HE will find shades of Evita and the real Imelda, grieving kin of desaparecidos and uncaring technocrats, etc.
Argentina, Pope Francis’ land of birth and the base of his priestly duties until his ascent to the papacy, had historical chapters very similar to us. (I mentioned “land of birth” because his parents were Italian immigrants.) In 1976, for example, an army general, Jorge Rafael Videla staged a coup and ruled as a dictator until 1981.
Mr. Marcos’s dictatorship, from 1972 to the People Power Revolution in 1986, was longer. But his rule and that of Videla’s happened in the same general period of coups and dictatorships that the great Western Powers sanctioned in the guise of containing socialist revolutions. And were we to inventory the horrific crimes that happened under their dictatorships, the list would be similar: extrajudicial murders, large-scale human rights abuses and the entry into the human rights lexicon of a tragic term—desaparecidos.
Even the economic legacies of both dictatorships sounded eerily familiar: devaluations, the surge in foreign debt, the overall debasement of the economy.
(The brutality of Videla’s dictatorship, at one point, raised questions on where the current pope stood on the dictatorship issue— two Jesuits disappeared under his watch as head of the order in Buenos Aires—and reappeared after confirmation of torture.)
Then this one. Former First Lady Evita Peron and the words that described her: Ambitious, ruthless, cunning-untiring, clever and strikingly beautiful. Words that critics say applied to Imelda Marcos. Much of the world know the familiar first names – Evita and Imelda.
Post-dictatorship, what two countries had experimented to the hilt on the applications and central themes of the Washington Consensus? If your answer is “Argentina and the Philippines” then you have made an accurate answer.
What two countries allowed US-trained technocrats and economists to have a free rein on economic policies under the guise of pursuing structural reforms, which brought periods of booms and busts? If your answer is the Philippines and Argentina, you have given another correct answer.
While some leaders of Argentina’s Catholic Church watched with wariness and doubts, the MIT-trained Domingo Cavallo was named finance minister in the early 90s and was hailed as both a technocratic star and savior of Argentina’s economy. He implemented a fixed exchange rate and pushed hard for the privatization of his country’s major utilities—in accordance with the prescription of the Washington Consensus. The policies were followed by a few years of economic resurgence. But the economic crisis that struck the world, from Asia to Mexico to Russia starting in 1997, rocked Argentina as well. Foreign debt levels soared and so did interest rates.
Even IMF’s succor failed to save Argentina from financial collapse
Like Argentina in the early 90s, the Ramos administration and his technocrats took the same path. The massive privatization of utilities and deregulation of industries—from oil to electricity—was pushed along with the faithful adherence to the neoliberal prescriptions of the Consensus. The years that followed the market and structural reforms saw the economy soar. Like Cavallo’s successes, the Ramos-era technocrats also received lavish praise as uncompromising reformers.
But like Argentina, the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit the Philippine economy hard. The surging growth went down to 5.3 percent in 1997 and a dismal 0.1 percent in 1998. At one point after the Asian contagion, interest rates skyrocketed to over 30 percent—very much like Argentina after Cavallo’s failed reforms.
Pope Francis knows by heart the brutal wagers of the failed technocracy on the lives of the vulnerable. While the rich always survive downturns—and come out as the winners in the recoveries that follow—the poor suffer dearly as they can’t cope with the rising costs of basic commodities, of basic survival itself. The massive and horrific cost of failed technocracy is borne mostly by the vulnerable sectors—whose safety nets and basic protection are not part and parcel of hard-core economic reforms pursued by the technocrats.
And Pope Francis knows by heart that his Church and its basic doctrines can’t be reconciled with technocracy and political and economic systems that are built-in to bludgeon the vulnerable. Those systems reigned in Argentina. Those systems reigned in the Philippines. When he visits our country, he will not only see a country that was once ravaged by a brutal dictatorship that ushered in the age of desaparecidos.
In his January visit, he will be witness to the same old, same old: Cavallo-clones who swagger as saviors and take glory in pursuing market-based reforms that remain deeply entrenched, as if the primacy of the market is the Holy Grail that a nation must seek.
He will see leaders consumed by GDP growth and credit upgrades amid so much economic injustice—and while supposedly practicing the Catholic faith.
He will see that our leaders don’t even admit the existence of that economic inequality, don’t even recognize that it is the main problem gnawing deep into the very core of our society. A society where the vulnerable are invisible.
He will be sad to see that our leaders do not even realize that the Church was established by carpenters and fishermen and that what is said in the Sermon on the Mount should be the guiding doctrine of a truly Catholic society.
He will set foot on a new but otherwise familiar land.