By Emilio Ocampo, Board Member, Libertad y Progreso (original)
Déjà vu, groundhog day, a nagging feeling that you have already experienced the present. These are expressions everybody seems to be using these days to describe the current Argentine crisis. Below is some confirmatory evidence that Yogi Berra’s most quoted aphorism is always applicable in Argentina.
The first is an editorial of The Review of the River Plate, an English language financial weekly that was published in Buenos Aires for over a hundred years. It was written on September 30, 1971. Yes, fifty years ago. But it could have been written yesterday, or 10 years ago, or 20.
People ask: “What explanation can there be for the country’s continuing economic stagnation, and what is the remedial action to be taken?” The answer –if any is forthcoming– seems to amount only to some curious conspiracy of silence, because answer, in convincing, constructive and authoritative terms, there is none. Hence, the present mood, in Argentine business circles, of frustration and near despair. The puzzlement is not, of course, confined to the domestic sector. The outside world –especially firms that have invested heavily in local enterprise, to say nothing of the great international loan and credit agencies, which latter also provide regularly with all the official statistical data bearing on contemporary Argentine economy trends, are also perplexed… We have been besieged of late for information on a situation that appears to be one of steady and relentless deterioration, affording no early prospect of alleviation, let alone of improvement. Whether things are as bad as they are said to be, or only seem to be worse than they really are, is hard to say without the guidance of a mass of further information. The fact is that it is rare these days to find anybody who is frankly, and realistically, optimistic, and the saddest feature of all is that the country’s national economic image abroad is becoming progressively distorted and diminished.
An instance of this will be found in an article reproduced elsewhere from the latest number of the admirable magazine SWEDEN NOW. The author, Professor Samuelson, is one of the world’s leading economists. In the article he reaches his own shrewd judgments and broadly draws his reasoned conclusions on the current pattern of world economic relations. Unhappily the reader who hopes for evidence of Samuelson’s approval of, or confidence in Argentina’s economic position and prospects will be shocked.
Even so, and while we may not entirely agree with the author when says: “The time has long past when we can continue to blame Argentina’s stagnation on Peron.” The fact is that on any careful analysis, Argentina is still crippled by the economic, social and political consequences of the Peron regime. Going further, what in fact Samuelson says, and his statement deserves to be thoughtfully pondered is: “The shadow on the wall for all of us, I fear, is not the totalitarian revolution of a Lenin or Mao. It is not a relapse into the laissez fair of Queen Victoria or President Coolidge. Argentina, I dare to suggest, is the pattern which no modern man may face without crossing himself and saying: “There but for the Grace of God…” (the italics are ours).
What to us is disquieting is that Professor Samuelson is here referring not to a situation of temporary, or merely circumstantial difficulty as affecting Argentina. His reference is to what he regards as a much more serious, seemingly more permanently operative “pattern” of continuing economic dislocation and stagnation.
What cannot be ignored is the fact that here we have an internationally recognized economic experts evaluation of this country’s economic prospects –and they hardly amount to the proverbial row of beans.
The second piece of evidence that confirms that dreaded sense of déjà vu is an essay by Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul in 1973 (published together with other essays in his book The Return of Eva Peron). Here are some excerpts:
The peso has gone to hell: from 5 to the dollar in 1947, to 16 in 1949, 250 in 1966, 400 in 1970, 420 in June last year, 960 in April this year, 1100 in May. Inflation, which has been running at a steady 25 percent since the Perón days, has now jumped to 60 percent. The banks are offering 24 percent interest.
It is almost impossible to put together capital… Salaries, prices, the exchange rate: everyone talks money, everyone who can afford it buys dollars on the black market. And soon even the visitor is touched by the hysteria… Everyone is obsessed with the need to make more money and at the same time to spend it quickly. People gamble.
For intellectuals and artists as well, the better ones who are not afraid of the outside world, there is this great anxiety of being imprisoned in Argentina and not being able to get out, of having one’s creative years wasted by a revolution in which one can have no stake, or by a bloody minded dictatorship, or just by chaos.
The first Peronist revolution was based on the myth of wealth, of a land waiting to be plundered. Now the wealth has gone. And Peronism is like part of the poverty. It is protest, despair, faith, machismo, magic, espiritismo, revenge. It is everything and nothing…
A collective refusal to see, to come to terms with the land: an artificial, fragmented colonial society, made deficient and bogus by its myths.
To be Argentine was to inhabit a magical, debilitating world. Wealth and Europeanness concealed the colonial realities of an agricultural society which had needed little talent and had produced little, which had needed no great men and had produced none. “Nothing happened here,” Norman di Giovanni said with irritation one day… Camelero, chanta: these are everyday Argentine words. A camelero is a line-shooter, a man who really has nothing to sell… The chanta is the man who will sell everything, the man without principles, the hollow man. Almost everybody, from the president down, is dismissed by somebody as a chanta.
The other word that recurs is mediocre. Argentines detest the mediocre and fear to be thought mediocre. It was one of Eva Peron’s words of abuse. For her the Argentine aristocracy was always mediocre. And she was right. In a few years she shattered the myth of Argentina as an aristocratic colonial land. And no other myth, no other idea of the land, has been found to take its place.
… The failure was obvious. Peron could not control the Argentina he had called into being twenty years before. He had identified the cruelties of the society and yet he had made that necessary task seem irresponsible; he had not been able to reorganize the society he had undermined. Perhaps the task of reorganization was beyond the capacities of any leader, however creative. Politics reflect a society and a land. Argentina is a land of plunder, a new land, virtually peopled in this century. It remains a land to be plundered, and its politics can be nothing but the politics of plunder. Everyone in Argentina understands and accepts this. And in the end Perón could only offer his words.
… So Peron and his legend pass into the annals. The legend is admired now; in time it will almost certainly be reviled. But the legend itself will not alter: it will be all that the people will have to go by. It is how history is written in Argentina. And perhaps a people who had learned to read their history in another way, who had ceased to accept the politics of plunder, might have spared themselves the futility of the last year of Peron. But the history, as it is written, is of a piece with the politics. And the politics reflect the people and the land. There are Argentines who feel that their country deserved better than Peron.
The failure of Argentina, so rich, so underpopulated,… is one of the mysteries of our time… politics have to do with the nature of human association, the contract of men with men. The politics of a country can only be an extension of its idea of human relationships. Peron, in himself, as folk leader, expressed many of his county’s weaknesses. And it is necessary to look where he, the greatest macho of them all (childless and reportedly impotent), pointed: to the center of Buenos Aires and to those tall brothels, obscenely shuttered, that stand, suitably, behind the graveyard.
To paraphrase Marx, in Argentina history keeps repeating itself. Unlike France in 1848, it didn’t start with with a tragedy but with a farce. And the farce keeps getting worse. It is like one of those remakes Hollywood is so fond of making from time to time. The difference is that in Argentina, in each new version of the original the director, actors, costumes, set, lighting, etc. is worse. Unfortunately, the one thing that doesn’t change is the script. There is no happy ending. Just when you think it cannot happen again, the country sinks lower.
My apologies in advance if this post fails to cheer you up.
Emilio Ocampo is a board member of Libertad and Progreso, economist, and history teacher.