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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 12-09-2020 10:30

The cracks keep widening

People the world over are getting more irascible by the day, and the unease so many feel is making governments everywhere nervous.

People the world over are getting more irascible by the day. As well as being forced to lead furtive lives that not that long ago they would have thought suitable only for criminals on the run, they must worry about their future and that of their families. The unease so many feel is making governments everywhere nervous. If they step up efforts to stop people getting within spitting distance of one another, they will be berated for trampling on civil liberties and destroying the economy; if they rely on the common sense of those living in their jurisdiction, they will be treated as mass murderers.

As yet, no country has fallen apart because of the virus, but some, among them the United States, have seen already existing splits widen dangerously. And, as might have been predicted, the same is happening in Argentina where, even before the virus struck, the government was finding it hard to resist the temptation to exploit the gap separating Buenos Aires City from the enormous slum belt in the homonymous province that grew to its present size because millions of people from poorer parts of the interior, and from neighbouring countries, found its relative wealth and the opportunities it offered irresistibly tempting. They wanted some of it and, for nakedly political reasons, the Kirchnerite government is determined to help them.

The rebellion by the Buenos Aires Province police gave them the chance to tighten the screws on the city and, while about it, punish City Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta for getting too popular. To pay off the cops, who to press their case had surrounded his retreat in Olivos, President Alberto Fernández decided to make the porteños foot the bill.

Of course, Argentina is by no means the only country in which a policeman’s lot is far from being a happy one. They are disliked in much of the world; their role in enforcing the lockdowns has done nothing to endear them to people who are averse to being pushed around. No doubt this contributed to the mayhem in the United States, where angry mobs want to “defund” all the police forces because in the view of the “Black Lives Matter” folk who are behind the “largely peaceful” riots, they are “structurally racist.”

Here, the situation is very different. Though many people have little love for the police who too often have proved trigger-happy and are notoriously corrupt, hardly any think it would be a good idea to replace them with social workers as, it would seem, activists want to do in cities like Portland and Minneapolis. In any event, in Buenos Aires Province, police departments have long been “defunded” to such an extent that squad cars are liable to run out of petrol if the cops use them to try and catch the vicious thieves riding motorbikes who, like the highwaymen of the past, can make a quick getaway from the scene of the crimes they commit. It would appear that, to prevent this from happening too often, in many places they have been ordered to save money by letting them escape. 

While some policemen have been accused of taking into account the ethnic origins of the individuals they have to confront, few people apart from the well-known trouble-maker Luis D’Elia think Argentina is seeing a racial conflict between oppressed “blacks” and wealthy “whites” similar to the one left-wing ideologues say is raging in the US. However, given the evident desire of Alberto, his boss Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kiciloff to wage an increasingly bitter campaign against the “opulent” Federal Capital, they could soon adopt D’Elia’s way of looking at things.

The police rebellions we are currently witnessing have more to with hard cash than anything else. The men and women who day after day put their lives on the line to protect their fellow citizens from the bloodthirsty criminals who prey on them earn barely enough to keep body and soul together; the pay increase they have just been awarded by Kiciloff will not make much of a difference. Luckily for the rest of the population, most are well aware that, given the truly terrible state of the national economy, it would be unreasonable for them to expect much more, but even so the only thing surprising about the protests that have been roiling Buenos Aires Province is that they did not start many months ago.

As well as being underpaid, the Buenos Aires Province police have good reason to feel underappreciated by both the provincial and the national governments, which include people, among them Security Minister Sabina Frederic (an anthropologist who, like many who regard themselves as progressives, would rather spend her time theorising about the “root causes” of crime than in dealing with its daily manifestations), are prone to regard them as mercenaries hired by the bourgeoisie to defend an unjust social order. 

For people like Ms Frederic, criminals are victims of a social disease, so it is wrong to treat them in an unkindly fashion. The godfather of this particular movement is the former Supreme Court justice Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni; according to the many who loathe him, it is thanks to his influence that some local judges interpret the law in what, to those who are less inclined to sympathise with armed robbers, murderers, rapists and the like, is a ridiculously lenient fashion. When the pandemic was getting underway, hundreds of dangerous criminals were released from jail on the pretext of saving them from the virus, but the move caused so much dismay not only in well-off neighbourhoods but also in the very poorest, that the government decided it would be better to keep most of them inside.

Just what President Alberto really thinks about all this is anyone’s guess. Is he tough on crime, as much of the citizenry want him to be, or does he blame it on inequality and believes that law-breakers have had a raw deal and deserve to be coddled? Over the years the man has expressed such a wide variety of opinions that it is impossible to decide which are genuine and which are not. His mentality is that of a lawyer who does the best for whoever happens to be his client and he is therefore more than capable of eloquently defending a course of action he condemned with similar fervour a few hours earlier. Today his principal client is Cristina; as she thinks it is in her interest to keep the country as divided as possible, Alberto can be relied upon to do his utmost to ensure it remains that way.   

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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