May 24, 2013
Understanding Argentine reality
Anyone arriving in Buenos Aires from abroad during the 9 de Julio long weekend could nor help but wonder: Where’s the crisis?
The thronged cafes, restaurants and those modern “pleasure domes,” the shopping malls, would seem to deny the existence of any downturn in Argentina’s booming economy. But I have lived in Argentina long enough to know that what former US Fed chairman Alan Greenspan called “excessive exuberance” is a warning sign that the bubble is about to burst or, indeed, has already popped.
Our re-entry into Argentina for our annual four-month stay was paradoxical. My wife, youngest daughter and I left Charleston, South Carolina, where we live most of the year, expecting to be greeted with a political and economic blow-up. There were reports that a general strike was in the offing and there was already a shortage of petrol, because truck drivers had halted deliveries. But arriving in Buenos Aires we found the city much the same, only dirtier, of course. Over the past three years the state of the city has increasingly appeared to be suffering from negligence and neglect. It was, however, still a joy to return to this “city of cities” and there are still enough pleasures to be had simply walking the streets and glorying in the vast blue skies that the Spring-like weather has provided day after day.
Reconditioning the mind to the neurotic jabbering that passes for political discourse was made easier by a short visit to Mendoza and San Juan, the latter a surprise because it has undergone a transformation since our last visit to the cradle of Sarmiento seven years ago. Argentina never fails to remind me of its promise. There is always encouragement to be found regardless of crises or even catastrophes. Argentina never ceases to be the comeback kid while, as yet, never quite making it.
In short, I find it impossible to be pessimistic about Argentina’s future, an attitude that seems to annoy chronic doomsayers. I think it is entirely possible to be optimistic, although there is an astounding dissonance between the way the country is viewed from abroad and the picture that the government paints of the situation. As for the cacophony that is media, you take your choice.
A post on the blog of Walter Russell Mead, who is a sympathetic watcher of Argentina (totally supportive of Argentina’s claim to the Falkland/Malvinas islands), sent shock waves through my own circle of Argentophiles because so much of it was on the mark. The title of the piece is “Argentina: Where Failure Is A Choice, Not A Caprice.” Read it here, but don’t cry for Argentina. Remember, the country has been written off many, many times, but it is still here.
I do wish that Mead’s points were taken up in Argentina, particularly his observations about contrived xenophobia taken to the extreme of stupidity. More useful, however, for now is the strong dose of reality delivered by Roberto Lavagna, the man who played a vital role in putting Argentina back on the road to economic recovery. See:
Lavagna calls on the government to face reality. He is not the only one, but from the president down, no one appears to be listening. As a result, there have been a series of disturbing events that remind me of East Germany, when the Soviet Communist regime kept an eye on citizens by means of the secret police, the then notorious STASI. In Argentina, four familiar initials, AFIP, have become somewhat menacing since people who have spoken out or have been associated with critics of the government have had their tax files examined or have received visits from tax inspectors. The augmenting currency controls are also disquieting because they arouse fears that Argentina is veering in the direction of Venezuela.
Before I left Charleston for Buenos Aires I began re-reading a remarkable book by the late Eduardo Tiscornia called El destino circular de la Argentina. Tiscornia took wry delight in describing his book, which traces Argentine history from 1810 to 1984, as a “worst-seller.” There is no doubt that it did not make the best-seller list when it was published on the eve of Argentina’s return to democracy under president Raúl Alfonsín, but I have repeatedly recommended it to arriving diplomats as an invaluable introduction to anyone attempting to understand the country’s mystique.
Tiscornia is not like best-selling writers who bemoan the state of their country and wallow in pessimism. He wrote his encyclopaedic study because he wanted to break the circle of Argentina’s failure to realize its full potential. He chose as his inspiration Spinoza’s admonition, “Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.”
It was a purely but superbly serendipitous moment when I discovered that Argentina’s Circular Destiny, long out of print, is available on the Internet.
It is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1984. In the opening pages Tiscornia writes: “The author assumes the risk of being described as destructive because what is destructive is to deny reality ...”
“This book,” he wrote “is not directed at Argentines who prefer not to recognize how precarious and delicate the health of the nation is, even when we cannot possibly fail to perceive its deterioration.”
Those words strike home, as does his denunciation of “frivolity and negligence in actions and omissions; and in the persistence of myths and chimeras...” He did not exclude himself from criticism, noting that his profession (he was a lawyer) did not make him “a paladin in the service of (human) rights and liberty.” And he endorsed Ortega y Gasset’s observation in 1925: “The typical Argentine has no other vocation than to be the self that he imagines himself to be; thus he lives giving in, but not to a reality, but to an image ... and in effect, he is looking at himself as he is reflected in his own imagination. It is exceedingly narcissistic.”
I don’t think Ortega y Gasset’s often quoted putdown is widely applicable today. Argentines have suffered far too much during the decades of dictatorship that led up to the ultimate tyranny of horror from 1976 to 1984 and the guerrilla and terrorist violence that preceded it, to merit the slur of narcissism. But there are signs that Argentina is in danger of revolving in a futile circle once again with authoritarian measures that repeat the mistakes of the first presidency of Juan Domingo Perón by restricting economic freedom and expanding state-owned and pro-government communications network at the expense of non-government media. The divisions in the organized labour movement and the personal confrontation between Hugo Moyano, the leader of the CGT group of unions, and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also suggest a return to the past.
We need to remember Spinoza’s advice: “Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.”