Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
If Argentina has a national religion, it is not Roman Catholicism, as the pious would have us believe. A version of what anthropologists call the cargo cult has long had a far stronger influence on the way most of the country’s politicians and their supporters think and behave than the eternal verities that are upheld by the Vatican.
The local cargo cult has much in common with the ones that were developed by Pacific islanders who were eager to enjoy the material blessings of European civilisation but were not quite sure about what they would have to do in order to acquire them. To begin with, cult leaders told their followers to build suitably tempting mock airstrips and then sit down and wait for the planes loaded with goods they said would soon fly in. To widespread disappointment, none did.
After becoming aware that things would not prove to be as easy as the true believers had first imagined, the more determined among them decided they would have to take some practical steps: they did so by carving coconuts to make them look like radios and other desirable artefacts.
Perhaps they hoped that any visiting foreigners who happened to come their way would think they were witnessing the birth of a new manufacturing power that one day could rival their own. Alas, such attempts to beguile potential investors did not work as expected. In desperation, more and more people began begging their ancestors to come back and help them.
For over a century, most leading Argentine politicians have been cargo cultists. They may have been far more sophisticated than their fellow-believers in Melanesia, but by and large their way of thinking was much the same as that of the islanders. To impress the rest of the world so it would send them the goods and the money they needed to keep going, they set about copying not only its products behind sky-high tariff walls but also its most prestigious political and judicial institutions.
Though as a result Argentina does look like a modern democratic state with all the trimmings experts in such matters deem necessary, to the evident bewilderment of the optimists who thought they had found the key to successful development, institutions which were carefully modelled on those found in the United States and the richer European countries have failed to work in quite the same way as the originals. Just why this is so remains a bit of a mystery. Presumably it has something do with the way local politicians think. That is why, for years, people who are fed up with the way things are going insist that the country needs a “change of mentality.”
Hereabouts, the idea that politicians, along with public employees and the like ought to see themselves as “civil servants” honourbound to subordinate their own personal interests to those of the community as a whole, is rarely taken very seriously. On the contrary, as far as most parliamentarians are concerned, occupying a seat in Congress is merely a good way for them to earn a decent living; with luck, a smart operator can quickly become a multimillionaire. A place in the political hierarchy also provides them with what it takes to give their relatives, friends and hangers-on a helping hand, which is certainly good for their egos.
As for the Judiciary, few Argentines hold it in high regard. If opinion polls are anything to go by, a majority is convinced that judges and the rest of them are even more corrupt than the cops and most professional politicians.
Equally unsuccessful have been the attempts to put together a competitive industrial sector like those that have sprung up in other parts of the world. Some firms may be efficient enough, even by international standards, but too many resemble the ones in Tierra del Fuego that bought Chinese kits containing pieces which, put together in an appropriate fashion, became computers, television sets or smart phones. The men and women employed in the country’s high-tech sector then put what they had assembled in boxes labelled “Made in Argentina.” The Pacific islanders who convinced themselves that that a carved coconut could pass for a radio set would understand the thinking behind the import substitution policies that did so much to slow economic development.
To the dismay of the people who had been hired to show the world that Argentina was able to manufacture advanced electronic products, and of the Tierra del Fuego provincial government that was reluctant to see itself deprived of what has been a very useful source of income, Mauricio Macri’s government is phasing out their allegedly patriotic activities. As the Kirchnerites and other enthusiastic cargo cultists keep reminding us, the country has fallen into the hands of heretics who simply do not believe in the old religion.
At most, they are half-right. Macri too thinks Argentina should imitate those countries that in his view deserve to be called “normal” but, unlike the Peronists, old-guard Radicals and many others, he has come to the conclusion that copying some superficial features will not be enough. He wants to go the whole hog. Along with his friends, he takes it for granted that for Argentina to become a “normal” country she will have to copy not just the products and institutions of the current frontrunners but also the attitudes and ways of thinking on which they are based.
For many, such an approach is unwelcome. Would Argentina still be Argentina if she cast aside many of the things that make her what she is, replacing them with items imported from abroad? Not that long ago, the then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner warned that it would be dangerous if people let themselves be led astray by foreign ideas of the kind Macri and others like him clearly favour. Cristina had a point. In many parts of the world, heated arguments between “westernisers” and “nativists” have been going on for centuries. In East Asia, which is currently booming, most have given rise to a compromise similar to the one that was reached in Japan, with “western” techniqu
es and political arrangements coexisting more or less amicably with “native” spiritual and cultural traditions. Even so, the concessions that had to be made for this to be possible were greater than the pioneer cargo cultists ever imagined.