Friday, December 8, 2023

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 05-11-2021 18:00

The moment of truth is fast approaching

In just over a week, we shall know how much support Alberto’s quarrelsome and ramshackle administration has managed to retain.

Argentina’s politicians have spent many years arguing bitterly over who did most to ruin the country. They are still at it. In the election campaign that is nearing its end, the Kirchnerites have continued to blame Mauricio Macri for all the country’s many ills, while opposition leaders have contented themselves with gloating over the government’s evident inability to get anything right. While all this makes for entertaining sound-bites, it tells us nothing about what members of the current government or the people who expect to form the next one think should be done to save Argentina from the unhappy fate that is rushing towards her. It is as though all candidates and their backers agreed that proposing practical “solutions” for the country’s problems was something that should be put off until a consensus had been reached about just when it took a wrong turn.

Politicians’ reluctance to come up with believable policy statements is easy to understand. Any serious one would have to take into account a large number of extremely unpleasant facts; among other things, reserves are fast running out, inflation is rapidly picking up steam, such industrial enterprises as still exist find it hard to survive, which leaves farming as the only activity capable of competing in world markets, educational standards have plummeted, in government circles corruption is seen as legitimate, the obese and highly expensive public sector has long been used to give jobs to individuals no private company would dream of employing, a plethora of acquired rights makes meaningful change almost impossible. Clearing up this quite appalling mess would be extraordinarily difficult, so it is not surprising that politicians of all persuasions would much rather attack their rivals than say what in their view should be done.

As a result, Argentina does not have a genuine government, President Alberto Fernández,  Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the rest of them are far more interested in making the most of the power they have than in ruling the country. Opposition leaders like Horacio Rodríguez Larreta do appear to be more interested in giving the country a proper government, but they too seem prone to underestimate grossly the scale of the problems they would confront were a Kirchnerite implosion to leave them as the only senior politicians still standing.

In just over a week, we shall know how much support Alberto’s quarrelsome and ramshackle administration has managed to retain. Some think it will have managed to claw back more votes than it got in the primaries; others, impressed by the panic-stricken way it reacted to that setback, suspect it could be repudiated by as much as three-quarters of the national electorate. And then? In theory, the Kirchnerites could remain in office for over two more years, but as the country’s situation worsens, as it is certain to do, they would in all likelihood find themselves up against a series of violent “social explosions” of the kind pessimists have long enjoyed predicting.

Much will depend on Alberto, who is surely sick and tired of getting bossed around by Cristina, who treats him with undisguised contempt. If he makes full use of the powers vested in the presidency, he could try to replace the Kirchnerite leg of the government tripod – the others belong to him and to Sergio Massa – with one borrowed from the opposition alliance which, should it win big on November 14, would henceforward run the show. However, opposition leaders have lately been making it known that they are averse to sharing power with the likes of Massa and Alberto, let alone Cristina, because that would make them in part responsible for the many nasty measures circumstances would oblige the government, any government, to take in the coming months. For sound political reasons, the opposition would much rather let the Kirchnerites pay the full price for the catastrophe they have done so much to bring about.

Though the opposition’s unwillingness to help save Alberto’s government from the consequences of its own blunders may make good political sense, it would also amount to a dereliction of duty by ambitious men and women who are more interested in their own personal fortunes than in the wellbeing of their country. Up to now, Macri, Rodríguez Larreta, María Eugenia Vidal and the rest of them have been able to limit themselves to reflecting on what they did wrong when they were in office in the belief that they would have plenty of time in which to put together a plan of action, should the electorate decide to give them a second chance, but things have now speeded up. Instead of being granted slightly more than two years in which to come up with detailed proposals to be put into effect immediately, they could be asked to take over in a matter of months or even weeks, so they had better prepare themselves.

Argentina is facing a dangerous emergency. With an agreement with the International Monetary Fund or without one, whoever is in power will have to slash public spending to the bone and do whatever it takes to lure investments because the only alternative to such policies would be a Venezuelan-style meltdown. Could cost-cutting measures be combined with relief programmes similar to those undertaken by countries emerging from devastating wars? Something on such lines would have to be undertaken to prevent Argentina from becoming a “failed state,” doomed to subsist on whatever charitable folk abroad see fit to give her.

Some politicians and businessmen take an optimistic view of the future because, as they point out, the country still has a great many things going for it; lots of raw materials, farmland and a population which, despite everything, still includes large numbers of very talented men and women. But this has always been the case and, as events have shown us, it is terribly easy to squander such presumably objective assets. The truth is that without good political leadership, they are worse than useless because the confidence they inspire makes governments think they can get away with just about anything.

We could soon know the answer to an overwhelming question: does a society whose political establishment has brought it to the very brink of absolute ruin possess enough political resources to stop it going over the edge, and then put it on a course comparable to the one which has been followed by dozens of others, most of them less well-endowed than Argentina, on their journey towards a fair degree of prosperity? If such political resources really do exist, the time has come to mobilise them. If they do not, the country’s tragic fate will be studied by scholars who, like Edward Gibbon, see history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”

James Neilson

James Neilson

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


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