May 26, 2013
Democracy: so near, so far
Ever since I resumed my life in Argentina, so rudely interrupted by the military dictatorship, I have been haunted by a question that, as yet, has no clear answer.
Is the government that was headed first by the late Néstor Kirchner and currently by his widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, genuinely democratic?
Since my retirement three years ago, my wife and I have been able to spend roughly half a year in the apartment where our marriage began more than half a century ago. We have discovered that nothing is more exhilarating than a second lease of life in a city and a country that we both love with a love that is more than love. My wife has returned to her birth place and I have returned to the city where I first stepped ashore from the Royal Mail liner Highland Monarch on April 4, 1959, to join the staff of the Buenos Aires Herald.
I did not fall in love with Buenos Aires at first sight. The ramshackle city was accurately described by The Economist as resembling Communist East Berlin. The Peronist Era and the military’s “Liberating Revolution,” which replaced a popular dictatorship with an unpopular dictatorship, had taken a toll on the city and its people.
But, as the editors of the Herald had written to tell me, there was hope in the air because after more than a quarter of a century Argentina was returning to democracy. At long last, Argentina had an elected president who was not wearing a military uniform. The civilian president was Dr. Arturo Frondizi, a cerebral politician who made up for his lack of charisma with daring ideas and a global vision for Argentina. He was so intelligent that the generals decided he must be a Communist. So they set out to overthrow him and on the 34th attempt they succeeded, sending him to the island of Martín García.
I wish I could say with total conviction that today Argentine democracy is no longer in danger. There are still indications, far more subtle than in Frondizi’s time, of course, that democracy is still not firmly rooted. The threat to democracy in Argentina, as in Venezuela and Ecuador, is not from the military. The new authoritarians in those countries are on the left and both were elected. In Honduras, the threat to democracy stems from the right-wing establishment, with the military playing a minor role. I hesitate to mention Argentina in the same paragraph as Venezuela, but watching Cristina cuddling up to Hugo is an embarrassing sight and witnessing Chavista-like economic policies at work is alarming.
These anxieties aside, it has been a joy to return to live again in one of the world’s great cities, this City of Cities. At this time, Argentina is undergoing a cultural revival that is similar to the artistic fervour and academic rebirth that characterized Frondizi’s presidency. I summoned Frondizi’s ghost because I thought he might help me answer the question I posed at the outset. Obviously (perhaps “seemingly” would be closer to reality bearing in mind Argentina’s history) there is no danger of a coup. Whether or not Argentina can be declared to be democratic depends on the government. By and large, I think that democracy as such is not in danger. But I do not sense, as I did with Frondizi, that the government is genuinely democratic. One of the reasons, I think, is that the Kirchner administrations have their roots in the Montonero/ERP/et al. insurgencies of the 1970s. As many prominent leaders of that escape from responsibility into violence have declared, they weren’t interested in bourgeois democracy. They had Fidel Castro’s Cuba, or the illusion that Che Guevara cherished of “many Vietnams” in Latin America in mind. I recall the “best and brightest” of the Montonero capos expressing their admiration for the Soviet Union and, believe it or not, Mao’s horror show in China.
I very much want to believe that the Kirchner administration is democratic, but it fails so many tests of democracy. It is intolerant and authoritarian toward opposition parties while tolerating corruption in the government and it carelessly violates rules and regulations governing institutions like the Central Bank. It flaunts Supreme Court rulings. Personally, I fear that the objective of the government is to establish a state media system, which is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes.
Yet I still believe that the country itself is securely democratic. I think a decision has been made by that strange force we call “The People.” And I don’t think that any power in Argentina can take democracy away from the people, particularly now that the likelihood of the establishment of a ruling dynasty has faded.
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I was delighted by the responses to my question to readers in a recent column. I asked: “Was (President Néstor) Kirchner risking his popularity by pushing for judicial reforms in order to bring the military to trial or was he astutely harnessing popular anger toward the military dictatorship for political gain?”
Wayne Bernhardson writes from Oakland, California:
In response to your question, I think Kirchner was very astute in assessing public opinion about the military dictatorship but, as we all know, public opinion can be extremely volatile — especially in Argentina — so it was not without risk. I also think him perhaps the most opportunistic of politicians, but in this context that doesn’t matter to me — it was more important that he do the right thing (for what it’s worth, my brother-in-law’s first wife disappeared shortly after giving birth but, fortunately, her son was not with her at the time or he might have been given to a military family).
Meanwhile, in this context, I see Kirchner much as I did Margaret Thatcher in the Malvinas/Falklands war, who did the right thing even if, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. The comparison, though, would enrage most Kirchnerites.
From Ecuador, Noel and Jill Bates give their view of Argentine attitudes toward the Dirty War:
My wife and I lived in Buenos Aires for three months and travelled through most of the country for an additional three months in 2009
While in the city we read as much as we could about the Dirty War, including your son’s book. The people we talked to fell into two or three categories.
Those who suffered directly or indirectly, those who knew but felt powerless to do anything and those who engaged in the practice which the Law calls “willful blindness.”
This group included successful businessmen, women whose husbands surely knew what was happening — in this case a doctor, and farmers (the successful ones).
We saw the film Night of the Pencils, visited (the Mothers) in Plaza de Mayo, read as many other books as we could.
And on several occasions watched while Néstor and Cristina engaged in the unseemly attacks on the Clarín Group — which runs papers I personally can’t stand.
To deny the Dirty War is today a denial of mounds of fact and history. I cannot condone the turning of a blind eye then but I think I may understand it. To deny the facts today is a demonstration of moral turpitude.
Keep telling it like it is Bob!
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My thanks to all readers who wrote to me. Your opinions and comments views are warmly welcome at email@example.com or send a letter to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.