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.


Unknown said...

What puzzled me most is the unwillingness to win those protesters as future voters. The oppositions simply comments that "the government should listen to the claims", while the government answers with "if they don't agree with us, they should vote for someone else next time", probably ignoring that a lot of the demonstrators voted for them last year. In probably any other democratic country, the parties would make a stampede-like run towards these potential votes, especially as most protesters seem to seek someone to represent them.

Dan Newland said...

Precisely, Unknown. It's all a matter of arrogance, of being isolationist and thinking that the opposition is unimportant because the "majority" is ruling. The question is: Is it still? And even if it is, is it legitimate in a democracy to totally disregard the other half of the population?

Matthias Wegener said...

Sorry, didn't realize the name's not filled in automatically. ;)

I think it's valid if the government won't take decisions that go completely against its principles but somehow it got lost that a government has to address the major problems of a country as part of their duty.
IMO, a lot of people in Argentina have problems to distinguish between state and government. State money is used for advertisements, state foundations are named after the governing party's historic figures, the state has to finance the president's electoral campaign. Sometimes it looks like democratic absolutism.

Lilly said...

On her Friday 9th address to the people (at least to the people surrounding her) she stated that "the real problem of society is the lack of a political leadership representing it", in a tacit acceptance that neither does she.
Our President has a bizarre perspective about the role of the Executive in charge. Instead of perceiving herself as a leader in the service of her country, she seems to believe this is her well deserved chance to have the whole country in her service.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for the clear observations, Lilly. Yes, almost at her beck and call,in fact, and, rather like Queen Victoria, when anyone questions her, "she is not amused".

Monica Colangelo said...

I totally agree with you in each and every respect.

rab said...

Congratulations on a remarkable summary of our recent decade!
I venture one addition regarding 8N; to paraphrase FDR: we may have finally learnt that we have nothing to fear, other than fear itself. May the opposition, as well as government, learn this lesson!