Reexamining the 2001 Argentine crisis and its aftermath

DipticBy Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.


Ten days ago, the launching of a recently published book entitled Argentina Since the 2001 Crisis: Recovering the Past, Reclaiming the Future at the Institute of the Americas (University College of London) was a good opportunity to revisit the vicissitudes of contemporary politics in Argentina. The volume, edited by Cara Levey, Daniel Ozarow, and Christopher Wylde, gathers the contributions of a multidisciplinary international group of scholars to the analysis of the legacies of the 2001 crisis. In particular, the book explores the responses to the crisis in various dimensions: economic processes, domestic politics, social mobilization, and cultural practices. As invited discussant, I noted several contributions this book is making to our understanding of the implications of such dramatic events. Among other things, I highlighted the following points and encouraged further discussion and investigation.

Ana_IMG_3274I welcomed the introduction of the concept of “crisis intermezzo.” It might be a very helpful analytical concept in the Argentine case and probably other cases too. While transition is defined as “a process during which the previous act is terminated and replaced by a different one, (…) intermezzo is a bracketed act between two acts of the same piece” (p. 144). This conceptual contrast may broaden our historical perspective of what happened in Argentina. In the light of recent developments, it is evident that Argentines have started to anticipate, once again, a new crisis as if they have developed, through recurrent crises, a particular ability to do so and the aftermath of the crisis was just an intermezzo to catch their breath.

A number of things happened during the intermezzo, though. Several chapters in this volume give us tools to analyze both rebellion from below and reconstruction from above. The contributors ably illustrate how citizens mobilized driven by anger and hope, and how the state de-mobilize them and used the opportunity to give the Kirchners’ model its identity, narrative, and historical projection. I note that integrating the two process seems to be a pending task. Doing so might require exploring how crises and intermezzos have become naturalised throughout their cyclical recurrence and how Argentine politics (and Peronist politics in particular) have become the art of managing crisis or using intermezzos to re-invent the (now) dominant party.

With respect to the top-down part of that process, I note that there is an underlying theme in the book: the recasting of state power as post-neoliberalism promised to bring the state back in and mend the damage made by neoliberal policies. In my view, the return of the state seems to be an unfinished, inconsistent, and uneven process across geographies of the national territory and across policy areas; it has also been closely intertwined with the government’s significant efforts to re-write a narrative of the past, present and future of the country (and the role of the Kirchner family in it). This recurrent theme made me think that an emphasis on responses to the crisis might be insufficient. Most chapters, indeed, identify contradictions and tensions between national popular discourses and the policies and politics of dispossession. This suggests the need to elaborate not only on the responses but also on the non-responses, the issues that have been silenced, the mobilization that was de-mobilized, the dissent that was diluted or simply postponed. Doing so might help make sense of the paradox that the protesters’ slogan “que se vayan todos!” (they all must go!) faded in front of politicians’ resilience and resistance to leave and to implement necessary political reforms. Old and new factions continue struggling today as the time of election approaches, while popular discontent persists and focuses on recurrent problems (e.g., corruption, insecurity, inflation) and the component of hope contained in the 2001 protests has not been fulfilled yet.

Uruguay: Tiny Country, Big Population Problems

By Dr. Ana Margheritis, Politics & International Relations

The international press has focused on Uruguay lately and praised a number of factors that make the country attractive and relatively atypical in the Latin American context today: a small, gorgeous area of fertile land; political and economic stability; a friendly and laid-back style of life; progressive tax, social welfare and other policies (e.g., legalisation of abortion, marijuana consumption, and gay marriage); records of foreign investment; improvement in reducing poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and inequality, and a humble president whose simple, frugal habits and standard of living has not changed after coming to office.

Demographers argue that Uruguay is an atypical case in other respect, too: it did not go through peaks of population growth and an early decline in mortality and birth rates gave it a demographic profile more similar to the advanced countries than to its developing neighbours, though still sharing with the latter the same struggle to overcome economic under-development. Such demographic evolution contributed to a generalized perception of a lack of population problems and, consequently, to the absence of specific policies. Problems existed, though, compounded today by a low fertility rate, concentration of population in a small coastal area and few cities (half of the total population lives in Montevideo, the capital city), low immigration inflows, and continuous population ageing and emigration. Internal migration from the countryside to the coast has historically been the first step in a long journey that extends beyond the country’s borders as a significant part of the total population (between 15% and 18% in the mid-2000s) moved subsequently abroad. Thus, in terms of migration flows Uruguay passed from being a receiving country up to the 1950s to a sending country since then and depopulation became a structural problem.

However, it is not until the mid-2000s that the magnitude of the emigration problem was acknowledged and both population and migration issues entered the governmental agenda and political discourse. The immediate factor that prompted this policy shift was the mobilization of Uruguayans abroad around the time of the 2004 elections and its role in the Frente Amplio’s victory. This was compounded by the last two presidents’ leadership role, the profile of the emigrant group (i.e., young, highly educated), and the nature of the Frente’s political project, namely a development strategy in which the state has a prominent role and a progressive social agenda that brings human rights considerations to the forefront. A new set of innovative migration-related measures and institutional changes gained momentum in the last decade, though their scope and sustainability are still subject to controversies.

Uruguayan governments have, indeed, made significant efforts to reach out to citizens living abroad. Following global trends, several initiatives were launched: a new discourse to re-name the diaspora and its role in the nation; legislation update to institutionalize migrant rights; new bureaucratic units in charge of migrant affairs; a number of linkage programs to engage migrants with homeland, and the promise of inclusion and increasing political participation through extra-territorial voting rights. The emphasis on linkages and absentee voting rights promised not only to reinforce nationhood bonds but also to make effective a notion of citizenship that goes beyond territorial borders and redefines the idea of nation. Nevertheless, this initiative could not overcome political and social opposition. Most likely, it will be revived this year as national elections approach.

Among other lessons, Uruguay shows that sending state emigration policies require the political commitment of specific actors to prosper. It is not the state as a unitary apparatus or political parties but specific individuals and offices (i.e., the president, foreign minister, especial migration units) which push transnational initiatives politically. Emigration policy also requires an articulation between symbolic and rhetoric initiatives and concrete measures to entitle and engage emigrants. The label patria peregrine (peregrine nation), intended to emphasize that emigrants are still part of the nation, was too vague, did not resonate with the dual engagements of Uruguayans abroad and failed to give them an identity, thus jeopardizing the chances of constructing them as subjects and interlocutors. The use of this terminology also cast doubts on the conceptualization of the problem and policy intentions because it involves a redefinition of borders when, in fact, political and social ideas about the nation still remain strongly tied to territory in Uruguay. As the debate on extra-territorial voting rights illustrates, two views persist: the official political discourse emphasizes notions of national identity and unity, collective commitment with nation-building, and sense of responsibility towards the country’s fate even if at a long distance; in contrast, other political and social actors argue that physical presence in the territory at the moment of suffrage ultimately contributes to reinforce the nationhood bond, questioning that those who are physically absent decide on the lives of those who will actually endure the consequences of decisions.

Bureaucratic practices are a major obstacle to policy consistency and sustainability, as well as society’s low capacity to exert strong pressure or push for its agenda. Several of the initiatives above have been subject to constant vaivenes (the word I most often heard during field research, meaning ups and downs, comings and goings) and faced implementation problems.Thus, the sustainability of emigration policy in the long run is contingent not only on state’s capacity to reform itself but also on society’s ability to acquire a greater voice and more organizational capacity as well as to engage broader sectors with the re-construction of national membership along pluralistic and non-territorial lines.

In sum, Uruguay is a critical case to study emigration policies because, in contrast to other cases, discursive mechanisms have included but not targeted elites exclusively, new re-conceptualizations of the citizens abroad failed to re-incorporate them into the nation, state strategies have not prioritized financial flows but political issues and, rather than capitalizing on migrant transnational networks overseas, the state implemented a top-down, state-led model on diverse migrant organizations that largely backfired. Moreover, I argue that full extra-territorial citizenship has not materialized yet not because of governments’ reluctance but because the political elites’ and society’s strong attachment to territorial notions of entitlements have re-territorialized the debate.

Do you want to know more? See my forthcoming article in International Migration Review: “Redrawing the Contours of the Nation-State in Uruguay? The Vicissitudes of Emigration Policyin the 2000s”.