President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, in Madrid, Spain. February 23, 2017. Alter Photos/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
After Trump’s victory in the US, and on the eve of elections in France in which the far right is leading many polls, there seems little doubt about the direction the world is taking. But anyone wanting to know the future that the new right has planned for us could do well to look not only at Russia or Poland but further south as well. Just as, at the dawn of the neoliberal age, the Pinochet dictatorship was the testing ground for its “shock doctrine,” today the countries of the global south, like Argentina, Brazil and the Philippines, are the laboratories where the plans of Trump, Le Pen & Co. are put to the test. Another anniversary of the 1976 coup in Argentina (24 March – a date that the current government under President Mauricio Macri would like to uncouple from the National Day of Memory) offers the opportunity to assess the experiments under way. These target any possibility of a participative and egalitarian democracy. In spite of the savage and unprecedented cuts to budgets for science, technology and education (for example some 60% sliced from the fund for early-career researchers), in the laboratory of the new right, there are plenty of new knowledge producers, specialising in “alternative facts.”
In January 2017, Macri signed a decree allowing the deportation of immigrants. It looked like a mere copy of a similar law approved by Donald Trump a few days earlier. The gesture is the same: the criminalization of migration, racializing crime by linking it, in the words of Interior Minister Patricia Bullrich, to international drug networks, and their representatives in the shape of immigrants from Peru or Bolivia. However, in Argentina the systematic criminalization of foreigners had started before the “Trump effect.” In 2016, in sharp contrast to earlier border legislation, a detention centre was opened, in which any foreigner can be jailed for the most minor offence. Clearly, the point is to place immigrants at the centre of security concerns, to divide society, as an excuse to boost police presence on the streets. We are a long way from that old Argentine slogan, “the homeland is your neighbour.” Instead, race and racism become the axis of public policy.
This attack on the status of migrants is part of a wider assault on human rights and related policies. Juan J. Gómez Centurión, responsible for Argentina’s Customs Authority, has bolstered the ranks of right-wing politicians who question the veracity of the last dictatorship’s crimes, including the figure of 30,000 persons disappeared. The government has proposed a lawyer who specialises in defending military repressors as head of the main human rights organisation. Meanwhile, such groups have suffered budget cuts and sackings. It is not just that the current government feels loyalty to dictatorships of the past. These measures function as a licence to accentuate social divisions, be they racial, national, class-based, or sexual. The threat of “insecurity” is ever present. The result is carte blanche for surveillance and police repression. The liquidation of human rights policy is the flipside to governing through insecurity. Argentina, like other Latin American countries, offers an experimental model that is spreading to the US and Europe.
As well as dictatorship-deniers like Gómez Centurión, Macri’s cabinet covers the whole rainbow of high finance. Until very recently, the President’s Legal and Technical Secretary divided his time with positions on the executive boards of the Macri family’s private airlines, which benefited from the privatization of flight routes under the new government. The Energy Ministry is now in the hands of a multimillionaire shareholder and former CEO of Shell Argentina, who immediately began a wholesale crusade against supposedly “distorted” tariffs, raising gas and electric bills by up to 2,000%. “Holding shares does not necessarily constitute a conflict of interests,” according to Laura Alonso, head of the Anticorruption Agency. Neither, so it would seem, is exempting from prosecution taxes evaded through fiscal havens, including a raft of shell companies owned by the president’s family, nor the cancelling of payments on a $4.5 billion debt which the Macri group owed to the nation for its share of a Post Office privatization. With more than 1.5 million citizens newly impoverished in just one year, according to estimates from the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA), none of these blank cheques could have been signed without the cover of a daily media hate campaign against a few select scapegoats. Against all evidence, the government has been campaigning on the problem of “juvenile delinquency” and the need to lower the age of criminal responsibility. In fact, there has been a rise in shootings by trigger-happy police, as well as “ID check” stops, a euphemism for intimidation of the poor or mixed race. These include the young activists from a villa miseria-based magazine, “Garganta Poderosa” (Strong Throat), arrested without charge and subjected to torture and mock execution.
A toxic mix of campaigning judges, serial accusers from the mainstream media, secret service agents and social media trolls is at work undermining the bases of a tolerant, democratic society, and turning judicial independence into a sad caricature of itself. Each new scandal effecting the government is immediately buried by another accusation against the opposition from one or another acquiescent judge. When the Panama Papers broke, heavily implicating the President, a prosecutor with a taste for magical realism ordered a batallion of diggers to be sent to Patagonia, excavating in search of the Kirchners’ alleged ill-gotten riches.
The criminalization of the opposition and of social protest in Argentina goes hand in hand with the government’s extractivist economic model. This follows the previous administration’s policy of expanding mining, but the growth of measures that promote and facilitate intensive extraction of natural resources, alongside the agro-business model, exacerbate health and environmental problems. They also encroach on the claims of indigenous peoples and local communities. The presidential decree removing windfall taxes on the mining industry at the start of 2016 is set to be extended with a Federal Mining Agreement which allows unrestricted growth of one of the most lucrative sectors of the Argentine economy. As in the US under Trump, the forward march of this form of plunder pays no heed to environmental protections, such as the Glacier Law. It increases tensions around struggles for land, while ignoring the legitimate claims of local and indigenous communities. In this context one can understand and connect the different forms of community resistance and the violent acts of repression throughout the country: from the Guaraní people in Salta, to the Jáchal community in San Juan, to the protests of towns in Córdoba and the Chaco that have been fumigated, to the Mapuche people of Cushamen in Patagonia. This emboldened exploitation of natural resources continues to mortgage the future of the country, violating the rights of the most vulnerable.
Those who dare to organise resistance movements do so at the risk of becoming targets for ferocious repression, from direct police violence through to kidnap and psychological torture carried out by a justice system complicit with the powerful. This 8 March, dozens of women were brutally attacked and detained after taking part in an internationally significant mass strike and demonstration by women against gender violence, known as #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less – a reference to the high rates of femicide in Argentina). The arbitrary and violent actions of the police made it clear that this was an attempt to instil fear and thus bring to heal groups of women grassroots protestors.
Still more troubling is the case of Milagro Sala, an organizer of cooperatives and indigenous deputy in Jujuy, arbitrarily detained for over a year by a provincial government ally of Macri, as a result of legal manoeuvres that scarcely bother to hide their clear bias, and in spite of protests from the UN, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Amnesty International and the Parliament of Mercosur, among others. The mainstream media have subjected Sala and other activists from the Kolla, Guaraní and Mapuche communities to a savage campaign of defamation, linking them to drug trafficking; in jail they have been exposed to physical and psychological ill-treatment. They are putting their own lives in danger, in defence of their people but also of a democracy under mortal threat. Like the Dakota Pipeline activists in the US, or the members of Pussy Riot in Russia, those who stand up to the system become personae non gratae, precisely because they are carrying out forms of grassroots organisation with widespread social effects.
Let’s not be fooled by the PR language of cosmopolitanism and good vibes from Macri and his media chums: the music may have changed, but the song remains the same. In the Latin American laboratories of the new right, instead of Trump’s baseball caps or Putin’s bare chest, politicians dress like CEOs – without the tie, of course, to look more chilled. But the first-world mask barely hides the face of the colonial lord, the latifundista underneath. The current government of Argentina is perpetrating the most comprehensive attack against pluralism, equality, liberty, social participation and justice since the end of the last dictatorship. As in other countries where the new right has come to power, from Poland to Paraguay, Honduras to Hungary, systematic and concrete discriminatory measures are in place, backed up by the language of discrimination, exclusion and violence, whose principal target is the pact of democratic coexistence. Democracy and civil rights are, for the predatory capitalism that underpins the new right, mere obstacles to unlimited accumulation. We cannot consent to their experiments, neither in Argentina nor anywhere else.