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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 05-12-2020 10:28

Buenos Aires under fire

Cristina and her friends hope that by defunding the City government they will force the mayor to cut spending to the bone, which they assume should be enough to turn people against him.

Like Londoners in the United Kingdom, Parisians in France and New Yorkers in the United States, people from Buenos Aires City are often resented by compatriots who say they find them too brash and think they are disagreeably prone to look down on those they dismiss as provincials. They also tend to be better off because, unfair as it may seem to outsiders, big cities have almost always generated more money than other places and the men and women who inhabit them have access to a wider range of amenities. This has been true since before the days of ancient Athens and Rome.

As the glittering riches of well-run and commercially-minded modern cities like Singapore remind us, in recent years the inherent dynamism of the great urban centres has allowed them to distance themselves from their surrounding areas at an ever faster pace. They have done so because they boast more brain power per square foot; in today’s knowledge-driven world, a good idea can be worth more than any amount of oil, grain or gold, as long as in the neighbourhood there are enough human resources and hard cash to enable whoever comes up with one to make the most of it.

Will this trend be reversed by the technology which lets people living in remote corners of the world communicate instantaneously with one another and work with others thousands of miles away as though they were in the same office? Some gurus have taken to predicting, either gloomily or with undisguised relish, that, thanks to the pandemic, cities could soon be deprived of most of their advantages and many major ones could run the risk of going the way of Detroit, which after having been one of the most prosperous in the world, quickly degenerated into a rubble-strewn wasteland. In the US, many would be delighted to see New York suffer a similar fate.

For Kirchnerites and many other Peronists, the possibility that big cities could soon be rendered obsolete by a combination of new-fangled technology and an old-fashioned plague must have its charms, but they are not prepared to sit round and wait for it to happen. In their view, the cultural, economic and political gap that separates Buenos Aires from the rest of the country has been there for far too long and they should do whatever it takes to eliminate it before the current government’s time in office has run out.

Their motives are nakedly personal. They would be willing to tolerate what they say is a sinister difference between the standard of living of the country’s capital, where according to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner potted ferns get more clean water than the unfortunates who live in La Matanza, and the grim wretchedness of parts of its hinterland, if they thought that porteños were decent people who could be relied on to support them with the appropriate enthusiasm, but that is something which, for what as far as they are concerned must be disgraceful reasons, most adamantly refuse to do. Instead of rallying behind Cristina or even her stand-in, Alberto Fernández, they keep voting for notorious oligarchs like Mauricio Macri and bland technocrats who get things done such as Horacio Rodríguez Larreta.

After coming to the conclusion that it could be worse than useless for them to try and woo the inhabitants of Buenos Aires by being nice to them, and convincing themselves it would be folly to allow Alberto to treat Rodríguez Larreta as a useful ally and thereby help him become even more popular in much of the country than he already is, Cristina and her friends have decided on a very different approach. They hope that by defunding the City government they will force the mayor to cut spending to the bone, and then some, which, they assume, should be enough to turn people against him and make him unelectable. If all goes according to plan, they will not only teach the uppity porteños a much-needed lesson, they will also reduce Rodríguez Larreta’s chances of following in Macri’s footsteps by becoming the country’s next president as, if the poll numbers are anything to go by, he well could.

For Cristina, her son Máximo and many members of her entourage, losing power in 2023 to a bunch of “neoliberals” would be an utter disaster. All are uncomfortably aware that, were it not for the lady’s stranglehold on the Senate and, since late last year, the presidency, by now she and Máximo would be behind bars for stealing a huge amount of public money when she and her adherents occupied the Pink House. They are understandably prepared to go to almost any lengths to save them and some others from such a miserable fate.

Their task has been made easier by the resentment many have always felt towards porteños. In this endeavour, they have been helped by the Covid pandemic. Because Buenos Aires was the first place to be attacked by the coronavirus, they blamed its inhabitants for introducing it by travelling on holiday to disease-ridden hellholes abroad and then refusing to take it seriously by permitting people to run up and down city streets and in the parks, allegedly infecting everyone they bumped into.

For a time, contagion rates in the City were higher than in the neighbouring province of the same name, but that satisfactory situation did not last long. Were Buenos Aires Province an independent country, it would now be up there with Peru and Belgium as one of the hardest hit per capita in the entire world, a disaster which can be attributed to the appalling conditions prevailing in the huge slum belt, pockmarked with makeshift shantytowns, which extends from just beyond the official limits of the city proper and has some enclaves inside it.

Will transferring resources from the City to the province, as the Kirchnerite government is busily doing, end up by making everybody better off? There is no reason to think it would. Levelling down may be egalitarian, but a country in which everybody, apart from leading politicians and their cronies, is desperately poor and unable to make use of whatever talents they have would be in no position to embark on a prolonged period of economic growth.

For Argentina to avoid what the Kirchnerites have in mind for her, the people in charge of her affairs would have to do everything possible to encourage those who are in a position to create wealth, most of whom happen to live in big cities like Buenos Aires, rather than punishing them for being different from most of their fellow countrymen, or for voting in a different manner. This is not understood by politicians who say they think porteños are parasites because they do not look after sheep, plant beans or go in for mining, but it would seem that in government circles such primitive views have become fairly common.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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