Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
To the relief of the many who had resigned themselves to seeing the country go into meltdown yet again and the great disappointment of some who had relished the prospect, last week pollsters reported that Mauricio Macri’s approval rating had recovered almost all the ground it had lost since May when the currency market suddenly went haywire after receiving a mild jolt from the Fed. He still enjoys the approval of 40 percent or so of those consulted, which by contemporary Latin American standards is not at all bad.
Perhaps the Cabinet shuffle helped, though it is hard to see why, as surely did the fear brought about the growing awareness that Argentina is teetering on the edge of a cliff in a world that is getting periodically shaken by earthquakes and a political convulsion could make her topple over.
For those Peronists who assumed that, since Macri was already on the way out, one of their number would soon be moving into the Pink House and – what from their point of view was even more enticing – would get hold of the purse strings, the mere possibility that, despite everything, the electorate would prefer to let the Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition remain in power rather than entrusting the country’s fate to the only available alternative is a sobering thought, especially for members of what Macri’s supporters call the “rational” wing of the movement. Most of these seem to have come to the conclusion that they should change their ways in order to adapt to the new circumstances.
By the rules the Peronists have always played by, any government that is rash enough to insinuate that it would like to cut public spending and, in order to make its intentions clear, lets the International Monetary Fund audit the country’ accounts, is asking to be turfed out, but, if the pollsters are right, it would appear that many out there think things should be done differently. Strange as the notion may seem to devotees of the old populist religion, there are signs that more and more people feel that, if nothing else, Macri and his ministers deserve credit for doing their best to handle the economy in a responsible fashion.
In much of the world, electorates understand that, as Voltaire and many others have been warning us for centuries, perfection is the enemy of good. When voting, they choose what strikes them as the lesser evil while fully appreciating that much of what it eventually does once in office will not be to their liking. Something similar seems to be happening here. The present government is an easy target for those who enjoy taking pot-shots at whoever is in power, but that does not mean the country would be better off if Macri’s lot ended up as did so many previous non-Peronist administrations.
Macri is not an exciting orator. The consensus is that when it comes to communicating with honest folks he is distinctly sub-par. It is hard to imagine him enrapturing crowds of doting admirers with his eloquence. Nonetheless, despite his many failings in this department, in comparison with his rivals he does seem to be a sensible fellow and that, given Argentina’s history, should be more than enough.
All too often, millions of people have allowed themselves to be beguiled by demagogues who told them they knew how to solve all the country’s many problems because, unlike their rivals, they really cared for their fellow beings and would do anything to help them. However, as was made unpleasantly clear time and time again by what actually happened, such individuals –among them Juan Domingo Perón, Raúl Alfonsín, Carlos Menem and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – proved to be far better at winning power than in making good use of it once they had it in their hands.
Of these, the most honest by far was Alfonsín. His attempt to put the economy on the right track failed because, as he memorably confessed before leaving amid a hyperinflationary firestorm, he neither “knew, wanted or was able” to do what would have been necessary for him to succeed. The key word here is “wanted”; ignorance or weakness may be forgiven, but a politician is in the wrong business if he refuses on principle to take tough measures when the situation demands it. He should take up preaching, academic life or journalism.
Like most politicians, Macri wants to have it both ways, hence his adherence to what he calls “gradualism,” a Fabian approach to the drastic reforms he knows the country needs and which he seems determined to carry out even though his government does not have a parliamentary majority. He enjoys the warm support of the solvent part of the “international community”, which in its way is helping to bankroll his efforts, but he still needs to win over those opposition factions that by and large share his economic views but think it is in their interest to pretend that, applied by them, nobody would be inconvenienced by the measures they would take.
When the run on the peso started, many such individuals went on the attack in the hope it would increase their own popularity, but it would appear that the only politician thus benefitted was Cristina. This suggests that people are more willing to punish unabashed opportunism that used to be the case.
Unfortunately for ambitious opposition leaders, these days there are fewer plausible options than was once supposed. Until a couple of decades ago, it was possible to argue, as many clever men and women did, that a democratic socialist arrangement would be far more efficient, and far more equitable, than any conceivable liberal capitalist one. Since then, all efforts to prove them right in European countries have come to nought.
If there is an alternative, it is the one that has been patented by the Chinese dictatorship which combines “neoliberal” economics with highly illiberal social and political practices. Were Argentina to suffer yet another collapse attributable to the politicians’ inability to get the economy to generate the resources needed for it to meet what most feel are legitimate expectations, whoever takes over might find the Chinese example tempting. Were that to happen, the consequences would surely be disastrous for a great many people, but given the lack of feasible alternatives, by then even a return to authoritarianism could look more attractive than anything democratic politicians would be able to offer.