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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-09-2022 02:55

Rumblings from below

The botched attempt to assassinate Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has encouraged fears that Argentina could see the return of political violence.

As we are constantly being reminded, most young people in Argentina live in dire poverty, have at best a rudimentary education and know perfectly well that, unless they somehow manage to move to a more promising country, their personal prospects will continue to be decidedly grim. Many seek solace in drugs and mass gatherings in which they can meet others who share their resentment and the understandable contempt for those they think responsible for the world they live in. Even if the economy does somehow recover quickly from its current woes and starts growing at a rapid rate, few of them would have the skills and aptitudes needed for them to share the benefits. 

It is fortunate that, up to now, politics has had little interest for such people; they know it will not provide them with what they are after. In some cases, a desire to hit back at society finds an outlet in street crime; few days go by without someone getting shot dead by youthful thugs out to deprive him or her of a car, a bicycle or even a mere pair of running shoes or a mobile phone. Even so, despite the generalised nervousness that is caused by the awareness that at any moment one could fall victim to a pitiless teenager with a gun, politicians have been able to go about their business without having to surround themselves with heavily armed bodyguards.

Could this be about to change? The botched attempt by a man called Fernando Sabag Montiel to assassinate Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has encouraged fears that the country could see the return of political violence. By blaming what happened on opposition malice, journalistic “hate speech” and the willingness of public prosecutors to demand that Cristina pay a stiff price for the crimes they quite plausibly say she committed during her previous spells in office, government spokespeople came dangerously close to legitimising revenge attacks and thereby setting off a series of tit-for-tat killings. Indeed, the suggestion that someone had Mauricio Macri in his sights and was looking for a sponsor willing to give him money induced President Alberto Fernández to adopt a less belligerent posture. 

For almost 40 years, Argentina has been relatively free of political violence. This was not, as some would have it, because the horrors of the “dirty war,” which brought an end to a period in which the murder of prominent public figures had become a routine occurrence, made people value peace more than before but because, as happened in many other parts of the world, left-wing revolutionary fervour lost its appeal as a result of the failure of the regimes it brought about.

It is easy to forget that in the 1960s and 1970s, a considerable number of persuasive theorists argued that violence against the established order was necessary because it would help make the world a better, less capitalistic place and usher in a new age of social justice. Needless to say, such preaching was countered by those who had no desire to be guinea pigs in yet another grizzly revolutionary experiment; they soon came up with reasons why people in favour of one should be done away with. However, neither those who thought progress would emerge from the barrel of a gun, nor their equally bloodthirsty opponents had many successors. To the surprised relief of many, political violence suddenly became unfashionable. That, far more than good police work or the efforts of intelligence agencies, was what greatly reduced the frequency of assassinations and other politically-motivated crimes.

There is no reason to think Sabag Montiel, Brenda Uliarte and their associates possessed anything resembling a blueprint for a more equitable society which people like them would find congenial. It would seem that whatever links they had with fringe political organizations were tenuous; if anything, they are nihilists with a taste for heavy-metal Nazi emblems but little interest in much else apart, presumably, from the candy floss they hawked on city streets and used to give themselves cover when they approached the building where Cristina has an expensive flat.

If they had a utopia, it was even vaguer than the ones which were sketched out half a century ago by the ideologues who did so much to turn thousands of bright and (had it not been for them and the times they lived in) inoffensive youngsters into ruthless terrorists. What they do have, however, are plenty of reasons to feel badly let down by the society in which they live. They may not know what could be done to improve it, but much the same can be said about the country’s leading politicians or, for that matter, their counterparts in the rest of the world who also must face problems arising from the lack of opportunities for young people who are not exceptionally talented or fortunate.

As has always been the case, what many men and women want is to be taken into account, to be seen making some kind of mark, however slight, on society and be recognised at least by members of their peer group. To achieve this, some strive to distinguish themselves in an activity which commands respect. Others commit crimes which cannot be attributed to straightforward greed and therefore demand an explanation. This no doubt is why, not only in the United States, frustrated young people are prone to turn to mass murder; killing at random children trapped in a school will at most make you notorious for a while because so many have already done the same, but for some that is more than enough. It means that you will be remembered, as Sabag Montiel most certainly would have been had the gun he was holding gone off. Though he will not be entirely forgotten, his place in the history books is likely to be far smaller; a footnote rather than a paragraph or more.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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