There can be no turning 200 without regrets. Even so, the element of wistfulness was bound to be especially prominent in the Argentine case. The surprise for me as a yanqui spectator auto-marooned these past few years in Buenos Aires, while I wandered up and down the Avenida 9 de Julio, picking my way through the throngs of Argentines out celebrating the May Revolution of 1810, was that the experience of the bicentennial should at once look so joyous (as polls of the huge numbers who took part later confirmed) and that the official commemoration of two centuries of Argentine history should at the same time concentrate on 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 cut down by paramilitary gangs in the “tragic week” of 1919; a gigantic installation, suspended on guy-wires, of the constitution in flames; a float portraying the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who campaigned to know their missing 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, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me to see raucousness and grief consorting. 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 such argentinidad may mean: Argentines seem to find it significant about themselves that they can’t say.
Argentina is hardly the saddest country in the world, but it has often been felt to be the most tragic. The sentiment derives in part from an envious glance at other large settler colonialist countries — the US, Canada, Australia — that secured measures of peace and prosperity unknown here for generations. A vast country, eighth largest in the world, endowed with a long Atlantic 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 much of its earlier history the republic struck natives and new arrivals alike as teeming with potential wealth. That such a country could only prosper in the hands of a relatively small population of overwhelmingly European extraction appeared a near certainty to many observers, well into the 20th century. And for a while the figures did look good. Argentina’s economy was by 1910 the ninth largest, with a per capita GDP superior to Germany’s. The French expression riche comme un Argentin dates from this time. Today it could only sound sarcastic.
Of course the riches of the belle époque were not very evenly distributed. Often prophesied to one day resemble the US, Argentina at its first centennial was no less guilty than the rest of Latin America of the region’s original and abiding sin: the monopolization of the land by an oligarchy. So immigrants who in the American Midwest might have joined the yeomanry became, in Argentina, peons and sharecroppers. For the more numerous urban masses, little existed in the way of an industrial economy to absorb them into decently paid work. Property qualifications meanwhile 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 1976 — after a sixth military coup since the Depression — in the Proceso de Reorganizatión Nacional. The dictatorship disappeared, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of citizens suspected of leftist activity, before expiring ignominiously after defeat in the Falklands War with Britain (a conflict which Borges memorably compared to two bald men fighting over a comb).
Borges himself finally quit “that bad habit, Buenos Aires,” in 1986, and went abroad to die, in Geneva. Belated disgust at the dictatorship, which surrendered to free elections in 1983 after having run up a foreign debt almost as extravagant as its body count, seems to have influenced his choice of an exile’s death. Two decades earlier, he had still been able to imagine, patriotically, an oath sworn by the country’s founders “to be something unknown to them, to be Argentines.” “No one is the homeland — but we all are,” had been the refrain of his ode to Argentine blankness and potential. By the ’80s and after, the ringing emptiness of the country, of its land and national identity, had come to tell more of devastation than of promise. Nor did prosperity return with democracy. In the southern summer of 2001 – 02, Argentina suffered one of the world’s worst economic collapses since the Depression. In a country that had been a byword for economic calamity for decades, this tended to suggest, in the way of an addict’s relapse, a hopeless case.
In her speeches marking the bicentennial, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner 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 ’80s-vintage history of Argentina concluded with the ominous suggestion that “liberal democracy still had the air of 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, if a long and grisly one. The post-dictatorial consolidation of civil freedom and popular rule is probably the development that more than any other lies behind the judgment of most Argentines — another finding of post-bicentennial polls — that the country is a better place at 200 than at 100.
The economic record prompts more chagrin. Despite booking what the Buenos Aires dailies call “Chinese rates of growth” for the better part of the past eight years, Argentina today is only something like the fifty-seventh wealthiest country in GDP per capita. The long Argentine swoon hit bottom with the 2001–02 crisis, when the peso lost three quarters of its value, the fraction of the population below the poverty line rose to one half, and the Parisian boulevards of the capital filled with angry citizens clamoring with pots and pans for the wholesale retirement of the political class. Even now the imposing beaux arts facades of the capital loom over broken sidewalks and streets plied at night by ragged cartoneros piloting repurposed grocery carts as they scavenge cardboard. In a country of forty million that produces food enough for seven times that many, some children, especially in the remote northern provinces, lack adequate nutrition (or did — a point to take up later — until just the other day).
Why did so proverbially promising a country fail to pan out? Argentina’s notorious squandering of potential has made it an irresistible object lesson. This is equally so among professional economists and in the business press (the opinions of the two groups tend to coincide), and for a local and international left drawing an opposite conclusion from the Argentine experience. On both sides, praise of electoral democracy is unanimous and often sincere. The real substance of the dispute concerns whether Argentina has been too complaisant (according to the left) or too rebellious (to the right) a subject of foreign capital and a pupil of economic orthodoxy.
From the ascension of legendary populist Juan Perón to the presidency in 1946 through the end of the cold war, Argentina was notorious for its economic nationalism, bouts of hyperinflation, and an inefficient, highly unionized industrial sector. But so did the country become the most egalitarian in South America, with the most substantial middle class, until this development was aborted by the 1976 coup. The dictators banned the Peronist party, as had previous de facto regimes, and launched a neoliberal program it took until the 1990s to complete. It was Carlos Menem, a Peronist who had seen the neoliberal light, who over two presidential terms (1989 –99) restored Argentina to the bosom of orthodox opinion. By privatizing state assets, adopting a hard money currency, curbing union power, and opening itself to unrestricted foreign investment — so the argument went — the Argentina of the ’90s had rediscovered the virtuous economic liberalism of the long 19th century and shaken off the statist legacy of Perón. For the Economist or the IMF, the country embodied the transformative wisdom of the Washington Consensus.
In 1998, as the so-called Asian flu crisis collapsed the South Korean, Indonesian, and Thai currencies, the director of the IMF awarded Argentina a certificate of good health: “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.” Fiscal discipline meant that the government would not engage in debt-financed countercyclical stimulus; structural change alluded to privatization, financial deregulation, and union-busting; and rigorous monetary policy referred to pegging the peso’s value to that of the dollar at a rate of one-to-one (depriving the country of the recourse of responding to changes in the balance of trade through inflation). Encomia to these neoliberalizing achievements were the stuff of virtually all Argentina coverage in the English-language business press of the ’90s.
Yet by 1998 Argentina — largely deindustrialized, its privatization mostly completed, and its crucial agricultural and mining sectors suffering from a worldwide fall in commodity prices — had slid into deep recession. At home, the wage share of GDP, as high as 50 percent on the eve on the 1976 coup, had sunk toward 20 percent: so much for internal sources of demand. As for external sources, the artificially expensive peso made Argentine exports uncompetitive in the markets of its major trading partners, Brazil and the EU. Nevertheless, in the presidential elections of 1999 all major candidates — including the victorious De la Rúa of the center-left Radical party and the Peronist who came in second — pledged themselves to the neoliberal program hailed by the IMF. In effect, the country had abjured all available weapons for combating recession. Thus Argentina entered the new century in straits similar to those of a disquieting number of European counties today. With the peso shackled to the dollar, 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 mounting difficulties servicing its debt as tax receipts dwindled in the face of recession.
The counsel of the IMF was naturally for austerity. The Argentines should maintain dollar convertibility — that is, a pricey currency — and trim public expenditure in order to cover interest payments. The journalist Paul Blustein’s useful if intellectually conventional chronicle of the Argentine debacle, And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) (2005), quotes a number of consultants to the IMF claiming to have acknowledged “privately” that the Argentine economy, precisely because of the commitment to austerity, was growing too slowly for Buenos Aires to maintain debt service and avert default. Publicly, everyone kept up a brave face, and the neoliberal consensus was hardly questioned until the windows of banks lay smashed in the street.
In December 2001, economics minister Domingo Cavallo, the architect of peso-dollar convertibility (who had also obliged the last dictatorship as president of the central bank), froze the savings deposits of ordinary citizens. Looters and riot police took to the streets, middle class people joined soup-kitchen lines, twenty-seven demonstrators died, and four presidents were sworn in over two weeks. In January 2002, only a few weeks after President De la Rúa had fled the Casa Rosada by helicopter, Argentina let the peso float. Within a few months, it had shed three quarters of its value. Meanwhile the country suspended payment on nearly $100 billion in loans, the largest default in history.
Austerity in the face of gigantic indebtedness had, in other words, yielded precisely the devaluation and default it was supposed to prevent. If the Argentine experience is truly as exemplary as the IMF once maintained, the story can’t be a heartening one in light of the turn toward austerity today being undertaken in Europe and threatened in the US.
But there is a sequel, not yet concluded. In the years since the crash, the cheap peso, in combination with the government’s industrial policy, income support to the poor and elderly, and encouragement of aggressive collective bargaining, has stimulated consumption of more locally produced goods. Recent years have also witnessed an export boom, not only of raw materials but also of finished goods (notably cars to Brazil). The resulting fiscal surplus has spared the country another default, and enabled it to sharply reduce its debt — to a level proportionately far below that of the US or UK, not to mention Greece or Spain. Equally decisive in the reduction of debt to manageable levels was the choice in 2003 of another Peronist — Néstor Kirchner, the first elected president since the crash and the late husband of the current president — to offer foreign creditors an extremely close “haircut” in which they would receive twenty-five cents on the dollar. Kirchner’s economics minister later said he had mentioned the figure of twenty-five cents only for purposes of illustration; he had never expected Kirchner to stiff bond holders to such a degree.
The punishment for Kirchner’s heterodox course took an unsurprising form: Argentina was frozen out of international credit markets, and had to turn to Chavez’s Venezuela for financing. But the wilderness into which Argentina was banished was no thorny Patagonian steppe. After expanding at nearly 8 percent annually since the devaluation, the economy, one of the fastest growing in the world, is today more than half again as large as in 2002. Even in 2009, 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, at 200, as a pis aller, a last resort after disaster. Nevertheless, with the prospect of grinding debt-deflation confronting much of the capitalist core, the Argentine recovery has provoked the thought, murmured even in the business press, that being Argentina may not be so bad after all.
The optimistic national mood that seemed to achieve self-consciousness in the observation of the bicentennial might have been expected to carry Néstor Kirchner to victory in the presidential elections of this year. The rescuer of his country, as he appeared to many on the left and among the poor, might have succeeded his wife as she had succeeded him. This seemed the likeliest outcome until October 27, 2010, when Kirchner was felled by a massive heart attack — a sad contingency that supplanted the scheduled celebration of the bicentennial as the decisive event of last year. Whether kirchnerismo can survive Kirchner himself, in the form of a second mandate for his capable and eloquent widow, is the first big question of Argentine politics in the country’s third century.
Argentina takes its name from the Latin for silver, and since the days of Spanish colonization the bulk of the country’s exports and imports have been shipped by way of the great estuary, the Rio de la Plata, Spanish for river of silver, on one bank of which Buenos Aires sprang up as an entrepôt. The ore alluded to in these covetous names came not from what is today Argentina but mainly from Potosí in Bolivia, fount of so much of capitalism’s primitive accumulation of silver. Even so, Argentina’s name has proved apt, and not only for vaunting riches that failed to materialize. There is a way in which life and history here seem more purely about plata, as money is familiarly called, than just about anywhere else.
Class war in Argentina has raged with heightened acrimony in part because of the country’s unusually homogenous racial composition. In his Judgment of a Century (1910), perhaps the most authoritative contemporary reflections 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 ahead, but was 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 succeeded in the following respect: “Degenerative or inadaptable components of the population such as the Indian and the Negro have been eliminated.”
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 Incas, the indigenous population was sparse even in pre-Colombian times. The genocidal accomplishment of which Gonzalez boasted had therefore mostly been the relatively simple work of the “Conquest of the Desert,” a blitz of Indian-killing and land robbery roughly parallel to the American effort against the Plains Indians. (It is a brutal truism of colonial history that native peoples fare better with mountains and forests to shelter them; the flat pampas, beckoning the Argentines with agricultural promise, also denied protection to the Indians.)
In most of Latin America, the distribution of wealth has always shown an inverse correlation, rough but obvious, with that of pigmentation: light-skinned descendants of Europeans at the top, darker-skinned people of native descent at the bottom. 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, Jews, Armenians, Irish, Lebanese, and so on: in his book on Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin remarks on the pleasures of the names in the Buenos Aires phone book) may have promised social harmony to the creole 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, became the Latin American country in which class society exhibited itself most nakedly.
Argentina’s land-owning ruling class has always bankrolled itself through the sale of commodities. Already Mariano Moreno, tribune of the 1810 revolution which deposed the Spanish viceroy in Buenos Aires, and a reader of Adam Smith, had proposed that the country should specialize in the export of cattle goods and leave manufacture to its trading partners. Whatever this policy’s original merits, by the first centennial it had yielded a basic dilemma. Even as the country, lacking the large mestizo or indigenous peasantry of its neighbors, became one of the most urbanized in the world, with new immigrants swelling the cities, it relied on the countryside for the bulk of its income.
This proposed a stark choice. Argentina could confine itself to its traditional role as a supplier of primary commodities — of grains, meat, wool, and minerals — and leave the resulting rents for its narrow land-owning class to distribute parsimoniously among its servants and agricultural hands. But this (neo)liberal modelo agroexportador would mean industrial underdevelopment and correspondingly high unemployment and low wages, to the distress of the cities. On the other hand, “developmentalist” projects to stoke local manufacture and domestic demand typically spell reduced export earnings for commodity exporters, thanks to increased internal consumption and a higher wage bill, and spur inflation. Developmentalist governments from Perón’s to Cristina Kirchner’s have also attempted to siphon off the profits of the great agricultural producers, incurring the wrath, historically well-armed, of the landed elite.
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, saw a first push to industrialize an overwhelmingly rural economy, as well as 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, economically decolonized country it has never quite succeeded in being. But with the outbreak of the Depression, 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.
Through the ’30s and into World War II, a series of formally democratic governments, installed by “patriotic fraud” at the ballot box, hosted an intramural debate among the elite over economic liberalism versus “nationalism.” The liberals favored a form of free trade that allowed continued British dominance of banking and ownership of the railroads, and would neither impose import duties to promote local industry nor seriously tax agricultural exports. The nationalists — including the great developmentalist economist Raúl Prebisch — argued for nationalization of the railroads, and pioneered what over the next decades came to be known throughout Latin America as “import substitution,” in which locally made finished goods competed with foreign imports. In 1943, a group of (economically) nationalist military officers overthrew an (economically) liberal president who had secured his position by fraud. Among them was Juan Domingo Perón, blocky sphinx of Argentine history.
In Two Hundred Years of Peronism, a recent collection by the superbly jaundiced cartoonist Miguel Rep, one witty frame depicts the explorer Cristobal Perón discovering the Americas. The opaque figure of Perón refracts all earlier and subsequent beams of Argentine history. He also offers one of the purest examples of Latin American populism, with a prominent forerunner in Vargas in Brazil and a delayed echo in Venezuela’s Chavez. Born at the end of the 19th century to a failed small rancher, he rose through the ranks of the army to become a colonel. The reformist junta of 1943 installed Perón as minister of labor, and called elections in 1946. Perón won the presidency in a free and fair contest and was reelected in 1951, only to be deposed by the army four years later to the applause of business and the church. (Three years earlier his second wife, Eva Perón, a former actress and an impassioned champion of the working class, had succumbed to cancer and been apotheosized as a martyr of the laboring poor.)
Even in exile in Franco’s Spain after 1955, and with his Peronist Party banned, Perón dominated Argentine politics. His threatening example supplied the explicit rationale for military rule by the right, as well as the implicit inspiration for electoral movements of the center-left. By the time he was restored to Argentine soil in 1973 and assumed the presidency for a third and final time, his name was invoked by an urban guerilla citing him along with Ché and Mao — even as he winked at the activities of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance as the paramilitary outfit dispatched leftists by the score.
Who was Perón? Exiled by the military in the ’50s, revered by the left in the ’70s, invoked by neoliberals of the ’90s, and acclaimed by the kirchneristas of the last decade, Perón presents either a riddle or a cipher. He extended the franchise to women while jailing political opponents and censoring the press. Labor’s champion, he vindicated the rights of the so-called shirtless masses from the balcony of the Casa Rosada — and privately explained to American officials that minimum wage and compulsory holiday legislation were only so much expedient anti-Communism. Perón admired Mussolini, but showed none of Mussolini’s interest in foreign conquest or racial laws. The contradictory character of Peronism has yielded several mystifying historical passages. The country’s elected developmentalist government of the early ’60s was often characterized as Peronism without Perón — his party remained proscribed — and no doubt many of the left Peronists whom Perón, upon his return from Spanish exile, tried to purge from the movement considered that Perón had been restored without Peronism.
From election in 1946 to overthrow in 1955, Perón’s nationalistic economic policy 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 (including of a car named after his political party) 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’s this Perón who stands behind the rhetoric of the Kirchners’ contemporary Peronism — indeed the pension program and the country’s airline have been renationalized and the debt stands at less than half its 2002 level.) A five-year plan promulgated in 1946 contained this bold declaration: “In 1810 we were liberated politically; today we long for economic independence.”
The problem was that an industrializing Argentina needed 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 road to economic independence been taken than it appeared to double back through increased dependency on imports of foreign capital and exports of primary products. Now Perón changed direction and sought to favor agriculture over industry, to cultivate new foreign markets for farm commodities, 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. In fact this balancing act was just the one Perón meant eventually to bring off, and what Néstor and Cristina Kirchner have attempted two generations later. But no such balance could be struck by Perón or any of his fourteen successors — some democratically elected and most not, and one of them, of course, his own diminished person — between 1955 and 1983.
It’s often said about Argentina, where rightwing coups enjoyed the enthusiasm but not the direct sponsorship of Washington, that unlike much of the rest of Latin America its troubles have been of its own perverse making. The claim contains a fair amount 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 the neoliberal 1990s, Argentina was often held to illustrate the folly of import-substituting developmentalism: high inflation, shoddy goods, inefficient services. According to orthodoxy, 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 in agriculture. Granting this premise: to whom should the Argentines have sold their surplus cereals? The US and the Commonwealth from the ’20s onwards, and the European Economic Community after the war, were protected markets often 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 Western 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 developmentalism.
The flexible uncertainty, the volatilized emptiness of Peronism somewhat resembles that of the Argentine national character as described by Argentines themselves, and confusion over the substance of Peronism was never greater than in the chaotic early ’70s, as the prohibition of Peronism was lifted and Perón’s return from exile was anticipated with chiliastic fervor by elements of the left and right alike. As the Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau points out in On Populist Reason (2005), Perón’s stature had grown enormously during his seventeen years of exile: “The more repressive [a] new regime became, and the more its program was seen as a sellout to international finance capital, the more the figure of Perón became identified with an anti-system popular and national identity.”
But Perón could only function as an “empty signifier” (in Laclau’s Lacan-inflected terminology), promising everything to everybody, so long as he remained out of the country and out of power, communicating to disparate groups of supporters in private letters. In one of these letters Perón recognized that his “infallibility” was “precisely based on not saying or doing anything, [the] only way of assuring such infallibility.” Until his return Perón was seen, Laclau writes, “depending on the political orientation of those supporting him, either as the leader of an anti-imperialist coalition which was going to be the first step in the advance towards a socialist Argentina, or as the only guarantee that the popular movement would be contained within manageable limits.” Upon Perón’s recovery of Argentine soil in 1973, deadly gun battles between right- and leftwing supporters greeted him at the airport. A year later, he was dead of heart failure and had been succeeded by his vice president and third wife Isabelita, a former nightclub singer and skittish nonentity. Isabelita’s security forces paved the way for dictatorship by torturing and killing hundreds of the armed left, Peronist and otherwise. It remained only for the military to depose Isabelita herself, whose rule had at least possessed the merit of constitutionality; to ban Peronism once more; to amplify state terror by an order of magnitude; and to swap what remained of the developmentalism of Perón and his democratic successors for a version of the neoliberalism already imposed by gunpoint next door in Chile.
For Alejandro Horowicz, in his ferocious classic Los Cuatro Peronismos (1985), the fourth Peronism — that of Isabelita’s aborted twenty-month reign — represents the liquidation of the earlier Peronisms. The political and economic enfranchisement once awarded the working class was now decisively withdrawn, and the reign of foreign capital restored. The junta’s Proceso was merely a “programa isabelina” multiplied a hundred fold: “All dreams . . . of developmentalism, of negotiation with international financial capital on a more or less equal basis, were discarded as useless junk.” The dictatorship installed as its economics minister José Martínez de Hoz, scion of one of the country’s great land-owning families, who embarked on a neoliberal program now familiar the world over: monopolistic consolidation of media and finance, deindustrialization and wage repression, the opening of the country to unrestricted short-term foreign investment, or “hot money,” and a massive run-up of government debt, which by the fall of the dictatorship would be more than seven times greater than in 1975.
Horowicz contends that the restoration of democracy in 1983 did not fundamentally alter the terms of this fourth, self-canceling Peronism. Elections would from now on be held only on condition that the industrial working class accept its subordination to the exporters of raw commodities: “This is the historical tragedy of Argentine society: its extraordinary incapacity to assimilate any dynamic change that entails the remaking of the ruling class, reforming the agrarian nature of pampas capitalism.”
Neither Carlos Menem’s self-described Peronist government from 1989 – 99 nor its ideologically indistinguishable Radical successor offered much reason to revise this disheartening evaluation. In his way, Menem cuts as typical a figure of the ’90s as Clinton or Blair, having bent a political party — Perón’s partido justicialista — historically associated with egalitarianism to neoliberal ends. In recognition of his “reforms,” the deindustrializing country was swamped with foreign capital pursuing the exaggerated returns attendant on a bloated currency. The most prominent results, besides a renewed debt binge, were concentration of land titles in still 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 temporarily cushioned by the illusory strength of the peso. Of course dollar-peso convertibility ultimately worked best for 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 a “bank robbery by the political elites.” Another dismal aspect of Menem’s performance was the batch of pardons he granted to members of the military convicted of the torture and murder of “subversives,” many of them, of course, left Peronists.
In a 2005 afterword to Los Cuatro Peronismos, Horowicz held out the possibility that Néstor Kirchner might represent a fifth and better version. This intuition seems confirmed at the end of a decade dominated by Kirchner from his implausible election in 2003, through the landslide election of his wife in 2007, to his untimely death. Even now, the figure of Kirchner looms larger than that of anyone else. His widow refers to him in her speeches simply as Él, as if he were too awesome and grave a spirit to be named.
In 2003, Kirchner, governor of a remote Patagonian province, was awarded the presidency with the votes of a mere fifth of the electorate, after Menem withdrew from a runoff in which he risked being trounced. Kirchner was little-known at the time, which probably accounted for much of his appeal after the 2001 crash induced a lingering disgust with professional politicians. Before acceding to the Casa Rosada, he declared that he wouldn’t check his convictions at the door. But the substance of these convictions remained unknown.
In the early ’70s, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner were members of the leftist Peronist Youth in the university town of La Plata, not far from Buenos Aires. This milieu put them in touch with developmentalist economic ideas as well as with a number of future victims of the junta. Three decades later, the Kirchners have hardly governed as radicals, 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.
Of these two signals, the commemoration of the junta and its victims was the one flashing more brightly in the public observance of the bicentennial. On the Avenida 9 de Julio, amid stalls uncontroversially dedicated to each Argentine province, were more somber installations, including a sarcastic triumphal arch by the artist Léon Ferrari likening the junta (and the local Catholic hierarchy who blessed its crimes) in no uncertain terms to the Nazis. In the same vicinity, a giant wall magnified and assembled grainy mug shots of the dictatorship’s mainly youthful victims. Together these exhibits stood at the symbolic center of the capital, between the Casa Rosada and the great Italianate congressional palace.
This imagery corresponds to the reopening of prosecutions for violations of human rights committed under the dictatorship. Pressure from the still restive armed forces led the Radical government of the ’80s to declare an end to further trials of military officials, while Menem was later 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 bloodstained executors. You might call Kirchner’s court-packing a case of executive interference with the judiciary, a typical instance of Latin American hyper-presidentialism. You might also regard it as a decisive step in the causes of legality and national memory.
One revelation yielded by the new legal climate is that the dictatorship included among its victims not only suspected militants but inconvenient businessmen. In an episode recently uncovered in a report commissioned by Cristina’s government, the junta robbed the country’s main newsprint concern from its proprietors, and awarded it to the two principal Buenos Aires dailies in return for their support. As for Martínez de Hoz, the junta’s economics minister, a federal judge last year sentenced him to a lengthy jail term for his role in the 1976 kidnapping of a businessman and his son. The case of Martínez de Hoz is only one of dozens to have been opened in recent years, with trials taking place up and down the country. In December of last year, the chief dictator of the ’70s, Jorge Videla, having suffered nothing worse than house arrest over the past two decades, received, along with several of the more notorious sadists employed by his regime, a sentence of particular alliterative piquancy: prisón perpetua y cárcel común — life imprisonment in a common jail.
On the eve of his sentencing, Videla denounced the Gramscian Marxists now ruling the country. This was ignorance as well as hysteria: the Argentine economy remains dominated by foreign-owned mining and agricultural concerns, which have polluted the land and — in the case of the carcinogenic pesticides sprayed over transgenic soy crops — preyed on people’s health across the country. Still, the Kirchners’ neo-developmentalist economic policy (with apter Germanic precedent in Otto von Bismarck than Karl Marx) appears to have paid off in terms of manufacturing growth, debt-shedding, and increased domestic consumption. The English-language business press, as reliably disdainful of the Kirchners as it was infatuated with Menem, claims that kirchnerista heterodoxy has scared off vital investment, but the figures say something else. Between 1993 and 1998 — the period of Menem’s hallucinated 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 above 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.
CFK, as the papers call la presidenta, has also explicitly sought to recover the country’s status as “the most egalitarian country in Latin America.” One basic device of this project has been the Asignatión Universal por Hijo, a modest monthly payment, awarded per child, to unemployed or informally employed parents. According to the UN, the reduction of child poverty has been swift and significant, and indigence among children nearly wiped out. Another recent advance covers the old rather than the young. State pensions now extend, for the first time in decades, to nearly all retired people, including those who worked in the informal sector and never paid the associated taxes. Other redistributive features of the Kirchners’ Peronism include a project to impose profit sharing with workers on large corporations, the addition of full employment to the mandate of the central bank, and the breakup of the country’s main media monopoly. (Such trust-busting has been characterized in the English-speaking media as “intimidation of the press.”)
At the May 25 bicentenary state dinner, framed photographs of both Juan and Evita Perón were on display. But these were not the only ghosts summoned. A photo of Ché 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 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, not a stray satellite of Europe.
Now Néstor Kirchner’s death has added a new face to the political iconography of Argentina, appearing across the country in posters and stenciled graffiti. The mainstream press had turned against the Kirchners after they attacked its monopoly position, and its chief organs could only betray profound surprise when, having informed the public of its disillusionment with kirchnerismo, the same public turned out in droves to view Néstor’s body as it lay in state. The mourning appeared most passionate among young people supposedly indifferent to politics, thousands of whom held vigil for days in the Plaza de Mayo, chanting and singing. A silent gesture of equal force was made by the head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, when she removed her white shawl — symbol of the movement — and tucked it into the breast pocket of Néstor’s black suit.
In the days after Kirchner’s death, I received a number of emails from Argentine friends and acquaintances. The intelligence and fervor, the offhand eloquence of these casual communiqués reminded me of my favorite traits among porteños (as residents of Buenos Aires are known). Florencia, in rejoinder to a more cynical friend, conceded suspicion of certain aspects of Kirchner’s leadership, but then listed off the top of her head a battery of his achievements — from the political sidelining of the armed forces for the first time in two hundred years, to the successful promotion, with his wife, of equal marriage for gays and lesbians — and then went on to say:
He restored a belief in politics to the people. He showed many of us, and I believe that with the passage of time many more will realize, that politics isn’t only this rotten core of national life that you mention with resignation and disdain, but a TOOL CAPABLE OF OPERATING ON REALITY. These past days in the Plaza de Mayo I’ve felt delight in the promise of thousands of young people, 20-year-old kids who are far removed from the deep-rooted fear left behind by the idea-killing dictatorship, and from the disappointment of having been swindled by politicians not only corrupted but, worse, employed by the powers that be to whom they’d delivered up the country.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, widow and presumptive presidential candidate, proposes a suggestive image for a country both in perpetual mourning over its miscarried potential and enjoying more reason for optimism than in many decades. At the moment, chances appear good that Cristina will secure a second term, with a mandate to further the left populist project she and her late husband outlined.
Long-run economic trends may also favor the firming-up of Argentine democracy, especially if commodity prices remain as high as is widely anticipated over the decades to come, and if the tighter regional economic integration that was among Néstor Kirchner’s main projects yields more local sources of consumer demand and finance capital. Nearly self-sufficient in petroleum and brimming with natural gas, 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.
Politics plays a fairly small role in my own decision to live in Buenos Aires. Sentimental and practical considerations have been decisive. And sometimes I do wonder what I can be doing to have deposited myself in a half-wrecked country at the bottom of the world, so far 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 part of that compound motive. I like living in a country where an ideology still reigning 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 among the people I know. 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.