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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 22-08-2020 09:58

The opposition takes to the streets

These days demonstrators are well-behaved men and women who wear facemasks not for fear of getting recognised by the cops, but because they have no desire to get infected by the coronavirus.

Some opposition leaders seem still to find it hard to come to terms with the fact that in October last year the electorate turned against them and booted them out of office. In the following months, Mauricio Macri, María Eugenia Vidal and others kept a low profile and tried to work out what had gone wrong. But they are far from being the only people who would like to think that less than a year ago the citizenry made a serious mistake by voting the way it did. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Alberto Fernández and their allies have proved to be equally reluctant to pay proper attention to their own failure to get 50 percent of the votes, with the Macri-Miguel Ángel Pichetto ticket receiving more than 40 percent. Given the dire economic circumstances, it was a remarkable performance.

What is more, there are good reasons to suspect that, had a second round been held a month or so later, Macri – helped by the votes that had gone to Roberto Lavagna and other candidates wary of the Kirchnerites – could well have scraped home despite his many failings not because he was anything special but because much of the country did not want to see Cristina and her friends back running the show.

Since taking over in December, Alberto and Cristina have treated the opposition as though it represented an insignificant minority of heartless “neoliberals” and not a considerable chunk of the population, including most of what is left of a once thriving middle class. Few days go by without one of them, or both, telling us that Macri is a despicable plutocrat, a nasty rich kid who hates the poor and who, while in office, did his best to destroy the country by crushing the economy.

And the many millions who voted for him?  Not surprisingly, large numbers of them do not take kindly to the notion that they let themselves be bamboozled by such an unprepossessing character. This is one reason why anti-government demos like the one which was staged last Monday in dozens of cities up and down the country keep getting bigger. Another, needless to say, is awareness that Cristina’s absolute priority is her own personal fate and that she would rather see the country torn apart than run the risk of ending up in jail, along with her offspring, for what she and her cronies did when they were in power.

Argentina must be the only country in the world in which a major political movement is dominated by an individual who has been plausibly accused of corruption on a truly industrial scale and whose many supporters are therefore obliged to pretend they believe that most of those facing charges are the innocent victims of an incredibly persuasive propaganda campaign involving thousands of people. A more honest approach would be for them to admit that Cristina did contrive to steer many millions of dollars into her own bank accounts and those of her sidekicks, but that in their view she is such a marvellous person it would be foolish to make too much of such misdeeds. They could even try to justify them by insisting that, like Robin Hood, she took from the rich in order to give to the poor, and that when all is said and done her “project” is what really counts. This presumably is what Pope Francis has in mind when he goes on about the evils of “lawfare” when it is aimed at politicians who claim that all they want to do is benefit humble folk.

As the demonstrators know, in exchange for the presidency, Alberto agreed to do his bit for Cristina even though for several years he had been one of her harshest critics, but impressive as his performance in this role has been, he must on occasion feel slightly uncomfortable though, like the French king Henry IV – who is said to have justified his timely conversion to Catholicism by remarking that “Paris is well worth a mass” – he can console himself with the thought that, seeing what was at stake, on the whole he made what for him was the right decision. Even so, in his darker moments he must fear that future historians, like most of his contemporaries, will regard him as a thoroughgoing hypocrite who betrayed whatever principles he had for personal gain.

In any event, like the government itself, many opposition leaders have been caught off-balance by the street protests that are rapidly becoming routine. They would rather not be told they should be doing far more to prevent the Kirchnerites from seizing control of the Judiciary and that they should understand that Alberto is far more interested in stifling unrest among the populace than in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Being politicians, they would much rather handle things their own traditional way by negotiating behind closed doors with whoever holds the purse strings in the hope of getting something valuable in return. Some, such as the Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, must also be convinced they will be properly rewarded by the electorate for cooperating in the national effort to keep the pandemic at bay, which is why they added their voices to those of Kirchnerites who told people to stay at home because if they ventured out they would die.

Populists of both right and left have always been keen on street theatre. Here, Peronist politicians and trade union bosses have regularly lavished huge amounts of money on transporting tens of thousands of extras from the slum belt to the centre of Buenos Aires and then give them something to eat in the hope of impressing the residents with their ability to mobilise big crowds, so it must be most unnerving for them to see their adversaries do even better without having to spend a single penny.

Unlike the demos organised by Peronist heavyweights, those expressing opposition to Alberto’s government have been bottom-up affairs. They have grown from a handful of seeds that were planted in social media and quickly acquired proportions that astonished those responsible. They have also been remarkably peaceful. They have certainly been far more civilised than the violent and terribly destructive protests that for weeks have been raging across the United States. To the disappointment of Alberto, Cristina and others who would have liked to see some mayhem they could blame on that Machiavellian evildoer Macri and his agents, these days Argentine demonstrators are well-behaved men and women who wear facemasks not for fear of getting recognised by the cops, but because they have no desire to get infected by the coronavirus.  

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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