Argentina: Culprits Everywhere but in the Mirror

Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES — I had followed the news but didn’t know quite what to expect. Since my last visit here in December, Argentina had had five presidents, a de facto state confiscation of private bank accounts, street riots, looting, and a devastating currency devaluation. The images on TV had been heartbreaking. Now, a few weeks later, the reality was even more disturbing.

I didn’t even sense anger but sadness, disillusionment, a feeling of futility. Countries can rebuild on the ruins of anger, but can’t survive hopelessness. I grew up listening to patriotic marches announcing military coups. I went through the “Dirty War.” I had friends killed and “disappeared.” I left Argentina in the late ’70s, during the military dictatorship, and followed the Malvinas/Falklands war with dismay. I went back and celebrated when democracy returned and also was one of those angry when torturers were set free. I read about the miracles that privatization and the free market were bringing to Argentina, just as I was seeing the businesses in my working-class neighborhood, Barracas, close down — the lumberyard, the car factory, the crane and truck company, the corner grocery, the meat market, the mechanic’s shop. Gone, one by one.

Still, never before had I seen this kind of despair.

One moment in this recent trip, as I sat in my mother’s kitchen, talking with her as she was cooking, I was 10 again — and suddenly the silence struck me. I remembered the noon factory whistle; she did, too. I saw in my mind’s eye the bustle of people in blue overalls buying cold cuts and bread. I saw myself waiting in line at the bread shop, clutching some coins and the handles of the bag my mother had given me.
Now, noon has no sound and my parents and their neighbors have grown old. But I also saw some little kids playing in the street. The old and the very young: It reminded me of the stories I used to hear when I was growing up about towns in Italy and Spain, depleted by emigration and sadness. Many of the working-age men and women had gone to seek their fortunes in Argentina. These days, many of their grandchildren are going back

One thing that has grown in Barracas is the shantytown around the corner from my mother’s house. There were a few tin-roofed shacks back when I played soccer in those fields. It’s a city within a city now.
All the hand-wringing over the crisis, all the incessant gloomy chatter, took me back to a familiar, troubling place: the way Argentine society always assigns blame elsewhere, to others.

Argentines are seen throughout Latin America as haughty and self-important, yet this business of casting themselves as helpless victims — of the International Monetary Fund, the greedy bankers, the corrupt politicians — is nothing new.
Two decades after the last military dictatorship, people still speak of it as a historical aberration brought about by a group of monstrous generals — as if they were not Argentine, as if they were not our brothers, our neighbors, our friends. As if there were no civilian collaborators, as if civilian institutions had not cheered the generals on, as if so many of us hadn’t simply looked the other way.
In Argentina it’s not us — ever. It’s “them.”
As a result, nothing ever gets truly confronted and resolved. So we stumble on from one strongman to the next, one savior to the next, one magic solution to the next. Others are to blame.

The recurrent image for me in Buenos Aires was a scene in Luis Buñuel’s film “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” In it, a group of well-to-do but good-for-nothing people are having dinner. Suddenly, three armed men, apparently looking to settle an account, burst through the door, round them up, and start shooting. In the confusion, one of the diners — a crooked diplomat — hides under the table, and from under the table, as the shooting subsides and his friends lie dead, he grabs one more slice of roast beef. He just can’t help himself.
I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for Argentina’s political class.

With the country in shambles, a woman who had received special aid checks for mental disability was sworn into office in the National Congress. This left open two unfortunate options: Either she was, according to the diagnosis, mentally incapable to hold her job, or she was a liar and a thief. She took her seat just the same. Another congresswoman, accused in an investigative TV program of misappropriating nearly $1 million in help for the disabled, responded by wishing out loud to have them shot. It was caught on a hidden camera.
After much maneuvering, she was kicked out of the legislature.

Seemingly every week another scandal breaks out — but no one has gone to jail yet. Last year a senator rocked Congress with an accusation of payoffs for voting on a labor law. He named names. The amounts were revealed. Nothing came of it. A judge in Spain, enjoying dual citizenship, was found to be receiving retirement checks from the Argentine government — $3,500 a month. He had worked in government in 1973, for 49 days, and had “retired” in 1987 when he was 49; by the time this arrangement came to light, he had already cashed in half a million dollars. President Eduardo Duhalde’s sister and two daughters are on the payroll of a failing official bank, according to news reports, while members of Duhalde’s cabinet come to Washington to beg for more money.

Some of this mischief has been remedied; most has not — and something else is likely to come out today. (In fact, as I write this, the news is that a vote for impeachment of a governor for “bad discharge of his duties” was derailed by one vote in his state’s legislature. There is a strong suspicion of a bribe.) It’s a pathetic, buffoonish and sometimes larcenous political class, but one that was cheered along, and voted into office, while the peso was kept artificially strong and there were fantasies of “being in the First World.”

Former president Carlos Menem, the free-market champion who set the stage for this mess, was reelected in 1995 by a landslide. By then few had any illusions about him or those surrounding him, but my friends told me that Menem’s overwhelming support represented the”voto cuota,” the installment plan vote: People who benefited from his economic policies, and for the first time were buying a car or refrigerator on credit, did not want to risk change.

It reminded me of the days of the military dictatorship, from 1976 to 1982. It was one of the bloodiest regimes in the history of the hemisphere; estimates of the dead and missing have reached as high as 30,000. It also quadrupled the Argentine foreign debt, in part by having the state assume private debt. (One of the architects of this plan was economist Domingo Cavallo, later the finance minister for Menem, and brought back as a would-be savior by President Fernando De La Rua. Argentine society not only has no mirrors, it has no memory.)

But as Mariano Grondona, a conservative commentator, once told me, “many of us [free market] liberals were very concerned about the floating rate of exchange and were absolutely indifferent to the floating corpses in the river.”
So here we are again, with our unpaid refrigerators and our unburied dead.

The country we knew is gone and a new one has to be built from the ground up. We are running out of “others” to blame. It’s just us.


This piece appeared in The Washington Post, May, 2002

Fernando González