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Argentina’s Stockholm syndrome

Workers carry an Argentine flag as they block a bridge leading to Buenos Aires, during Tuesday’s general strike.
By James Neilson
For the Herald
Peronism and its millions of ‘captive’ voters

Argentina public opinion is anything but fickle. To the bemusement of outsiders, failed political movements that in other parts of the Western world would be of interest only to historians still enjoy the support of much of the electorate. Over half a century has gone by since it became evident that Peronism was incapable of giving the country a decent, law-abiding, far-sighted and constructive government. Since then, the armed forces, leftists of one kind or another and old-fashioned liberals have done their best to speed its departure to the netherworld. So too, for that matter, have a trio of Peronist presidents, Carlos Menem, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who wanted to replace it with something they could call their very own. But all their efforts have come to nothing. Far from weakening the Peronist movement, attempts to put it out of its misery have only made it stronger. Peronism is like the mythical giant Antaeus who was invincible as long as he kept in contact with mother earth; until somebody manages to separate it from the poorer half of the country’s population, it will continue to rule the roost.

Cristina has benefitted greatly from the ingrained conservatism of many Argentines, but if recent events are anything to go by, her prolonged reign is fast approaching its end. Should she be so inclined, she would not find it hard to adjust to the changed circumstances; nobody significant wants her to abdicate because that would plunge the country into an alarming political crisis. Unfortunately, Cristina has grown accustomed to doing whatever she pleases without consulting anyone, with the possible exception of her son and a few, very few, trusted cronies, and that is why much of the middle class and many powerful union bosses have turned against her.

Back in 2008, when the then vice-president Julio Cobos cast a decisive Senate vote against a government bill that infuriated the farmers, Cristina’s husband Néstor reportedly advised her to call it quits. It seems that on that occasion she refused point-blank, but should she feel the well-nigh absolute power she has got used to wielding is slipping away from her, and that in any case her health is causing her too many problems, she could surprise everyone by staging a walk-out, leaving the almost universally disliked Amado Boudou in charge of an astonished country.

Cristina’s term of office is due to end just over three years from now, in December 2015. The way things are going, those years will be far from easy. The government’s war chest is already almost empty and, having gone through the proceeds from farm exports, the private pension funds, the Central Bank reserves and all the dollars it could scoop up, available funds are running dangerously low. Should Cristina try to “nationalize” people’s savings, the public reaction would surely be ferocious. And then there is rampant inflation, the fall, temporary or permanent, of the price fetched by soybeans, a generalized economic slowdown due entirely to the government’s incompetence, the risk that at any moment large-scale brownouts and blackouts could become daily, and not just monthly, events, and, needless to say, the rapid spread of labour unrest. The upshot of all this is that country is in for some very painful belt-tightening, but Cristina swears she would never ever do anything so nasty and the union bosses and populist politicians who are against her are campaigning in favour of tax cuts.

Cristina is not the first Peronist president to make a mess of the economy. And she is unlikely to be the last. It is generally assumed that, when she finally goes, her successor will be another Peronist, perhaps current Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli, who presumably would take a centre-right, business-friendly approach to the economy, as indeed would City Mayor Mauricio Macri should he, with the help of the Peronists, win enough support.

The Peronists’ trump card is the widespread, and certainly realistic, belief that they are the only people who are in a position to ensure a minimum of order in troubled times. They may not be much good when it comes to the day-to-day task of governing, but they are more than capable of making life impossible for anyone else who tries to do it. As a result, whether in office or in opposition, their contribution to Argentina’s decline has continued to be enormous. Since the general arrived on the scene determined to follow the path taken by Benito Mussolini without repeating what he thought were the Duce’s worst mistakes, Argentina has gone from being by far the richest and most advanced country in Latin America to one that has fallen behind neighbouring Chile and could soon be overtaken, if it has not been already, by Uruguay, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. Once far richer than Italy and Spain, let alone South Korea, it is now humiliatingly poorer. This remarkable achievement might seem reason enough for impoverished Argentines to vote for just about anyone but yet another Peronist but, of course, they do not. In a strange political version of the Stockholm syndrome, a self-defence mechanism in which hostages side with their captors, no matter how bad one Peronist government turns out to be, a sizable chunk of the electorate can be relied on to support a candidate representing an allegedly different faction of the same movement.

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