That there is much less on offer at the Sunday craft market outside the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires is as good a barometer as any of Argentina’s abridged expectations and economic woes. Argentines are poorer at the end of the Mauricio Macri presidency than they were at its start, the opposite of what they were promised.
But the lying years of Macri’s presidency are drawing to a close, the incumbent defeated in presidential elections by the neo-Peronists Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (not related). Just as the utter failure of the economic policies touted by former civil engineer Macri shocked many voters, so too has the triumphant re-emergence of former president Kirchner.
She served two terms, from 2007 to 2015, carrying on the task of repairing the economy begun by her predecessor, the late Néstor Kirchner, who had also been her husband. After leaving office, Fernández de Kirchner has been pursued by the now seemingly obligatory fate of former presidents on many continents: prosecution, whether merited or not, for corruption while in office. Some of the corruption cases will continue and although she denies any wrongdoing, their continued existence presents all sorts of possible pitfalls.
The new presidential team takes office on 10 December. Already there has been a shot across its bows from neighbouring Brazil, with that nation’s President Jair Bolsonaro decreeing “Argentina has chosen badly”.
Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, indulged in a Twitter mini-storm, tweeting among other scaremongering allegations that Argentina’s new top two would revert to “retrograde” economic policies and to propping up dictatorships. That last thought ought really to comfort him, given the character of the Bolsonaro regime. Araújo’s most histrionic flourish was to declaim: “The indications are the worst possible … The forces of evil are celebrating.”
The state of the nation
Moving to the other side of the political spectrum, quite why the Left has welcomed the neo-Peronist president with such giddy elation and elevated hopes is a mystery. Fernández inherits a country where inflation is soaring towards 60% and where those living below the poverty line number 35% of the population, up from 29% in 2015.
To assuage their plight while at the same time lessening financial austerity is an almost impossible high-wire act needing political will, extreme good luck and no debt burden. Allowing even for the first two factors somehow to materialise, Fernández has already committed Argentina to sticking to the terms of the $57 billion (yes, billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that Macri ill-advisedly signed up to in 2018.
How do you escape the neoliberal stranglehold when one of its two premier institutions of oppression – the other being the World Bank – has you by the throat for $57 billion? And given that circumstance, how do you possibly fulfil your election promise to workers and pensioners that the former will earn better wages and the latter have improved benefits?
Thrilling as the sloganeering and emancipatory rhetoric being thrown about might be, the hard fact is that there is only one way to cut the grasp of austerity: default or threaten to default on that big loan. Argentina has been there before, with the consequences bringing first Kirchner and thereafter Fernández de Kirchner to power.
After the massive Argentina default of 2001 to 2002, Kirchner was elected president and slowly, carefully rebuilt the economy from 2003 to 2007. After he died, Fernández de Kirchner continued that process. To have her back, then, is of some comfort to Argentines. She and the president, Fernández, will hope that their party, Frente de Todos (Everybody’s Front), lives up to its name in actions and results.
If not, the old wisdom of CP Scott, that “comment is free … but facts are sacred” will be an unpalatable message for the political and commentariat classes to swallow.
Or, as the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges put it: “To die for a religion is easier than to live it absolutely.”