Did Kirchnerismo and the Argentinian opposition both betray their social ideals? An analysis of Latin American left populism (as well as the opposition movements) from a left wing perspective.
What I first noticed from the car window on the way from the airport, aside from beautiful green fields full of violet trees and the haunting absence of Indians, which is more firmly lodged in my consciousness than in the soil, were tall buildings of social housing built by the Kirchner presidency.
President Nestor Kirchner has died and left his widow in charge. The dead Kirchner (who maintained a silence about his Ashkenazi Jewish origins while advocating a populism that aimed to be a more restrained and intellectually calm ally of Chavismo in the north of the subcontinent) was much more successful than his wife, Cristina Fernandez, possibly because he died just before the inflation crisis that may have been caused by loans from national banks to pay off the IMF, while he pretended to be a leftist defying the latter.
In the previous decades some of Argentina’s Marxist Montoneros decided to disguise their Marxist politics, and theories that common people presumably would be unable to understand or sympathize with, such as ‘false consciousness’ and ‘commodity fetishism’, and reconcile themselves to a right wing Peronist platform, simply known as Peronismo. Peronismo was the predominant right wing popular movement against the bourgeois oligarchy that ruled the country before Juan Domingo Peron’s ascendancy to power, in which he introduced previously-unknown industrial worker’s rights and holidays, but brutally persecuted anarchist and socialist dissent. (In part this personally relates to my family's effaced geneology: my great grandfather Desimone was a socialist and director of a music conservatory in Buenos Aires. He and his cousin Justo had to burn down their library of left wing literature; Justo Pantano was imprisoned for years in the southernmost arctic region of Ushuaia, sentenced for his anarchist militancy.)
Many have tried to explain why a fascist populist regime still concerned itself with worker’s rights, and many have found the explanation lay at the door of Eva Peron, the saviour figure that ameliorated and at times transmogrified the cruelty of Peron’s Justicialismo. The fact is the winning of workers' rights has won Peron his oral hagiographies and aura of sainthood among successive generations of working class Argentineans. Peron allied himself with the 1930s fascism of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. During the second world war he enforced anti-semitic policies such as denying entry to Jews – but luckily, corruption saves lives and some Jews were able to enter through customs with petty bribes, though most found no entry and returned to their certain destruction if they were not able to succeed in finding another place of refuge outside Europe.
The Italian and Spanish immigrants who came to Argentina in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Spaniards and Southern Italians who built much of the city of Buenos Aires, were more often anarchists. But elite campaigns to re-educate the people destroyed any memory of this fervour of solidarity with the Spanish and Greek civil wars. Peron then came and popularized a tolerant and more reasonable kind of fascism. This was how it came about that some Montoneros had decided that the lower classes would support them if they presented their politics as Peronista.
Today, the Peronistas present themselves as left-wing revolutionaries, one of the Concert of Latin American Nations’ Socialisms of the 21st century. They depict themselves as Marxist Guevarists or as Indianists. But there is no intellectually Marxist elite any more hidden underneath the fluffy socialist-populism: they are simply Peronistas. Abortion is still illegal, the country is a debtor under the reign of banks, life gets more expensive, crime and the drug addiction epidemic is tolerated in a way no mildly totalitarian socialist regime in Eastern Europe or in Cuba would have ever allowed without oppressive redress.
Few in Argentina answer affirmatively to my question: does Cristina Kirchner resemble another widow, Peron’s widow Isabela? No - simply because Cristina Fernandez is a fierce politician, despite the opposition elite media mocking her supposed lack of intelligence and bimbo-like antics. She commands power and has many high-profile intellectual advocates working for her. She is a multi-millionairess, and her ‘casas populares’, popular democratic-assembly-offices for the poor are in every working class district, showing her waving at the masses above a slogan like “Todos Con Cristina,” “All with Cristina” - the sentimentality of an attempt to be Eva Peron. Eva’s is the icon I was surprised to see on arrival, gracing the towers in Mt Rushmore-like depictions of her effigy over the main boulevards of the Buenos Aires city center, overlooking Callao and Avenida Santa Fe. I had thought her central importance to Argentineans was a fiction made up in the film by Madonna Ciccone.
It appears some of the widow’s policies and those of her predecessor have made life more expensive. Argentineans proudly believed Nestor K had cancelled the debt of the IMF, the debtocracy that strangled the country ever since it was created by the military regime who took over by way of a violent coup supported by the USA and its treasury department, borrowing from the IMF and World Bank while it murdered its own citizens who would long after the regime’s end be enslaved to repaying the same financial institutions that had granted loans to the torturers and murderers so unscrupulously.
Nestor Kirchner in cancelling the debt seemed to take a radical stance, one that I and most Latin Americans could only admire when they were implemented in the first few years of the twenty-first century.
Before him, only Lenin had prevented the great depression in western Europe from affecting Russia when he cancelled all debts to western banks. But Kirchner was not the revolutionary he seemed; it appears now - according to the opposition journalists of Periodismo Para Todos, that Kirchner cancelled the debt to the IMF by paying it off with a loan he took from the central banks inside Argentina; now there is a miniature crisis raising prices and inflation due to the creeping interest rates caused by the new internal debt to local banks. People were surprised: the ‘Socialism’ of the twenty-first century it seems is proactive and respectful of the global financial system, it is not a reckless maverick, but pays its debts and fills in all the appropriate application forms. It is a tireless diplomat, non-violent and like all post-ideology, it is conformist.
In the news, the criticism of Cristina Kirchner is to my mind too focused on caricaturing her as a narcissistic woman, and one directly involved and responsible for the violent crime waves. I worry this is history repeating itself: after Peron died he left his second wife Isabela in charge; Isabela was attacked in newspapers for her pre-marriage career as a burlesque dancer, the middle class complaints accumulated and finally the gentlemen of the Coup, the Latin-Nazi junta saw grounds to overthrow her and pretend to apply “order” to the chaos of a country mismanaged by the prostitute widow of the populist Peron. This was a country where an angry and selfish middle class desperately wanted an answer to the so called “civil unrest” caused by “subversivos”, by the young revolutionaries, the students fighting, the so-called terrorism, the workers and peasants unions in solidarity with Allende.
Well the gentlemen of the coup certainly established order : they murdered at least 30,000 youths in secret dungeons and concentration camps. According to the oral history I knew by heart, my one piece of heritage, the only gift from my Argentinean relatives on visits to Aruba where I was born and raised: they dragged them from their beds in the night, they executed young intellectuals by torture or by pushing them out of aeroplanes throughout the late 70s and early 80s.
Now people of the opposition are interviewed on the tv-stations, outraged at the escalation of violent crime in Argentina. They attribute this magically to the current government, as if this admittedly mediocre government had caused the rising rate of crime. They want vigilantes: they want Batman. Reports of violent crime nowadays increasingly implicate the government’s responsibility, not merely for not fixing the problem adequately, but for not prosecuting criminals or even for organizing the criminals and giving them freedom in exchange for votes. These allegations may arise partly from middle class speculation, though there is no immediate reason to discredit the claims.
Comparisons to the crisis of Chavism in Venezuela are routine.
The elites in Venezuela similarly blamed the violent crime rates on Chavez and Chavismo, saying that it was Chavez’ propaganda that sowed class-hatred and class-envy among the poor. A girl who came to my exhibition in Paris, a Venezuelan student in Paris presented me with the same view – there is much for a Venezuelan elite child to fear, what with all the abductions and kidnappings. I told her that the poor in Venezuela do not need any propaganda other than their daily material reality to hate the old moneyed families of Venezuela.
Cholera was only wiped out in the 1990s in poor areas of Venezuela. The rich seem not merely to be a different class from the poor in Venezuela, but a different species, resulting from a century of social darwinism. Yet I reacted too harshly, as indeed Chavismo has persecuted those who publicly speak of the rising crime rate. A young filmmaker of a popular movie called Secuestro Express, about a gang of delinquents from the ghetto who kidnap a spoiled elite couple for a ransom from their old money parents, enjoyed success among both the elites and lower classes for its depiction of the daily reality of the kidnapping business. It was a thriller, and despite its mediocrity a good movie by Venezuelan cinema standards; the government reaction was banning the film as a critique of Chavismo. Chavez called the director Jonathan Jakubowitz "a Zionist Jewish conspirator and persona non-grata", and exiled him.
Yet for all the hype about Argentina being a wealthy and Europeanized society, myths originating in the Porteños’ own delusions and in the progressive elite propaganda of Europe, just outside Buenos Aires there are villages whose inhabitants still live in huts and drive carriages drawn by mules, often lacking electricity or plumbing. The Argentinean economy has become slightly xenophobic, with a different exchange rate for non-Argentinean currency that has made expats and travellers decide to avoid the country. (There is arguably a similar system to the northern European or Dutch one in public transport, with special cards for citizens and more expensive tariffs for foreigners, making the foreigners’ transit by comparison more onerous - though there is no comparison possible to the northern European oppressive and intolerable xenophobia that has been throwing up Dutch and Danish expressions of ethnic democracy for some years of the Euro Crisis now.)
One opposition journalist, La Nata, is popular with the middle classes, and has inspired comic plays such as one I heard and felt in the Teatro de Los Ciegos (sightless theater, intended for blind audiences and devoted to dialogue, sound and water effects, a platform in which talented though perhaps less attractive actors can triumph) loosely based on his journalistic adventures and sex life. La Nata praised a recent demonstration of 250,000 people for its lack of any ideology, for its not having leaders or clear organizational aims, as a sign of honesty and intelligence to contrast with the government, which according to him resembles that of China (Maoist or capitalist China? He did not specify which – probably he conflates the two as despite the fact that people are crying out for an intelligent opposition to the ruling class, La Nata is more like a shrill reactionary with a love for punditry and hyperbole, despite some valid points buried somewhere in his critique of the regime.) La Nata elsewhere can be a manipulative and shameless hysteric, presenting his political views in the format of game shows with theme songs, comedians with wigs impersonating the president in vulgar skits, applause signs flashing and lottery prizes for specially lucky audience members.
This is what is praiseworthy in the twenty-first century: having no clear idea or political ideology, only basic consumer priorities. This is the time for post-ideological mass demonstrations based on the assumption that ideology is a violent mysticism that invariably leads straight to totalitarianism. I think there is no age more vulnerable to take-over by fascism and fascist revivals and returns of anti-Semitism than this one of post-Ideology.
This morning I watched a football programme. Here the supposedly stupid people, the plebeiat, passionately discuss their opinions and judgment on the games, the tensions between regions and provinces and working class districts of the country. They know every aspect of football history and every technical rule that I still fail to understand, proof I am only partly an Argentine. If only they could wage the conversation on how society is supposedly to look with the same passion, fiercely defending their opinions and talking about party politics and ideology, instead of looking into the camera of manipulative reporters asking the government or a new vigilanteist party to please do something about the crime rate while lamenting the absence of a vigilante, of a Batman.
There is certainly a crying need for a left wing or in any case critical opposition, an alternative to populist official rule in all the Latin American countries, that will be attractive to the poor as well as to the middle classes and foreigners. Argentina is no exception.
The existing opposition is a movement of the middle class, committed only to the identity politics of the middle class, their historic contribution being negated by the ruling administration. Though their grievances are often real and genuine, they are concerned mostly with their class culture. When looting sprees of supermarkets erupted across the country, in the much poorer and much more mestizo provinces of Argentina outside Buenos Aires and major cities, the middle class conclusion, including among it its self-proclaimed leftist commentators, was that all supermarket raids and violence were directly organized by Kirchnerista hooligans who promise rewards and more rights to the poor if they will commit crimes, galvanized by ‘punteros’ or middle-man gangsters operating between the halls of the Casa Rosada and the criminal ghettoes where drugs are sold.
If prices are rising dramatically in Argentina - though luckily not yet to French or Greek crisis proportions - is it not natural to assume that the lower classes in the provinces are also suffering and that lootings of supermarkets might spread by way of rumours and reports across the countryside? The opposition intellectuals’ conclusion, that it is strictly hirelings and provocateurs designed to intimidate the enemies of Kirchnerite “Socialism” means this critique caters to the assumption that the very poor cannot suffer as middle classes do from rising prices, as they are benefiting from the copious parasitic welfare arrangements dropped on them from the sky of populist heaven in return for their not working.
Recently protest against the trade in women that has seen a few horrific instances of girls in the provincial slums or from Paraguay being betrayed by people in their community who sold them to criminal prostitution rings, did not stop at legitimately demanding the government to act on the crimes: instead they operated on the assumption, to me not yet proven, that the government directly hires pimps. This might be believable in Argentina, where Carlos Menem, the president of Syrian origin before Nestor Kirchner, went to prison for illegally selling weapons while he was president, after he sold much of the country to foreign interests. Though one should not be surprised if evidence arises of a ruling party official’s direct connections to prostitution rings, it is surely conspiratorial and presumptuous to immediately call for demonstrations based on such accusations.
The ruling party and the opposition both claim to be the left wing: the ruling party is a mix of novices – in the form of Cristina's newly acquired supporters and old-time militant Montoneros turned to Kirchnerismo. The opposition try to present themselves as the returning veteran leftists who had settled into their middle class existence after their youthful days of reading Marx. It seems this is a conflict between two right wings, both of them disguised as left wings claiming the heritage of the face of Guevara, now reduced to the Disneyfied status that effigy enjoys in western consumerist media.