Argentina: democracy by default

The successive presidencies of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner are marked by a determined effort to put the state and its capacity for co-option and patronage at the centre of Argentina’s political landscape. The fate of the human-rights group the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo casts light on how this ambition is being realised, says Celia Szusterman   
Celia Szusterman
26 July 2011

Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, announced on 23 June 2011 her intention to run for a second term in the elections due at the end of October. If she is successful, this would ensure thirteen years of continuous rule by the Kirchner couple, since Cristina assumed the position in December 2007 from her husband Néstor. It is an apposite moment to look at the condition of politics in Argentina, and of a project that has sought to put the state and its authority at the centre of its transformative ambitions.   

After Argentina’s economic implosion and social breakdown of 2001-02, Néstor Kirchner was elected president in 2003. At the time he was practically unknown outside the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, whence he had fled after the military coup of 1976 and then quietly worked as a lawyer executing defaulted mortgages and in the process building up a considerable property portfolio. In serving Santa Cruz as mayor of Rio Gallegos and then governor for more than a decade, he built a reputation in this, the remotest part of Argentina (endowed with 200,000 inhabitants, oil and penguins) as  “a good administrator”; though also known for his authoritarian streak, his control over the provincial judiciary and press, and ruthlessness towards any kind of opposition, Peronist (his own party) or otherwise.

Kirchner reached the summit of national office by default, in that he achieved only 22% of the vote but benefited from the withdrawal of Carlos Menem (also a Peronist, though of a rival stripe, and president from 1989-99) from the second round, even after he had obtained 23%. Moreover, the little-known Kirchner had no “narrative”, heroic or otherwise, on which to build a popular appeal. But he did have one outstanding quality, which indeed had helped him to get so far: as a Peronist, he knew and understood power.   

Thus, once elected, he set about placing his friends and associates (mostly from the province of Santa Cruz, thus the moniker “penguins”) in key posts in the public administration and in commerce; chief penguin was Julio de Vido, today the all-powerful minister of public works. But Kirchner also had learned lessons from the (Peronist) Montoneros, the urban guerrilla movement crushed by the military in the 1970s.   

The Montoneros’ assessment mainly ascribed their defeat not to the violent tactics they had employed against a democratically elected (Peronist) government in 1975 which unleashed state terrorism as a backlash, but to their failure to organise a mass popular movement in pursuit of their strategy of creating a Patria Peronista (whatever that might mean; for analysis of this issue, see Richard Gillespie, Montoneros: Soldiers of Peron; my commentary in the Journal of Latin American Studies, May 1984; and the excellent article by Marcos Novaro, “La teoria de un solo demonio”, Escenarios Alternativos, 28 June 2011).  

Kirchner saw key protest groups of the current generation as offering a foundation of potential popular support for his project. These included the local activist and unemployed formations (piqueteros) which had arisen out of the chaos of the early 2000s, and even the Madres de Plaza de Mayo who had long conducted a silent weekly walk around the Plaza de Mayo to demand to know the truth of their children and grandchildren’s fate under the dictatorship of 1976-83. Kirchner’s way of securing their support was by disbursing unaccountable public funds in their direction in order to co-opt them while embracing the mantle of defender of human rights.  

After chaos  

The deep context of the president’s ambition was the convulsive events in Argentina over the previous generation: the military dictatorship (1976-83), war in the south Atlantic over the Falklands/Malvinas islands (1982), and a hyper-inflationary crisis that resulted largely from the incompetent administration of the first post-military president, Raúl Alfonsín of the Radical Party.   

The surprise victory of Carlos Menem in the 1989 presidential election proved to be a turning-point. By 1991, the appointment of Domingo Cavallo as economy minister and the inauguration of the currency board (and convertibility of the peso to the US dollar) was the prelude to a decade of growth, investment and modernisation of infrastructure. But towards the end of Menem’s two-term presidency in 1999, it all had begun to unravel. 

The financial crises of 1998-99 spread from  Indonesia and Russia, hitting Brazil as well as Argentina; but Argentina especially suffered from the fact that the very tool (the currency board) that had allowed Cavallo to reduce inflation to almost zero, was too rigid and unworkable in the new environment of a strong dollar, high interest rates, and low commodity prices. In the political field, another Radical president, Fernando de la Rúa, reconfirmed that the Radicals seemed incapable of governing.    

Argentina’s exchequer ran out of money in December 2001, and - after the International Monetary Fund announced that it was halting financial support - Cavallo resigned, soon to be followed by the president. The ensuing disorder saw several presidents enter and leave office over a fortnight in 2001-02, then a default and devaluation. Three men bear the responsibility for steering the Argentine economy away from financial meltdown: a new, Peronist president, Eduardo Duhalde (vice-president under Menem, and later governor of the province of Buenos Aires), his economy minister Roberto Lavagna, and the central-bank governor Mario Blejer.   

When Kirchner became president in 2003 he retained Lavagna as reassurance that the incipient recovery was not going to be put at risk. By then, too, the “China effect” was beginning to be felt in Latin America as around the globe. The “lost half-decade”, 1998-2003, was over - and not just for Argentina. The economy receded as the main concern, and Kirchner even as he denounced the “Washington consensus” embraced its chief recommendation: the need for fiscal discipline. A state vs market ideological polarity emerged, according to which “neo-liberalism” was excoriated as the agent of the state’s destruction in the earlier period; a typology that ignored the tradition where since the 1940s both Peronist and military administrations had used and abused state institutions. 

The new focus remained vague about details on the role of the state and the need to make it meritocratic instead of an instrument for clientelism and patronage. A process of reification began, where the state was regarded as an all-purpose solution, the sole defender of people’s interests. In a context where tax revenues (when they were collected at all) had long been used more as a vehicle of patronage than a resource for transparent and accountable public investment that benefited the majority, this carried dangers as well as potential advantages.   

These advantages included restoring governmental authority, and confronting the disenchantment with politics and politicians that had (partly because of the scale of the collapse in 2001-02) become even more virulent in Argentina than in many other countries. The potent demand to “que se vayan todos!” (Let’s get rid of them all) both gained many adherents and raised social fears, albeit of a different kind than existed under the military: of anarchy, of instability, of hunger. What was going to replace politics as Néstor Kirchner’s answer, and his great merit, was: the use of state power. The message was: Argentina had a president, he was in charge, and he knew what to do.   

A new alliance  

This power was used to transform the state machinery and its personnel from within. Kirchner began by replacing the members of the supreme court, which had become a symbol of everything that had been wrong about the 1990s: politicised, packed with Menem’s cronies, devoid of respect. But neither such measures, nor his lambasting of the IMF, nor his co-option of the piqueteros, was enough to consolidate his authority. A president of Argentina, especially a Peronist one, needs something more: a narrative imbued with heroic symbolism, a source of moral legitimacy.   

Kirchner saw the human-rights cause - and especially the plight of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo - as a way to achieve this. It seemed a belated conversion, as Kirchner had shown little if any interest in the matter while governor of Santa Cruz (the magazine Perfil, on 22 October 2010, quoted human-rights activists in Santa Cruz during Kirchner’s tenure saying: "When we had to pay for Hebe’s [Madres de Plaza de Mayo] and Estela Carlotto’s [Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo] airfares, we used to go to the legislature, but the only legislators who helped us were the Radicals and those Peronists opposed to Kirchner. We never received any support from the provincial government.”)   

Nonetheless, Hebe de Bonafini, the president of one of the two Madres’ organisations (they had split into two: the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Madres de Plaza de Mayo - Línea fundadora) was to become almost a permanent fixture in any and every public event, inauguration, or speech delivered by Néstor Kirchner; and the tradition continued under the presidency of his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which began on 10 December 2007. Bonafini, always wearing the white headscarf that has become such a potent symbol and reminder of state terrorism during the “dirty war”, has been vital in giving the Kirchners a legitimacy as defenders of human rights which they previously lacked.    

Hebe de Bonafini is the symbol of the Madres’ infinite pain and of the quest for justice, in that two of her children are desaparecidos (taken into the abyss by military repression). She is also a paradoxical figure. In 1983, immediately after the restoration of democracy, Raúl Alfonsín ordered prosecution of the military juntas responsible for the atrocities of the dirty war. At the time Bonafini opposed the decision on the grounds that she rejected “bourgeois justice”. By 1986, her intransigence had turned into intolerance, leading to the split of the Madres.

The demand for “justice and punishment” was on Bonafini’s side transformed into automatic defense of authoritarian regimes and even terrorist attacks throughout the world. Today, she excoriates in colourful language the Kirchners’ official enemies (media, farmers, the United States), makes no secret of her anti-semitism (she once described the left-wing journalist Horacio Verbitsky as “not just a Jew, but a Jew friendly towards the US”), and regards Hugo Chávez, Iran’s regime and Cuba’s Castro brothers as beyond criticism.  

In the figure of Hebe de Bonafini, the Kirchners’ use of state power and their search for moral legitimacy fused. In 2008, for example, the Kirchners were assailing the Clarín media group (along with La Nación, the country’s leading media network) for daring to support a farmers’ revolt against the attempt to raise taxes on agricultural exports; Hebe de Bonafini weighed in, accusing judges who had made a decision that favoured Clarín and La Nación of being turros (crooks); she threatened to use her influence to surround the building of Tribunales (courts of justice) to put pressure on the judges.  

In 2009, she confronted a group of Bolivian immigrants who had taken to the Plaza de Mayo the coffin of a compatriot whom they claimed had been killed in the mistaken belief that he was a drug-trafficker. In search of justice, they tried to organise a public wake. Hebe de Bonafini, surrounded by supporters and her aide, Sergio Schoklender, demanded that they withdraw from the Plaza because “la plaza es nuestra” (the square is ours). A scuffle followed. A few weeks later, Schoklender was once more the protagonist of a confrontation with a group of Bolivians who had squatted on municipal lands (the Parque Indoamericano); it ended with three people dead.  

From protest to power  

Hebe de Bonafini has become far more than an activist. She is now the head of a media and economic empire with 5,000 employees, funded by $70 million of taxpayers’ money via Julio de Vido’s public-works’ ministry. The outcome of the state’s concentration under the Kirchners is apparent here, in that it now exerts pressure on municipal and provincial authorities to favour Meldorek, the Madres’ construction company (such as granting the company the right to build social housing - without tender, in contravention of existing regulations). 

In 2009, a parliamentary deputy denounced Meldorek (run by Sergio Schoklender and his brother Pablo) to the Unidad de Investigación Financiera for money-laundering, overcharging on the houses they built, and embezzlement of public funds. An investigation started only when the press, provoked by Schoklender’s public behaviour, became interested in his lavish lifestyle. At first, Bonafini dismissed the allegations as “pelotudeces (shit) spread by the press”; by 17 June 2011 she was referring to the brothers as “the damned” and said they should go to prison “forever”.

The twist here is that the Schoklender brothers had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 for the murder of their parents. Sergio was granted day-release in 1995; Hebe de Bonafini used to pick him up from prison every morning, drive him to the headquarters of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, and put him in charge of the archive and all documents belonging to the Madres. After his early release, Sergio (who had studied law while in prison) was appointed the legal representative of the Madres. But if he is now exposed, there is a determined official effort to maintain the reputation of Hebe de Bonafini, in ways that reveal the logic of the Kirchners’ project to restore state power and co-opt social movements to their project.

The reality is that the Kirchners' government has corrupted the Madres. In a triple degradation, the government has incorporated them into its political machinery; appropriated them from their symbolic place at the pinnacle of shared values; and turned them into “mere mortals, factionalised, subservient” (a case argued by Luis Alberto Romero in Escenarios Alternativos, 28 June 2011)

A reified politics  

An exemplary document here is an impassioned defense of Hebe de Bonafini, that also attacks the usual enemies of the Kirchner “model”. It is written by Daniel Rosso, chief cabinet advisor in the public-communications secretariat of the national government:  

“When politics is at the centre of all decisions, there is no simple and cynical reproduction of private interest. At the centre, confronting the cynicism that has been accumulating for so many years, lies also the collective interest. And here indeed, we arrive at the conceptual vanguard of the single way of thought which imagines the realms of politics and of society as an exclusive and infinite network of market exchanges. Pure and cynical private interest and economic exchange.

Without politics. Throwing out from the analysis the most relevant product of the Kirchnerista governments: the restitution of politics at the centre of social life in Argentina [...] and of public policies that do not just seek the individual betterment of someone who accedes to a right - e.g. their own house - but also the creation of new organised actors that will widen grassroots democracy. [In this model] the house [built by the Madres] is an intermediate product. The final product are the new actors who will become members of the social movement: networks of social militants and activists that were disarticulated by the last dictatorship and the neo-liberal governments” (see Página 12, 17 June 2011).   

It is difficult to argue with this reasoning, since it places itself in a sphere (“the political”) which is above the rule of law, above any considerations of state accountability and of misuse of public funds, which it considers a reflection of a “market mentality”. The difficulty too lies in the fact that this reasoning places itself in the antipodes of the principles and values of liberal democracy and market capitalism. There is no common ground.    

Karl Marx, according to this view, was wrong: the revolution will come about not via the rebellion of the (co-opted) proletariat, but as a result of a new hegemony. This new hegemony is ideological (thus the struggle for the narrative, for the symbolic sphere, for control of the media); social (involving new actors in receipt of state largesse, directly or via organisations like the Madres); and economic (a crony capitalism that aims to place the control of resources in the hands of “penguins” old and new).   

The Kirchner model  

The evidence is widespread that the Argentine state has fallen short of the financial duties entrusted to it. After almost four years of Cristina Kirchner’s policies (Néstor died suddenly in October 2010), public spending is again out of control and real inflation is (following the “housewife index”) at 30% far above the claimed figure. Argentina has fallen into sixth place in the region as a recipient of foreign direct investment (behind Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru). Chile, with an economy a third the size of Argentina’s, received in 2010 more than double the foreign direct investment. Meanwhile, a complicated system of public subsidies ends up benefiting the better-off groups in society, even as the poverty-rate in 2010 reached 32.1% (figures from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean [ECLAC]).

Indeed, the reduction in poverty in the region has been the most remarkable effect of the unprecedented years of growth in the first decade of the 21st century. ECLAC estimates that  in 2008-09 the crucial factor in the drop in numbers of poor people in five countries (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Paraguay) was government’s progressive, redistributionist policies, whereas in another four (Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay) the reduction in poverty was the consequence of growth.

In current circumstances, this presents a danger to Argentina. If the price of Argentina’s export commodities (mostly soya to China) falls, there is no anti-cyclical fund nor any more pension-funds to nationalise; while printing money (as the central bank is doing) will fuel even more inflation, with risks that Argentina’s economic history exemplifies. There are also worries over the unemployment rate, which at 7% is substantially lower than the 18% at the peak of the 2002 crisis but still higher than in the 1980s (while informal employment, at 34.1% - down from 49.2% in 2002 - is the same as the average for 1990-95).

The president’s gamble

Cristina Kirchner announced on 25 June 2011 that her economy minister, Amado Boudou, would be her vice-presidential candidate in the October 2011 election in which she will seek a second term. Boudou is a controversial figure, whose fondness for fast cars and beautiful women is matched by his loyalty to the president (with whom he shares a refusal ever to use the word “inflation”). The minister’s deputy Roberto Feletti said in May that after the election, “populism should be radicalised”.

The president also single-handedly chose the candidate-lists for those (senators, deputies, and local councillors) who would represent her party, Frente para la Victoria, in the elections to the city and province of Buenos Aires. In this urban area, where the bulk of the anti-Peronist vote is concentrated, she made a significant concession: omitting the piquetero leader D’Elia, and including only two trade unionists (the powerful leader Hugo Moyano had expected fifteen).

Yet these concessions to the urban voters have so far not proved enough. On 10 July 2011, Mauricio Macri obtained 47% of the vote in his quest for re-election as mayor of Buenos Aires, well ahead of the 27% won by Mrs Kirchner’s preferred candidate, a former education minister. Macri is now in a good position to win the run-off vote on 31 July.

Will these manoeuvres, decisions and concessions be enough to convince a majority of voters to re-elect Cristina Kirchner in October? More than half the electorate currently say they will not vote for her. But the dire condition of the opposition - where no candidate offers a genuine alternative to the current model, unsustainable though it is - may incline many to change their minds.

In any event, the saga of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo is a cautionary tale of what “the restitution of politics at the centre of social life in Argentina” has achieved. Those looking for a way through the current dilemmas of state and market, of rule of law and power, of democracy and populism - all raised in acute form by the Kirchners’ governance of Argentina - will have to look elsewhere. 

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