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September 2, 2014
Sunday, March 2, 2014

A world-class failure

Argentina’s fall from grace is back in fashion

The Great Argentine Mystery is back in fashion. Bemused foreign journalists, among them big names in respected newspapers such as The Economist and The New York Times, along with others from Spain, Italy, France and Germany, are asking themselves just how a country with so much going for it could contrive to get itself into such an outlandish mess. They and others like them have been at it for a very long time. Well over fifty years ago, when the per capita income was still far higher than Spain’s, Argentina had already been written off by the cognoscenti as an inexplicable failure and much was being made of the strange “Argentine malaise” that prevented it from emulating Italy whose economy was thriving mightily even though its politicians were equally feckless and notoriously corrupt. There it remained, stuck on the launching pad, while Japan, South Korea and the rest of them soared ever higher.

Last week, Roger Cohen of The New York Times puts the blame for the debacle squarely on Peronism. That is a bit too simple. Peronism certainly has much to answer for but, like Hipólito Yrigoyen’s Radicalism, the populist movement that had dominated the country before Juan Domingo Perón and Evita arrived on the scene, it was a symptom of something far deeper, a widespread sense of entitlement that easily morphed into collective self-pity.

In a way, Argentina pioneered what are currently called “identity politics” in which grievance-mongers do their best to persuade others to give in to their demands for “justice”. This may work for ethnic, religious or sexual minorities in guilt-ridden rich countries, and even for majorities such as women. In Argentina’s case, it has only made its inhabitants feel misunderstood. To their increasingly resentful chagrin, nobody beyond its borders appreciates that it really is a victim country whose complaints ought to be taken seriously.

In addition to moaning that fate has been most unkind to them, Argentine politicians and the people who are regarded as intellectuals would dearly like to astound the world by coming up with a startlingly new socioeconomic formula that would quickly enable them to leap to the front of the international stage. Like their German contemporaries, a century ago many influential Argentines already felt their country should go its own way rather than follow the path that had been opened by Great Britain, the United States and France. In Germany’s case, the Sonderweg led to two catastrophic world wars; in Argentina’s, a local version of the same desire lured it straight into a swamp from which it would be unable to extricate itself.

The desire to do things differently has not gone away. Cristina and her supporters insist their economic “model” is a wonderfully original contraption. Some seem to think that the rest of the world decided to destroy it because it threatened the existing order.

In 1930, president Yrigoyen haughtily lectured his US counterpart Herbert Hoover on his and his country’s spiritual shortcomings and the importance of those “celestial inspirations” that, in his view, made up “the reality of life” and the corresponding need to stay in tune with “the mandates of divine providence”. No doubt Hoover was suitably impressed. Since then, many other Argentine leaders, notably Raúl Alfonsín and Cristina, have shown a similar disdain for mere material matters. They and others like them take it for granted that Argentina occupies the moral high ground. If foreigners are unable to see this, so much the worse for them.

As all bewildered observers point out, Argentina is rich by nature. What at first sight seems a blessing has turned out to be a curse. Rich countries, like rich people who inherit lots of money, tend to attribute their good fortune to their own superior qualities rather than luck, and to justify it the more thoughtful seize on theories that suit their purpose. That no doubt is one reason why resource-poor countries such as Switzerland and Japan have prospered, while other that are better endowed have allowed themselves to slide into penury.

However, though Argentina certainly has no lack of natural resources, most of its inhabitants are very poor and so, it might be thought, would feel obliged to behave like those hard-working Swiss and Japanese whose combined efforts have made their countries far wealthier than any in Latin America or Africa. If transplanted to a more demanding environment, many shanty-down dwellers or others who are equally badly off would give it a shot, but Argentine political culture being what it is, few seem tempted to try. On occasion, opposition leaders say that the Peronists have deliberately kept people poor for use as voting fodder. That may be a half-truth (Cristina would love to be remembered as Lady Bountiful by a suitably grateful populace), but if the results of the decades of Peronist hegemony that came after a lengthy spell of equally deleterious Radical dominance are anything to go by, if what the ruling elite wanted to do was keep development at bay, it would have managed things just the way it did.

Whenever the latest populist “project” starts unravelling, optimists assure us that, once the current batch of miracle-workers has finally slunk off to wherever it came from, the country will turn over a new leaf. For that to happen, however, its future leaders would have to abandon the notion that real progress is easy. Are the front-runners in the presidential campaign that is already underway prepared to go that far? Some may be, though they are keeping quiet about it, but most are products of the existing order so they will do nothing to upset it. Unless they do, however, the coming years will prove to be every bit as disappointing as the previous ones have been.

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