May 23, 2013
María Elena Walsh and the state of democracy
When the late, great María Elena Walsh broke the silence that cocooned the military dictatorship with her denunciation published in the literary supplement of the mass circulation newspaper Clarín, she likened the country to an infant school.
It is a marvellous document which had an impact throughout Argentina, sending shock waves to the military dictatorship which was then (August, 1979) at the height of its power. Re-reading it after returning to Argentina following an absence of eight months during which the economy has changed so decidedly for the worst, I wondered what she might write today, were she alive.
There would be no need to break any silence like that of the dictatorship years which was induced by a mixture of collusion and unacknowledged fear. But it might be difficult for her to get a hearing because the volume of today’s discourse is so loud.
Her article Desventuras en el país Jardín de Infantes (Misfortunes in the Infant School Country) was a masterpiece of subtlety which, of course, enabled its publication at a time when people risked being killed for something they wrote. By mid-1979, death threats from the guerrilla/terrorist groups were unlikely but the power struggle between Dictator Jorge Rafael Videla and the Army on one side, and Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and the Navy on the other, increased the likelihood of an early death for anyone who aroused the ire of the men in uniform.
There is no call today for the bravery that María Elena Walsh displayed when cowardice ruled, but there is a crying need for a cool, calm voice like hers to defend democracy, as she did throughout her life.
In 1998, in an interview with for Clarín, Walsh was asked to rate the state of democracy. Was Argentine society still in infant school, secondary school or at university level?
She replied: “Democracy had barely returned when I said that we had passed to first grade. And I thought that we were only in first grade because there was an illusory idea that democracy on its own would resolve the problems. After so much authoritarianism, people did not realize that democracy calls for commitment, participation, work. I think that now we are starting to see this and I would say that we’re putting on long trousers. Sort of entering puberty. In any case, in these years (since 1984) marvellous things have happened and the fact that we are here talking freely is fundamental.”
I think it’s fair to say, or, rather, it is my opinion that Walsh might say that our democratic society is today going through the troubled years of adolescence. I think she would rejoice at the undeniable freedom of expression that exists, but would be deeply troubled by government threats to the media, particularly, perhaps, the official attacks against the newspaper that published her article that denounced the dictatorship and continued to be interested in what she had to say. It’s pretty certain she would be alarmed that authoritarianism still holds sway in Argentina and that individual freedom is not yet sacrosanct.
I know that María Elena Walsh would be delighted that her voice, her words and her music in defence of the vulnerable, in support of minorities and in praise of freedom are still heard throughout the land. http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/55984/mar%C3%ADa-elena-walsh-dies-at-age-80
Drawing on another great writer, I like this paraphrase of Charles Dickens’ evocation of the hopes and fears of the French Revolution:
“This is the best of governments and the worst of governments.”
I owe my use of that phrase to Charles Newbery, who writes for The New York Times and many other publications (http://www.charlesnewbery.com/). He is the kind of journalist I was when I joined the Buenos Aires Herald 53 years ago. As I was, he is a “stringer” which is a freelance journalist who works for many publications.
The advantage of being a stringer is that you live an ordinary life and are closer to ordinary people than a staff foreign correspondent can ever hope to be.
I valued Newbery’s Dickensian definition of these confused times because it comes from someone who tries to see both sides and who reports from the centre. They are rare birds these days.
Newbery is right, I believe. The government is at its best when it deals with social policy and at its worst in handling the economy.
First I will cite just a few of what I consider to be shining examples of social policy that make this the best of governments. The pursuit of justice for the victims of one of the nastiest dictatorships in human history is recognized throughout the democratic world as an enormous achievement. Argentina’s advances in securing equality under the law for citizens who were discriminated against for so long are also praiseworthy.
But the social achievements, among which I would include paying pensions on time — which was not the case for many years —will be undermined if the economic distortions caused by controls of all kinds that are bringing financial and real estate markets to a standstill and hindering exports and imports are not corrected.
Take the case of exchange controls, which are not new to Argentina, but never before have they been applied in such a haphazard, contradictory and unfair manner. The result has been a loss in confidence that will be difficult to regain. The paralysis of real estate transactions and the currency exchange market could have been avoided by explaining to the people what the government’s objectives are and why currency regulations are necessary. There is no need to treat people as if they were stupid. I grew up in Britain at a time when austerity measures were needed to pay the national debt accrued fighting World War II. They were not popular, but they were understandable and applied fairly.
The worst of the worst of governments is the refusal to tackle, or even acknowledge, inflation, which cannot be disguised by statistics that nobody outside the government takes seriously. The government’s economic policy is supposed to be Keynesian, so I suggest that every government office and — why not? — the office of the president in the Casa Rosada should be plastered with notices quoting John Maynard Keynes himself:
“By a continuous process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate artificially. And while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some.”
And, unchecked, it destroys democracy.