By Dr. Ana Margheritis, Politics & International Relations
There have been numerous discussion forums and articles published on Argentina’s performance and prospects in the last few months. Recently I participated in a closed workshop at UCL in which seasoned diplomats urged us -scholars- to tell them when, exactly, the underlying tensions in the Kirchners’ model would produce a terminal crisis. Nobody ventured to mention a date. Most probably, nobody imagined that, a few days later, the 30th anniversary of the return to democratic rule (on December 10, 2013) would be marked by strikes, riots, 14 people dead, and images of the president celebrating and dancing with her supporters. For those of us who not only came of age with democratization but also have been writing about that transition and related issues, the celebration was sad. It made evident that thirty years have not been enough to move Argentina out of a perverse cycle of crises, let alone transcend a long-standing “reversal of development” process, as Carlos Waisman called it long time ago.
Myopic views and strategies prevail and transform each presidential election into a “re-foundational” opportunity. The legacy of each presidential term is read in terms of structural changes and ideological cleavages. Ironically, this past week’s reality offered a neat analogy. The structure of the 11 meter-high, pompous mausoleum where former president Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007) is buried cracked. Responsibility for architectural problems is attributed to the construction company run by his friend and business partner who now faces charges for money laundering in relation to the presidential family’s embellishment, thus making the cracks in the foundation an allegory for the fate of the regime. The media has unveiled many of these scandals recently. Divisions among Peronist factions became most evident in primary and legislative elections (last August and October, respectively), kicking off a fierce competition to succeed Mrs. Kirchner in 2015 and highlighting civil society’s discontent with persistent problems like insecurity, inflation, bad public services, and corruption. December OECD statistics on education standard revealed that Argentina has fallen in both the regional and global rankings.
While politicians preached about democracy, neoliberalism, post-neoliberalism, neopopulism, and so on (lately including, once again, “the return of the state”), old and new public issues are not addressed. The Kirchners, in particular, invested highly in symbolic and discursive tools to construct a new narrative. But Argentines worry about concrete problems and have just spent Christmas in a tense atmosphere. Prolonged power shortages in the midst of a heat wave hit several neighborhoods of the capital city, prompting more street protests. The outages are another sign that real change has not come. Who does not remember that power outages have been another recurrent feature of Argentine daily life for several decades, as gas shortages in the winter or urban flooding in Buenos Aires city? Although problems such as these tend to be accepted as part of normal life, state incapacity to deliver public goods is still unacceptable.
Most important, recent developments may be symptoms of deeper transformations that have gone largely unnoticed in the public debate, in part because different ideas (i.e., opposed to the official discourse) are deemed “destabilizing.” The government often invokes memories of a traumatic authoritarian past and the 2001debacle to dismiss criticisms. Thus, opinions about the most recent past (10 years under the Kirchners) have become highly polarized as the confrontational politics that characterizes the Kirchers’ style has tainted all public discourse, intellectual discussions, and social relations alike. On the one hand, scholars seem to find it difficult to provide objective and balanced analyses. More worrisome, there are few attempts to move the conversation beyond a simple list of achievements and shortcomings.
On the other hand, state role and capacities are increasingly compromised. Some old and new issues seem to undermine social cohesion and expectations. Latinobarometer surveys show that social confidence in state institutions has been constantly low over the last twenty years. Structural poverty, marginalization, and economic informality characterize the life of vast sectors of Argentine society, intensifying social polarization in a country where social mobility and relatively good education and health used to be accessible. Social groups’ language and actions during the recent riots showed unusual levels of aggression. Very few voices (notably, the church) have made the connection between social attitudes and state policies, however. Colleagues like Roberto Gargarella ably pointed out that such aggression was a mirror of state abuses and the impunity of political elites; Javier Auyero has extensively documented the links between poverty and violence suggesting that the state may be part of the problem. Many of us have analyzed the impact of instability on policymaking and the tensions among neopopulists’ social agendas, outdated and ineffective notions of state interventionism, and non-democratic politics. A few scholars are now studying a new threat: the links among drug traffickers, politicians, and police forces.
In sum, today’s crisis urges us to go beyond ideology and epic narratives and address the implications of deepening social and institutional decay. History shows that states have played crucial roles in molding development strategies in all regions of the world, but in the successful cases states have generated positive state-society synergies and created the conditions for stable, long-term positive expectations and commitments. The 30th anniversary of democratization in Argentina exhibited state incapacity to guarantee social order and citizens trapped in a perverse cycle of anticipating the next crisis.