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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 12-11-2021 21:58

Is a change of course possible?

Despite all the unpleasant things that have happened to the country since a pro-Axis military dictatorship gave birth to Peronism, millions still see belief in what they regard as its virtues as part of their personal identity.

The way things are shaping up, close on three-quarters of a century of Peronist dominance of the Argentine mind could be about to come to a spluttering end, whether with a bang or a whimper (or, as seems probable, an unpleasant combination of both) remains to be seen. Despite sporadic election victories by the Radicals and their allies, the latest being Mauricio Macri and his team, plus several military coups, since the aftermath of World War, Peronist thinking has reigned supreme. Even the movement’s sworn enemies adopted large parts of it; as someone once said, Peronism became the Argentine version of “common sense.” It did so because in its haphazard way it reflected values and objectives which almost everybody said they shared.

This is why decades of abject failure by Peronist governments did so little to reduce its appeal, which is akin to that of a religious cult people cling to, even when it should be evident to them that it is incompatible with the material wellbeing they insist is their due. Countries like Italy, Spain and, most notably Ireland, lagged economically behind others until they wriggled free from Roman Catholicism. Once they managed that, they strode ahead at an impressive pace. For the Muslim world to do the same, it would have to break free from Islam, which is holding most of it back. Preachers who are calling for a bloodthirsty holy war against anything smacking of Westernised modernity and their followers are well aware of this. For them, their faith comes first and nothing else matters.

It has long been plain that Argentina needs a cultural revolution. Her many serious problems cannot be attributed to an inhospitable natural environment or the hostility of foreign powers; more natural resources than can be made use of are there for the taking and all influential countries wish her well. With hardly any exceptions, the difficulties she confronts are of her own making. What is more, blaming them on the political class as a whole, as many are inclined to do, is not very helpful; in a democracy, its members have no choice but to express their willingness to do what voters want and here a large proportion of them has always been in favour either of Peronism or, if they prefer the Radicals, of a softer, less blatantly corrupt and authoritarian variety of much the same creed. 

Tomorrow, many people’s eyes will be on La Matanza, a densely-populated poverty-stricken Peronist stronghold whose inhabitants have long insisted on voting overwhelmingly for sleazy politicians who are determined to keep things as they are. Will last week’s mass protests after a small businessman was gunned down in Ramos Mejía by one of the many feral criminals who prey on those unfortunate enough to live there have a big electoral impact? Or will voters just brush it off as, over the years, they have done with a rapidly worsening standard of living?

Like it or not, the festering slums that surround Buenos Aires City hold the key to Argentina’s future, because it is there that the Peronists get the votes that have served to keep them in power or near it for so long.

Despite all the unpleasant things that have happened to the country since a pro-Axis military dictatorship gave birth to Peronism, millions still see belief in what they regard as its virtues as part of their personal identity. For this to change, Argentina would have to suffer an experience almost as traumatic as the appalling disasters that cured Germany of Nazism and Japan of her own special brand of militarism.

At first sight, this may seem ridiculously far-fetched. After all, Argentina is not about to get bombed into submission, with millions of people dying and entire cities getting reduced to rubble. Nonetheless, she is heading straight towards an economic crack-up which could be even worse than that of 20 years ago and looks certain to leave many just as badly off as were most Germans and Japanese in late 1945. However, first the Germans and then, after a relatively slow start, the Japanese did recover under democratic governments before going on to astonish the world with their respective “economic miracles.” Could Argentina do the same? 

For something like that to happen, the population would have to acquire some of the characteristics which enabled the Germans and Japanese, and after them many others, including the South Koreans and Chinese, to overcome extreme adversity and make the most of the opportunities made available by an increasingly interconnected world economy. All were heirs to a tradition of meritocratic excellence and a stern work ethic. Once upon a time, this could be said about much of the Argentine middle class, but this is no longer the case.

Here, the much discussed decline of educational standards is almost always attributed to the country’s successive governments, the assumption being that widespread ignorance is the result of the politicians’ inability to narrow the gap between rich and poor or give enough electronic devices to schoolchildren. But it would be far more realistic to “blame the victims” because – unlike many very poor people in East Asia before the local economy started delivering the goods – their Argentine counterparts are rarely willing to make big sacrifices to ensure that either they themselves or their offspring get a decent education. In China and South Korea, youngsters who do well in the ruthlessly competitive examinations they must face on their way up the socioeconomic ladder are hailed much as are successful footballers in the streets of Buenos Aires. In East Asia, there was never much need for politicians or anyone else to tell people they really ought to take education seriously.

In the weeks leading up to the elections, President Alberto Fernández and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the lady who in effect owns him, have done their best to get on the wrong side of voters. Most think that in this they have been highly successful. It is as though both wanted the coalition currently governing the country to lose; Alberto, because it would make it easier for him to subject the Kirchnerite faction that makes his life difficult to a thoroughgoing purge, Cristina, because she will be able to accuse Alberto of ruining everything and then, if she gets her way, do pretty well whatever she likes. Meanwhile, the country, which is flat broke and could soon be overwhelmed by a hyperinflationary avalanche, will continue to spin out of control. 

Just how long this could go on for is anybody’s guess, but it is hard to believe that Argentina has no choice but to wait patiently until December 2023 before getting a government which enjoys more support than the Kirchnerites will be able to muster.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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