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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 14-08-2021 07:27

Desperately looking for an exit

Though representatives of both sides are only too happy to tell us how much they detest their adversaries, they show little interest in examining their own record.

Politicians of all stripes are uncomfortably aware that, thanks largely to their collective efforts over the last three-quarters of a century, Argentina is trapped in a labyrinth from which she will not be able to escape unscathed. Whichever way she turns, she finds herself up against an insurmountable wall. To make her plight worse, supplies are running low and many are going hungry. All this would be unsurprising in a country being invaded by a remorseless foreign power, enduring a vicious civil war, or if it had been hit by an appalling natural disaster, but nothing like any of that has happened here. Foreign powers are more inclined to boycott Argentina than to invade her, politicians may be ill-tempered but so far they have yet to raise their own armies, and nature continues to be much kinder to her than to other parts of the world.

Disasters are easier to bear if they can be attributed to the machinations of malignant conspirators. Scapegoats serve a therapeutic purpose, which is why many governments, after choosing one, make it the target of mob violence. In Argentina, this option presents difficulties; politicians of all descriptions have contributed to the mess the country is in so claiming it is all the work of one party or movement makes little sense. Neither, for that matter, do attempts to pin the blame for the meltdown the country is experiencing on members of some social class, ethnic or religious group although, needless to say, plenty of people have tried to do so.

Politicians swear they are all for self-criticism and would like to see their adversaries do more of it, but that is about as far as most are prepared to go. Meanwhile, opposition leaders say the government is hell-bent on turning Argentina into Venezuela, an alleged aspiration which, naturally enough, horrifies them, and defenders of the government say the opposition is still dominated by that dreadful man Mauricio Macri, who is directly responsible for everything that is wrong with the country. However, though representatives of both sides are only too happy to tell us how much they detest their adversaries, they show little interest in examining their own record or, what would be more helpful, in explaining with any precision what they think should be done to make life a bit better for the country’s inhabitants.

Their reluctance to come clean is understandable. Proposals that may seem realistic from an economist’s point of view strike politicians who want to win an election as suicidal, and vice versa. There can be little doubt that public spending will have to come down sharply because the cupboard is bare, but slashing it overnight would deprive millions of men and women of the already meagre income they rely on. To prevent this from happening, Kirchnerites like that fiery lady Victoria Tolosa Paz want big companies to pay higher taxes, but that would be bound to make some of them flee the country and reduce still further the willingness to invest in the rest. Not for the first time, politics and economics are at loggerheads.

For some, making a virtue of necessity, which in their case means accepting that failure is inevitable and trying to make it look good, is the only available alternative. Taking a cue from Pope Francis, they tell themselves that poverty is better than consumerism, so the national character will be greatly improved when, as could soon happen, everyone has to make do with a pittance. Others think that letting the economy sink below the waves, as Venezuela’s did several years ago, would prove beyond any doubt that liberal capitalism is an abject failure.

Perhaps President Alberto Fernández had something like this in mind when he informed the world he was “a revolutionary” at heart. Does this mean that, like Che Guevara and so many other revolutionary “icons,” he dreams of dispatching entire social classes to death camps? Presumably not, but the allusion to his alleged belief in rebuilding society after demolishing it was disturbing if only because it suggests that he has reconciled himself to the idea that under his watch Argentina could become another failed state and it would therefore be best for him to make out that it was all part of some world-shaking plan.

With money running desperately short, the struggle to ensure that one’s own particular group is not left empty-handed is hotting up. Men and women who depend on hand-outs continue to stage big protest demonstrations in major cities to remind the politicians that the alternative to taking their needs into account would be a “social explosion.” Businessmen, big and small, keep reminding the government that they are the only people who are able to provide the sprawling state apparatus with financial resources and the working-age population with proper jobs so it would be very foolish to try and squeeze more money from them. And then there are the public-sector employees, some of whom perform essential tasks, whose demands simply cannot be overlooked.

Apart from pensioners and the small businessmen whose earnings have been steamrollered by the pandemic, who are most likely to lose out? The way things are going, they could be the many who are a drain on the economy but are politically valuable because they have plenty of votes. Even strong supporters of the government who belong to La Cámpora – an outfit that began as the youth wing of the Kirchnerite faction but, now that its members are older, has evolved into a disciplined organisation which seeks to take over much of the Peronist movement – agree that before too long many who have grown accustomed to living on hand-outs should be induced to find decent jobs. Community organisers think this means that the Kirchnerite high command has come to the conclusion that, once the votes have been counted, benefits will have to be phased out and replaced with honest toil.

This sounds reasonable, but it so happens that throughout the world the menial jobs most of them could conceivably do are fast disappearing. Here, reaching and then conserving full employment would require whoever is in charge to discourage the use of labour-saving technology for the foreseeable future. This was understood by the former president Eduardo Duhalde who, when governor of Buenos Aires Province several decades ago, wanted to keep automation at bay, but it was soon realised that, if maintained, such a policy would turn Argentina into an increasingly antiquated industrial museum. It can be argued that this is what in fact happened, but it was not the result of any conscious attempt to put the clock back, but of an apparently endless series of blunders.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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