Tuesday, January 25, 2022

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-08-2018 11:17

Cleaning up a crumbling economy

Here, a former president who has been plausibly accused of stealing billions of dollars not only remains at large, but still has a chance of returning in triumph to the Pink House and stealing a few billion more.

If the results of its collective endeavours are anything to go by, Argentina’s political establishment must be among the planet’s worst because it managed to impoverish a country which had just about everything going for it. Seen from another angle, however, Argentine politicians are far better at what they do than most others; dubious as they achievements may be, many still enjoy the support of sizable segments of the population and, as the Peronist senators reminded us last week, they have come to take it for granted that, like the aristos in prerevolutionary France, they should not be expected to abide by the same rules as commoners.

In the UK not that long ago, a government minister who tried to wriggle his way out of a traffic offence committed years earlier by saying that his then wife had been at the wheel got sent to jail; here, a former president who has been plausibly accused of stealing billions of dollars not only remains at large, but still has a chance, albeit a remote one, of returning in triumph to the Pink House and stealing a few billion more. If the opinion polls are to be believed, that is what about a third of the electorate wants.

The Argentina political system - the real one, not the fictitious one dreamt up by constitutionalists - is a work of art. It is based on a corporatist arrangement by which parliamentarians, judges, tradeunion bosses and members of the business elite, plus their respective hangers-on, work together to share out the available loot so they can enjoy a far higher standard of living than the country’s economic performance would warrant. On occasion, they may fight among themselves, but if things seem to be getting really nasty, they close ranks. That is why so many well-placed individuals have reacted to the recent torrent of revelations by professing themselves shocked, shocked to learn that top businessmen had made a habit of winning public works contracts by bribing government officials.

To justify the pay increases they regularly vote themselves, politicians claim they represent democracy and that unless they are generously rewarded, only those who are already rich could afford to run for office; judges such as that Firbankian character Norberto Oyarbide before he confessed that spooks had strong-armed him to let Mr and Mrs Kirchner off the hook, warn that were it not for them bent politicians would never be brought to heel; trade-union heavies say they and only they stand up for the downtrodden workers; businessmen point out that they produce all the goods consumers crave. Meanwhile, the rest of society sinks ever deeper into poverty.

Dismantling the mutual aid system the interlocking elites have constructed will not be easy. A century of failure has made Argentina is a very conservative country in which people quite naturally cling to whatever they have for fear it will be taken away from them. They may clamour for change, but that does not mean they are prepared to put up with it if they suspect they will be on the receiving- end. That no doubt is why governments led by men and women who, before taking over, swore they would stop at nothing in their efforts to put an end to corruption, after a few days in office decided it would be better to leave things as they were.

Mauricio Macri seems determined to break with this tradition. Whether because he wants to be remembered as the man who rebooted Argentina or for some other reason, he says he will press on with what he calls “modernisation”. Can he do it without sending an already juddering economy into a tail-spin? That is a question troubling many people who cannot be accused of favouring corruption.

As the now famous notebooks in which a chauffeur kept tags on the suitcases full of dirty money he routinely delivered to Nestor Kirchner, his spouse Cristina and other top government officials remind us, much of the business elite collaborated with the men and women who for over ten years devoted themselves to hoovering up a fair proportion of the country’s resources. Under pressure or because they assumed all governments were venal and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise, they all broke what idealistic theorists insist was the law of the land.

To get at the crooked politicians he thinks are holding Argentina back, Macri has to treat those businessmen with equal severity even though they include some of his own relatives and friends. For obvious reasons, picking a fight with a big part of the business community just when the country is facing a prolonged economic drought strikes many as unwise, but he now has little choice in t

he matter. Macri hopes foreigners out there in New York, London and Frankfurt will be suitably impressed by his determination to rid Argentina of wrongdoers. Perhaps they will be, but that does not mean they will back him up with the cash he so desperately needs. Others, in Moscow and Peking, where the ethical concerns that worry the watchdogs who keep an eye on Wall Street shenanigans are deemed secondary, may see an opportunity to move in, but help from that quarter would be sure to create a large number of problems.

Unfortunately for Macri, it would appear that few people really believe the country’s many economic woes have much to do with corruption. Most assume it is merely a matter of seeing some money skimmed off by unscrupulous operators and overlook the harm that is done when individuals in cahoots with them make all the important economic decisions. It is reported that under Macri public infrastructure works cost about forty percent less than they did when Cristina was running the show. However, though such savings are significant, they are not immediately perceptible and so make little difference to the public mood.

If Argentina were enjoying an economic boom, most people would be more than happy to see dozens of greedy politicians, judges who rose quickly from rags to riches and their businessmen cronies get clapped behind bars. Many would attribute the good times to the government’s willingness to do whatever it takes to fight graft. But as the current economic outlook is bleak and seems likely to get even bleaker in the coming months, the many who on the whole prefer corrupt politicians to their rivals can tell themselves that Argentina is being ruined by moralistic men and women who subordinate public welfare to their own ethical obsessions.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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


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