If United States President Joe Biden could celebrate his nation’s 245th anniversary of declaring independence last Sunday with a similar declaration against Covid-19 (albeit with caveats since that D-Day also included a “D” for delta), Argentina’s 205th anniversary of independence yesterday came with no such sense of liberation. While the imminent post-pandemic stage frees up the US for a massive reset, in Argentina the probability (rather than certainty) of vaccination finally consigning coronavirus to the past in the next couple of months only means that the concentration of all problems into one huge public health menace for over a year will be replaced by multiple challenges requiring more than defensive strategies.
Official commemoration of Independence Day never fails but yesterday was perhaps more defined by the nationwide protests whose dimensions were impossible to gauge at time of writing. Plenty to protest too against a government whose reaction to the imminence of a post-pandemic future seems to be an acceleration of its retreat into the past – including such crass and proven errors as confrontation with the farming sector (escalated beyond such repeated mistakes as the beef export ban to nationalisation of the Hidrovía waterway conveying over 80 percent of agricultural exports) as well as Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s constant evocations of the utopias enjoyed under her previous presidencies (or so she imagines because the voters thought otherwise in 2015).
And yet protests alone do not offer the people a future any more than the erratic improvisations of the Frente de Todos coalition. While sometimes straying over the top, opposition critiques of the government are generally on target but they are still missing two key elements to offering a real alternative – leadership and a platform. Their policy proposals go beyond vague to being virtually absent and especially in the vital economic area. There are two good reasons for this – firstly, Juntos por el Cambio is also a coalition combining different viewpoints and secondly, the opposition are painfully aware that the ongoing downturn in a decade of economic stagnation originated in the last 20 months of the Mauricio Macri presidency, feeling themselves on much safer ground with institutional issues. The coalition factor has also complicated leadership with multiple hopefuls in excess of the top candidacies at stake – not only their established stars (district rulers past and present or ex-ministers, not to mention Macri now making a strategic withdrawal to Europe) but also new figures like the neuroscientist Facundo Manes. Despite this complexity, the opposition seems to have been groping towards some kind of consensus recently in the direction of moderate candidates but the paradox of this trend is that the closer they move to the middle ground, the better their chances of winning the midterm elections but also the further away they move from offering anything really new to turn the country around.
Yet it remains unfair to berate the opposition unduly for not offering alternatives when it is the sitting government which has the means and the responsibility for providing them now. A botched vaccination campaign hastily remedied by last-minute U-turns might be yesterday’s story come election time but the possibly irreparable damage done to the educational system will be around for a very long time and should not be forgotten at the polls. More uppermost in the minds of voters is inflation where the government is playing a dangerous game by relaxing pay ceilings and thus starting a wage-price race – the more so in an election year when the dollar is so notoriously volatile. Yet energy is also an economic front warranting attention because with domestic production stunted by populist pricing accentuated by electioneering and with hydro-electric generation halved by drought in key areas (making this exactly the wrong time to nationalise the Hidrovía), a massive winter import bill could well eat up Central Bank reserves at precisely a time when the dollar is acting up. Much more could be said in criticism of the government but the thousands protesting yesterday will not need to be told.
Yet perhaps the deeper meaning of Independence Day is not independence from any one government as celebrated by the United States and Argentina in the past week but independence from all governments. This is not said in any anarchistic sense but rather as a call to break with the syndrome of expecting everything from the state and then blaming the government for everything. Independence is also all about people taking their destiny into their own hands.