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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 03-06-2023 06:03

Let them eat abstractions

Alberto’s successor had better come up with some appealing slogans and as exciting a narrative as those deployed by his tyrannical friends.

When confronted by dictators, democratic leaders can either berate them for behaving like the criminals most of them are or, while expressing some reservations about their way of doing things, do their best to get along with them for practical reasons. Were Venezuela rich and relatively powerful, Alberto Fernández’s willingness to cosy up to Nicolás Maduro would make sense, but it so happens that his country is in even worse shape than Argentina.

Why, then, did the president go out of his way to be extra nice to an individual who despises basic human rights as much as did Jorge Rafael Videla and his Chilean counterpart, Augusto Pinochet, and who, as if that were not more than enough, took it upon himself to complete the economic demolition job started by his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez, that has turned his oil-rich country into a poverty-stricken backwater from which millions of people have fled?

One answer to that question is that Alberto wanted to please his standoffish patroness, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a man whose obsession with Jair Bolsonaro seems to have made him swing towards what in Latin America is considered to be the hard left which, of course, has much in common with the extreme right.

Another could be that Alberto wants to provide himself with some ideological armour. Along with many fellow Kirchnerites, he is presumably aware that the only possible way to make people overlook the damage brought about by governments like the one he formally heads because of their attachment to outlandish theories is to pretend that they are engaged in an immense revolutionary endeavour that at some future date will benefit humankind. As far as their Cuban mentors are concerned, absolutely everything, including the lives of any who dare criticise them and, needless to say, the material welfare of the populace, should be sacrificed in the name of the “revolution.”

For a surprisingly large number of people, abstractions like this are all-important. Over the centuries, many millions have happily gone to their deaths fighting for causes later generations would find incomprehensible. Until not that long ago, in the West it was as normal as it still is in the Greater Middle East to die for one’s particular religious cult. As belief in the Christian deity faded, its place was taken by Fascism, Nazism and Communism. Variants of all three are still with us, with Communism enjoying something of a comeback in Western academic circles among bright men and women unimpressed by, or ignorant of, a body count that already exceeds a hundred million.

Luckily for Argentina, relatively few people have been attracted by the savage fanaticism that afflicted other countries, including some, such as Germany in the 1930s, which could plausibly claim to have the best-educated citizenry on earth. On occasion, Peronists claim they are responsible for this by offering malcontents of all descriptions watered-down versions of the intoxicating brews that were available elsewhere in the world. There is something in this, but though Peronism, even in its original dictatorial phase, never plumbed the horrific depths that were reached by the European creeds that helped inspire it, this did not prevent it from doing enormous harm to the country by installing the corrupt corporatist economic model that is now disintegrating.

Most, but by no means all, members of the “political class” and those who take a serious interest in their activities know that much will have to change for Argentina to get back on track. A majority seems to recognise, albeit in a resigned manner, that a future government will have to balance the budget, make the country live within its means, crank out far less paper money or its digital equivalents, reduce the tax burden, and so on and so forth, all of which until very recently were thought to be typically right-wing demands.

However, while such proposals seem eminently sensible, putting them into effect in an increasingly impoverished country in which a big chunk of the populace has grown accustomed to living off government largesse will be anything but easy. What is more, militant Kirchnerites and their leftist allies have already started warning us that, unless the benefits keep flowing, they will encourage those deprived of them to fight back in a very violent fashion.   

Just how a hypothetical “centre-right” or “libertarian” government would then react is anybody’s guess. In most other parts of the world, it could call on the police or, in an emergency, the military, to keep order, but here the police forces are unreliable and the armed forces would surely be most reluctant to lend a hand even if they did manage to scrape together enough resources to enable them to do so.

Given the circumstances, a “grand coalition” on the German model in which many Peronists could participate would be better placed to face up to what appears to be coming our way. This is what the presidential hopeful Horacio Rodríguez Larreta had in mind when he said that a future government would need the initial backing of about 70 percent of the electorate. However, in that case the remaining 30 percent would in all likelihood get fired up by Kirchnerites who are waiting impatiently for the day when they are no longer responsible for handling a grotesquely misshapen economy and will therefore feel free to mount an all-out attack on those who are unfortunate enough to inherit the unholy mess they will have left behind.   

To justify such negative behaviour, they can be expected to use arguments similar to those deployed by Maduro and others who apparently believe that their overall vision is so superior to any conceivable alternative that everything else – liberty, food, life itself, the lot – should be sacrificed to it. If they have a motto, it is “let them eat abstractions.”

Absurd as this may seem, despite their cruelty and their abject failure to improve the lives of all but a tiny minority, it is on this basis that the Cuban regime has survived for more than 60 years and the Venezuelan for almost a quarter of a century. Though Argentina seems likely to avoid suffering a similar fate, the outlook is getting darker by the day, which is one reason Alberto’s successor had better come up with some appealing slogans and as exciting a narrative as those deployed by his tyrannical friends.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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