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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 12-11-2022 07:04

Time is fast running out

Argentina’s unhappy plight owes much to the ruling class’s strong adherence to the fixed-term political system which is enshrined in the Constitution.

For some time now, economists have been warning us that, in December, just about everything could fall apart. With the much-feared month only weeks away, their grim forecasts are looking increasingly realistic. To the dismay of firms that must import much of what they need in order to manufacture their products, the Central Bank keeps losing reserves at such an alarming rate that they will soon be unable to pay for them and will therefore be forced to close their doors for the duration. Were this to happen on a large scale – and for some big companies the shut-down has already begun – it would be very bad news for a huge number of workers and also for those who, one way or another, are helped by the money they generate.

As well as being flat broke, Argentina is going through yet another inflationary fire-storm. The Kirchnerite government has evidently come to the conclusion that it must either fight it by slowing the printing-presses and doling out less money to the many millions of people who need it to put scraps of food on the table, or accuse its enemies of mounting a brutal attack on the population for vile political reasons in a desperate attempt to reap some electoral benefits from the disaster. To nobody’s surprise, it has chosen the latter option, and though Economy Minister Sergio Massa surely understands that a country without money cannot spend its way out of a crisis engulfing it, to survive in the job he so vigorously sought he has to pretend to take seriously the guff that is regularly spouted by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her son Máximo, a pair whose ideas – fed to them by the Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kiciloff – are based on nothing more substantial than the wishful thinking which tends to be popular among university students. 

The Kirchnerite government, egged on by imaginative theorists who insist that inflation has nothing at all to do with the amount of money in circulation (because that is something “neoliberal” monetarists enjoy pointing out), blames what is happening on greedy businessmen who, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, apparently want consumers to be unable to buy what they have on offer. Needless to say, Kirchnerite militants would very much like retailers to shoulder the costs of the Christmas holidays and New Year celebrations that are fast approaching in the hope that people would thank the government for making them overlook their own interests, but since shopkeepers are already as hard-pressed as their customers, most would be unable to do what is being asked of them even if they thought it was their duty to lend a hand. 

Argentina’s unhappy plight owes much to the ruling class’s strong adherence to the fixed-term political system which is enshrined in the Constitution and which might have been designed to ensure that incompetent administrations would have plenty of time in which to cause as much harm as is possible. Among other things, it lets politicians take a leisurely approach towards a dangerous emergency that could leave the country permanently crippled if it is allowed to get much worse. 

Despite the all too evident deficiencies of the government which is formally headed by Alberto Fernández but is dominated by a lady who could remain free for the foreseeable future even if, as is likely, she gets condemned to years behind bars for stealing a huge amount of money from the public purse, it cannot be removed without an upheaval that would be at least as disruptive as the one which unseated former president Fernando de la Rúa a couple of decades ago. Such nastiness could be avoided by Alberto doing the decent thing and throwing in the towel and, if Cristina refused to take over, letting a legislative assembly decide what should be done, but so far there are no signs that anything like this could be about to happen. Meanwhile, the clock goes on ticking and the outlook facing the country grows darker by the day.

The main opposition alliance is not pressing for any immediate change. Its members, who pride themselves on their constitutional rectitude, say the preordained timetable must be respected and, in any event, that they need more time in which to sort out their internal differences and decide what to do when, over a year from now, they can legitimately assume office. It would seem that they are unperturbed by the thought that the country can ill afford to prolong a ruinous status quo for much longer, that with every week that passes the situation gets that much worse and the harder it will be to repair the damage that is being done. There is little sense of urgency; for them, it is business as usual.

This is one reason, perhaps the main one, why a clownish outsider such as the “libertarian” Javier Milei is rising in the polls. He benefits from the feeling that neither the Peronist coalition put together by Cristina nor the one confronting it truly appreciate the seriousness of what is happening and the need for those in power to make many sweeping changes because otherwise the country will destroy itself. While few seem to find Milei’s actual proposals particularly attractive, his outspoken contempt for the political elite and his desire to send it packing appeal to the many who see it as an exclusive club whose self-selected members are far more interested in their own personal concerns than in the fate of the rest of the population. 

For a brief moment after the currency-board arrangement put in place by Domingo Cavallo came crashing down to earth, crowds roamed the streets demanding that all politicians, or at least those linked to the Peronist and Radical movements, leave the stage to allow others, who presumably would be better, to take their place. Of course, nothing like that happened, perhaps because back then there was no plausible democratic alternative in sight. However, this time round there are people who say they could provide one. Their rhetoric may not be very convincing, but unless the leaders of the main opposition coalition manage to persuade the populace that they are not merely willing to give the country a genuine government but are also eager to get to work as soon as possible, more and more people will let themselves be seduced by the libertarians’ siren song.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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