Carousel Country: Of Power Wars and Populism in Argentina




Carousel Country: Of Power Wars and Populism in Argentina by Tomas Hachard

Power wars and populism in Argentina

May 19th, 2013 reset - +

Photo: Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner Reelection 2011 © Caitlin M. Kelly/Argentina Elections

THEY MARCHED DOWN Ninth of July Avenue in Buenos Aires, by some accounts the world’s widest street: an exaggerated Champs Elysées in this most Parisian of Latin American cities. Headed toward the obelisk, they formed a cacerolazo, the rich and growing Latin American form of protest that adds the unique ingredient of clamoring pots and pans to the normal spectacle of chants and signs. It is a tradition birthed in Chile, which the Argentines appropriated most famously and violently in 2001, when the economy and peso collapsed, and poverty became the norm.

This was not the first time the protestors had gathered here, kitchenware in hand. In September 2012 there was a march attended by 200,000 people, followed by another in November, when numbers grew to 700,000. The protests confirmed public anger toward Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — a president who had been reelected with 54 percent of the vote a year earlier — was reaching a boiling point. In the new year, preparations began for another demonstration, christened “18A” for the day in April on which it would occur.

A number of recent events underscored the potentially disastrous consequences of Kirchner’s vision, which has dominated Argentina since 2003, when her now deceased husband Néstor was elected president. In February 2012, a train accident in Buenos Aires killed 51 people, left hundreds injured, and emphasized the dilapidated state of government infrastructure. In May, her administration set up harsh restrictions on the purchase of American dollars, an indication that Argentines, always wary of their tumultuous state currency, were beginning to distrust the peso again. Every month, meanwhile, the discrepancy between the government’s official inflation rate and reality grew increasingly absurd — as of April, private estimates put the country’s annual rate at 22.1 percent while officially it sat at 10.5. In February, the uncertainty culminated with a confused government decision to freeze food prices while continuing to stick by their stats. Then, in March, Kirchner set out a series of proposals to radically reform and, in her eyes, democratize the judiciary, though her numerous critics saw the move as a flagrant attempt to dismantle the constitutional checks and balances currently limiting her executive power.

On April 18, protestors came to say no to all that. Over a million people took to the streets in Buenos Aires, according to some estimates. More turned out around the country.

The cacerolazos have given new public expression to fissures in Argentine society that were already discernible in the nation’s newspapers, radios, and TVs. For the past three years, the Kirchner government has been embroiled in a legal battle with Clarín Group, a media conglomerate that owns Clarín, the most widely read newspaper in the country, and various radio and television stations. The Kirchner administration passed a media law in 2010 that places limits on the number of media entities one company can own. That would force Clarín to sell off a significant portion of its assets, but the media company contends that specific clauses of the law — those that would force it to downsize in particular — are unconstitutional. Its case against the government has been weaving through the courts since, and only now awaits a final verdict from the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Clarín and Kirchner have relished every opportunity to embarrass and criticize each other. Alarming reports even emerged recently claiming that the federal government was considering seizing control of Clarín, though government officials denied any such plans.

Battles between state and media are commonplace in Latin America today, but in Argentina the fight between Kirchner and Clarín has transcended the legal realm to become what Argentine journalist Martín Caparrós, who blogs for the Spanish paper El País, describes as “the mother of all the little battles.” The case is a bellwether, not because it symbolizes the nation’s greatest problem — far from it — but because the resulting media landscape has provided a perfect theater in which to witness the enmity at the heart of Argentina’s political climate: what has been described by Joaquín Morales Solá, a prominent columnist for the newspaper La Nación, as the country’s state of “permanent conflict.”

The morning after the November protests offered an exemplary, if not out of the ordinary case study. Clarín filled half its front page with a bird’s-eye-view picture of Ninth of July Avenue replete with protestors. The headline declared, “Gigantic Protest Against The Government.” Kirchner, though, had long stated that opposition to her government came only from the well heeled and that Clarín Group was part of an oligarchic conspiracy against her. So Pagina/12, a smaller paper that supports Kirchner, chose to run a picture of two older women meekly clanging pot lids together, wearing large sunglasses, and looking, accurately or not, like they possessed a heightened quality of life. The headline read: “More Of The Same.”

Beyond bolstering Kirchner’s message, the headline neatly captured her administration’s tendency to group together its opponents — be they citizens, corporations, or judges — before besmirching them as a whole. The strategy, at least until a recent switch in focus to the judiciary, has centered largely on Clarín — Kirchner ran her 2011 reelection campaign in part on a simple slogan: “Clarín Lies!” — and has managed, after several years, to turn a country of multiple political parties into a land of two identities: pro- or anti-Kirchner.

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Polarization would hardly make Argentina unique, neither in its politics nor in its media coverage, if it weren’t the dominant trend of the country’s ill-fated affair with populism. The political movement began in the 1940s with the rise of Juan Domingo Perón and has lived on ever since through his namesake party, which Kirchner now leads.

Between 1880 and 1890, 650,000 immigrants settled permanently in Argentina, which at the time had a population of approximately two million people. By 1895, two out of three Buenos Aires residents were foreigners. The immigrants arrived in a country where a political elite held sway over a nominal democracy, and where the federal executive branch wielded tremendous influence over both the provinces and congress.

As the population grew, there emerged two distinct groups: the masses and the leaders. It could be argued that the options for their relationship were defined early in the 20th century, first by the oligarchic elite (often military), who governed with disdain, and second by Hipólito Yrigoyen, elected president in 1916 and worshipped by Argentinians as an alternative to the aristocracy he defeated. But, as Luis Alberto Romero writes in A History of Argentina in the 20th Century, even Yrigoyen was prone to ignoring congressional opposition and imposing his will on the provinces. “The president,” Romero writes, “had to fulfill a duty and a mission […] for which he had been elected and which placed him above institutional procedures.”

Perón’s greatest achievement, in this sense, was melding the elitist and populist options even more than Yrigoyen had. You can hear the synergy in one of the chants people sang about him. Within the span of two lines, it describes Perón as a great general, “our general,” and also the first, the primary worker: el primer trabajador.

Perón was a military man and an admirer of Mussolini who had the good political sense to make friends with the unions and leaders of the workers’ movement. The benefits of this strategy became clear early in his career when he was vice president and secretary of labor for a military government. After an alliance between businesspeople and opposing political parties pressured him to resign from his posts in 1945, a large workers’ demonstration forced his reinstatement. This support allowed him to form a political party and win the presidential election the following year.

According to Romero, the double face of Perón would continue throughout his time as President. His government was, on one hand, preoccupied with social justice and the poor. This took positive forms, such as building schools and hospitals and extending voter rights to women, but also manifested itself in politically suspect ways, like the gifts of food and sewing machines that Eva Perón, Juan Domingo’s adored wife, handed out to whoever requested them.

Yet Perón’s administration was also profoundly undemocratic. Quickly after coming to power, it consolidated its overriding influence over the unions, installing leaders who followed orders from the state. It placed increasing power in the hands of the executive, cleaned house at the Supreme Court, ousted non-Perónist provincial leaders, avoided parliamentary discussion at all costs, and established state-run newspapers and radio stations while haranguing the independent press.

The combination was potent. Perón’s giveaways and power grabs were so perfectly entwined that eventually his power took on the form of a gift. The leader and his constituents, the state and el pueblo; these could only be united if Perón was President. Of course, there was never consensus, just popularity, and so the final step was to isolate and eliminate the opposition. “For our enemies not even justice,” said Perón in the 1950s, and perhaps that has been his most obeyed command.

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Since the media law was proposed, Caparrós and others have pointed out how the Kirchnerists and the Clarín Group were once the best of friends. In 2007, Néstor Kirchner’s government approved the merger of two cable companies that ended up giving Clarín 80 percent of the market share in that industry. Their current feud reportedly began over two incidents. Caparrós points to 2008, when Clarín sided with the agricultural sector against the government in a months-long fight over a tax increase, a move the Kirchnerists argued was due to the paper’s own economic interests in the matter. But a New York Times story traces it further back to 2007, when Clarín reported on $800,000 in cash that arrived in Argentina from Venezuela bearing the distinct smell of corruption.

Regardless of its origins, the fight, as Caparrós points out, has been useful for the government. It provides an ideal avenue for denial. When Clarín reports that the government stats agency (the INDEC) is fudging the inflation numbers, Kirchner can resort to her reelection slogan: “Clarín lies!” It’s a simple narrative with which to brush off any criticism.

Such was the case after the November protests when, similarly to the Pagina/12 cover, the pro-Kirchner TV talk show 6,7,8 used its coverage of the protests to debunk supposed myths: the protests were not peaceful and they were not an expression of the people’s anger, the show proposed. They were hostile — a handful of videos shown side by side contained violence against reporters — and attended by people who hate the government’s policy of redistributing money to what one woman in a clip refers to as the “lazy ones.”

The show’s tone got increasingly aggressive. The “story kept hidden by the opposition,” turned into “lies propagated by Clarín.” By the end of the segment, one panelist spoke about how the protests were a sign of the Kirchner government’s success. The “fascists” in attendance could not reveal themselves as such. They had to pretend to be left wing and accuse the government instead of fascism. “They can’t say they are right wing,” he explained. “They can’t say they want to starve the country to death. They can’t say government is useless.”

6,7,8 airs on a public network, which accounts for the strong pro-Kirchner message and tone. But the Kirchner government also garners favorable coverage from private outlets like Pagina/12 through the use of government advertising, which has long been a controversial part of the Argentine media. The purpose, ostensibly, is for the government to keep people informed about issues and policy. But in a report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sara Rafsky writes that government advertising increased by $268 million, over 2000 percent, from 2003, when Néstor was elected, to 2010. Much of this money went to ads, some of them several minutes long, which attacked the opposition as liars, glorified the Kirchners’ actions, and aired during nationally televised soccer games. In print, allies of the Kirchners like Grupo Uno and Veintitrés have seen a substantial rise in advertising money for their publications, while critical outlets like Clarín Group and also the magazine publisher Editorial Perfil have watched it disappear.

This helps explain what can seem so troubling about Kirchner’s media law. The government describes the law as a blow against monopolies and large economic interests that will allow for more varied voices to emerge. And it’s true that Clarín Group is a substantial conglomerate, not unlike Rupert Murdoch’s empire, that until recently was prone to its own attacks on freedom of the press. Before Kirchner began regulating and slowly nationalizing Papel Prensa, the country’s only newsprint manufacturer, its joint majority stakeholders were Clarín Group and La Nacíon, who were accused of overcharging other print outlets for the necessary material.

But the possibility of undue state influence is as much of a risk to freedom of speech and the independent press as monopolies. According to Morales Sola, only two TV channels covered the September cacerolazos; Clarín Group owned both. And last December, La Nacíon reported that the government was ordering 48 radio stations controlled by the public company Argentina Radio and Television to replace local morning content with the program Mañana Más, hosted by Luciano Galende, also the host of the arguably propagandist 6,7,8.

Kirchner’s judicial reforms face a similar problem, largely because of how tied they are to the media law. Since the Clarín Group first challenged the latter’s constitutionality, a stay has been in effect preventing the contested parts of the law from coming into effect. That stay was meant to expire last December 7 and Kirchner had planned a large demonstration and speeches to celebrate the victory. But when the Civil and Commercial Court ordered an extension until a final decision had been made on the case, Kirchner instead gave a fiery speech criticizing the courts, recalling how in the 1930s, the Supreme Court legitimized a military coup against President Yrigoyen. She exhorted the current court to become independent of corporate interests and to respect the will of the people.

The judicial reforms, passed by Congress in late April, limit stays on contested government policy to six months, and also tie the appointment of judges to legislative election results. In the first case, the reforms significantly erode citizens’ ability to challenge government laws; in the second, they risk allowing the slightest change in the country’s political temperature to affect the makeup of the courts. A democratization of the courts need not curtail judicial independence, but the details of Kirchner’s proposals speak to ulterior motives. Like the media law, the reforms arrive in a context of score settling that only serves to defame the good intentions that may be contained within, and gives credence to what Carlos Pagni, another columnist for La Nacíon, has written: that Kirchner’s reforms “aspire not to remodel society according to a conceptual program, but to get revenge.”

The acerbic environment further makes for a state of political discourse where differences don’t get played out as debates so much as accusations. They become mired in animosity. Kirchner and her critics in the media regularly swap comparisons to Nazis and the mafia. Pro-Kirchner groups readily attack Clarín and La Nacíon, which are equally critical of the government, for possible collusion with the 1970s military government; the papers reply by accusing Kirchner of moving toward dictatorial powers. Morales Sola has called Kirchner and her followers Jacobins, despotic, absolutist, authoritarian, and has compared their policies to fascism and Nazism; a recent piece of his about the judicial reforms featured a number of these in just one article. Like with much of the country’s future, polarization wins the day, and what gets heard most are the overwhelming battle cries.

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In Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism, the philosopher Ernesto Laclau, who was born in Argentina and is an influential Kirchner supporter, defines populism as a political phenomenon that grows out of the opposition between “the people” and the “power bloc.” “Populism starts,” Laclau writes, “at the point where popular-democratic elements are presented as an antagonistic option against the ideology of the dominant bloc.” It mobilizes masses with different particular class interests against one cause.

Along with centralized power, antagonism has been a central element of Perónism over the decades. The movement is understood to be left wing and worker-oriented, but if its essence were based around, say, redistributionist policies, it would have never taken the forms it did following Perón’s death and the country’s subsequent military dictatorship.

In the 1990s, Carlos Menem — the second president following the country’s return to democracy and a prominent Perónist in the 1970s — came to power as head of the Perónist party. After running on a platform that promised widespread salary increases, he proceeded to shift entirely and put the country on a severe neoliberal program. He privatized many of the state assets that Perón had nationalized, became friendly with business interests, and imposed severe austerity measures.

What he did not do is decentralize power. Early on in his presidency, Congress voted to increase the number of Supreme Court justices by four, tipping the court in Menem’s favor. (Such moments in Argentine history cast added skepticism on Kirchner’s judicial reforms, which, if not so flagrantly self-serving, certainly hints at a similar direction.) Menem further maintained party loyalty by taking advantage of a Perónist power structure that, as Jill Hedges writes in Argentina: A Modern History, was accustomed to a strong leader.

Eventually, though, Menem’s policies produced a split in the Perónist party, so that when Néstor Kirchner was elected in 2003, his principal opponent was Menem. Kirchnerists now consider Menem at best an anomaly and at worst a traitor to Perónism. In De Perón a Kirchner, the Perónist and Kirchnerist historian Norberto Galasso writes that Menem co-opted “Perónism for a politics reflecting the Washington Consensus” and worked toward “the destruction of the fundamental work done by Perónism since 1945.”

But one can’t summarily dismiss the 10 years of Menem’s rule as an accident of Perónism. Like Perón before him, Menem cared less about the left or right wing than about what could pragmatically keep him in power. The chaotic hyperinflation that preceded his presidency and the short-term economic benefits of convertibility, a policy that pegged the peso to the U.S. dollar and brought inflation under control almost immediately, made alternatives to his rule unappealing. Menem, writes Hedges, benefited both from his image as “the undisputed leader of the pack and the continuing fear that his government was the only guarantee that convertibility would be maintained.” Again as with Perón, Menem benefitted from a complete corrosion of the political spectrum to the basics of us vs. them.

With Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, Perónism has returned to more recognizable policies, including the renationalization of some companies that Menem privatized. High soy prices, meanwhile, have given the government an infusion of cash with which to carry out social programs. And like Perón, the Kirchners have been responsible for positive acts. They have prosecuted crimes committed by the 1970s military government. A recent World Bank report showed Argentina sporting overall economic growth, decreasing inequality, and a substantial rise in the middle class. The sustainability of current policies is a question, and considering the catastrophe of 2001, when over half the country sank into poverty, such changes are perhaps best described as a recovery, but nevertheless they are undeniably there.

But core Perónist practices remain as well, and they are rotten ones. Kirchner interchangeably uses the media, the judiciary, the oligarchs they represent, and the impending coups that they are ostensibly capable of to denounce all critical voices and to spread fear of ghosts from Argentina’s pre-Kirchner past, namely neoliberalism and military dictatorships. When it comes to inflation, government misinformation continues; a new book by two writers for La Nacíon reports that intimidation tactics have been used at the INDEC to silence anyone who questions the numbers. The pillars of Perónism — strong executive power and divisive populism — remain as essential to Kirchner as they were to Menem or to their party’s founder.

Recently, a theory about Latin American politics has gained prominence, arguing that the region today is divided not by left and right but by two lefts: On one side a moderate option, characterized by the Lula administration in Brazil; on the other the revolutionary left aligned with Venezuela’s regime. The dichotomy is not flawless; it accounts for the tendency toward state control of resources and services in Venezuela and Ecuador but it doesn’t explain the fact that Lula always considered Chávez a friend. What certainly exists, though, is a difference in public image, and when one takes into consideration what Alma Guillermoprieto wrote following Chávez’s death — “For all his anti-imperialist fulminations, the flow of Venezuelan oil to U.S. ports was not interrupted for a single day. For all his socialist preaching, his country remained firmly capitalist” — a country’s membership in the revolutionary left begins to seem more the result of self-characterization.

In both Venezuela and Argentina there is no place for moderation, even if policies may speak otherwise. For many Kirchner supporters, the election of Néstor and Cristina offered hope for a fresh start, a turn away from what Kirchner activist Bruno Bimbi writes was a previous obsession with power in the country’s politics. In a bittersweet essay, though, Bimbi recognizes that the results have been disappointing in that respect. “It pains me,” he writes, “to see companions who I appreciate and respect justifying anything, saying that everything [against them] is a tactic propagated by the right wing and the media, and going on 6,7,8 every night for therapy.” Whatever was the promise, reified categories continue to dominate Argentina’s political debates, in which the opposition is painted with a singular menacing color to justify one’s hold on office.

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In the 1970s, V.S. Naipaul traveled to and wrote a series of increasingly critical articles about Argentina for The New York Review of Books. In “The Corpse at the Iron Gate,” he compared Argentine politics to “the life of an ant community or an African forest tribe: full of events, full of crises and deaths, but life is only cyclical, and the year always ends as it begins.”

Returning to the country in 1992, Naipaul saw in Menem’s neoliberal policies the end of a political era, writing that “perhaps only a Perónist could have declared Perónism over.” In fact, it was the return of Perónism, which would return again with the Kirchners, and which is always in a permanent state of return as it finds new things against which to define itself. Today, Cristina Kirchner repeatedly refers to those who oppose her as hailing from “Barrio Norte,” an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood, and in doing so echoes, purposely or not, Evita, who Naipaul writes would often incite crowds with the question, “Shall we burn down Barrio Norte?”

The sadness of Argentina is that it has yet to disprove Naipaul, who in the blistering final pages of “Argentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard” seethes with disdain for a country that never grew up from being a colony, that worships idols, believes in magic, exemplifies misogynistic machismo, and will never move past a culture of violence, corruption, and plunder. These sentiments are hardly credible descriptions of Argentina’s past, present, or future, but Naipaul’s anger arises from witnessing cultural attitudes that Argentina still cannot entirely deny. There is still too much paranoia, still a tendency to quickly declare enemies, still an unnecessary level of acrimony on display in political life.

In a trenchant analysis following the November protests, Caparrós wrote about the vicious circles that Argentina inhabits. About the economic crises that repeat themselves with different details but similar suffering. About the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Perónists, who claim they are the only party who can govern and so attract any politician who has aspirations to doing so. He wrote about the same broken infrastructure, the same corruption, the same misery and the same inequality. A “carousel country,” he called it.

The piece is beautiful, angry, somber, and one moment strikes a particularly resonant chord. The protestors, Caparrós writes, are still in a “pre-political” or “proto-political” moment; they insist “the politicians are a disaster but wait for one that isn’t to appear.” In one video of 8N, a woman rejects a reporter’s question about the presence of politicians at the protest. We don’t need the politicians, she says, we don’t want them. At A18, politicians arrived in plain clothes, so to speak, eager to not be seen as partisan in their opposition. This may be “pre-political,” as Caparrós says, and, in the long term, impractical. But, in a country where bitter realities have long been fodder for politicians who seem to desire nothing more than an “ism” after their name, it may, if it lasts, also be the first step off the carousel.

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Tomas Hachard is a freelance writer who has written about art, politics, and himself for NPR, The Morning News, and Guernica, among others. Born in Buenos Aires and raised in Toronto, he currently lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @thachard.

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