April 23, 2014
Law & order on the cheap
The Kirchnerite government is in a bind.
It knows it must do something to protect honest citizens from the thugs who prey on them, if only because that is what governments are for, but it lacks the necessary financial and human resources to do much more than keep its fingers crossed and hope for the best. After years of massive overspending, funds are running dangerously low. So too is morale among the men and women who are supposed to keep criminals at bay.
If the cops go on strike, the federal government has to send in border guards to patrol the streets and dissuade looters from ransacking supermarkets, small shops or their neighbours’ homes, as many have been doing these last couple of weeks. However, as Cristina reminded us before indulging in a spot of dancing to celebrate thirty years of coupless democracy, there are only about 35,000 of them, far too few to safeguard the peace in the entire country. In other parts of the world, among them Brazil, the border guards could be supplemented by regular soldiers who, if things got really nasty, would apply martial law. In Argentina, that unpleasant alternative cannot even be suggested.
Under the Kirchnerite dispensation, the armed forces have been virtually disbanded and, military pay being what it is, the soldiers would be as liable to go on strike as the cops or, for that matter, the border guards themselves. Barely a year ago, these staged angry protests much like the ones organized by cops fed up with trying to make do on a basic wage of two thousand pesos a month or even less, plus whatever extras come their way.
Things may have quietened down in most of the country, but they could soon get much worse. Inflation is picking up steam, eating into the purchasing power of many millions of people; last month, it came to 2.4 percent, more than the US and European countries have to put up with in a year.
Cristina says the police were behind the now traditional pre-Christmas looting spree. Given the circumstances, it was a bit unwise of her to put the only people standing between chaos and what passes for law and order on her black list of enemies, but the provincial cops certainly took advantage of the mayhem to elbow themselves to the front of what is a very long queue. When their demands were met, others, among them health workers, took their place.
Paying them all off will not be easy. Most provinces have already run out of money and depend on federal funds. Even declaring bankruptcy, as Detroit did in the US, would not help. In response, unpaid public employees would in all likelihood stage food riots, while the many who live off handouts would go on yet another rampage.
All eyes are on Greater Buenos Aires, the huge poverty belt that has the Federal Capital in its grip. On previous occasions when the “economic model” du jour came crashing down on everybody’s heads, columns of looters from the more trouble-prone neighbourhoods headed for the city centre. They caused less damage than some panic-stricken residents had feared, but they did remind them that large numbers of Argentines are desperately poor. Keeping them in check is every government’s priority. One way of doing this has been to give many otherwise unemployable people jobs of a sort in the public sector. Though for most pay has remained wretchedly low, it has been better than nothing.
Unfortunately, using the public sector as a sponge to soak up unemployment has not led to any improvement in the services provided. Most politicians say they want the state to play a far bigger role in the country’s affairs, but as they are dead against anything that smacks of elitism they cannot do much to make it more efficient. Attempts to do so invariably run into tough opposition. That is one reason why Argentina’s once much admired educational system has become worse than mediocre even by the lax standards prevailing throughout Latin America.
Union bosses have long insisted that there is no such thing as wage-push inflation, that people should get what they assume they deserve, not what the economy is in a position to provide. If that were true, the world would be a far happier place but, needless to say, it is nonsense. By caving in to the rebellious police, provincial governors led by Córdoba’s José Manuel de la Sota have ensured that an inflation rate that has been running close to thirty percent a year will go even higher. To rein it in, Cristina’s government would have to apply some serious austerity measures, but ever since her husband handed her the presidential paraphernalia she has insisted that nothing would make her cut public expenditure.
As a result, Argentina is like one of those rickety suburban trains whose brakes tend to fail just before they reach their destination; when that happens, they crash against the buffers, with dire consequences for many passengers. The government pins its hopes on getting to March, when cash from soybean exports should help it replenish its coffers, without it having to put up with too many conflicts, but even if its luck holds out prospects will continue to be gloomy. The gap between what most people assume are perfectly reasonable expectations and what the economy can deliver in the short term is getting wider at an alarming rate. Bridging it will be impossible. To judge by the public mood, Cristina will be blamed for whatever happens when her beloved “model” finishes falling apart.