I HAVE been to some Latin American countries since the 1980s and have found a certain affinity with their people. It is perhaps because we were all once colonies of Spain: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Argentina. The Spanish language was the glue tying these countries together — except Brazil, a colony of Portugal — but still imbued with the Latin temperament — which at best is an accepted but nebulous concept nevertheless.
My previous trips to Argentina were all work-related. But my umpteenth trip — this time with my wife Sylvia, her first — was purely for pleasure, renewing ties with good and true friends of almost three decades. I am seeing the country therefore in a more intimate light, overwhelmed by its vastness, the richness of its culture, the range of its climate, from the tropical north to the arid and temperate middle to the cold south polar regions and, more importantly, the resilience and contradictions of its people. It is said among the Argentinians that “when God created the world, he made Argentina what it is, vast, beautiful, resource-rich and diverse. Others were envious, upon which God to appease those resentful ones decided to populate it with an appropriate race — Argentinians.” Perhaps to level the playing field with His other creations.
Freedom from Spain
Argentina was a colony of Spain for 294 years from 1516, ending with the revolution of May of 1810, and eventual declaration of independence on July 9, 1816. The Federal Republic of Argentina was formed 45 years later. It has come out from under Spain’s skirts to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Being exempted from the ravages of the First and Second World Wars, the new republic thrived and, beginning circa 1910, became known not only as a European city in Latin America but behaved like one.
The rise of Argentina as a world economy was propelled by consistent liberal economic policies starting from 1880 and to the opening of its borders to a wave of European immigrants, this fresh blood catapulting the economy to new economic heights. Infrastructure was developed, railroads and subways were built, and public parks, museums and amphitheaters were established — all these are still evident today. Its growth, by current standards was phenomenal and, by 1908, it ranked seventh among the wealthiest developed nations, after Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Belgium.
It was during this period, too, that a cultural flowering occurred, nurtured by a then-radical concept of a public, free and compulsory secular education, prompting an increase in literacy rates and influencing other Latin American countries. This was perhaps the golden age of Argentina. For one, the emergence of the passionate yet erotic tango came into the scene, with the poetry and songs of Carlos Gardel accompanied by the eerie cries and lamentations of Anibal Troilo and Astor Piazzolla’s bandoneon. The charming complexity of the tango defined Argentina’s character.
In Buenos Aires, the capital, one can see traces of Paris, London and Rome in its architecture. Their main boulevard, Nueve de Julio could be compared to the Champs-Élysées of Paris, a broad avenue with shops on both sides with its own equivalent to the Arc de Triomphe or the La Place de l’Étoile. The Obelisk of Buenos Aires was erected at the Plaza de la Republica in 1936, commemorating the 400 years of the city’s first foundation.
But all good things must end, it seems. As in a similar piece I wrote on this column last week on the decline of the Roman Empire, its actual rise was nebulous, but its end certain. Argentina’s ascent in Latin America and among the world’s first economies could not be sustained, and this trend from the 1880 was reversed, beginning in the late 1920s. The seeds of populism began to germinate and at a time when the Great Depression was coming to a head, Argentina’s government accelerated its march towards a populist-propelled welfare state. Government enacted social and economic reforms extending assistance and subsidies to small farmers and businesses — policies the government could ill-afford.
A series of coups d’état by the military divided the nation, precipitating an economic and social decline that put the country virtually back to square one —this while the world was wracked by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
At this point, a charismatic leader emerged — Juan Domingo Peron, a former minister of welfare who was popular with the workers and the poor. With his equally popular wife, the enigmatic Evita, the tandem embarked on the creation of a political movement that would serve the interests of this motley clientele. As in the beginning of any welfare state, government policies are directed toward the immediate gratification of populist demands — not minding the cost — postponing the inevitable consequences of political acts. Thus, wages and working conditions were improved, nationalizing and putting under control strategic industries and services by Peron’s cronies, the better to control the dispensing of government largesse. Standing by Peron’s side, Evita persuaded Congress to give the vote to the womenfolk and was extremely generous with government funds for the poor and needy. She was projected as an angel to the downtrodden and he could do no wrong. But she died early of cancer, and he did things wrong indeed.
He was eventually ousted, but his and Evita’s concern for the poor, however questionable, metamorphosed into a ghost that propelled the growth of the Peronistas, a populist movement. But the poor were not the exclusive domain of the Peronistas. There were other claimants vying for political power that eventually drove the right-wing dictatorship to employ state terrorism now labeled as the “Guerra Sucia,” or the Dirty War. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 left-wing activists and militants, students, trade unionists and Peronistas were killed.
This was part of the military-led National Reorganization Process (Proceso), a euphemism for succeeding juntas that further condemned the economy to stagnation. The last military dictator, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri blundered into invading the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) simply to divert the Argentinians from the economic crisis and regain his waning popularity. The British crushed the invasion. Argentina surrendered. Rioting in Buenos Aires ensued, the military was humiliated and Galtieri resigned.
Argentina, purported to be a federal republic with independent and autonomous states, was always run as a unitary government with powers controlled from the center — Buenos Aires. Perhaps this is the root problem of the country — the traditional politicians have captured the tools and institutions of the state and have gone rogue. Corruption in the highest levels of government flourished.
The subsequent economic blunders by President Carlos Menem pegging the Argentinian peso to one-on-one with the American dollar was political hubris. Today, hawkers at the pedestrian Florida street in Buenos Aires will exchange your $1 for P62; and interest rates charged by banks to businesses could reach 70 percent annually. You could, of course, invest in the money market at 54 percent per annum return. But would you?
And if this is not resolved, Argentina will continue in its slide. And, I’m afraid — Argentinians will cry for Argentina.
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