May 24, 2013
Enemies of the people
Luckily for Argentina, when back in 1976 the armed forces took power (they did not have to “seize” it because most politicians were happy to hand it to them), the top brass assumed that their civilian compatriots were too immature to run a proper democracy, so they banned elections even in football clubs and professional associations. Had they thought otherwise, in order to give themselves what they would call a democratic mandate they might have asked people to choose between General Jorge Rafael Videla, who at the time was considered a fairly decent moderate, and the hopelessly incompetent Isabel Perón. In all probability, Videla would have won such a contest by a comfortable margin.
And then, just to make things easier for them later on, they could have taken advantage of the vindictive public mood and put the “dirty war” to the vote. Had they done so, recovering from the harm done by the Process would have been far more difficult than it turned out because far too many upstanding citizens would have committed themselves to what, when fashions changed, they would eventually repudiate.
Instead, with few exceptions they could tell themselves that the dictatorship had kept them in the dark and that was why they went on with their lives without worrying about the crimes that were being committed.
As the Germans and tens of millions of others found out not that many years ago, democracy freed from nit-picking legal restrictions can be a very dangerous thing. The will of the people is like a powerful motor; laws and constitutions do the work of brakes that prevent the vehicles it drives from charging ahead until they crash into a brick wall, collide with others or plunge over a cliff. The notion that deep down everybody wants peace and loving kindness is sentimental nonsense: in April 1982, most Argentines showed that they too could thrill to the beat of the war drums, just like their equivalents in Germany, Italy and Japan forty years earlier.
Cristina should understand all this better than most. Much as she dislikes anything that prevents her from doing whatever she wants, her own fate depends on her fellow politicians’ attachment to the Constitution. As well as thwarting her on occasion, opposition politicians’ determination to cling to the rule of law renders her less vulnerable to the fickleness of public opinion. Were that not the case, some nasty crowd-pleasers would already be saying that, seeing she is far less popular than she was a year ago, she should obey “the will of the people” and call it quits.
Ever since Néstor Kirchner took office on the strength of less than a quarter of the votes cast in the 2003 elections, the government led first by him and then by his wife has devoted itself to mobilizing the citizenry to do battle with the alleged enemies of all that is good. For a time, that strategy proved marvellously effective. Much of the population was delighted to be informed that its descent into dire poverty was due to the wickedness of military men, “neoliberal” economists, money-mad foreign investors and the loathsome technocrats of the IMF.
But, after a while, the government’s need to find new scapegoats became counterproductive. Farmers who were hard put to scrape together a living did not look much like the “oligarchs” of Cristina’s fiery rhetoric. The Clarín Group’s CEO Héctor Magnetto is an improbable bogeyman.
And now, to the bewilderment of many of its supporters, the government has decided to add the judiciary to its rapidly lengthening black list of evil “corporations” that should be dismembered. Who will be next? The way things are going, Cristina and her folk could soon be at war with most of the country.
When confronted by difficult problems, populists try to exploit them by blaming them on others, thereby making matters a great deal worse. Cristina is unwilling to do anything much to slow inflation, so she pretends it is merely a statistical illusion invented by her neoliberal foes, and that if prices continue to rise at an unseemly rate, it is all because of greedy shopkeepers or malignant foreign conspirators. Capital flight? It is because the middle class has been mentally colonized by Yankee imperialists and therefore prefers dollars to pesos. Her image has taken a battering lately? Once Clarín has been silenced it will shine even more brightly than before, but in order to put the “monopoly” in its place she will have to persuade the judiciary that its owners’ objections have no legal basis.
It is because much of the judiciary is reluctant to do so without going through the usual formalities that Cristina is accusing it of being out of touch with the rest of society, and is making the most of a controversial verdict by judges in Tucumán, men who owe their jobs to one of her principal allies, in a case involving alleged white slavers accused of kidnapping a young woman over ten years ago.
Though the circumstantial evidence seemed damning, the judges returned, to widespread disgust, a verdict of “not proven”, as the Scottish courts term it. Would it have been better for the Tucumán judges to bow to public opinion and send the accused to jail? Many think so, but, assuming that they really are convinced there are good grounds for believing the defendants may not have been guilty, their willingness to defy the feelings of the majority and let them go should be regarded as admirable.