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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 29-04-2023 05:14

Waiting to step into Alberto’s shoes

No matter who wins the electoral contest that is getting underway, he or she will face the dilemmas that Alberto refused to confront.

Alberto Fernández still thinks he has it in him to be a first-rate president and promises to prove it by spending his last months in office doing statesman-like things. With the possible exception of his foreign minister, Santiago Cafiero, and his spokeswoman, Gabriela Cerruti, he is the only person who takes such an upbeat view. Just about everyone else despises him and is more than willing to say so. The lady who gave him the job, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her devotees, treat him with open contempt. So too do almost all opposition figures and the many commentators who accuse him of making what, when he took over, was already a very bad situation a great deal worse.

This may seem fair enough. Alberto will not be included in any future historian’s list of successful presidents. However, given the circumstances he found himself in, it is hard to see how he could have done much better. From the word go, he felt he had to try and steer a middle course between pleasing a strong-minded and cranky woman he knew was as corrupt as they come and governing a country whose political, economic and cultural elites are accustomed to justifying, on what they regard as moral and ideological grounds, its trenchant refusal to live within its collective means.

Had Alberto been his own man, once ensconced in the Pink House he would have immediately set about using his presidential prerogatives to build a personal power-base that would have enabled him to break away from Cristina and her supporters. This is what Néstor Kirchner did in order to free himself from the tutelage of Eduardo Duhalde, the former president and Buenos Aires Province kingpin, who in effect handed him the keys to the Casa Rosada. Though it was generally expected that Alberto would make an effort to emulate Néstor, an old-style political boss he had long worked for as his top consigliere, it soon became evident that Cristina, who had studied him closely, chose him precisely because she was aware that he lacked the qualities that would have allowed him to become a genuine president of the kind Argentina desperately needed and therefore a serious rival to her. Fernández de Kirchner was mistaken if she thought that, thanks to the skills he presumably acquired so he could teach law, he would somehow contrive to save her from the prosecutors and judges who were snapping at her heels, but apart from that she had his measure.

Peronism, of which Kirchnerism is a particularly potent variant, has long thrived by extracting large sums of money from the relatively well-off and giving tiny amounts of it to the destitute who, not surprisingly, repay their benefactors by voting for them. This scheme may have seemed suitable for a country which to make ends meet had always relied on farm exports and not the efforts of large numbers of businessmen, but there is a limit to what the farmers, no matter how productive they may be, are able to subsidise. That limit was reached many decades ago; since then, the economy has lurched from crisis to crisis, with governments of all descriptions borrowing money from abroad to supplement what they got from the soil. In political terms, the Peronist “model” has been remarkably successful, but by blocking development it has impoverished much of the population. Taking it for granted that all industrial enterprises should be protected against “unfair” foreign competition certainly did not help.

Even before last year’s prolonged drought deprived the country of the 20 or 30 billion dollars it would have earned if it had rained more, it was clear that for Argentina to escape from the trap she had fallen into her economic system would have to be drastically changed. Even if oil, gas and rare earths did eventually provide enough money to keep the distributive model chugging along for a few more years, by doing so they would merely prolong a thoroughly unsatisfactory status quo. This, by and large, is what the Peronists would like to see happen, but it would appear that most people have come to want something rather different.

Will any conceivable government be capable of putting an end to Argentina’s reliance on the exploitation of natural resources rather than on her human capital? The omens are unpromising. No matter who wins the electoral contest that is getting underway, he or she will face the dilemmas that Alberto refused to confront. The next president will have to choose between appeasing the many who are determined to cling to the old order which has served them so well and defying them to do their worst. That would require not just a modicum of courage but also strong convictions plus an ability to persuade people that there is no going back.

Of late, many who appear to understand that without some major changes Argentina will end up like Haiti insist that a new government must enjoy the support of a wide-ranging consensus because otherwise it will be bound to fail. It is a tempting notion, but Argentina’s current plight is in large measure due to a consensus in favour of policies that, while attractive in the short term, have put the country where it is today, begging the United States via the International Monetary Fund and, less audibly, China, for yet another loan big enough to tide it over for a few more months. 

This puts even the most charitable institutions in an awkward position; they know that being generous would simply allow whoever is in power to delay taking politically unpalatable measures they know are necessary, but fear that if they stand tough Argentina could plunge into turmoil. 

There are also geopolitical considerations the North Americans, Europeans and Japanese must take into account; they know China would be more than happy to take proper advantage of the weakness of a country that, decently managed, could quickly become a regional powerhouse. Though it could be argued that it would be far better to let the remorselessly meritocratic Chinese micromanage the economy for a while and stop wasting time “negotiating” with the sentimental softies of the IMF, that is not what the local Sinophiles have in mind when they suggest that leaning towards China would allow whoever is in power to play one economic superpower against the other.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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