April 21, 2014

30 years of democracy - Witnessing a period of change during 360 months of an elected congress

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The good, the bad and the rotten: piled up since 1983

Raúl Alfonsín walks with one of his daughters the day he was elected president on October 30, 1983.
By Andrew Graham-Yooll
For the Herald
Argentina entered the modern age in 1983. Now, 30 years on, the lapse seems an impressive stretch in constitutional rule: let’s not call it “democracy” just yet given that much is still wanting in that section. But it should be gratifying to know that we have had an elected Congress for three decades.  Many might not be so sure we have arrived and that some of the sins of old keep on coming back.  But, yes, even while squabbling like animals, or worse, even while mostly silent witnesses to the vileness of hooligans and vandalism for the fun of it, we have also been actors in our own story of change.
Change, by the way, is not the disgusting expansion of consumerism.  But it is the development of the intellectual community, the arts in all forms — even if the novelists aren’t much cock — and the expansion of research in all fields.
It was not as if we only discovered pop, sex and rock and roll as from 1983, but we did begin to be aware of civic responsibilities and human rights, and maybe, yes, a little more about pop, sex, etc. Society has changed in many ways, some very much for the better. Not all has been a foul mess since then, which is the way Argentines often prefer to see their own country.  For example, as from December 10, 1983, a population came to think that killing  people might be wrong.   Before that, killing was fine, as long as the target was not one of ours. It is slightly worrying still that Argentines feel more comfortable with the dead than the living, probably because there is no nuisance value in the dead. However, history will not see three decades, merely the conventional span of one generation, in little parcels of success or failure, rather as a transition, a fraction of time in the greater span of things.
In many ways, too, we are twenty years behind in the development of Western society, perhaps because our geographical place in the world is the carbuncle on the arse of the world.  We woke up to our place in the world after the Malvinas-Falklands shoot-up. That would appear to have given us two certainties.  One, military rule is not good for your health.  Two, the repetitive cycle of voting people out and in to public office may not be democracy, but does have the appearance of orderly behaviour, to be continued at least until we find out what democracy really is.
Human rights, the right to continue to be a living human, put us in the global eye with the 1983 decree that led in a tortuous way to the trial of the military leadership in 1985. Before that, it was not unreasonable to be asked, “Yes, but what side are you on?” when invoking human rights as advocated by, say, Amnesty International.  We’re not really concerned about human rights yet, but we have come a long way. Argentines are a little more careful about their driving, they respect the need for seat-belts, stop at red lights and even take note of traffic signals. It is all part of upholding the rights of others, a thing we were not too concerned about in previous decades.
It is no simple matter to declare 1983 a prefigurative year (as Europe saw 1963), especially in view of the upheaval that followed here at home.  But it was tempting to reflect on the potential of such a year in the knowledge that the armed forces’ role in politics was over: they had failed dismally in the one activity (war) that they were made for. That had a salutary effect. Of course there was still the circus produced by mutinous colonels. Through the next two decades Argentina’s “only real political party (the army)” lost its budget, saw compulsory national service brought to an end and the social abolition of the idea that the armed forces were the only nationbuilders, hence deserving respect above and beyond that merited by any civilian, including presidents.
The concept of human rights has not fully extended to issues such as gender and race. In gender references a woman is usually downgraded by the male of the species, as a yegua, hembra, mina, etc.  The evil is sweeping and recurs, more often than we think, in references even to a female president.   And we are still a nation of racists.  We consider it quite amusing and even endearing to call a Bolivian bolita, a Chilean a chilote, a Peruvian is a peruco, Paraguayans are paragua” and Uruguayans are yoruguas, and any person with dark hair is nicknamed Negro; we refer to the urban “supermarket” as el chino (we don’t call Carrefour the “French,” so why identify the national origin of the others?), and in anger describe just about everybody else as somebody  “…de mierda.”  Let’s not get into anti-Semitism because there too we would find ourselves seriously in the wrong.
We are not doing so well as yet on a variety of human rights that we should be taking care to enhance.  Over 30 years, we have become a little more tolerant — mostly in the political sense — but not very much more patient. Hence, Buenos Aires, along with Tel Aviv and perhaps Karachi sustain reputations as the most breathless and anxiety-ridden centres in the world. The partial evidence of social intolerance, even if you want to dismiss it as extreme, is the football stadium which has channelled much violence as an expression of something undefined but more serious and has steadily forced away the “family” fans while the power and influence of the savage has increased weekly in and beyond the stadia.
The late Julio Ardiles Gray (1922-2009), Tucumán poet and playwright, often repeated his sage view that Argentines would have to find the way to grow out of the dictatorship during the following decades. And like all bodies growing up it would not be easy.   The military, he said, could be squarely blamed for shattering the social fabric in Argentina and it would not be easy to repair or knit a replacement.  He also made more entertaining remarks, such as attributing to the uniformed thugs who ruled us the modernization of dress in Argentina.  His argument came from people’s discovery that they could buy cheap(er) clothes in Miami than in Buenos Aires and brought them back in bales. Once here, the garments had to be used, so people started wearing shorts in the city centre and eventually to work, which became a form of subdued protest against authority.
Ardiles Gray’s entertainment value was appreciated by many friends, but his theory was incomplete.  In fact, blaming the military for all our evils was an easy way out and prompts reflection on Argentina’s myths and fantasies, which we have still not come to terms with. Argentina did not become a nation of violence in the seventies.  The fact is that we have never been a nation of peace.  It is very much a class fabrication that we were great in the world, peaceful and welcoming to the immigrant in rags. Well, maybe some were, if they had the money to ignore the nasty bits around them. But the reality is that we have been executing people and cutting throats of undesirable rivals right through the 19th century, while in the other room the nation-builders and expanders of our economic might got on with business.  And we were not a peaceful society through much of the twentieth century either.  One of my favourite (perhaps not the best word) examples of this was  when at the end of May 1969 and as martial law was imposed in Córdoba during the Cordobazo, the then president, general Juan Carlos Onganía, addressed the nation to condemn the violence and asked  lamely, “How could this happen in a nation of peace?”  It was the question of a mental cripple given that such a notorious hypocrite had gained power by the coup that removed President Arturo Illia from office (June 1966).  Onganía had committed the ultimate political disorder that is the overthrow of a constitutional administration. Was that a nation of peace?
In the same line of fantasy and denial is the continuing need to blame somebody for our troubles.  Thirty years after the dictatorship, there are still people who want an answer as to why the so-called guerrillas, well-educated junior terrorists, “started” the violence that escalated into tragedy. Well, but did they start the violence?  After all, it was the military who as from 1930 regularly closed all doors to political participation with their internal divisions in pursuit of power and their coups.  If all access to public involvement is barred to the up-coming generations, the youth that are shut out will understandably seek action by the gun (the phenomenon was more notable in Uruguay with the collapse of the ancient regime and the rise of the Tupamaros), while the decadence of the old parties and organizations becomes ever more evident with each return to government.
Córdoba Senator Norma Morandini, in her soul-searching essay From Guilt to Forgiveness (De la culpa al perdón), sees the past  we came through as requiring rules and agreements that should do more than offer comfort to an array of incompetent political jobless (some of them still in Congress) who failed in the seventies and would fail again. “We are a country that has not had a state policy to deal with events in our recent past.  Our education does not include the construction of a culture of human rights.” It probably is not the kind of view we want to apply to these thirty years, but it is trenchant enough to demand notice.
Author and publisher, Alejandro Katz, in his latest essay, The Sham. Why Kirchnerism is Reactionary (El simulacro. Por qué el kirchnerismo es reaccionario), argues that our recent decade of family government may not have devalued (as yet) the currency, but has devalued the word, the value of language.  It is a harsh judgement of a political period.  However, it is perhaps best to say that it is the continuation of devaluation, which in effect began with the nigh 11 years in office of Carlos Saúl Menem, when language was used to misrepresent in such a degree that corruption was not unreasonable and in excess seemed to be a joke.  What do we say to the enlargement of the experience in the third decade?  The only response to such a finding must be the hope that in an open society, under a continuing constitutional system, enough experience will be gained from the use of freedoms to revert such a damning conclusion.  To weigh that consequence we would have to put two of our three decades since dictatorship under thorough scrutiny, to avoid further deterioration.  But that is another article, perhaps well into the fourth decade.

A first version of this article was published last September 15 in the Herald’s 137th  anniversary supplement.
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