Any nation that does not claim Utopia as a province does not deserve a country – thus spake Oscar Wilde (or words to that effect). Well, Latin America is a lively example of that principle, if only for the historical reason that it began with colonial rapine and has feverishly nurtured the Utopia ideal amid endless disappointments since that time. It an odd way, it was always the Western counterpart of the Oriental dream: “For I on honey-dew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise …”. A brave new world – but for whom?
The scale and beauty of Buenos Aires – its monuments and gardens, streets and squares – is amazing. Ana and I touched every point within reach including the Evita Museum, which was well-worth visiting if only for the perverse education on Argentinian politics it affords. Happily, a superior course of instruction was available to me on the stone bench at the doorstep where I struck up a conversation with a returning Argentinian whose parents had fled Poland and Russian in the 1930s (you guessed it) and who shone a harsh light on Peronism and the ensuing military dicatorships from which he fled to Chicago in the 1960s.
All the time I have been here I have been on the look out for personal ‘takes’ on the new Macri government – aside from the reports in La Nacion (more or less easy to read after an immersion in Portuguese). The consensus at street level is less ‘love him’ than ‘accept’ the necessity of a change of government after the Kirchners whose presidential hands were so deep in the coffers that the common wisdom goes, “Argentinians are always trying to fill the same political packages”.
That is a literal translation of a phrase which I take to mean that they are unable to change the mould of their political affiliations rather an allusion to the culture of brown envelopes – though this appears to have been very much part of the recipe also.It is no novelty to say that Latin America politics are driven by “transfers” of one kind or another and our visit to Buenos Aires coincides with the news from Brazil that Lula and Dilma’s publicity chief Joao Santana has been removed in handcuffs from an international flight on suspicion of parking $8.7 million from Petrobras in an offshore account. Some say that this is the break for Judge Moro that will “touch” Dilma and end the mandate by impeachment and they are already discussing the rules of succession – whether to go to the “urnas” [polling boxes] for a new President or to install a Congress appointment to finish out the four-year term.
Meanwhile, in Argentinia, even the Kirchner’s doorman is said to have become a millionaire by association with the regime. All considered, it seems as if each successive leftist government adopts some variation of the Peronist formula of beneficent dictatorship in order to put its political supporters “dibs in” for the duration. Shade of Irish politics in the good old days. In fact, the great split in modern Argentinian history – symbolised by the Ezeiza Airport massacre – concerned the impenetrable question whether Juan Peron, then returning from exile, was a right-wing dictator or a left-wing leader of the people. Hector Campora, his chief ally and predecessor in the presidency who resigned to make way for him on the pious expectation that he would admit socialists to his cabinet said on that occasion just before the gunfire started, “”the spilled blood will not be negotiated” – exactly the slogan that the Malvinas Veterans paint on their banners today.
Peronism is one thing and Kirchnerismo another. If benevolent autocracy was his bag, their homemade recipe for economic failure was officially labelled “Federalism and Constructionism” – an allusion to the plan of “constructing democracy in Latin America’ which was cheerfully taken up by Lula and Dilma. In this vision, the old oligarchies of land and money are the eternal villain of the piece and the people the eternal heroes. Well and good. Just what the oligarchies do when they’re in power is no secret. Could someone just please invent the middle? In practice, the downfall of the Kirchners had nothing to do with political per se – it was due to their attempt to fix the Argentinian currency.
Not surprisingly, the international market treated it as junk and traded it accordingly. It is precisely that measure of centralist economics which Maurice Macri was elected to reverse – and now, after initial shocks, a slight recovery is discernible and the arrival of Obama here in March is expected to signal a dramatic upsurge. There there are heated talks in progress with sundry trade unions at the moment – as well as parleys with the Human Rights Association whose envoys have shown themselves genially well-disposed to the new President. I hope that says all that needs be said about his supposed character as another brutal autocrat.
Everyone says its ‘back to the 1990s’ – meaning pre-Kirschner monetarism – but it’s hard to see any signs of militant resistance to the new order. Income tax and VAT are certainly up but basic rate of pay for school-teachers has just been raised by 30% in a new pay deal. I spoke to a thoughtful pharmicist who said ‘there’s only one world economy, alas’, and this I took to be the death-knell of centralist economics. Granted, there is a poster campaign in progress complaining about the dismissal of bank employees who were involved in the Kirschner fiscal system – but the reaction to this presumed example of ‘vengenza’ has not advanced beyond brass-band bugling on the steps of the Central Bank (as shown). Meanwhile, the police squads are standing kinda-ready for kinda-demonstrations in Republic Square – which is an open air theatre for all the great events of Argentinian history. Maybe it’s the weather. With temperatures up to 40 Celsius no one is thinking of counter-revolution. (PS There is a big march for ‘despidos en el setor estatal’ today.)
Perhaps the key think about the change of government is its departure from the template in which the leadership get elected by a great working-class majority whether their style is genuinely democratic or elitist. This is known as Peronism – named after Juan Perón who married Army leadership with government twice in the history of Argentina. Indeed, the popular elitist government on the model of Peron is more or less the pattern – a contradiction which is somewhat shared with Brazil. This strange capacity for rallying enormous plebiscites of urban poor and rural peasants to support governments which dish out benefits on a blatantly partisan basis is a hall-mark of South American politics. It looks like populism but it acts like clientism. Needless to say, the new ministries and their political supporters are their own best clients. Whatever about the Kirschner scheme of things – which hit the rock that sinks all centralisms – the Peronist version offered the bizarre prospect of a maverick dictatorship preaching humanitarianism all over the globe. I was reminded by a video-show at the Museum that Evita Peron visited Monaco on her European tour – and it is tempting to suppose that the Princess Grace Foundation which does hospitals and stuff all over the world is partly modelled on the Peronist example. (The would hate you saying that in Monte Carlo.)
One thing you can’t fail to notice here – after you’ve counted up the Nazi immigrants – is the Irish legacy from Admiral William Brown onwards. In testimony to which our embassy has mounted a 1916 Commemoration page honouring the part that Argentina played in the early recognition of the independent Irish state and the long tradition of republican supporters associated with The Southern Star and the Bulfin family, pere, fils et fille. A son was Irish ambassador from the First Dail and a daughter was in the GPO but the father was the author of a political tour of Ireland which unfortunately incorporates a specimen of nationalist anti-semitism. (He also gets a look-in in Joyce’s “Gas from a Burner”.)
It is strange, indeed, how many Irish names crop up in bookstores. James P. Brennan of Spanish Civil War renown, of course, but also Pacho O’Donnell on the Kirchners and Maria O’Donnell (any relation?) on the fearsome Montoneros.And then there was Rodolfo Walsh, sometimes called the father of investigative journalism on account of his revelations about the murders of enemies of the junto – who was himself assassinated for his part in the Montoneros movement. Peronist and Leftists, the Montoneros sought to establish a socialist Argentina when Peron was returned to power in the 1970s.
It can plausibly argued that their murderous ‘spectaculars’ – ranging from the Sheraton Bombing to the assassinate of General Amarburu – triggered the appalling epoch of mass-murder in the 1970s and after when an estimated 220,000 disappeared at the hands of army groups working for the dictatorship. But all of this is subsumed in the wider ‘struggle’ between left and right which has scarred the mo
dern history of every South American country in varying degrees and which, like the IRA in Northern Ireland hasn’t ‘gone away’ – as Gerry Adams famously said.
Right. That’s enough for now. Except to say that the Argies were fools to try and grab the Falklands the way they did and the sinking of the Belgrano was a terrible tragedy but the Malvinas do belong to Argentina in the last analysis and there’s no real answer to that. So face up to it, UK, and do the decent thing. Dismantle the Falkland Islands Company today. It totally is not worth fighting for – all the more considering that the bastards were selling hardware to the Argentinians throughout Thatcher’s dirty little war.