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OP-ED | 22-05-2021 00:01

Locking down the pressure cooker

A subdued yet tense Argentina is locked in an extended waiting game – for the effects of these new restrictions, for the arrival of more vaccines, for the results of the midterm elections.

Nine Days was the title of a film last year and also the length of Lady Jane Grey’s reign in England nearly half a millennium ago (in contrast to the current monarch) and it is now supposedly the duration of the strictest lockdown in Argentina since the initial quarantine amid the coronavirus panic of 14 months ago.

While there is only one syllable’s difference between the words “pandemic” and “panic,” the accelerating virulence of the former will not automatically lead to the return of the latter, thus reinforcing strict compliance. Yet while too much has happened for the mood of that initial reaction to be restored, the self-regulation of society does seem to have risen slowly even ahead of last Thursday’s announcements in response to this month’s dire figures. But passing judgement on the nine days starting today is obviously going to be far more the task of next Saturday’s newspaper than this edition and even then could be premature – a short and sharp spell carries the advantage of straining civic quarantine fatigue less but is also too brief to factor into any assessment the time lags typical of this coronavirus pandemic (10 to 15 days between contagion and requiring intensive care in the worse cases and a similar timespan between respirators and death in the worst, the latter period now lengthening as the average age of the infected descends).

Nine days also happens to be the length of the farm strike in reaction to the beef export ban ordered at the start of the week by a government equally desperate for votes and dollars and finding both in conflict, but this issue is amply commented elsewhere in this newspaper. In a world struggling to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath, Argentina must surely be the only country whose government turns into a top legislative priority the size of the parliamentary majority needed to appoint the attorney-general while the opposition evidently feels more comfortable joining in this debate with some institutional grandstanding than in seeking some solutions to the grimly pressing public health and economic realities. Whichever way this issue turns out, it will not change much although some declaim that the future of democracy is at stake – as it is indeed but for many more reasons (some of them stretching back years and decades) than this bill.

A subdued yet tense Argentina is thus locked in an extended waiting game – for the effects of these new restrictions, for the arrival of more vaccines, for the results of the midterm elections. Meanwhile we can perhaps learn more about the shape of what might come from looking elsewhere in the region – at the turbulence in Colombia and at the seismic political shifts in that land of earthquakes, Chile, both of which could be projected here.

The main lesson from the violent protests in Colombia is that popular discontent can erupt even in a country which has been something of a regional success story in the five years since signing peace with the FARC guerrillas – otherwise that famous first line from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – “All happy families are alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – could be extended to each unstable country being unstable in its own way so that the details of the developments in Colombia may not have much predictive value here.

But in contrast, last Sunday’s constituent assembly elections in Chile might just end up being a pretty accurate forecast of this coming spring’s midterms here. Last Sunday’s results with all the parties which have governed Chile in the past three decades, centre-left and centre-right, garnering just 61 of the 155 constituent assembly delegates between them, in a 40 percent turnout, points to political disenchantment of a magnitude which might seem unimaginable here but who knows? Whatever the grieta rift between followers of the previous and present presidencies, the balance between promises made and results obtained is broadly similar for both administrations, with at least one opinion poll showing four out of every seven voters ruling out voting for the current government while a precariously united opposition spends too much time criticising Kirchnerite outrages rather than offering a road map out of the crisis to capitalise. In Chile a centre-right presidency steered negative voting to the far left (27 delegates) while a centre-left government here might favour extreme libertarians but Chile’s nebulous middle ground (channelled into 48 independent delegates) could be equally large here.

But meanwhile we have at least nine days of lockdown ahead of us. 

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