May 19, 2013
CommentarySunday, January 6, 2013
A ‘turning-point’ in Argentina
There are “turning-points” in history that decide the future, for good or ill. An obvious example of a turning-point for good was the allied invasion of Normandy in WWII that came some six years after the bad turning-point of the Munich agreement to appease Hitler. Argentina’s turning points, which I will leave to readers to choose, have generally been shades of grey rather than black and white.
CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Speaking personally, I would say that the 1930 military coup set a land of great promise marching down the wrong road. Now, I believe that we are approaching a historic turning point that will decide whether Argentina’s vulnerable democracy will be consolidated, undermined or, even driven off the cliff. The hinge of this turning point is the Supreme Court. If the two women and five men who sit on the bench prove that they have the mental strength and matching conviction to withstand the pressure of the government by neither bending nor allowing the Executive to walk all over them, they will go down in history as paladins of justice and supreme defenders of democracy. On the other hand, I don’t think that they will have much difficulty resisting the pressure of the largely imaginary “corporations” that the government abhors. Just the same, it is important that the Court demonstrate impartiality. Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti struck exactly the right balance when he said: “We are not a corporation, but a branch of government because we do not defend personal interests. We defend the freedom of the citizens against the economic powers and the other branches of government.”
His carefully chosen words contrast with the gutter vocabulary and vulgarity of Hebe de Bonafini, the dictatorial leader of the most powerful but less representative of the two organizations that represent the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. In an earlier column I likened her to Madame Defarge, a fictional character in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I was relying on memory, because I haven’t re-read Dickens for ages, although the novel, set in the French Revolution, remains one of my favourite books. Since then I have refreshed my recollection of Madame Defarge.
She was one of the women who sat in the shadow of the guillotine, tricoteuse, knitting during the French Revolution. Dickens describes her as “imbued in her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, an inveterate hatred of a class.” He writes, the “opportunity (of the revolution) had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity.”
The Telegraph’s Daisy Bowie-Sell, who is the paper’s culture researcher reminds readers that “Dickens never allows us to loathe Madame Defarge: she has been done a monstrous wrong.” The monstrous wrong committed against Bonafini is the “disappearance” at the hands of the military of her two sons, who were guerrilla fighters. A “disappearance” — that immoral abomination that has become impregnated in the Argentine soul — is far worse than the most tragic death. Bonafini has dealt with this by refusing to accept the death of her sons. They live on through her. She is fighting their fight. I respect that while lamenting her lack of humanity and her abuse and exploitation of the cause of human rights.
For more on Madame Defarge’s startling resemblance to Hebe Bonafini, see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/charles-dickens/9036173/Charles-Dickens-best-characters-in-pictures.html?image=4andhttp://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Madame_Defarge.
One of the most disgusting scenes that I can recall featuring Bonafini was two years ago when she led a mob to Tribunales, where the Supreme Court occupies the fifth floor. This YouTube video speaks for itself: http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=KqdliHbikag.
On Thursday she was at it again. She led her group to the steps of Tribunales to declare her “most profound repudiation of this Supreme Court, which has nothing supreme about it and is even less of a court.” She doesn’t give a speech, she harangues the crowd, using foul language like a mad general rallying the troops. The editor at the Herald who handled the story of her assault on the Supreme Court protected readers from her vulgarity, translating one crude phrase to suggest that she was questioning the justices’ “manliness.” Clarín, the target of Bonafini’s attack on the Supreme Court did not soften her words: http://www.clarin.com/politica/Bona fini-amenazo-Tribunales-presionar-Corte_0_841115936.html
As she has in previous demonstrations against the Supreme Court, Bonafini threatened to make a forced entry into the Supreme Court, seemingly promising hand-to-hand combat. She called on the two female justices to resign. As Alfredo Leuco, a journalist who lives up to the title of his television program Le doy mi palabra (I give you my word), wondered “how anyone of a sound mind could suspect the intellectual and ethical integrity of Carmen Argibay or Elena Highton de Nolasco.” Both exemplary Justices, indeed.
Wikipedia’s entry (in English) on the Supreme Court is well worth reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Argentine_Supreme_Court.
To my mind this Supreme Court is a cause for pride. The court’s own website provides a panorama of justice at work: www.cij.gov.ar
What I have seen of the work of the judiciary, operating under far from the best conditions, has impressed me. If we have any guarantee that democracy will last, that guarantee will come from the third power of government, the Judiciary. In turn that guarantee will depend on the survival of what is sometimes called the “fourth estate” or fourth power of democratic government, the media.
The anti-democratic pro-dictatorship forces that Hebe de Bonafini and her cohorts personify, and who appear to be acting, like shock troops, at the behest of the government want not only a tamed media but also a tamed and compliant Supreme Court.
That, broadly speaking, is the situation of the judiciary and the media in Venezuela. When I was in Venezuela on missions for the Inter-American Press Association I met members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court. I cannot call them “justices” because they were totally dependent on and compliant with an authoritarian Executive branch. José Miguel Vivanco, a man whose commitment to democracy and human rights I have witnessed over decades, is the director of the American Division of Human Rights Watch, an admirable organization. He says that President Hugo Chávez “effectively neutralized the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions the Chávez government had systematically undermined basic human rights.”
It is not surprising that the mere mention of the word Venezuela can fill a room of democratically minded people with doom and gloom.
Natalio Botana, a deservedly esteemed political scientist, captured what is a stake at this “turning point” in Argentina history in a recent column in La Nación. He wrote about the importance of the Supreme Court in upholding the constitutional limits on the power of charismatic leaders. He noted that there are “two concepts of democracy” which are about to be defined. One, he said, is “a republican democracy, representative and federal in a struggle with a democracy that revolves around a hegemonic power, that crushes pluralism within political representation through a matrix of charismatic leadership and the practice of disguised Unitarianism. The electorate will decide which of these two democracies it prefers.”
Read his essay at www.lanacion.com.ar/1538648-fabricar-carisma-no-alcanza-para-gobernar
As C.E.M. Joad, a popular philosopher I used to listen to on the BBC in my youth, would say, “It depends what you mean by democracy.” I hope that the electorate knows which of the two is a democracy and which is not.