Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
Mauricio Macri and members of his government say they are the future while their opponents are stuck in the past. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is determined to prove them right. From the moment she became president almost 10 years ago, her political strategy has been based on the notion that all her foes, even the tamest among them, are clones of the military men who ruled the country back in the 1970s. She pretty well said as much in 2008 when farmers, supported by large numbers of townsfolk, protested against a scheme to deprive them of much of the money they were getting from soybeans. Alarmed by what was going on, she said she was facing a coup led by a pack of “media generals.”
Cristina has continued in this vein ever since. As far as she is concerned, Macri’s government is a dictatorship and María Eugenia Vidal, whom by now she must loathe with all her heart, is a bloodthirsty general in drag. That is the main reason why she, along with her supporters and their left-wing allies, seized on the case of the missing tattooist Santiago Maldonado with such unabashed glee. They imagined, and some may even have believed, that at long last Macri had shown his true colours by ordering the Gendarmerie (Border Guards) to do away with a freedom fighter, in this way proving beyond any possible doubt that Argentina remains trapped in the 1970s.
They ensured that, for a couple of months, Maldonado would be the most talked about person in Argentina. When his body was found less than a week before polling day, politicians called an early halt to their campaigns. It was their way of letting us know they felt so griefstricken by what had happened to the young man – who had got involved with Mapuches who say are at war with Chile and Argentina – that they simply could not go on as usual. After the autopsy showed that there was no reason to think he had been shot or bludgeoned to death by some law-enforcement heavy but in all likelihood had drowned while trying to wade across a cold and often turbulent river, interest in the case fell away, just as it would have done had it turned out that the dead man had been a common tourist or an ordinary worker and therefore unworthy of nationwide attention.
The demos the Kirchnerites and their friends organised after Maldonado went missing were carefully choreographed remakes of the ones that quickly became routine when the demoralised military dictatorship began beating a retreat from power and there was little need to fear reprisals. Not only those who participated in those belated street protests but also their sons, daughters and, now, grandchildren, as well as many others, feel such nostalgia for those days that they refuse to move on. Telling them that times have changed, that Macri’s government has hardly anything in common with Jorge Rafael Videla’s and that its members would never dream of despatching death squads to deal with ‘subversives’ is evidently useless.
As we now know, the wall-to-wall coverage that was given to Maldonado’s disappearance and the frenzied speculation talking heads indulged in did not have much of an impact on the results of the election campaign. If anything, the furore may have helped the government cause a little by reminding voters that Cristina wanted people to behave as though Argentina were back to the 1970s with the military running the show and violent ‘resistance’ could be justified, but that would be about all. In any event, as the campaign approached its end, Cristina and her supporters seemed to realise that the attempt to pin Maldonado’s disappearance on Cambiemos (Let’s Change) would probably misfire, so they decided to adopt a subtler approach.
With the collaboration of Maldonado’s relatives and large numbers of journalists who lost no time in telling us that they knew what bereavement was like, they started treating Macri and other members of his government as though they were all coldhearted brutes who are unable to share other people’s pain. There was nothing particularly original about this. Living as we do in a touchy-feely age, in many countries it has long been fashionable to judge politicians by their apparent willingness to empathise with their presumably less fortunate fellow beings.
Once upon a time, politicians on the make could prove they really were human by kissing babies and hugging grandmothers only when within camera-range. Nowadays, the poor stressed-out souls cannot relax for a single moment; they have to take it for granted that they are under scrutiny 24/7 and that their every word and facial expression will be recorded and then weaponised – to use a word that has recently become fashionable – by enemies who are out to get them.
When all else fails, those who dislike Team Macri make the most of what they say are its lack of media skills. It was soon agreed that Patricia Bullrich, the Security minister, had behaved quite appallingly by putting in a good word for the Gendarmerie and saying she did not think it had made Maldonado “disappear.” Elisa Carrió also found herself in trouble for suggesting, before the autopsy had taken place, that the lad could still be alive and well in Chile and for remarking in passing that a frozen river would be cryogenic and keep bodies intact, as an urban legend would have it happened to the remains of Walt Disney which, in fact, were cremated soon after his death in December 1966. Afraid that such a disgraceful display of insensitivity would cost her and other Cambiemos candidates precious votes, Elisa said she was terribly sorry and swore she felt as upset as everybody else when told that Maldonado had died. She had to do this because – as Queen Elisabeth was made to know in the weeks that followed th death of Princess Diana – in this day and age any public figure thought to be cold and distant is liable to get put in the stocks and pelted by an angry mob.