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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 14-12-2019 11:52

In the land of make believe

Fernández says the better off should shoulder the bulk of the sacrifices that will have to be made to save the country from an economic collapse as disastrous as Venezuela’s. He could start by ordering big pay cuts for legislators and members of his government.

Reconciliation is in the air. Argentines have allegedly grown tired of all that endless squabbling and, after embracing one another as a few days ago did the outgoing and incoming presidents, they want to discuss their differences. If any remain, in a friendly and respectful manner.

President Alberto Fernández spoke for many when, in his opening address to the Legislative Assembly, he invited all his compatriots to close ranks in a spirit of “unity,” “brotherhood and solidarity” and, above all, to put an end to what here is called “la grieta,” the crack, crevice or fissure which separates die-hard Kirchnerites from the many who loathe them.

The idea that, were all Argentines to join forces by letting bygones be bygones and move in the same direction everything would turn out well, certainly has its appeal. But, alas, it is wildly unrealistic.

This would be the case even if the divisions that troubled people most reflected straightforward ideological preferences, like the ones pitting free-marketeers against socialists. Unfortunately, what Fernández insists we must overcome is something far more rudimentary. For it to vanish, everyone would have to agree that, while in office, neither Néstor Kirchner nor his spouse, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, contrived to get enviably rich by stealing huge amounts of money from the public purse.

President Fernández swears he is convinced that all the many accusations (backed by cartloads of evidence) that have been levelled against the Kirchners are false, fake news concocted by crooked judges, prosecutors and journalistic mercenaries. Now he makes out that he wants the rest of the country to come to the same conclusion because, as he well knows, if it were not for the vicepresident’s problems with what is assumed to be the law, the outlook facing his government, and the country, would be far brighter than it currently is.

Unless he is playing a cunning game designed to catch Cristina and her faithful followers off-guard, what Fernández has in mind looks a lot like one of Plato’s “noble lies,” those appealing “myths” which are invented by rulers who think they will have a positive effect on society by helping to make it more cohesive. Such a strategy might work after a fashion in backward countries run by ruthless dictatorships, but despite well over half a century of decline, Argentina is still far from being one of them. As was made clear in the final stages of the election campaign, a considerable proportion of her inhabitants take it for granted that Cristina and her cronies were on the take and would like to see her and the rest of them clapped in jail.

What is more, many fear that if the word gets round that the government thinks politicians with the right opinions should be entitled to loot the country for all it is worth and it would be most unpatriotic to complain, there would be little to stop the new lot from degenerating into little more than a gang of thieves. As well as being morally offensive, corruption leads directly to the systematic misuse of scant resources. Over the years, the habit of farming out public works to individuals deemed worthy because of their closeness to the powerful or their willingness to pay bribes has done much to speed Argentina’s slide towards the bottom of the international league tables.

Of course, a cynic will argue that all societies are built around “noble lies” or, at the very least, carefully selected omissions and exaggerations: pointing these out has given rise to a debunking industry which flourishes in most developed countries. This may be so, but Argentina’s most cherished illusions have proved to be particularly harmful. Perhaps the most pernicious is the belief that the country, blessed as it is with a noteworthy share of the world’s natural resources, is far richer than it has been for a very long time. Politicians of almost all stripes cling to it because otherwise it would be impossible for them to justify the high cost of their activities.

Fernández says the better off should shoulder the bulk of the sacrifices that will have to be made to save the country from an economic collapse as disastrous as Venezuela’s. He could start by doing what the people in charge of Lebanon and Chile have recently proposed by ordering big pay cuts for legislators and members of his government. Seeing that Argentina’s GDP per capita is less than a quarter of that of the US, which is hardly a model of social equity, it would be reasonable for deputies, senators, judges, government ministers and the like to make do with a corresponding percentage of what their North American counterparts take home. If, as is likely, the economic situation gets even worse in the coming months, many people will demand that they do just that.

There are plenty of other agreeable illusions floating around. Fernández and his Education Minister Nicolás Trotta attribute the wretched state of most public and private schools – which if the latest PISA results are anything to go by are far worse than those of any country in the developed world – to a supposedly widespread reluctance to let poor kids study properly and the previous government’s refusal to cuddle up to the teachers’ unions. Like many other people, they take it for granted that, given half a chance, the nation’s youngsters, spurred on by teachers devoted to learning, would do their utmost to catch up with their Northern European and East Asian contemporaries.

If only things were that simple. Argentina’s shortcomings in education, as well as in so many other areas, have their origin in a cultural change which took place about halfway through the 20th century when, egged on by politicians and others, more and more people came to believe that whatever struck them as being wrong was always someone else’s fault. The practical consequences of the individual and collective self-pity thus encouraged have been disastrous.

As well as wrecking the economy, the refusal to face fully up to facts rather than treating them as evidence of a cosmic conspiracy to do Argentines down, has, by giving power to politicians who are more interested in exploiting the country’s ills than in curing them, led to poverty on an overwhelming scale. This suggests that, for Argentina to recover before it is too late, she would have to undergo a cultural change of a kind defenders of the old order, among them President Fernández, are determined to prevent.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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