Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?

Charlotte Keyes popularized this phrase, when she borrowed it for the  title of a 1966 article for McCall’s magazine in which she told the poignant story of an American draft-dodger who refused to accept induction into the United States Armed Forces, but also refused to run.  His evasion of military service wasn’t about cowardice or the inconvenience of the draft for some of the college graduates of those days who just wanted to get on with their careers (albeit in Canada). It was, clearly, a moral and ethical stand, and he knew full well the consequences. “Jail,” he told his exasperated parents, “is my destiny.”

And indeed it was. The young man that the article—told from the point of view of his mother—referred to only as “Gene” was sentenced four times to prison for his rebellion against not just the war of his era (Vietnam), but against every law that made possible the obligatory drafting of young civilians for any and all wars. At the last of his trials in which he was sentenced to three years in a Federal penitentiary for flatly refusing military conscription, he was quoted as saying: “There is no moral validity to any part of any law whose purpose is to train people to kill one another.”

Keyes borrowed the phrase in a roundabout way from iconic American poet Carl Sandburg. She was reminded of it when, in a 1961 letter to the Washington Post, James R. Newman of the Scientific American misquoted Sandburg in asking that captious question. In the original Sandburg version, it was a statement included in his epic, book-length poem entitled The People, Yes, in a passage of which he describes how a little girl watching her first military parade says, “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” But it was Keyes’ (Newman’s) version that stuck and became a rallying cry, bumper sticker and even a movie title during the rebellious anti-war protest days of the Vietnam era.

A Whole New Meaning. Half a century later, however, that once rhetorical question is taking on an entirely new meaning, one with sinister consequences regarding the rules of warfare and the onerous and inescapable moral responsibilities of those who order and conduct it. I’m referring here to the ever more advanced technology of war, which, within a relatively short period, promises to make the need for any type of boots–on-the-ground action obsolete for those who possess it, which are—and will be—only the most powerful governments on earth, and, in particular, the United States.  

In spite of President Barack Obama’s clearly liberal politics, his unquestionably humanitarian policies at home, and his efforts to rebuild the reputation of the United States as a fair and ethically responsible world power, the pressures for him to act as his predecessor might have in certain cases as commander-in-chief of the armed forces have been palpable throughout his first term in the White House. Nowhere has this been clearer than in his ever-increasing authorization of the use of “drone” unmanned aircraft in prosecuting military action. The exponential growth of drone use has sparked increasing concern among both peace and human rights activists, ever since drones started to be employed during the administration of George W. Bush. And far from being assuaged after the election of President Obama, such worries have only been heightened.

The fact is that although the use and production of drones has increased non-stop under both the Bush and Obama administrations, it has been under the current president that they have become a key part of the government’s military strategy and mushroomed beyond all reasonable limits. In the last decade, the number of drones in the US arsenal has skyrocketed from 50 to a reported 7000-plus. And in 2012, the Obama administration asked Congress for 5 billion dollars to build additional drones.

What’s a Drone? Drones are, basically, unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft. They are used for both reconnaissance and weapons-carrying missions. They range in size from the so-called “hummingbird”—a spy-craft so tiny that it can land like a bird on a windowsill to snap images and record conversations, and is capable of flying at speeds as low as eleven miles an hour, while carrying out detailed surveillance runs—to the large Predator drones used for bombing runs and targeted kill strikes.

US officials have referred to drones as their most effective weapon in the country’s war on Al Qaeda Islamic terrorists, and have reportedly used these unmanned aircraft extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to transmit live video of suspected Al Qaeda movements to American troops, as well as to carry out air strikes against the guerrillas. To what extent they are being used as an actual combat tool was made clear in a 2011 New York Times special report that quoted a specialized blog called The Long War Journal (which tracks US action in the Middle East) as saying that drones had hunted and killed 1,900 insurgent terrorists in Pakistan alone, without having to risk ground troops in the process. A drone is also reported to have been used to spy on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in that country, before a Navy SEAL special ops team was sent in to kill the Islamic terrorist leader. In April of 2011, Obama authorized drone strikes on armed supporters of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi and a month later, the use of drones was taken to a whole new level, when the CIA used a drone to kill US-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, an event that marked the first time the US government had approved the drone assassination of one of its own citizens.

The Downside. There can be little doubt that drones save lives on the side of the user force, but they are drawing increasing fire from human rights activists because of the detachment that they permit their (often CIA-directed) “pilots” and the increased possibility of civilian casualties that they engender.

Arguments against the use of drones are numerous. But the strongest one has to do with the clear fact that unmanned aircraft will tend to escalate war and violence worldwide, by removing many of the human risks involved for those who possess this kind weaponry. According to the same New York Times report, “Military ethicists concede that drones can turn war into a video game and, with no Americans directly at risk, more easily draw the United States into conflicts.”

The United States government has sought to portray drones as “surgically effective” in disrupting and destroying terrorist forces without causing any civilian casualties. However, not only human rights activists, but supporters of drone technology as well, tend to believe that this is more wishful thinking than fact. For instance, on August 12, 2011, New York Times newsman Scott Shane reported discrepancies between the CIA report of a May drone attack and information on the same incident as reported by both British and Pakistani journalists. While the CIA said that the attack had taken place in a remote area of Pakistan and cleanly taken out a vehicle and killed nine terrorists who were transporting bomb construction materials, the British and Pakistani journalists reported that the same drone rocket barrage had hit a religious school, a restaurant and a house, killing eighteen people. Twelve of these casualties were, indeed, Al-Qaeda militants. But also killed were six civilians who had nothing to do with the terrorists. That would make the “collateral damage” rate for this single drone attack one civilian for every three combatants killed.

Observations such as these by seasoned reporters have caused the CIA and Obama administration’s claims of the “surgical proficiency” of drones to be hotly disputed. Even drone supporters, like The Long War Journal’s editor, Bill Roggio don’t buy such claims. Quoth Roggio: “The Taliban don’t go to a military base to build bombs or do training. There are families and neighbors around. I believe the people conducting the strikes work hard to reduce civilian casualties. They could be twenty percent. They could be five percent. But I think the CIA’s claim of zero civilian casualties in a year is absurd.”

Blurring Legal and Moral Boundaries. Such has been the concern of the United Nations regarding Washington’s  burgeoning use of remote robotic warfare—and the obvious implications of the use of such tactics to all major nations—as to prompt a special report. The May 2010 UN report by international law scholar and human rights practioner Philip Alston, states in its summary: “In recent years, a few States have adopted policies that permit the use of targeted killings, including in the territories of other States. Such policies are often justified as a necessary and legitimate response to ‘terrorism’ and ‘asymmetric warfare’, but have had the very problematic effect of blurring and expanding the boundaries of the applicable legal frameworks.” More specifically, Alston’s report expressed concern about the use, particularly by the United States, of drone technology, pointing out that “…because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield” [according to reliable reports, frequently at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia] “and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to killing…”  

Alston’s report opines that “…States must ensure that training programs for drone operators who have never been subjected to the risks and rigors of battle instill respect for IHL [International Humanitarian Law] and adequate safeguards for compliance with it.”

Sarah Holenwinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a Washington-based NGO that gathers statistics on civilian deaths in war zones, says, “It’s urgent to answer this question [about drone accuracy and effectiveness in preventing civilian deaths], because this technology is so attractive to the US and other governments that it’s going to proliferate very rapidly.” And clearly, this is true considering the more than hundredfold increase in drones at the disposal of the US military in the past decade.

The independent UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is highly skeptical of Washington’s assertions that no civilian deaths are occurring in supposedly “surgical” bombing and rocket attacks carried out using drones. It began an investigation after interviewing people in the Pakistani tribal region where many of the US drone attacks have been carried out and found out that at least 45 civilians had died in just ten of the drone airstrikes carried out in 2010. The Bureau has been able to establish with reasonable certainty that CIA-supervised drone strikes in Pakistan up to then had numbered at least 291 (236 of which—or one every four days—had been carried out under the Obama administration). It said that that between 2,292 and 2,863 people had died in those attacks (most of them low-ranking militants), that 126 named militants had been killed, and that 1,114 people had been injured. In regard to this last information, the Bureau claimed to have compiled a list of the wounded for the first time. The organization reported that it had gathered credible information regarding the deaths of anywhere between 385 and 775 civilians in the US attacks—or in other words, anywhere from 16 percent to 27 percent of all drone-related kills. The Bureau also reported being in possession of credible information regarding the drone-related deaths of 164 children.

Getting Back to Basic Ground Rules. Alston’s UN report reached numerous conclusions and made a variety of recommendations regarding so-called “targeted killings”, for any UN member state that seeks to justify carrying them out. Some of the most salient points of these conclusions include the following:

·        States should be required to publicly identify the rules of international law that they consider to provide a legal basis for any targeted killings they undertake and should specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture the enemy in question.

·        States should be required to make public the number of civilians collaterally killed in a targeted killing operation, and should have to describe the measures in place to prevent such casualties. Along these same lines, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should meet with member states including major military powers, with ranking representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and with experts in international humanitarian law and human rights, to work out a broadly accepted definition of “direct participation in hostilities.” (The goal here is, obviously, to provide clear criteria for differentiating between hostile forces and the civilian population).    

·        The report reminds members of the UN that all specific requirements under human rights law, applicable in and outside armed conflict, must be strictly respected and borne in mind. UN member states should also, the report indicates, disclose “measures in place to provide prompt, thorough, effective, independent and public investigations of alleged violations of law.” Alston says that while the legal framework should take into account the possibility of a threat’s being so imminent that any warning or graduated force might prove too risky or futile to consider (i.e., a suspect is about to discharge a weapon or make good on a suicide bombing attempt), “it must [also] put in place safeguards to ensure that the evidence of imminence is reliable...and “does not circumvent the requirements of necessity and proportionality.”

·        The report calls on states to provide their forces with a “command and control system that collects, analyzes and disseminates sufficient information for their armed forces or operators to make legal and accurate targeting decisions,” adding that targeted killings “should never be based solely on ‘suspicious’ conduct or unverified—or unverifiable—information…”

·        Finally, the Alston Report’s conclusions make it clear—since this was a frequent excuse for civilian deaths cited, for instance, by the administration of former US President George W. Bush—that “although the use of civilians as ‘shields’ is prohibited, one side’s unlawful use of civilian shields does not affect the other side’s obligation to ensure that attacks do not kill civilians,” even when doing so might serve the military advantage of killing the targeted fighter.

The naked truth is, however, that the United States only honors international law (much less the UN) when doing so suits its purposes. In questions of national security, even a relatively respectful and respectable administration like President Obama’s makes up its own rules when it deems this to be expedient. The question is whether a nation can still consider itself moral, law-abiding and exemplary when it supports and applies policies that justify as “collateral damage” the murders of innocent men, women and children. The burgeoning use of robotic warfare makes finding a coherent response to this question an urgent priority.        

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Photo source: Workers Party (PO) website. 
Any number of people in Argentina have come to the conclusion that the key figures in the government of President Cristina Kirchner—and, indeed, the president herself—are blind, deaf and dumb to any but their own narrow and self-serving interests. But if President Kirchner and her most radicalized supporters still have the use of any of their senses, then they should have seen the writing on the wall today (or at least felt and smelled it), because no message could have been clearer than the one transmitted by the general strike.

As of the stroke of midnight last night, major national labor movements—some formerly antagonistic to one another but now united in a mutual cause (and most once pro-Kirchner and now dissident)—fostered a nationwide general strike that has today brought the country to a veritable standstill. Picketers set up roadblocks at principal entrances to the capital city of Buenos Aires and there were numerous other picket points erected throughout the rest of the country. Some 2,000 truckers parked their rigs along the roads near international border crossings as of sundown yesterday and anything else on unionized wheels, including garbage trucks, also ground to a halt on orders from powerful teamsters boss Hugo Moyano, who, as head of the traditional Peronist General Confederation of Labor (CGT), is one of the chief architects of the general strike. Municipalities asked neighbors not to set out their trash for collection, but refuse was already piling up in the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities by noon today and won’t be picked up before Thursday, if then. Domestic flights were grounded nationwide. Dissident union workers on some train lines joined the strike, halting train services on those lines completely, while rail services whose workers didn’t adhere to the labor measures were also disrupted as a result of blockades set up at level crossings. Banks remained closed everywhere in Argentina today, and by this afternoon there were concerns about ATMs running out of cash, since they haven’t been serviced since early yesterday and won’t be again until tomorrow at the earliest. Most city buses ran in Buenos Aires but ended up having their routes blocked by protesters at different points around the capital. While most subway lines were operative, workers on the B-line (a major service running through the center of the city) joined the strike. Many service stations were shut down and fuel transport was blocked. Hospital services were severely affected and were reported in many cases to be operating on an emergency-only basis. National, provincial and municipal workers weren’t unanimous in their adhesion to the strike, but these services were clearly affected all over the country, if not by the strike as such, then by other disruptions resulting from the national shutdown.

The 8N Connection. It would be incorrect to claim that today’s general strike was a direct continuation of the massive nationwide“8N Protest” that took place less than two weeks ago and that spontaneously mustered hundreds of thousands of mostly middle class individuals through the social networks to join together in town squares at home and at Argentine embassies abroad in protesting against corruption, insecurity, constitutional “reform”, unilateral policies and the generally autocratic style of Mrs. Kirchner’s government. Indeed, many of the well over a million people who thronged into the streets for that demonstration are the kind who would shrink from Big Labor general strikes on principle, who don’t trust the likes of ambitious militant labor bosses like Moyano and leftwing CTA (Argentine Workers Central) leader Pablo Micheli, among others, and who believe in the constitutional right to strike and protest, but also in the right to freedom of movement and choice and are thus put off by any protest that includes setting up roadblocks to keep those who want to go to work from getting there. In fact, at the gathering points for the November 8 protest there were repeated scenes of whole columns of middle class protesters stepping off to the side of the street to let vehicles pass and of their holding up at stop lights so as not to break the flow of traffic. And there were repeated reminders too in the messages they exchanged in the run-up to the protest to avoid causing any sort of damage on the protest sites, to respect public and private property, not to allow themselves to be provoked by opposition activists, in short, to remember “that we’re not them,” in reference to the self-serving riots that Kirchnerist activists have seldom been above promoting.

But, that said, there are obvious parallels between the two protests and one has also clearly led to the other. Today’s general strike confirms reports from right after the 8N Protest that Hugo Moyano was secretly meeting with other “orthodox Peronists”(perhaps including former President Eduardo Duhalde) to discuss ways to keep pressure on the Kirchner administration that was not only ignoring the needs of at least half the population that opposed it, but also those of groups that had indeed lent their support to Mrs. Kirchner and to her late husband in their combined decade in office. Moyano was already reportedly pressuring the late President Néstor Kirchner to reciprocate before Cristina Kirchner was elected. And although he had been widely considered a “friend” of the administration’s during much of the current president’s first term, his grumbling has become increasingly boisterous since and has recently turned to open dissidence.

The 8N Protest provided Moyano and Micheli with the test case they needed to gauge the political and social climate in the country. Unlike President Kirchner, they are clever enough not to believe their own hype, to know what they are looking at when they see a million people march peacefully into the square in front of Government House to tell the president that they will no longer be the silent “minority”.They are also clever enough to know that most of those people were middle class wage-earners—rather than “well-dressed demonstrators”, as Mrs. Kirchner has referred to them in an attempt to disqualify their demands as greedy—with a lot of the same problems facing the blue-collar workers that their organizations represent, such as ever-increasing tax pressure on the working classes, abysmal retirement pensions and low basic wages that are all artificially justified by the administration through blatant manipulation of government statistics, savings options and foreign exchange rates. And these are all issues that were part and parcel of both the 8N Protest and today’s general strike. The strike’s swift organization in the wake of 8N goes to show that Moyano and Micheli properly weighed the power of that other protest and wanted to strike while the iron was hot.

Strange Bedfellows. An idea of how well that worked for them was provided by Argentine Agrarian Federation chief Eduardo Buzzi, who, despite having formerly been a bitter foe of Moyano’s as well as of the Kirchner administration, threw in his lot with the CGT and CTA today and was rewarded with an estimated 80 percent participation in the national strike by the mostly small farmers that he represents. Buzzi said that the roadblocks had been a lot fewer than expected because they simply weren’t necessary. He said that in rural Argentina, people “joined the strike of their own accord,” quipping that out in the country “when things are quiet, we say not even the birds are flying,” adding that the strike was so well received that last night, after midnight, when it first began and before any roadblocks were set up, “even then, not even the bats were flying.” While saying that he was willing to wait and see if the government would now come to its senses, he characterized the Kirchner administration’s attitude up to now as that of “an autistic government that ignored social outcry” in successive protests.

CTA boss Pablo Micheli, for his part, defended the roadblocks set up from 7 a.m. until noon in Buenos Aires saying that this was a government that tolerated the fact that half the workforce was black-market (sweatshop) labor “who have no right to strike because if they don’t go to work they’ll simply be fired”. The roadblocks, he said, provided them with the instrument they needed to stay home, because it allowed them to say that they were unable to get to their jobs.

Cristina - on her own.
Cristina without Néstor. While perhaps a tragic loss at a personal level, the death of her husband in late 2010 turned out to be a political boon for Mrs. Kirchner in her campaign for reelection the following year, with some political analysts having suggested that this (along with the anemic showing of the dubious opposition) helps explain her sweeping triumph when it came time to vote. And it also explains, to a certain extent, why Peronist labor has held off this long, before putting any real teeth into its express demands. As I mentioned here last week, Moyano is reported to have told other dissident Peronists following the 8N Protest, “I said I’d give her a year (and) that time’s up,” in reference to the wait-and-see period he declared for Big Labor after Néstor Kirchner’s death and Mrs. Kirchner’s reelection, in which to see how she would perform on her own, without her husband’s rather too obvious behind-the-scenes influence.

At the time of Mr. Kirchner’s death, in an article that I published here, I suggested that the current president was facing a situation not unlike that of Isabel Perón, who was unceremoniously launched into the presidency following her husband’s death in 1974, with absolutely no skills to prepare her for the job. Though I clarified that Cristina was obviously not Isabel—who was sorely unequipped to do anything but lend the Perón name to her handlers and do as she was told (with disastrous results), I was taken to task by more than one reader for even mentioning Isabel in the same breath with President Cristina Kirchner. But my analysis from that time has, unfortunately, proven prescient, since I predicted that in the power vacuum that would follow Néstor’s death, she would face similar pressures for shared power to those brought to bear on Isabel Perón, and where Isabel was simply too ill-prepared to ward off disaster, Mrs. Kirchner would very likely prove too arrogant and opinionated to reach the kind of compromises her office required, without her husband there to temper her willfully autocratic bent—an attitude which has led her to shed some of the better aides in her government and to surround herself with a number of mindless yes men, wheeler-dealers and unmitigated buffoons. I also predicted that, with Néstor gone, she would either be forced to share a certain amount of reciprocal power with Peronist labor in general and Moyano in particular or face having them as her enemy. Today’s general strike—the first that the CGT has organized against the government in nearly a decade that the Kirchners have been in power—would appear, sadly, to confirm my theory.

Pre-8N/Post-8N. What the president needs to realize is that she can’t turn the clock back to before the 8N Protest. The rest of her presidency—and indeed the entire Kirchner era—promises to be marked by that event, with a line of demarcation being clearly drawn between the pre-8N and post-8N periods. Between that protest and today’s national strike, her end-analysis should be that she has “lost the street”—a factor that her late husband obviously knew he had to control in order to govern unfettered—as well as her “majority-rules”status, and that if she hopes to avoid increasing pressure, undermined governability and eventual chaos, she will have to start listening to the voice of the people as a whole and begin seeking consensual solutions instead of facile excuses and arrogant self-justifications.


Monday, November 12, 2012

8N: Argentine Spring


Argentina is having its own version of “Arab Spring”, but, so far, without the violence. This past week, the country witnessed what was—at least in my nearly forty years of experience in this South American nation—the most successful peaceful demonstration in living history. The ad hoc organizers called it simply 8N, an allusion to the date on which it took place: Thursday, 8 November, 2012.

On what was an unseasonably hot spring evening in much of the country, throngs of largely normal, middle-class people took to the streets in cities nationwide, in what was, to a very large extent, a demonstration to show the federal government, its provincial surrogates and the country’s anemic opposition as a whole that this segment of the population indeed exists. Nor was this protest limited to the territory within national boundaries. In major cities all over the world, Argentine expatriates gathered in front of their country’s diplomatic missions and other key locations to bring the protest to international attention: Indeed, 8N protesters gathered in more than fifty cities from Australia to Austria, from Germany to Brazil, from Bolivia to Canada, from Chile to China, from Holland to Italy, from Venezuela to Japan, from Mexico to Norway, from Peru to South Africa, from Mexico to Switzerland, from France to Uruguay and from Israel to the United States, with the aim of making the world aware of the demands of a vast segment of the Argentine population that doesn’t feel the current government is serving democracy, the Constitution or them.

8N protesters throng to Plaza de Mayo

How Big? Big! Wildly varying estimates placed the turnout in Buenos Aires alone at anywhere from 150,000 (blind wishful thinking on the part of President Cristina Kirchner’s most fanatically loyal supporters) to about two million (the product of enthusiastic optimism among the non-partisan opposition). One Spanish newspaper calculated the crowd at 700,000, and a Latin American daily called it “over half a million.” But for those of us who have made our living covering protests of all kinds in Buenos Aires at one time or another in the country’s recent history, it wasn’t hard to find a point of comparison by examining the aerials and watching the footage. What instantly sprang to mind was when Raúl Alfonsín closed his presidential campaign in the 1983 elections—the first democratic elections held following nearly eight years of de facto military rule—and drew a crowd of supporters numbering just over a million. The packed downtown streets of Buenos Aires that day looked exactly as they did last Thursday evening, so my own fair-guess estimate is that the truth lies approximately in the middle, between the low-end and high-end hype, at somewhere around a million protesters. And if you count the similar protests carried out in every other major city throughout Argentina and those already mentioned abroad, tens—even hundreds—of thousands more demonstrators might well be added to the tally. At any rate, it was surely the most enormous public turnout in the last thirty years.
The expressed causes for the protest demonstration were precise and clear:

- First and foremost, rejection of any plans to amend the Constitution in order to allow Cristina Kirchner to remain in power as president beyond her current (second) term, and rejection too of any constitutional reform that would perpetuate and legitimize an autocratic Executive Branch.

- Calls for an end to the patent insecurity that is plaguing Argentina nationwide with a palpable (if not government-confessed) yearly increase in armed robberies, burglaries, extortive kidnappings, random violence and murders that seem to know no ceiling, while the administration appears bent on stripping security forces of all crime-fighting authority.

- In line with the constitutionality debate, the reestablishment and guaranteeing of checks and balances and independence of the three branches (and particularly of Justice, which, in the face of the current quasi-rubber-stamp Congress, is the only guarantor for the rights of the minority).
- Measures to take control over the rampant inflation that is eating up pay rises as fast as they are given and condemning independent workers who don’t possess collective bargaining tools to ever declining income, reducing many of them from their former middle class status to near subsistence levels. And in keeping with this, an end to the government’s use of the country’s once sound Central Bank reserves as a stopgap for budget shortfalls, thus draining the local market of foreign exchange and drastically undermining backing for the country’s own currency.

- An end to government manipulation of key economic data and to the out and out lies that the Kirchner administration is seeking to “sell” as official statistics through the long since K-infiltrated National Bureau of Statistics and Census (INDEC).

- A halt to the administration’s continuous attempts to subjugate the media by using its power and its laws to undermine its detractors and State funds to buy and/or reward its friends. This extends to using the State-operated media as a party propaganda machine instead of ensuring that they are run as legitimate and objective public news and information organs. The most outstanding example of this has been the Kirchner government’s incessant war with its former friend, the Clarín mega-media group, but the gravity of the situation extends far beyond what is essentially a high-profile power struggle to include the use of government agencies (such as the Tax Board, among others) to investigate and “punish” those who dare speak out.

- Rejection of the alleged (and sometimes confirmed) use of Social Security funds originally destined to retirees and old-age pensioners for give-away programs designed to boost the administration’s popularity among the burgeoning lower classes and, reportedly, for other populist ploys such as“football for all” to finance free transmission of prime soccer matches, the rights for which were formerly in the hands of major cable and pay-per-view operators (including Clarín). This is a particularly contentious issue considering that a large proportion of pensioners are at present drawing the equivalent of only about 350-400 dollars or less a month and when Congress sought to pass a bill to grant retirees 82 percent of their active base pay, the president vetoed the effort saying there was no money for such a project.
- Finally, an end to what is perceived as widespread government corruption by which Cristina Kirchner, her late husband and former president Néstor Kirchner, and their friends in power have exponentially increased their wealth and influence since taking power.

Psychological Blindness. But the overarching cause for the protest is the autocratic arrogance with which the Kirchners have ruled Argentina for the past decade, a trend that has intensified significantly since Mrs. Kirchner was first elected five years ago, and even more so in the past year since her reelection by virtue of a 54 percent popular majority—in the face of a weak, uncreative and atomized opposition. A clear example of this arrogance and inability to react positively to criticism was Cristina Kirchner’s initial reaction to last Thursday’s protest. She simply chose to act as if it hadn’t existed. Seeking to belittle the massive demonstration of discontent, in speaking to a group of her close supporters she quipped that on that day, “a major event took place: the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.” Considering the dire circumstances, such a sarcastic offhanded comment was clearly provocative and inflammatory. Even more so than back in September when she tangentially warned opponents that, “the only thing to fear is God...and me, a little.”
Renowned political commentator Nelson Castro sagely observed that, “whatever the government can’t do, whatever it doesn’t want or know how to solve, simply doesn’t exist, and so it persists in denying inflation, in stating that insecurity is just a sensation, that there is no clamp-down on foreign currency exchange, that there are no problems with the electric power supply, that all of this is an invention by Clarín...If the president insists on these stances, (such) protests will almost surely become an habitual Argentine political reality over the course of the three years and one month that she has left to serve.” Political analyst Gabriela Pousa said that the president had “reacted in accordance with her intrinsic nature: voluntarily blind, disrespectful, with little regard for reality, essentially untruthful (and) running counter to all logic.” Opposition Radical Party politician Ricardo Alfonsín, who ran against President Kirchner in the last presidential election, considered that “given the traits of this administration, I’m not optimistic that the government will give a proper reading to this demonstration and, at the very least, change in terms of its respect for institutions, for the Republic and for essential values. To do that, it doesn’t need investments, or economic growth, or high commodity prices. All it takes is republican conviction.”
But the president’s flippant reaction and statements by her political surrogates denied the existence of any sort of learning curve in the administration. Ultra-Kirchnerist Aníbal Fernández—a former Kirchner cabinet chief and current senator—plead “confusion” regarding the reasons behind the 8N demonstrations, saying that he didn’t know what “the message’s aim was” or what he was “supposed to take note of” and repeated his earlier, ludicrous accusations that it was all a rightwing plot and a throwback to the days of the military dictatorship. Congressman and former militant Peronist Youth leader Juan Carlos Dante Gullo wrote off the importance of the 8N movement because of its lack of political structure and partisan framework, implying the obvious, that the movement that overthrew De la Rúa in 2001 was indeed backed by Peronism, which filled the vacuum once that administration fell. “You can’t compare these mobilizations with the ones in 2001,” he said, “in which the reality and crisis determined the socioeconomic composition of that protest.” Seeking to underscore the middle class thrust of the protest and belittle it as unworthy and unjust, Gullo seemed to ignore the huge echo that 8N found in every corner in the country and in 50 cities abroad, saying that it pertained only to “a certain social sector and a certain geography.”

Time’s Up. But if the president and her most loyal soldiers were shrugging off the nationwide protest as a tempest in a teacup, dissidents within the Peronist party were not. The online publicationTribuna de Periodistas reported that a group of “orthodox Peronists” headed up by former President Eduardo Duhalde and powerful truckers union and General Confederation of Labor boss Hugo Moyano had held secret meetings since the 8N protest. After witnessing the extraordinary power of the middle class movement Moyano is believed to feel he might be able to reap some of that energy to back his Peronist labor movement that the Kirchner administration has lately been wont to ignore as well. Ever wheeling and dealing behind the Peronist scene, Duhalde too must have seen the writing on the wall and now also hopes to take back a portion of the unreciprocated power that he handed over to Néstor Kirchner in 2003. After Kirchner’s death toward the end of 2010, and Mrs. Kirchner’s reelection, both Peronist labor and other party factions agreed to give his widow a prudential time in which to govern with their moral support and without their interference. This past week, Moyano is reported to have told his allies, “I said I’d give her a year. That time’s up.” Nor do Peronist dissidents appear as ready as Kirchner supporters to believe that the exceptionally peaceful and non-partisan protest witnessed last Thursday will continue to be the norm if the administration and its surrogates keep ignoring and demeaning the demands of such a massive segment of the population. A segment which, if some of the latest polls can be believed, now also includes significant numbers of people who voted for President Kirchner a year ago but who last Thursday formed part of the 8N demonstrations. According to two independent polls published this past week, the ratio of those who voted for the president and who now favor the 8N protest could be as high as three out of ten—which would tend to belie even the president’s “majority rule” theory.
Sepia Movie Illusions. From the outset, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner pictured themselves as the modern-day Juan Domingo and Eva Perón, and adopted the flamboyant “populist royalty” style of the world-famous couple, who dazzled the public at home and abroad in the 1940s and 1950s with their power and wealth—becoming the most adoringly loved and bitterly hated public figures in Argentine history. But, no matter what anyone’s opinion of the Peróns might be, from the outset it was clear that any attempt by the Kirchners to portray them was a role that was far too big for them. They were, at best—and by all accounts—veritable village tyrants from Argentina’s second least populated and most remote province (Santa Cruz, pop. about 275,000) who were simply able to take advantage of the institutional meltdown the country had just suffered, since theirs were new faces that few people knew at a time when the public was boisterously proclaiming its anger with all of the well known figures in the two main political movements.

Interim President Duhalde took Néstor Kirchner as his third choice for the Peronist Party’s presidential candidate in twice postponed elections that finally took place in 2003, following the popular overthrow of Radical opposition leader Fernando De la Rúa in 2001 and the institutional crisis that followed. Popular former Santa Fe Governor (and ex-Formula 1 race car driver) Carlos Reutemann resisted Duhalde’s overtures as did Córdoba Peronist José Manuel De la Sota, at a time when it was clear that Duhalde himself wouldn’t be able to pull off a reelection. Looking for a new face, Duhalde tapped Kirchner’s shoulder—even though, by all accounts, his level of trust for the ambitious Santa Cruz politician was shaky at best—and Kirchner jumped at the chance. With an opposition much maligned following the economic and financial crisis that led to De la Rúa’s ouster, the 2003 election ended up being all about Peronist in-fighting. The race pitted Kirchner (with the reluctant but outwardly enthusiastic backing of party strongman Duhalde) against Peronist former President Carlos Menem, which ended in a virtual draw (Menem with 24 percent of the votes compared to Kirchner’s also meager 22 percent), which under the Argentine voting system, meant the elections would be decided by second-round voting. In a surprise move, however, Menem withdrew from the race and Néstor Kirchner became the shoo-in for president.
The Human Rights Card. But the Kirchners have built their popularity among the rural poor and other disenfranchised sectors of the population—even in her latest sweeping election victory, Mrs. Kirchner failed to carry the majority vote in Argentina’s largest cities—by identifying and focusing on popular issues that other politicians have sidestepped. Not the least of these, certainly, has been the presidential couple’s savvy domination of long-postponed human rights issues. They rose quickly in the eyes of the public both at home and abroad to the status of paladins of justice by leading reforms to repeal laws that formerly protected all but the main figures in the series of military governments of the 1970s and early 1980s (known as the National Reorganization Process) from prosecution for crimes including kidnapping, torture, extortion and mass murder. Their executive initiative permitted the retrial of former dictators and ranking military leaders on charges other than the ones they had already been sentenced for, and allowed their formerly protected subordinates to be tried as well for the heinous crimes that they committed under the nearly eight-year military regime. This single major attribute, for some time—and still in some sectors of the population—imbued them with a sort of immunity to harsh criticism, because they were perceived as veritable dragon-slayers. And both Presidents Kirchner have cleverly used this shield to mask their own abuses of power and autocratic styles of government. Under Mrs. Kirchner’s administrations in particular, however, such abuses have become so blatant that they are no longer possible to ignore.

The 8N demonstration was an undeniable symptom of this and should have provided a clear message to the president. Namely, that the fact that she was elected by a majority doesn’t make her the president solely of the majority of Argentines, but of the country as a whole. And one of the major differences between a democracy and an autocracy is that, in a real democracy, the majority governs but doesn’t rule in absolute terms. It must take into account the rights and viewpoints of the nation’s people as a whole and submit its projects to the elected representatives of the people and within the terms of the law. In this, Cristina Kirchner has unwisely pegged her political style to that on which Perón himself based his second term as president and by which he presumed that once the majority had spoken, everyone else had best shut up and take in silence whatever was dished out to them by the powers that be. The same was true of the government he initiated after 17 years in exile and that was carried on by his clearly overwhelmed third wife and vice president, María Estela “Isabelita” Martínez de Perón who ended up being manipulated and puppeteered by the circle of cronyism that had surrounded the aging retired general prior to his death just eight months after taking office for a third time in 1973.
Where Mrs. Kirchner seems to come up short in her emulation of this autocratic attitude is in her knowledge and understanding of history. Despite being a much more able and pragmatic politician than either of the Kirchners have proven to be, the arrogance of Perón and the final administration he bequeathed to the country, their refusal to admit any viewpoint but their own, and their contemptuous attitude toward all but their fawning fans twice led the country into a divisive period of civil strife and authoritarian excess that set the stage for the military coups and periods of dictatorial rule that followed. While this exact institutional outcome is today practically impossible, thanks to the full subordination of the Armed Forces to constitutional rule since 1983, there is indeed the example of the civilian overthrow of Fernando De la Rúa in 2001 that the president would do well to heed. Clearly, it was her own party that engineered the De la Rúa administration’s untimely demise—but by the hand, many observers allege, of Eduardo Duhalde, who would later benefit by rising to the presidency himself, and who is, today, no friend of Kirchnerism. And while Mrs. Kirchner is, perhaps, counting on the highly democratic attitude of the part of the population that opposes her, and on the closeted existence of most “opposition” politicians who, up to now have basically underscored her “majority rules” attitude by stepping aside and allowing her to run roughshod over the legislative and judicial branches of government, she might do well to start thinking about a more conciliatory contingency, on the off-chance that she turns out to be dead wrong.

The astonishingly unmitigated success of the 8N protest is bound to embolden all of those who are tired of being ignored and treated like powerless second-class citizens because they don’t agree with some of the government’s policies. And after learning how powerful they actually can be in these days of lightning fast communication and organized social media it is highly unlikely that they will simply go back to being voiceless, docile victims, who limit themselves to protesting in the privacy of their own kitchens.