There can be no turning two hundred without regrets. Even so, the element of wistfulness was bound to play an especially large role in the Argentine case. The surprise for me last month, as a yanqui spectator auto-marooned these past few years in Buenos Aires, while I strolled up and down the Avenida 9 de Julio—broadest street in the world, so they say—picking my way through the throngs of Argentines out celebrating the May Revolution of 1810, was that the experience of the bicentenario should look so joyous, as it was later reported to have been in polls of the huge numbers who took part, and that the official commemoration of two centuries of Argentine history should at the same time concentrate on several of the darkest passages in the country’s history. On the occasion of the big parade, fighter jets flew overhead and gauchos rode by on horseback, just as you might expect. But there were also actors depicting militant workers calling for a general strike, to evoke the hundreds cut down by paramilitary gangs in the semana trágica of 1919; a gigantic installation, suspended on guy-wires, of the constitution in flames; a float portraying the Mothers of the Disappeared who campaigned to know their children’s whereabouts during the ruling junta’s frenzy of state terrorism in the late ’70s; and another troupe of actors in business suits tossing funny money to the crowd in much the way—this was the idea—that the Argentina of the 90s had plunged into a delirium, soon punctured, of fictitious prosperity. Still, the jostling coexistence of raucousness and grief probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Argentines on the whole are notable for their emotional expressiveness, and to be obliged to pretend that the country’s history had been a happier one would no doubt have been to repress emotion more generally, including joy at being Argentine, whatever that may mean: Argentines seem to find it significant about themselves that they can’t say.
Argentina is by no means the saddest country in the world, but it has often been felt to be the most tragic. A vast country, eighth largest in the world, endowed with a long coastline, the endless fertile plains of the pampas, a deep trove of mineral wealth, and torrents of fresh if muddy water, its bounty prompted the rather blasphemous fin-de-siècle boast Dios es argentino—God is Argentine—and for most of its history the republic has struck natives and new arrivals alike as teeming with potential wealth. That such a country, in the hands of a relatively small population of overwhelmingly European extraction, could only prosper appeared to many observers, down to the 1940s, something like an arithmetical certainty. Indeed for many years the figures looked good. The nation had become by 1910 the tenth richest in the world in GDP per head. Wheat exports made the country the “granary of the world,” and the French expression riche comme un Argentin dates from this time.
Of course the riches of the belle époque were not very evenly distributed. Often prophesized to one day resemble the US, Argentina at its first centennial was no less guilty than the rest of Latin America of the original and abiding creole sin: the monopolization of the land by an oligarchy. So immigrants who in the US might have joined the yeomanry in Argentina became peons. For the more numerous urban masses, little existed in the way of an industrial economy to absorb them into decently paid jobs. And political disenfranchisement corresponded to economic dispossession. Property qualifications restricted the vote to those with whom it could be trusted; and the government of 1910, the better to celebrate Argentina’s first “cien años de libertad,” suspended the constitution, imprisoned thousands of trade unionists, shuttered the anarchist press, and deported a hundred more undesirables. These tactics would come to seem both modest and premonitory in light of subsequent bouts of repression, culminating in the Proceso launched in 1976 that would disappear, torture, and kill tens of thousands of citizens suspected of leftist—often left-Peronist—activity, before expiring ignominiously after defeat in the Falklands War (a conflict which Borges memorably compared to two bald men fighting over a comb).
In her speeches last month, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a Peronist former senator who succeeded her husband Néstor in 2007, repeatedly contrasted present circumstances to those of 1910. In terms of voting rights and civil liberties, progress is undeniable, though it has only been achieved without reversals over the last quarter century. David Rock’s excellent 1980s-vintage history of Argentina concluded with the ominous suggestion that “liberal democracy still had the air of a parenthesis rather than permanence.” Today, amid Argentina’s longest sustained period of free elections, it’s the half century from 1930 to 1983 that increasingly looks like the parenthesis, though a very long and ultimately grisly one. The consolidation of civil freedom and popular rule is probably the development that more than any other lies behind the overwhelming judgment of Argentines, another finding of post-bicentenario polls, that the country is a better place at 200 than at 100.
The economic record is a source of more chagrin. Despite booking what the newspapers call “Chinese rates of growth” for the better part of the past eight years, Argentina is today only the sixty-sixth wealthiest country in GDP per head, and has been for decades a byword for economic calamity. The long Argentine swoon hit bottom in 2001–02, when the peso lost three quarters of its value and the Parisian boulevards of the capital were filled with casserole-banging citizens demanding the retirement of the political class as a whole. Even now the imposing beaux arts facades of Buenos Aires loom over broken sidewalks and streets plied, at night, by ragged cartoleros piloting repurposed grocery carts as they scavenge cardboard for a living. In a country of 40 million that produces enough food for 200 million, some citizens, especially in the remote northern provinces, nevertheless go hungry. And wags refer to the country’s external debt—a succubus intermittently preying on country’s life since the days of Rivadavia in the 1820s—as the “eternal debt.”
Argentina’s waves of economic trouble, its notorious squandering of potential, have made it an irresistible object lesson in how not to run a country. In this commentary, praise of electoral democracy is unanimous and often sincere. The real dispute concerns whether the country has been too complaisant or too rebellious a subject of foreign capital and pupil of economic orthodoxy. During the 1990s, Argentina was welcomed into the bosom of official opinion like a prodigal son come home. By privatizing state assets, adopting a hard money currency, curbing union power, and opening itself to unrestricted foreign investment—so the argument went—Argentina had rediscovered the virtuous economic liberalism of the nineteeth century. In the eyes of the Economist or the IMF, the administration of Carlos Menem, a Peronist who had seen the light, embodied the transformative wisdom of the Washington Consensus. Today Menem’s neoliberalizing achievements are mostly forgotten except by those who regard them as infamies, and the Argentina of the Kirchners has been assimilated, for mainstream purposes, into the narrative of an ineducable country bent on self-destruction. Last year, at a panel discussion on the global financial crisis, I listened to the conservative economic historian Niall Ferguson, a notably bombastic speaker, as he warned his more Keynesian interlocutors such as Paul Krugman against the perils of excessive government spending and loose monetary policy. Let the US engage in this sort of thing much longer, he thundered, “And you are Argentina!” It was clearly the most terrifying threat he could think of.
At the same time, the exit improvised from the chaos of December 2001—banks deposits frozen, looters and riot police in the streets, middle-class people in soup-kitchen lines, 27 demonstrators dead, and five presidents in two weeks—has lately begun to look to other eyes like an example worth studying. After all, in 2001 Argentina found itself in straits similar to those of a disquieting number of European counties today. With the peso shackled to the dollar at a rate of one-to-one, it had (as Greece, Spain, and the other so-called PIIGS on the periphery of the Eurozone do today) what appeared to be an irremediably overvalued currency sapping the competitiveness of its exports, along with difficulties in servicing its debt. The counsel of the IMF was naturally for austerity: the Argentines should maintain the currency peg and cut public expenditure, in the midst of a punishing recession, in order to cover interest rates.
In the event, the prodigal resumed its career as a runaway. In the presidential elections of 1999, all three major candidates—including the victorious De la Rua of the Radical party and Eduardo Duhalde, the Peronist who came in second—had pledged their loyalty to the neoliberal program of dollar-peso convertibility, privatization, and deregulation. Not three years later, this consensus was so much shattered glass on the street. In 2002, days after the Senate appointed Duhalde interim president, and only a few weeks after De la Rua had fled the Casa Rosada by helicopter, Argentina lets its currency float. And sink. The cheap peso restored exports to competitiveness and brought about a trade surplus. As for the debt, in 2003, the government of another Peronist, Néstor Kirchner, the first elected president since the crash, defaulted on nearly $100 billion in loans. Two years later Kirchner canceled Argentina’s debt with the IMF and refused further assistance from the Fund. The punishment for this heterodox course took the expected form: Argentina was frozen out of international credit markets, and had to turn to Chavez’s Venezuela for alternative financing. But the wilderness into which Argentina was banished was no thorny Patagonian steppe. After expanding at 8-9 percent annually since the devaluation, the economy is today more than half again as large as that of 2002. Even last year, virtually alone among the G-20, Argentina registered a positive rate of growth. It can never have been any Argentine’s dream that the country would come to shine, above all, as a pis aller. Nevertheless, with the prospect of grinding debt-deflation facing much of Europe, the Argentine recovery has lately provoked the thought, bruited even in the business press, that in political economy, as on the soccer field, being Argentina may beat being Greece. (It seems irresistibly allegorical that in the World Cup match of the two sides the Greeks were coached by a German—on loan from the Bundesbank?—and played a drearily conservative game, trying not to lose rather than to win.)
In his Judgment of a Century, perhaps the most authoritative contemporary reflection on the first centennial, Joaquín Gonzalez, a leading light of the reformist sector of the oligarchy, recognized that the Argentine working class would have to be awarded greater rights in the century to come, but was somewhat equivocal about how far these should extend. That, indeed, proved the big question. Gonzalez had no doubt, however, that the program of Argentina’s founders had so far been largely fulfilled, including in respect of the following article: “Degenerative or inadaptable components of the population such the Indian and the Negro have been eliminated.”
In Argentina, a slave and, later, servant contingent of African descent ceased to be numerically significant in the latter half of the 19th century, due to out-migration, disproportionate use as cannon-fodder in local wars, and invisible assimilation into the flood-tide of European immigration. And in contrast to the countries on the western slope of the Andes, whose tricolors were planted on the usurped territory of the Incan empire, the indigenous population of what is now Argentina was sparse even in pre-Colombian times. The genocidal accomplishment of which Gonzalez boasted had therefore mostly been the relatively simple work of the so-called Conquest of the Desert, a blitz of massacre and dispossession roughly contemporaneous with and parallel to the American effort against the Plains Indians after the Civil War.
A racially monolithic Argentina entailed not only a moral disaster that its leaders couldn’t perceive; there was also an unforeseen social irony. In most of Latin America, the distribution of wealth has always shown an inverse correlation, rough but scandalously obvious, with distribution of pigmentation. In a country like Argentina, the rule couldn’t hold to the same degree. Such racial homogeneity (amid a considerable ethnic diversity of Italians, Spaniards, Poles, Germans, Welsh, Lebanese, Ashkenazim, and so on: in his book on Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin remarks on the pleasures of reading the names in the Buenos Aires telephone directory) may have seemed to promise social harmony to the criollo elite, but this was not to be. Elsewhere on the continent, the overlap of racial and class difference has a way of naturalizing the latter by coincidence with the former. Argentina, deprived of this cruel convenience, therefore became the Latin American country in which class society had to show itself most nakedly.
Already Mariano Moreno, tribune of the 1810 revolution and a student of Adam Smith, had proposed that the country should specialize in the export of cattle goods and leave manufacture to its trading partners. By the first centennial, with Argentina drawing immigrants like few other countries in the world, this policy had yielded a basic dilemma. Even as Argentina, lacking the large (mestizo or indigenous) peasantry of most of its neighbors, became one of the most urbanized countries in the world, it had to rely on agricultural exports for the bulk of its income. The situation proposed a stark choice. Argentina could accept its conventional role as a supplier of primary commodities, but only at the cost of industrial underdevelopment and correspondingly high unemployment and low wages, to the distress of the swelling cities. On the other hand, developmentalist projects to stoke local manufacture and domestic demand have typically spelled reduced export earnings and spurred high inflation, while incurring the wrath, episodically well-armed, of the landed elite. Developmentalism vs. dependency is an ancient quarrel here, and of course a case can be made either way. But it may suggest something about the relative strengths of the opposing arguments that the coups that put an end to such discussions came exclusively from the right. (One case is less clear: the 1943 officers’ revolt in which Péron participated replaced liberals, in the economic sense, with nationalists—but neither group had achieved power by democratic means.)
The election of President Hipólito Yrigoyen in 1916 was the country’s first by universal male suffrage, and the next baker’s dozen years, a period dominated by Yrigoyen and his Radical party, witnessed a first push to industrialize an overwhelmingly agricultural economy, as well the creation of a state oil firm to counter the dominion of the American Standard Oil. It looked for a season as if the republic was on the path to becoming the democratic, industrialized, and economically decolonized country it has never quite succeeded in being. With the outbreak of the Depression, however, prosperity and democracy expired more or less at once. Yrigoyen, two years into a nonconsecutive second term, fell to a military coup in the southern winter of 1930. The ensuing decades saw the consolidation of a middle class, the fitful acceptance of collective bargaining rights, and the confinement of poverty, by the mid-‘70s, to less than a tenth of the population—a figure Americans might have envied—but also more military interventions and episodes of hyperinflation, censorship of the press, and official recourse to torture than are easy to count. At the center of the confused panorama crouches the jowly sphinx of Argentine political history, Juan Domingo Perón.
In Two Hundred Years of Peronism, a recent album by the superbly jaundiced cartoonist Miguel Rep, one witty frame depicts the explorer Cristobal Péron discovering the Americas. The opaque figure of Perón refracts all earlier and subsequent beams of Argentine history. A man twice awarded the presidency in fair elections, in 1946 and 1951, he was also a tyrant and a censor. The great champion of labor, addressing the so-called shirtless masses from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, privately explained to American officials that minimum wage and compulsory holiday legislation were only so much expedient anti-Communism; it has never been clear to which audience he was speaking more sincerely. And ultimately, of course, the same army that had awarded Colonel Péron the post of secretary of labor in 1943 overthrew him as president in 1955. The contradictory character of Peronism has yielded several mystifying historical passages—including one in the early ’70s, and another, milder confusion today—in which Peronism has encompassed a clear majority of political actors without producing any agreement about what this does or should mean. Frondizi’s government, in the early ’60s, was often characterized as Peronism without Péron, and no doubt many of the fervent left Peronists whom Péron, upon his return from Spanish exile in 1973, tried to purge from the movement before dying of heart failure less than a year later, considered that Péron had been restored without Peronism.
From election in 1946 to overthrow in 1955, Péron’s nationalistic economic policy had likewise pursued two different and contradictory paths. At first, he turned his back on the exporters of meat and cereals by attempting to divert their profits into a program of industrial production geared to urban, working-class consumption. In the same initial postwar years, he could boast of paying off the national debt and nationalizing the railroads. (It is mostly this Perón who stands behind at least the rhetoric of the Kirchners’ contemporary Peronism—indeed the pension program has been renationalized and the debt stands at less than half its level of 2002.) A five-year plan promulgated in 1946 contained this bold declaration: “In 1810 we were liberated politically; today we long for economic independence.” Prior to any self-sufficiency, however, Argentina would need capital equipment and raw materials it couldn’t furnish for itself. Their purchase required foreign currency, especially dollars or something convertible into dollars (as the UK’s substantial wartime debt with Argentina, denominated in pounds sterling, ceased to be in 1948), and these funds could only come from the sale of basic commodities on the international market and investment from abroad. Thus, no sooner had the the road to economic independence been taken than it appeared to double back through increased dependency. Now Péron changed direction and sought to favor agriculture over industry, to cultivate new foreign markets for farm products, to welcome outside investment in the form of multinationals, and to dampen the inflationary kindling of high wages. (Menem’s Peronism of the ’90s hewed more closely to this course.)
It might appear obvious that the solution—a middle way—lay in a combination of increased agricultural exports with the simultaneous promotion of a local industry turning out goods for domestic and regional consumption. Indeed, this balancing act was just the one Péron meant eventually to bring off, and what the Kirchners seem to be attempting two generations later. But no such balance could be struck, at least not by Péron or any of his fifteen successors—some democratically elected and most not, and one of them, of course, his own diminished person—between 1955 and 1989.
It’s often said about Argentina, where right-wing coups enjoyed the enthusiasm but never the direct sponsorship of Washington, that unlike much of the rest of Latin America its troubles have been mostly of its own perverse making. The claim contains a good deal of truth. No doubt almost any consistent economic policy and stable form of government would have served Argentina better between World War II and the Falklands debacle than constant, bloody tergiversation. But it is not necessary to excuse the country’s periods of either elected confusion or dictatorial pronunciamento to observe that few if any countries can have suffered more than Argentina from the agricultural protectionism that makes North Atlantic capitalism such a fundamentally, rather than merely incidentally, hypocritical phenomenon. Until Menem, Argentina was often held to illustrate the folly of import-substituting developmentalism: high inflation, shoddy goods, inefficient services. It should have concentrated instead on its comparative advantage as a producer of foodstuffs, never mind that less than 1 percent of the population is employed by agriculture. Granting this premise: to whom should the Argentines have sold their surplus cereals? The US, the Commonwealth, and the European Economic Community were all protected markets extending lavish subsidies to farmers or agribusiness. Ironically, it took Communist China and the USSR opening up their markets to Argentine grain in the 60s for the country to make much consistent use of the comparative advantage that, according to the free-trade theory that supplies the North Atlantic alibi, should have formed its birthright. Argentines can be blamed for not making up their minds about whether to favor free trade or protectionism, but it should be recalled that Argentina, offered this choice, could never so easily reply “Both” as Europe or North America. In fact, the North Atlantic preference—roughly speaking, for protection of agriculture and industrial free trade—is merely, you might say, an inverted Peronism.
In 1998, during the so-called Asian flu crisis, the director of the IMF awarded Argentina a certificate of rude good health: “The experience of Argentina in recent years has been exemplary. … Argentina has a story to tell the world: a story which is about the importance of fiscal discipline, of structural change, and of monetary policy rigorously maintained.” In recognition of these reforms, the country was swamped with foreign capital pursuing the exaggerated returns attendant on a bloated currency. The most prominent results were concentration of land titles in fewer hands, and the privatization of mineral rights and public services. Meanwhile the displacement of small concerns by multinationals and the resulting declines in wages and employment were blows cushioned, at least, by the strength of the peso. Dollar-peso convertibility ultimately worked best of all, of course, for those Argentines wealthy and well connected enough to have been alerted, in 2001, to its imminent suspension. Storing dollars abroad while the peso-denominated bank accounts of their compatriots were frozen and debased, they became the beneficiaries of what the neoliberal von Mises institute recognized as an unprecedented “confiscatory deflation,” a “bank robbery by the political elites.” The corralito that restricted bank withdrawals while the currency plummeted was naturally the work of the same economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, who had converted Menem to the currency peg.
Menem himself presents, in his way, as typical a figure of the ’90s as Clinton or Blair. He too bent a political party historically associated with egalitarianism to neoliberal ends. A specially Argentine aspect of Menem’s performance was that, at the start of his tenure, he granted a brace of presidential pardons to members of the military convicted of the torture and murder of “subversives,” many of them, of course, left Peronists. Menem’s amnesty offers another contribution to the bafflement extranjeros typically feel on the subject of Peronism.
Péron’s villainy, his most prominent trait abroad, is in Argentina itself merely the shadow of his eminence. The fact is that, since 1946, Argentines have almost always chosen to be governed by Peronists when this preference could be legally expressed. This broad feeling probably owes simply to Péron’s air of looking out for ordinary people, and his evident devotion to Argentina. The most characteristic term of abuse uttered by Eva Péron, in her alternately vicious and sentimental harangues, may have been vendepatria, a seller-out of the country. The epithet implied that some Argentines held their own economic interest decisively above that of the country at large. Whatever else Peronism has meant, it has been supposed to mean that you weren’t a vendepatria. Part of the grotesquerie of the Menem years and their immediate sequel was that the hysterical term, no longer much in use, acquired a more literal meaning than perhaps ever before.
Nowadays, Argentina’s story seems to illustrate a different moral than in the late ’90s. “The lesson is, we must pay attention to bubbles,” said Roberto Lavagna, economic minister of the time, in 2003. “With stocks, or companies, or countries, all are part of the same phenomenon. Probably Argentina is the best example of a country.”
In the chaotic early ’70s—Péron was greeted at the airport, on his return from exile, by a gun battle between left- and right-wing supporters—Néstor and Cristina Kirchner were members of the leftist Peronist Youth in La Plata, not far from Buenos Aires. This milieu put them in touch with developmentalist economic ideas of the kind of associated with the Argentine economist Raúl Prebish, as well as with a number of future victims of the junta. Three decades later, the Kirchners have by no means governed as radicals—they belong to the center left—but the legacy of their militant youth is patent in what are arguably the two central features of their tenure: the rejection of neoliberalism and the placement of the last dictatorship at the center of national memory.
The commemoration of the junta and its victims was, of these two signals, the one flashing more brightly in the public observance of the bicentennial. Charged with organizing the celebrations, the federal government transformed the Avenida 9 de Julio into the Paseo del Bicentenario and filled its length and breadth with stalls uncontroversially dedicated to each Argentine province. But amid the innocent regional and patriotic boosterism they also permitted more somber installations, including a sarcastic triumphal arch by the artist Léon Ferrari likening the junta (and the local Catholic hierarcy who blessed its crimes) in no uncertain terms to the Nazis, and an odd rotating diorama, clumsy but affecting, consisting of life-sized figures representing the Mothers of the Disappeared. In the same vicinity, a giant wall magnified and assembled grainy mug shots—familiar sights but always powerful—of the dictatorship’s mainly youthful victims. (Their faces testify not only to the radicalism of youth; in the early ’70s, leftist currents had been prohibited for so long that their membership had largely skipped a generation.) Together these exhibits stood at the symbolic center of the capital, halfway between the Casa Rosada and the congressional palace.
This iconography corresponds to the reopening of prosecutions, under the Kirchners, for violations of human rights committed under the dictatorship. Pressure from the still restive armed forces had led Alfonsín, during the ’80s, to declare an end to further trials of military officials, while Menem, of course, had been ready with his pardons. It took Néstor Kirchner’s appointment of a new Supreme Court in 2003 to revoke the impunity covering the dictatorship and its more blood-stained executors. You might call Kirchner’s court-packing maneuver a case of executive interference with the judiciary or a typical instance of Latin American hyper-presidentalism. You might also regard it as a decisive step in the causes of legality and national memory. Both the criticism and the praise seem fair enough, but the latter is more timely: the generals and officers of the 70s won’t live forever.
Just days before the bicentennial celebrations, José Martínez de Hoz, scion of the one of the country’s great land-owning families and minister of the economy under the dictatorship—the man most responsible for the odious debt, contracted by a dictatorship, that a democracy must repay—was handed a long sentence for his role in the kidnapping of a businessman and his son in 1977. His case is only one of dozens to have been opened in recent years, with many hearings scheduled up and down the country—an index of the junta’s reach—for the months ahead.
In economics, the Kirchners have also tacked leftward. The economy remains dominated by extractive, export-oriented mining and agricultural concerns, which have polluted the land and—in the case of the carcinogenic pesticides sprayed over transgenic soya crops—preyed on people’s health across Argentina. Stricter and more humane regulation of these industries would have to rank high among the priorities of any future progressive administration. Still, on the whole a neo-developmentalist economic policy appears to have paid off. The cheap peso has stimulated consumption of more locally produced goods, and, along with high commodity prices, helped to induce a export boom, not only of primary products but of finished goods (notably cars sold to Brazil). The resulting fiscal surplus has averted another default, and enabled the government to sharply reduce its debt (to a level, it may be worth noting, proportionately far below that of the US or UK, not to mention Greece or Spain). The 2003 default was supposed to ostracize Argentina from the bond markets more or less indefinitely, but it looks as if the healthy state of the government’s books may permit borrowing again at a single-digit interest rate. According to the line taken by the English-speaking business press (if the term is not redundant), the Kirchners’ heterodoxy has frightened off vital foreign investment. The figures say something else: between 1993 and 1998—the period of the boom—total investment as a percentage of GDP was inferior to the prevailing average from 2003 to 2008; the difference lies mostly in the national or international provenance of these capitals. The weak point of the economy remains high inflation, estimated by most private economists, who ignore the government’s massaged figures, at 15 to 20 percent annually: a far cry from prior bouts of hyperinflation, and perhaps an enviable condition in the eyes of countries facing deflation, but a serious problem all the same.
Interest on “the eternal debt” will consume a depressing amount of Argentine income for decades to come, unless the parties of the left get their way and the debt is repudiated altogether. Meanwhile, CFK, as the papers called la presidenta, has explicitly sought to recover the country’s lost status as “the most egalitarian country in Latin America.” One basic device of this project has been the Asignación Universal por Hijo, offering a modest monthly lump sum, awarded per child, to unemployed or informally employed parents. According to the UN, the resulting reduction of child poverty has been swift and significant, and indigence among children nearly wiped out. The other recent advance of this kind covers the old rather than the young. State pensions now extend, for the first time in decades, to nearly all retired people, including those whose work in the informal sector prevented them from contributing the associated taxes. In the event of another global recession, these policies will also efficiently fulfill a countercylical role.
At the May 25 bicentenary state dinner, framed photographs of both Juan and Evita Péron were on display. But these were not the only presiding spirits. A photo of Che Guevara in his beret said by implication: We are a government of the left. A photo of thick and jaunty Yrigoyen in his top hat said: We have resumed being a true democracy. And images of the revolutionary leaders of other Latin American countries announced what Argentines of more prosperous and prejudiced times often wished to deny: We are another Latin American country, and no stray satellite of Europe.
Assuming Néstor Kirchner will compete for presidency again next year, the odds may not be in his favor. In a sense, the success of kirchnerismo has undermined the kirchnerista base. Now that the middle classes have been able to step clear of the abyss that opened under their feet in 2001, they are less inclined than before to identify with the lower orders who make up the traditional constituency—or clientele, in the cynical reading—of Peronism. Peronism of some kind will still most likely prevail. The leading “dissident Péronists” are already rehearsing proposals that the nation stop picking at the scab of 70s, and that Argentina offer a “favorable business climate” again. Amnesty for torturers and a rollback of redistribution are possible outcomes. It would be foolish, at this late date, to suppose that the wheels of Argentine politics have stopped spinning in their accustomed ruts. Still, it won’t be easy to undo either the legal accountability currently afflicting a handful of old ghouls, or the steps toward equality benefiting a great swath of the population. Long-run economic trends may also favor the firming-up of Argentine democracy, if commodity prices remain as high as is widely anticipated over the decades to come. Nearly self-sufficient in petroleum, Argentina also possesses an enviable abundance of fresh water and arable land. As disastrous as its last century was, the country has less to fear than most from the shortages that may characterize the next hundred years.
For my part, political impressions—the ideas of a foreigner and correct, if at all, largely by accident—play a fairly small role in my reasons for living in Buenos Aires. Other considerations, sentimental and practical, have been decisive. And sometimes I do wonder what I can be doing, to have installed myself in a half-wrecked country at the bottom of the world, so far my from the US and its real if polluted comforts. Still, something compels me to stay, and the historical position Argentina occupies just now must form a part of that compound motive. I think that I like it to live in a country where an ideology still regnant in the US has come to grief; where crisis has enforced creativity; where the political spectrum is not exhausted by two colors; and where very little that matters is taken for granted. It has also done me some kind of good to live in a country that, for all its troubles, appears to be on the mend, rather than, like my own, the spellbound captive of its decline. At the moment the future looks bright for Argentina. Then again, it often has.