Argentina: A View From the South

Mar del Plata, Rio de la Plata, the name of the country itself, suggest wealth, dreams of fabulous riches, but it would be hard now to find an Argentine with the hopes of a conquistador. Dickens and Mrs. Trollope wrote books on the USA after flying visits so perhaps I need not apologize for daring these remarks after a few months in Buenos Aires as a Fulbright Research Scholar.

The silvery dreams embedded in its nomenclature seem ironic now and it is a puzzle why. This is a country wealthy in resources, populated by an energetic and variegated citizenry. The fact that its seasons do not match those in the north provides market advantages of various kinds. One could go on, but why? The natural wealth of the country is not the problem. The problems are fundamentally political, perhaps better, problems of political economy.

A first symptom can be found in the omnipresent legend: Las Malvinas son Argentinas. Borges might quip that the war in the south Atlantic was two bald men fighting over a comb, but the hurt goes deep.

The Argentine case for the Malvinas has been irrefutably made by Bonifacio del Carril, scholar and former foreign minister. But the military government lost the war when most people here thought it was won. That was traumatic enough but far worse was the abandonment by the rest of the world. Argentina was all but isolated. The USA lost an historic opportunity to achieve solidarity with Latin America, something that doubtless occurred to Alexander Haig when Margaret Thatcher joined the chorus of protest over Grenada. The immediate effect of the war was the fall of the military government which was then put on trial during the Alfonsin regime.

The loss of the war permitted the prosecution to forget why there had been a military government and thus forget the context of the charges of torture and the like. The military took over because of the terrorist campaign of the Monteneros that the previous government could not handle. The military could and did. In the subsequent trials, among the principal accusers were supporters of the terrorists, but the court would not permit this to be developed by the defense.

A lasting effect of our mistake in the Malvinas conflict is an anti-Americanism that runs right through the political spectrum. The charge that we provided the British the intelligence they needed to defeat Argentina is not forgotten. The foreign policy of the Alfonsin government must be seen in the light.

Dante Caputo, the foreign minister, takes the country ever further into positions favorable to the Soviet Union. His interventions at the Contadora meeting and his all but comic performance at the recent meeting of Unaligned Nations (to which league Argentina to its shame belongs) did not secure the desired result: support of the Argentine proposals on the Malvinas. The Alfonsin government sent an official representative to Castro’s convocation on foreign debt where representatives of the terrorist Monteneros were also present. The problem of the debt provides an alternative anti-American symbol to the Malvinas with even the military, in the form of the Air Force, joining the chorus.

Needless to say, refusing to pay foreign debts would be equivalent to a declaration of bankruptcy, with dire consequences for the future of Argentina, Brazil, Peru and the like. That Castro, who always pays Cuba’s debts promptly and without complaint, should orchestrate this campaign makes it clear who is writing the score.

South Africa and apartheid provide another opportunity for Argentina to work against its own best interests—and here of course she joins a large group which now includes the USA. South Africa is the target of worldwide obloquy because she is staunchly anti-Soviet and has thwarted Russian plans in the dark continent. She also controls the sea route alternative to the Suez Canal. Chaos in South Africa thus opens great opportunities for the Soviets in the south Atlantic with immediate bad consequences for Argentina. Of course the instrument of the campaign is moral indignation over apartheid. Is it then to become a universal principle that sanctions will be set against every nation guilty of internal immoral practises? Those of us who eagerly trade with Russians and Chinese can scarcely subscribe to the general principle. Apartheid is an excuse, not the reason, for the global effort to undo South Africa.

Who says such things in Buenos Aires? La Prensa, surely one of the most remarkably independent and thoughtful papers published anywhere in the world. The four times weekly column of J. Iglesias Rouco is eagerly awaited by many and Rouco is only the best of the regular writers for La Prensa. In a country where the state television—all but one channel—describes the contras in Nicaragua as “terrorist mercenaries of the CIA” and Nicaragua ministers are given ample time to air the propaganda of the Sandanista junta, it is a pleasure to read La Prensa and, to a lesser degree, La Nacion. What the former clearly sees is that the way out of the woods for Argentina is a free economy.

Michael Novak spoke in Buenos Aires a few months ago and made a great impression. L’Espiritu del Capitalismo Democratico is in a third printing and available in better bookstores everywhere. It is not only that those who invited him were enthusiastic about his linking of political and economic freedom, others as well were all but overwhelmed by this unaccustomed defense of the only economic system that works. Alas, a bishop described as Peronist quoted the Pope to the effect that capitalism is a sin and many Catholics continue to think in 19th century terms of the condemnation of both capitalism and socialism and the need for a Catholic third way. Novak of course argues that that third way has been found and is working well in such places as the United States. But the work of persuasion will be long. The important thing is that it has begun. Besides groups like that of Benegas-Lynch, Novak’s hosts, there is an Institute de Estudios Economicos y de Etica Social, headed by Enrique Loncan, based on “the ideas of private property, free market and limited government” and of course Catholic social teaching.

The Benegas-Lynch and Loncan groups deserve to be better known and supported in the United States. Here as everywhere state ownership of enterprises has been proved to be inefficient at best and a failure at worst. We should be at least as wary of supporting regimes which foster state ownership as we perpetually are of authoritarian regimes. The Alfonsin regime is using “democracy” in an incantatory fashion and speaking as if Argentina were coming into existence from nothing. The bright spot is that Alfonsin himself is a likeable man and clearly wants to stay in office. This will require a pragmatic juggling of the vast variety of political configurations, which may be just what the country needs. Politics are so ideological here that, along with television channels and newspapers (the ineffable Jacobo Timmerman has been relieved of the editorship of La Razon after nearly bankrupting it), the universities are political spoils. A Marxist rector of the University of Buenos Aires is busily engaged in getting rid of enemies and creating new positions for political friends. The tradition has been winner takes all. Somewhere the principle of respect for minorities has to begin, so why not in the government?

In one area, the present regime is too tolerant. The streets of Buenos Aires are awash in pornography. Every kiosk is festooned with filth and movie posters depicting twisted sex are everywhere. Over the course of weeks, one has the impression that the flood continues perceptibly to rise, the pictures ever more explicit. Maria Elena de las Carreras, film critic of Criterio and a member of the rating board, tells me that many of these films are old ones, the pornographic inventory of several countries being unloaded on this new market. The hatred of women and sex and normality peculiar to pornography are rightly taken as an assault on the religious tradition of the country as well as on the basic social unit, the family. The cynic may say that this is simply the free market at work but this must remain a mere quip in a country that so restricts imports that a national airline cannot legally bring in spare parts for its computers.

Brooding over all discussions is the figure of Peron. It is too simple to divide the population into Peronists and anti-Peronists, if only because Peronism is so fractured that it accommodates a left, a right, and moderate wing. But nationalism sometimes takes the form of nostalgia for an imaginary past when order and prosperity reigned. The authoritarian temptation is everywhere. One detects an effort to turn Alfonsin into a larger than life figure. Those who want more political freedom favor a state controlled economy: those who want a free market sound from time to time as if they think it would flourish better under an authoritarian regime. The future of Argentina depends on putting the two together, a free economy and political freedom, with a strong pluralist tolerance.

The Church? The range of political and social views among Catholics? That is a separate topic and one worth taking up on another occasion.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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