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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 08-05-2021 00:03

A psychodrama the country could do without

The psychodrama starring Alberto and Cristina would be quite entertaining in a novel or a late-night TV show, but unfortunately for tens of millions of people, it is an ongoing real-life tragedy.

In most parts of the world, politicians have a dubious reputation. Unfairly or not, they are regarded as an untrustworthy lot whose words should never be taken literally. This is evidently true of President Alberto Fernández, a professional shape-shifter who got to where he is by transforming himself overnight from a virulent critic of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and all her works into a ferocious defender of her allegedly democratic right to remain above the law. This should be humiliating for a man who makes much of his record as a law professor in the country’s top-ranked university, but luckily for him, it would seem he is an amnesiac who is unencumbered by anything resembling a conscience. As far as he is concerned, ingratiating himself with the lady who gave him his job is the only thing that really matters.

So far, Alberto has managed to survive in the political snake-pit in which he has spent most of his adult life, but of late many of the creatures in it have been getting distinctly unfriendly. Despite his willingness to twist himself into any shape Cristina thinks appropriate, she eggs her supporters on by letting them know that in her view he is not doing enough. Just what she wants of him is hard to say. Would abolishing the Supreme Court satisfy her? Perhaps it would for a while, but Alberto appears to appreciate that going for broke would set off a political tsunami that could overwhelm the pair of them.

Exactly what is going on in the minds of the two individuals who call almost all the shots is anybody’s guess. What is certain is that Cristina wants everyone in Argentina to overlook the systematic and, for some, extraordinarily lucrative corruption that marked the 12 years she or her late husband Néstor occupied the Pink House. All her efforts are devoted to ensuring that she and her offspring, Máximo and Florencia, do not get sent to jail for ransacking the country. If this requires turning Argentina into a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, almost universally despised wilderness like Venezuela, so be it. For Cristina, her own welfare and that of her family comes a long way first.

One might think that such a policy would be supported by at most a tiny handful of individuals with good reasons to imagine they would remain unharmed should the county suffer the unpleasant fate some pessimists think is in store for it, but this is very far from being the case. Cristina enjoys the support of a large number of politicians, plenty of men and women who pass for intellectuals and a growing army of “militants” attached to rapacious organisations such as La Cámpora, all of whom say they are dead against the way things are not just here but also in the rest of the world and have somehow persuaded themselves that Cristina represents a viable alternative.

The creed such people have concocted may strike outsiders as ridiculous, but so too did the thinking behind other self-destructive movements which, for a while, swept all before them in much of Europe, China and Japan. In times of crisis, almost anything which seems different enough to offer hope to those who are fed up with a clearly defective status quo can prove attractive to some and, on occasion, to a great many. Though Argentina is not the only country whose inhabitants are prone to find some irrational ideological construction irresistibly tempting, it is more likely to do so than most, which is why she has progressed far less in the last half-century than almost any other.

Much will depend on how the relationship between Alberto and Cristina develops. After letting him get on with things for a few months, Cristina began chipping away at the considerable institutional power vested in the presidency by reminding him that she is the government’s biggest shareholder because she provided most of the votes that got it elected.

Instead of standing up to her by behaving like a genuine president, Alberto prefers to let her have her way. Encouraged by his willingness to grovel, not that long ago she upped the ante by refusing to let him fire a stroppy undersecretary who had objected to Economy Minister Martín Guzmán’s plan to increase utility rates. Guzmán fears that continuing to spend enormous amounts of money subsidising energy consumption to avoid upsetting the electorate would make it impossible for him to slow down inflation. Most experts in such matters agree as, insiders inform us, does the titular president.

Be that as it may, there can be little doubt that Alberto has a strong masochistic streak. Perhaps he feels duty-bound to do penance for having subjected Cristina to blast after blast of withering criticism when he was doing his best to convince people he was a free spirit. And Cristina? She must thoroughly enjoy tormenting the upstart, who for several years had been one of her most furious tormentors. She is certainly making him pay a steep price for his insolence.

The psychodrama starring the pair of them would, if handled properly, be quite entertaining in a novel or a late-night television programme, but unfortunately for tens of millions of people, it is an ongoing real-life tragedy which is causing havoc in a country which desperately needs a competent government because otherwise it could go under.

As well as being battered by an oversized share of the Covid-19 pandemic, Argentina is facing yet another period of economic turmoil, with inflation always about to go through the roof, most productive activities crumbling along with those related to the hospitality business, talented men and women who could make a difference hotfooting it for Uruguay or further afield, and more and more people falling into utter poverty. This being so, one might have thought that the time had come for Argentina’s political leaders to get serious, but the chances of this happening before it is too late seem remote. 

In most countries, Guzmán would have reacted to getting overruled by an underling by calling it a day; perhaps he already has. As for Alberto, he seems content to let himself be publicly bullied by his patroness because he thinks it would be dangerous for him to defy her, something he could easily do by asking opposition politicians to join what sympathisers he has among Peronist legislators and give him the backing he needs, or by resigning to force her to take full responsibility for what the notoriously lacklustre government she already dominates is doing. No doubt either course would lead to a bout of political turmoil, but given the situation the country is in, allowing Cristina to continue getting her own back on Alberto for the way he mistreated her before she offered him the presidency and calling the result stability is not a very appealing option.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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