The Mighty Fallen

At the beginning of the 20th century Argentina was a major economic power. That all changed with the Great Depression.  

Ben Jones

The victory of the former academic and lawyer, Alberto Fernández, in Argentina’s 2019 general election was met with enthusiasm by many at home and abroad. The neo-liberal toolkit employed by the previous administration of Mauricio Macri had clearly failed, resulting in hyperinflation, rising unemployment and the lowest standard of living for a decade; some surveys suggest 40 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. Eighteen months down the line, the pandemic has thrown the government’s unrealistic plans to make a deal with creditors of the country’s vast private debt into disarray. Argentina became the first Latin American country to distribute the Russian Sputnik vaccine and the president encouraged others by being among the first to take it. Two months later, he tested positive for coronavirus. The health system has not collapsed as it has in Brazil, but social media is rife with claims that Latin America’s second biggest economy is destined to end up like that of Venezuela. 

 

Failed state

Something has gone awry in what was the most successful of all the 19th-century liberal republics in Spanish America. In the early 20th century, Argentina’s per capita GDP ranked among the world’s top ten, on a par with Australia and Canada and ahead of France and Italy. In a nation state comprised largely of immigrants, Argentinians have consistently prided themselves on living in the most ‘European’ of Latin American countries, despite all the sociopolitical upheavals they have endured since the Great Depression. A military government was formed in 1943 in the wake of a coup, in which General Juan Perón was a major player. Alongside his wife, Evita – an actress and singer born into poverty – the championing of workers’ rights leveraged popular support and Perón won the democratic general election of 1946. 

Argentina did not pledge allegiance to the US in the Second World War and was officially neutral. Perón privately favoured an Axis victory, an open secret that ensured the country was left out of aid programmes in the 1940s. Evita died in 1952. 

After Perón fell out with his fellow military officers, a 1955 coup forced him into exile in Franco’s Spain, amid the first Brits to take package holidays in Torremolinos and later as Ava Gardner’s neighbour in Madrid. In the wake of the coup, Evita’s embalmed body was removed from the Buenos Aires headquarters of the CGT – the largest Peronist trade union – in the middle of the night as part of an operation to erase the regime and its most potent symbol from the collective consciousness. Taken on peripatetic exile, by the time her corpse arrived home two decades later, one of Evita’s fingers had gone missing. On returning to Argentina, in 1973 Perón received an electoral mandate to rule but died the following year. His third wife, Isabel – who met her future husband when he was in exile in Panama, where she was working as a nightclub dancer – was promoted from vice-president to the presidency. While Evita was, to quote the academic Edwin Williamson, ‘a populist of rare genius’, Isabel was not up to the job. The coup of 1976 was hardly an anomaly in a country with a long tradition of military intervention in political life. Many Argentinians welcomed the uprising, assuming it would help to reinstate some sense of peace and stability. 

 

Victory and defeat

The torture and disappearance of thousands of political opponents did not stop Argentina from hosting the 1978 World Cup – which it won. Margaret Thatcher inadvertently precipitated the end of the dictatorship following the Falklands War of 1982, when the military junta showed no compunction in sending young men to their deaths, in battle and from starvation.    

Commitment to human rights and accountability were instrumental in Raúl Alfonsín’s victory in the 1983 election over the Peronists, who, it was rumoured, were negotiating an amnesty deal with the military. Long referred to almost condescendingly as a ‘good man’, an ‘Argentinian Jimmy Carter’, Alfonsín’s standing has improved since his death in 2009. Although not given a general release, the documentary film Raúl, la democracia desde dentro (‘Raúl, Democracy from the Inside’) enjoyed sold-out screenings for weeks in Buenos Aires. At one screening a collective gasp was evident as the film unearthed a photograph showing a teenage Raúl as a classmate of General Galtieri – the third president of the military junta, who was as renowned for his alcoholism as for his human rights abuses – and many laughed out loud at archive footage of Alfonsín sharpening his oratory claws in the White House gardens. Ronald Reagan played dirty by changing his speech at the last minute in an unsuccessful attempt to bully the Argentinian premier into endorsing US intervention in Nicaragua. 

Alfonsín’s administration constituted the international gold standard for the speed and efficiency with which human rights abuses were put on trial, but he struggled to rationalise a still volatile export economy decimated by the inefficacy and nepotism of the military junta. Argentina is rich in natural resources, but the legacy of Perón’s protectionism made it industrially uncompetitive. Rampant inflation forced Alfonsín to call early elections in 1989. Waiting in the wings was Carlos Menem, whose neo-liberal government unleashed an unprecedented period of economic reform during its decade in power, privatising much of the state’s resources. While traditional ideologies of left and right cannot be easily mapped onto Argentina’s complex political landscape, Francis Fukuyama’s claims about the end of history following the fall of the Berlin Wall were influential in the Latin American state’s nascent democracy. Under Menem, citizens were encouraged to forget the past and look to the future. The peso was artificially overvalued, giving Argentinians greater spending power abroad as an aspiring middle class took foreign holidays like never before.

 

Disproportionate power 

Argentinian presidents continue to have a disproportionate amount of power, with the systems of checks and balances characteristic of mature democracies noticeably absent. The economic and moral bankruptcy of Menem’s administration resulted in a financial crash in 2001. Scenes of panicked customers unable to get their money out of the banks prompted a mass exodus of foreign and domestic capital. Néstor Kirchner was voted in on a populist ticket in 2003 as part of the so-called ‘pink tide’, which saw charismatic ‘strongmen’ such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva gain power. When George W. Bush visited Mar de Plata in 2005 for the Fourth Summit of the Americas, the US president’s attempts to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas were scuppered by Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. Football legend Diego Maradona joined Chávez and the future President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, to lead a crowd of over 25,000 to the resort’s stadium in order to protest against the presence of Bush Jr.   

 

Short-changed 

The Argentinian philosopher Ernesto Laclau has called for the need to rescue populism ‘from its marginal position within the discourse of the social sciences’, which sees it as ‘the simple opposite of political forms dignified with the status of full rationality’. As Laclau’s long-term collaborator Chantal Mouffe remarks:

Instead of trying to erase the traces of power and exclusion, democratic politics requires us to bring them to the fore, to make them visible so that they can enter the terrain of contestation.

Citizens of Argentina have been short-changed by neo-liberal democracy and populism alike. While lining his own pockets, Kirchner retained favour through such measures as introducing pension rights for workers in the widespread black economy. Néstor stepped aside in 2007 and his wife, Cristina Kirchner, was elected president. She was in power until 2015 and has since returned to government as Fernández’s vice-president. 

Despite the goodwill shown to the incoming government by many Argentinian citizens, there are no quick-fix solutions for a nation state whose currency is sufficiently volatile for house prices and rents to be given in US dollars. Alfonsín was pilloried for allowing inflation to get out of control, but in truth no president has managed to keep it in check. Before the pandemic hit, the weak peso made the country attractive to tourists: the bars of the renamed Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho districts of Buenos Aires were as full of North American visitors as the hip hangouts of Mexico City’s La Condesa or Roma neighbourhoods. A couple of dollars was enough to taxi tourists across the city, few choosing to use the efficient and safe, albeit stuffy, underground system, parachuting in and out of such Instagram-friendly sites as the Museum of Modern Art and Plaza Dorrego in the historic San Telmo district. It was possible to pay two dollars to see Happyland – a historical musical about María Estela Martínez de Perón (popularly known as Isabel) being imprisoned alongside her Andalusian maid after the military uprising – at the National Theatre. The city’s finest fainá (an Argentinian variation on pizza, with a chickpea base) and a beer in Guërrin, the most celebrated of the Italian hangouts on the Broadway of Latin America, cost five dollars. 

 

Boom and bust

The body politic can hardly be in good shape when those who can afford to go out benefit from bargains, but milk and fruit bought in supermarkets cost more than in the UK. Speculators amass basic necessities and grocery stores were as empty if not emptier in December 2019 than any supermarkets in the UK at the height of the pandemic. As has happened with so many other places around the world, coronavirus has served to highlight and reinforce pre-existing fractures. The pendulum swings in political regimes in Argentina are in many respects symptomatic of the inability to place control over an export economy overly exposed to fluctuations in the global market. Trapped in a cycle of boom and bust, the latest crisis seems poised to leave much of the middle-as well as the working-classes in abject poverty.

 

Duncan Wheeler is Professor and Chair of Spanish Studies at the University of Leeds.