Argentina’s politicians and a great many others have long taken it for granted that if all of them, bar a few obvious nut-cases with outlandish ideas, could only agree on some basic issues the country would soon overcome its many difficulties and start racing up the international league tables. To that end, a series of military and civilian governments invited not just politicians but also the representatives of corporate bodies such as business organisations, trade unions and religious entities, which until recently meant the Roman Catholic Church, to participate in talks which, they said, would end with all of them solemnly swearing to put aside their petty differences and work together so Argentina could start moving forward.
What they had in mind was a local equivalent of the “Moncloa pact” which was signed by Spanish leaders in October, 1977, two years after the death of General Francisco Franco, when their country was finally emerging from the dictatorship the caudillo “by the grace of God” had established after defeating his enemies in the brutal civil war that had raged in the late 1930s. That agreement to let bygones be bygones and concentrate on more immediate problems is credited with making possible Spain’s rapid transformation from an authoritarian backwater into the lively place that, despite its many difficulties, it is today.
Alas, all efforts by Argentina’s political leaders to come up with something like the “Moncloa Pact” have failed dismally. They certainly did not bring about any meaningful changes, perhaps because the choices seemed less stark than in Spain, And unlike the “mother country”, for geographical reasons Argentina has not had the option of joining what became the European Union and showed itself willing to spend huge amounts of money on development projects in Spain, as well as cooperating with political movements in order to promote democracy. Mercosur soon proved to be a most inadequate substitute.
After Franco, almost all educated Spaniards desperately wanted to become more “modern”, that is, more like their neighbours to the north. Many here say they too want to move with the times, but it would appear that most would much rather return to some largely mythical period in the past when people like them were better-off and expected to remain so. The truth is that, despite the prevalence of progressive rhetoric among the elites, Argentina remains an extraordinarily conservative country, one which is corporatist by nature in which no sector is willing to give up anything significant. This would not matter overmuch if, as happens in other parts of the world, politicians and those who take an interest in what they are up to shared an awareness of the need to adapt to changing circumstances, but this has rarely been the case.
With elections looming and a large number of people letting it be known that they are unimpressed by any of the leading candidates and dislike having to vote for whoever they think is the least bad of a rotten lot, there has been much talk about the need to reach a consensus. Mauricio Macri says opposition politicians should help him calm down the markets by making his “ten points” their own, Cristina Kirchner, who for what presumably are electoral purposes is going through a touchy-feely phase, wants a new “social contract”. Other Peronists say they too think the country should come together so everybody pulls in the same direction.
At first sight, all this may seem encouraging, but the chances of it producing anything worthwhile are slim. For Argentina to stop going downhill, as she has been doing for three-quarters of a century or more, she would have to break free from ways of thinking which have become so deeply ingrained that for most politicians, businessmen, trade unionists and churchmen they reflect simple common sense. If these individuals had their way, a local version of the Moncloa Pact would commit everyone to carry on much as before.
It is wonderfully easy to get people to agree that education is of vital importance, that economic growth is highly desirable, that poverty is a major problem and so on and so forth, but persuading many of them to agree on what should be done to reach the goals thus implied is anything but. All the dignitaries who attend consensus-building sessions are prone to make out that they already know how to overcome the difficulties being discussed and that were it not for the bullheadedness of the rest their own particular “solutions” would be put into practice. Trade union heavies and politicians talk much the same way as they did forty, fifty or more years ago. There is little willingness to accept that one’s own political movement shares any responsibility for the country’s dismal performance over the years.
Some consensuses are good. Others are not. What may be called the Argentine consensus, a mishmash of beliefs, prejudices and priorities that is shared by all Peronists, most Radicals, and many people attracted by smaller movements, is what has prevented the country from making good use of its abundant natural resources and its considerable, but dwindling, human capital.
If the results are anything to go by, neither the Peronists nor the Radicals are capable of handling the economy in a rational manner, but despite their respective records they are more interested in blaming the disasters they brought about on others than in asking themselves what they did wrong when in office.
Radical spokespeople continue to make out that Raúl Alfonsin’s government was undone by a “market coup”, not by his touching insistence that men and women who had already suffered enough under military rule should not be asked to make even modest sacrifices in order to get the economy on an even keel, while the Peronists attribute their repeated failures either to the wickedness of money-grubbing plutocrats and the hostility of people they still call gorillas or to the incompetence or worse of members of a rival faction of their own movement who made the unforgivable mistake of listening to pedantic foreign experts who are incapable of understanding that Argentines have their own political, social and economic culture which is as good as any other, if not far better.