Eduardo Duhalde, the Peronist who served as caretaker president after the economy crumbled in late 2001, last week managed to raise the hackles of politicians of all stripes by hinting that the situation facing the country was so dire that the next year’s midterm elections would in all likelihood find themselves replaced by a coup d’état.
Duhalde was not thinking of a civilian coup like the one that removed president Fernando de la Rúa and put him in the Pink House, but an old-fashioned military takeover. According to him, when it comes to military dictatorships Argentina is world champion. This is an exaggeration: in much of sub-Saharan Africa generals, colonels, captains and the like have been seizing power or losing it on a regular basis, with Sudan seeing 15 coups since 1950, while here almost two generations have gone by since the last military dictator called it quits.
As Duhalde is well aware, half a century ago it would have been reasonable enough to expect that, in circumstances as alarming as they currently are, the Armed Forces would be asked to step in and take charge in order to save the country from itself. They would do so with the tacit approval of most politicians because that was the way things worked in this part of the world. In those benighted days it was taken for granted that civilian governments, whether Peronist or Radical, would make such an unholy mess of the economy that sooner or later the “military party,” as many called it, would surreptitiously be invited to do whatever it would take to restore a semblance of sanity.
Over the years, this perverse arrangement proved enormously harmful to the political establishment, the Armed Forces and just about everybody else. In addition to giving populist politicians an excuse to be even more irresponsible that they would otherwise have been because they could assume that, once the men in uniform were in power, their behaviour would infuriate so many people that own failure to run the country properly would be forgotten, they allowed the military chiefs to wage a “dirty war” against the terrorist organisations infesting the country without feeling obliged to respect anything resembling the rule of law. As very few politicians, apart from Raúl Alfonsín, dared criticise them for the methods they employed while they were about it, the military chiefs never imagined that after losing power many would be put on trial and jailed for life. Had the Peronist Ítalo Argentino Lúder won the 1983 elections, they would have had little to worry about.
Does Duhalde feel nostalgia for the now distant days in which the military alternative to civilian rule was regarded as not just viable but perfectly normal? If he does, it must be because he is convinced that unless the more sensible Peronists join forces with the mainstream opposition to form a broad-based national government, the country will be devastated by the onrushing crisis which is shaping up to be far worse than the one he faced after he was sworn in as president in January 2002. He thinks that what is coming towards us is too big for any single political faction to handle.
His gloomy view is easy to understand. The damage being done by the lockdown to an economy which was already heading for the knackers’ yard long before the pandemic reached Argentina has been so great that millions who until then had managed to scrape by have been pushed into extreme poverty and many more have good reason to fear that, before it is all over, they will join them. The pessimism they feel is largely due to the suspicion that the government never had any idea of what could or should be done to get an economy which fell into a deep coma almost 10 years ago moving again. Blaming everything on Mauricio Macri, as President Alberto Fernández does whenever he is asked about his plans for the future, does not amount to an economic policy.
Covid-19 is spreading at an accelerating rate not only in Greater Buenos Aires but also in many other parts of the country. Though the local strains seem less lethal than those which tore through much of Europe several months ago, the death toll is rising at an unnervingly rapid rate. This is happening over five months after the government suddenly imposed one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, trapping many people wherever they happened to be as dozens of provinces and hundreds of municipalities tried to seal themselves off from the rest of the world by refusing to let “unessential” outsiders come in.
When military dictatorship was a standard option, people imagined that, if the worst came to the worst and an elected government turned out to be hopelessly incompetent, they could always resign themselves to a period of brisk authoritarian rule which, on the whole, most found tolerable enough. Now there is no such alternative. Like it or not, until further notice the country’s politicians will continue to provide it with all its governments, but unless they get their act together we could well see a repeat performance of what happened just before Duhalde took over and angry crowds roamed the streets shouting abuse at the entire political class. If opinion polls taken at the time are to be believed, in those days a fair number of people agreed that it would be better to hire a team of foreign technocrats to run the economy than to let the local politicos carry on as usual.
Alberto was elected president last October because it was believed he would head a broad-based middle-of-the road government. As election day approached, many who had voted for him in the mock primaries several weeks earlier began to have their doubts, which is why they decided to vote for Macri. For a few months, it did appear that Alberto would be his own man, but his authority started wilting as soon as it became evident that he would go to almost any lengths to avoid clashing with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a lady whose priorities are strictly personal. This clearly worries him, but his attempts to look tough by snarling at Macri only make it harder for him to get along with opposition leaders who, for the country’s sake, want to lend him a hand. Much as he may dislike the idea, he could soon need their support. Military rule may no longer be an alternative, but chaos most certainly is.