is as materialistic as they come, her current political priorities have more to do with her personal dislikes and the ideological abstractions she has adopted than with any concern for the well-being of her compatriots.
Her personal dislikes weigh heavily: if defeating those wretched farmers and businessmen with sinister international connections who dared to challenge her years ago would mean letting more slum-dwellers go hungry, from her point of view that would be a small price to pay. And if the government of which she is the den mother takes measures to reduce the huge gap separating the incomes of comfortably-off members of the upper middle class, such as it is, from those of millions who barely manage to subsist from day to day, it will be because she wants to punish the former, not because she is an egalitarian at heart or cares for the latter.
As for the ideological abstractions, Cristina and the people who back her would much rather see Argentina fall even deeper into poverty by joining Venezuela and Cuba in the holy war against liberal capitalism than have her prosper after surrendering to the enemy and doing its bidding.
Thanks to her ownership of millions of the votes cast by people living in the squalid shanty towns that surround much of Buenos Aires City, Cristina manages to hold the country in thrall. Up to now, all efforts to deprive her of them by giving their inhabitants some basic amenities have failed, but there are those who think that, as the coronavirus eats further into the improvised “black economy” they depend on and more and more give way to despair, this could change.
Will it? Up to now, the vice-president has been very careful to have as little as possible to do with the government’s response to the plague that has Argentina in its clammy grip. Perhaps she fears that, no matter what she said or did, it could end up costing her dearly, but her apparent indifference to a pandemic – which is affecting the lives of almost all her supporters – could also harm her. In moments like this, people crave leadership, even if it is only symbolic, and that is something Cristina, for what are presumably tactical reasons and because she knows it is beyond her, refuses to provide. As a result, handling the country’s attempt to contain the coronavirus is one of the few things Alberto can do without Cristina breathing down his neck and ordering him to backtrack whenever he steps out of line.
Peronists are a quarrelsome lot and, by splitting into rival groups with wildly different agendas, they have often got non-believers to support the ones they consider the least bad. For a time, something like this seemed to be happening, what with the formal Cambiemos opposition dropping out of sight after last year’s elections in which, despite the economic meltdown, it did better than many had expected. But Alberto’s evident unwillingness, or inability, to break free from Cristina is giving the opposition an opportunity to stage a comeback in preparation for next year’s midterm elections. Had the president taken full advantage of the sudden rise in his approval ratings that came when he locked the country down to protect it from the coronavirus that was wreaking havoc in other parts of the world but had barely made an appearance here, he could have formed a national-unity government with congenial members of Cambiemos replacing the die-hard Kirchnerites who are causing him so much trouble. Unfortunately for the country and, perhaps, for him, he let the moment pass.