May 19, 2013
The Cristina and Hugo show
Nations’ similar fates today’s ‘blessings,’ tomorrow’s ‘curses’
It is easy to understand why Cristina and her followers fêted the electoral triumph of their favourite foreign politician, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, as though they themselves were personally responsible for it. Not only is he an ideological soulmate they can touch for a loan when times get tough, he is also a highly successful exponent of their kind of politics. Like their free-spending tropical mentor, Cristina and company take it for granted that, in their country at least, political power has nothing at all to do with what pedantic North Americans and Europeans call good governance. While in other parts of the world electorates are liable to get stroppy if the local government makes a mess of things, in much of Latin America they are more than happy to overlook minor details such as the way the economy is handled or taxpayers’ money is spent. From time to time, politicians tell us with a straight face that people vote for them because they think they are first-class administrators. Needless to say, they don’t believe a word of it.
In this part of the world, making an effort to govern well is asking for trouble. Anyone so inclined soon finds himself or herself up against a horde of unscrupulous individuals who have a vested interest in the status quo and will go to great lengths to thwart those who are insensitive enough to try and deprive them of their acquired rights. With that in mind, few politicians have the slightest intention of making such a grievous mistake.
A few days ago, it was reported worldwide that the electoral chances of US President Barack Obama had received a timely boost because, according to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate had fallen from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent. In Argentina and Venezuela, voters rarely pay any attention to such statistics. Their indifference is due less to a healthy scepticism when it comes to official information than to the assumption that elections should be about far more exalted matters than mere numbers.
To win the voters’ favour, a candidate must make enough of them believe that in some way he or she has been chosen by God or Destiny to lead them on a march towards a promised land that will be reached when they have overcome the obstacles that have been placed in their path by their many enemies. Many people who voted for Chávez last Sunday or for Cristina last year will have known in their hearts that it was all just a fantasy and that, with luck, they might continue to get the meagre handouts from their benefactors in high places that they had grown accustomed to, but when you are down and out and appreciate you have no chance of making much of a living because you lack the qualifications, experience or contacts that would enable you to do so, even the tiniest of mercies can be more than welcome, especially if they come gift-wrapped in vague but encouraging promises that better times are on their way and are accompanied by a dose of collective self-pity.
The patronage system that is applied throughout Latin America not only provides politicians and their cronies with an excuse to attribute their thievery to humanitarian motives, saying they need the money they rake in because without it they would be unable to help the poor, it also keeps the region relatively quiet by persuading those on the receiving end that their rulers really care about them and take a personal interest in their vicissitudes. Much the same can be said about the “revolutionary” claptrap that has long been the stock in trade of populist bosses, among them Juan Domingo Perón, most of Mexico’s presidents, Chávez and, on occasion, our own Cristina. They go on and on about how the day will soon come when the poor will reap the benefits of the great changes they say they are in the offing, but when they finally depart the scene things remain much the same or, thanks to the flight of businessmen, even worse than they were before.
By any sane standards, the Chávez administration has been phenomenally incompetent. So too were the ones that preceded it. Over the years, Venezuela’s successive elites have contrived to gobble up the equivalent of dozens of Marshall Plans, but the country is still as dependent as ever on its oil revenues. Had the colossal sums of money hundreds of billions of dollars been invested in education, promoting small businesses and building a remorselessly professional civil service, by now almost all the barely 29 million Venezuelans would be among the richest and most productive people on the planet. Needless to say, they are not. Millions barely scrape enough together to stay alive.
Argentina’s fate has been much the same as Venezuela’s. Though it has not been cursed with enormous reserves of oil and gas, it has never lacked natural resources, but instead of using them to foster genuine development, generations of politicians have preferred to “redistribute” the easy money they provide. Argentina’s rapid recovery from the disaster it brought upon itself ten years ago was due in large measure to the soybean boom made possible by China’s voracious appetite for a legume that has always been appreciated by East Asians, not to reforms undertaken in order to make the economy more productive. Cristina and her supporters may not be aware of it, but the economic “model” she thinks is a world-beater will soon fall apart, leaving most Argentines even worse off than they were before, just as most Venezuelans will be when Chávez is finally history.