UNDER FIRE: Menemismo and the Politics of Opposition in Argentina

September 25, 2007

While more than 90,000 people were being evacuated in Argentina due to floods provoked by El Nifio, a political joke was making its way around Buenos Aires: "The floods are not the result of the waters rising, but of the fact that the country is sinking." It seems puzzling that people are joking about the country sinking when economic growth rates are extremely high and prices have remained stable over the past few years-the laurels on which the government of President Carlos Menem has rested for nearly a decade. Buenos Aires and other cities offer all the amenities of the "First World." Some 300,000 young people attended five Rolling Stones con- certs this summer, paying an average of $50 per ticket. Flights to Europe and the United States are replete with Argentine tourists year round. At the same time, thousands of homeless people comb through garbage cans each night in search of something to eat. Although the fruits of growth have been distributed in a tremendously unequal manner, the memory of the hyperinflation of the late 1980s continues to generate support for Menem's Convertibility Plan. The gov- ernment and economic elites ably manipulated this support to accelerate the dismantling of the public sec- tor, privatize the social welfare system and deregulate the labor market. Ironically, a government which claims to be the political heir of Peronism has carried out the most dra- matic and successful campaign against organized labor and workers' rights. Under Menem, Argentina has become a star of the neoliberal world, blessed by a massive influx of international financial capital. But herein lies its biggest weakness-the sustainability of the economic model depends on the continual renewal of these investments, something which is far from guaranteed. Recent warnings emitted by the International Monetary Fund regarding the country's deplorable trade deficits suggest that the "model" is in fact more vul- nerable than its publicists and benefactors are making it out to be. In Argentina, a highly exclusionary macroeconomic model coexists with an inclusive political system. It is in this context of deep social inequalities and electoral democracy that a political opposition has emerged which threatens to defeat the ruling party in the presidential elections scheduled for 1999. The opposition Alliance for Jobs, Justice and Education has said it will uphold the basic outlines of the current economic model, but promises to pay more attention to pressing social issues such as unemployment. The Alliance has centered its campaign on combatting corruption, restructuring the judiciary and making public administra- tion more accountable and accessible to ordinary citizens. Argentine democracy coexists not only with social inequality, but with institutionalized impunity. As a result of a series of laws passed by Raxil Alfonsfn's government, followed by a presidential pardon issued by Menem in 1989, military officers who committed the atrocities of the dirty war were set free or their trials were put to an end. Today, these murderers and torturers freely walk the streets, make public appearances and even boast of their their atrocities to the press. The victims or their families, meanwhile, must learn to live with their pain and their frustrated desire for justice. In recent years, however, human rights organiza- tions have once again become active, identifying the current whereabouts of torturers and exposing them to the public. Although these actions are symbolic, they are nonetheless effective. Argentina's current political moment is traversed by tensions derived from the coexistence of a series of contradictory elements-growth and impoverishment; stability and inequality; elections and impunity. These tensions are widely reflected in local attitudes and cultural practices. In his famous tango, Cambalache, Enrique Santos Discdpolo brilliantly captured the profound cultural dislocation produced by the social and economic crisis of 1929 in Argentina. In the song, Disc6polo denounces the irresponsibility and the hypocrisy of his time: "All is the same/nothing is better/a jackass is the same/as a great professor." For many in Argentina, Cambalache remains an accurate portrait and critique of society, politics and the economic model.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.