I guess I slept on the futon last night, I thought to myself. The familiar sugary coating on my teeth and the pounding headache reminded me I’d had a few too many vodka Speeds the night before, and I guess that morning, too. The television was on—El muro infernal—a game show that had contestants trying to jump through a moving wall. Dubbed episodes of The Simpsons had been the usual routine, and I’d finally begun to consider the argument that Homer was funnier in Mexican Spanish—but as my senses started to come back to me, I noticed something else was wrong.
It reeked of smoke. It was like someone was having a campfire in our apartment.
I stumbled around to see if I could identify the source, and only got increasingly more confused when I couldn’t find it. That’s when I opened the doors to our balcony on Tacuarí and realized it was suffocating all of Buenos Aires.
That was April 2008, not April 17, 2007. But it could've been.
In March of 2007, President Cristina Kirchner had tested the resolve of Argentina’s farmers by raising export taxes on certain commodities—soybeans being particularly contentious, apparently to encourage them to switch to growing staple foods like wheat and corn for domestic consumption. Naturally, I figured the farmers were out to prove they wouldn’t be bullied.
Back to 2008.
A few weeks earlier I’d been woken up by a cacerolazo; there isn’t a really a direct translation of cacerolazo—it’s basically a protester banging on a saucepan—or well, more like a lot of protesters banging on a lot of saucepans. The farmers’ response, I’d thought… then I found out these protesters were supporting the government.
“Malditos piqueteros,” a waitress later muttered. (Damn picketers)
“What are they protesting?” We asked curiously.
“They don’t even know,” she replied. “They’re paid to do it.”
It wasn’t just the Argentine cynicism I’d grown to love—I later had this confirmed by several people. Paid protesters who got rides to the capital and a decent day’s pay had become standard practice during the Fernando de la Rúa administration (1999-2001).
So then who was burning what—and why?
“Oh, the smoke? No that’s not a protest. That’s just an annual thing the farmers do in the Paraná River delta. They burn it for grazing—for the cattle.”
There was a line about the French in an Iris Murdoch novel that immediately came to mind: “French logic is very simple. Whatever the French are doing is logical because the French are doing it.” I only needed to replace “the French” with “the Argentines”.
But dismissing these actions as esoteric and moving on was a copout.
A little distance and reflection usually reveal our first impressions to be premature. Because even though we like to think we’re living everything for the first time—that we aren’t bound or predetermined to make the same mistakes again, contemporary events we perceive as original usually have strong parallels in our past. Kind of a trite aphorism, I know; but it sticks with me when I think of the trials and tribulations of Mr. and Mrs. Kirchner—like I’ve seen or read this before.
It’s not really all that farfetched. They are Peronists after all, and that would logically lead you to believe they would uphold the fundamental beliefs of their forefather Juan Domingo, right?
Of course being a Peronist doesn’t mean you have to be facsimile of Perón; the Presidency of Carlos Menem proved that. But Kirchner behavior and decision-making does suggest at least a hint of continuity.
The most obvious example is the Kirchner’s ongoing battle with the media conglomerate Grupo Clarín. Over the last few years, Grupo Clarín has quite clearly shown their support for the farmers I mentioned above, irking the Kirchner clan to the point that they resorted to using every tool at their disposal in an effort to split up the company. To their credit, the newspapers haven’t been taken over as they were by Juan Domingo, and the Kirchner’s inability to eliminate or at least strong-arm their opposition has been some combination of shameful and embarrassing.
The second example is their manipulation of trade unions. Perón, the consummate populist, learned early on how to harness the power of the urban working class. It was their loyalty and numbers that demanded an end to his incarceration in 1945, and the Partido Justicialista counts on that loyalty to this day. However, the recent loss of CTA (Central de Trabajadores Argentinos) support has revealed organized labor might also be shifting their allegiance. The CTA came about in 1992 because of opposition to policies of the Menem administration, but at the moment their key membership or affiliation is with a large number of workers in the informal economy, those same workers who may of woke me up with their pots and pans.
Then there’s the forced resignation of Central Bank President Martin Redrado last January; at the time I remember thinking about Perón’s nationalizing of the Central Bank. He used it to pay off the Bank of England, just as Mr. and Mrs. Kirchner wanted to use $6.6 billion in reserves to pay debt due later in the year. The difference is that Redrado had enough autonomy and respect to draw international attention to the issue. The Central bank’s reserves tripled under his tenure and he restored a sense of stability to a country still remembered by most of the world as the personification of economic mismanagement. When Perón nationalized the bank, he was essentially acting with impunity.
I’m probably going too far, but when Nestór Kirchner had his angioplasty this September, I could only think of an ineffective though prescient Isabel Perón’s final days as President—waiting for the impending change that appeared inevitable. Mr. and Mrs. Kirchner are a resilient pair, though, and I’m not yet convinced Ricardo Alfonsín, Eduardo Duhalde, or Mauricio Macri have what it takes to beat a healthy Nestór in 2011.
But “yet” is the operative world.