Monday, January 21, 2013


 There’s an old adage that says that a dog is smarter than its tail, because if the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog. From that maxim comes the expression “to wag the dog”, which means to create a diversion from some action or event you want to hide by drawing as much attention as possible to something of entirely secondary importance. Illustrative of this type of ruse was a 1997 black comedy called, precisely, Wag the Dog, in which Roberto De Niro plays a top Washington spin-doctor who contracts a Hollywood film producer (Dustin Hoffman) to help him fabricate a fake war in Albania as a means of covering up a White House sex scandal in which the president is caught making illicit advances to an underage “Firefly Girl” (a fictional Girl Scout type organization).
The film created quite a stir upon its release because the real-life dog-wagging that had been taking place in the US capital at the time had managed to span two presidencies and rendered the movie prescient. Although in the original novel by Larry Beinhart the plot obviously had to do with cover-ups in the government of George H.W. Bush and the country’s precipitous entry into its first war in Iraq (Desert Storm), the motion picture’s debut coincided with the emergence of a sex scandal involving Bush’s successor, President Bill Clinton, having to do with his Oval Office liaisons with a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. More chilling still was the coincidence between the movie’s plot and Clinton’s orders to the military to bomb suspected terrorist strongholds in Africa, just when the scandal was breaking. Although Wag  hasn’t been a very popular movie since then, it got great reviews and Oscar nominations at the time, and—probably thanks to how uncannily on the nose it had been—managed to take in an estimated US$50 million over its US$15 million budget at the box office, despite a relatively short run.
Dogo argentino (Photo by Christian
Pinatel via Creative Commons 3.0)

Wagging the Dogo. Here in Argentina, the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is no stranger to wagging the dog—or dogo, as it were. This said, however, the president’s smoke-and-mirrors crew can hardly be accused of being original. Since long before Cristina came to office, husband Néstor had already started wagging one big dog in the Argentine public’s face: namely, his former bosom buddy turned archenemy Héctor Magnetto, CEO of the Clarín Group media empire. Reported to have said that he had to “put Magnetto in jail before he puts me in jail,” Kirchner made discrediting Clarín and building public enmity for its media his number one priority and his widow has carried on that tradition following her husband’s untimely death.
But the government’s attacks on Clarín and its heavy-handed attempts to manipulate the law and justice as a means of stripping Magnetto and his media of some of their admittedly awesome power—a portion of which was gained back when the Kirchners and the media mogul were still on friendly terms—has, to an exasperating degree for the president and her crew, backfired, by generating support for the media group from the ever-increasing segment of the population that opposes the Kirchner government and that perceives the anti-Clarín campaign as a blatant attempt to muzzle the press. This attitude has been reflected too in such major exponents of free expression as, among others, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), which has issued public opinions criticizing the government for undermining the principle of free expression in Argentina. And it has emerged as well in national justice where, when pushed to “obey orders” from the president, jurists pushed back and reaffirmed their independence as one of the three separate branches of government.
Other times, when the Kirchners and Magnetto were still on
speaking terms.
So it is that long-time independent observers of the local media like myself  have looked on with a mix of astonishment, amusement and horror as Clarín—whose apparent editorial policy has long been “the art” of innocuously filling in the holes around the advertising and whose flagship paper, in terms of any genuine coverage of an ineludible reality that it provided, might as well have been absent from Argentina during the entire dictatorship that bathed the country in blood from the mid-seventies to early-eighties—has suddenly been launched to the position of avant gard transgressor and principal opponent to the Kirchner autocracy, and to that of paladin of the free press as well. For anyone who has ever risked anything to ensure that the truth was told to the public in Argentina, the situation can’t help but seem ludicrous, especially when the government’s attacks have extended by association to Clarín’s paper-manufacturing partner, La Nación, which has also garnered a fresh image as a major defender of truth and justice among the anti-Kirchner opposition. This, from a paper, whose publishers, in the past, were, at the very least, the useful idiots of the former military regime and, along with Clarín, mass-circulation suppressors and confounders of truth or any sort of objective reporting about fundamental principles that really mattered. In this process, Kirchner strategists have probably done Clarín’s readers, viewers and listeners in particular a great service, since the group has gone outside of its own rarefied environment to contract some outstanding political commentary talent to help it make its case against the administration: independent journalists with their own bones to pick that just happen to coincide with Magnetto’s desire to chop the floor out from under Cristina, certainly not the least of whom has been brilliant veteran newsman Jorge Lanata.
Canus Malvinus. Wagging those particular dogs, then, has chalked up a score of Dogos One − Cristina nada, and has probably only added impetus to the plummeting popularity the president has been experiencing in recent months. You would think that supposedly savvy politicians would be quicker to learn from their own erroneous new tricks than old dogs are, but no...The more the anti-Clarín campaign has gone south, the more Cristina Kirchner has been beating her Malvinas Islands drum—another issue so utterly lacking in originality or possibilities for any sort of success as to make you wonder what Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman could possibly be thinking, considering that this particular tail has had its proverbial dog wagged off.
It’s not as if the foreign minister were a party yes-man picked to fill his post because of favors owed or services rendered in local politics. Timerman—whose newsman father the former military regime sought to silence but instead turned him into an international celebrity by kidnapping and torturing him as well as confiscating his newspaper before forcing him into exile—had achieved a certain international standing of his own before signing on with the Kirchners. He holds a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University and has, over the years, been a frequent columnist in such major US publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Nation. He was also an active member of the Fund for Free Expression, a London-based free-press advocacy group. So with a foreign minister of his international experience, how can the president be so ill-advised as to be clinging for dear-life to an issue that, handled as she is handling it, could only further undermine Argentina’s relations with the major world powers and stir up the reheated enmity of the very people with whom the government should be apologetically and humbly seeking to forge the most cordial of relations if it ever hopes to peacefully resolve the Malvinas/Falklands dispute once and for all? The only answer possible is that this is a domestic rather than foreign policy and that its purpose is merely to override negative local headlines by, again, wagging the (Malvinas) dog, convinced, as the president seems to be, that the negative reactions her clumsy overtures are bound to bring abroad will be positively newsworthy for local readership.
But at what cost?  There is good reason to believe that, once upon a time, before the 1982 war precipitated by the Argentine military government’s decision to take the islands by storm—in yet another act of unmitigated dog-wagging—Britain might well have been willing to eventually discuss the possibility of some sort of joint stewardship of the Malvinas/Falklands. With patience, according to an article at the time by savvy Canadian-born author, journalist and international affairs expert Gwynne Dyer, the then-twelve hundred islanders would eventually have been told that they could remain there under the conditions agreed to in an Anglo-Argentine pact, or they could exercise their right to self-determination elsewhere in the Commonwealth, because, logistically, the archipelago was simply too far away and too expensive for London to continue to fund and administrate alone.  At the time, however, the islanders had overseas-territory citizenship status, which meant that they were British subjects, but for the purposes of actually going to live in the British Isles, they were basically “tourists”, who needed to go through a particular immigration process if they wanted to take up residence in the UK proper. While twelve hundred Falklanders could easily have been absorbed by Britain, they had the same passport status as millions of Hong Kong Chinese, and if London were to set the precedent of full citizenship status for the South Atlantic islanders, how could the government avoid giving the same option to the millions from Hong Kong who might want to emigrate to England when that former British colony was returned to mainland China’s jurisdiction in an Anglo-Chinese accord slated for execution in 1999? So when the Argentine Armed Forces government’s Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Méndez approached his contacts in London about the possibility of opening immediate talks about the future of the islands, he was told that any change in the status of the Falklands was very low on the British priorities list. And so it was that the Argentine dictatorship, which was desperately seeking a cause around which to re-rally support, as its popularity and backing plummeted, decided to raise that priority to number one overnight.
The tragic 1982 war in the islands between Argentina and Britain set back any bi-national rapprochement on the subject of Argentina’s claim by decades. And the billions of dollars that Britain has had to spend on its “Fortress Falklands” policy since then has rendered relative any resource exploitation the UK has been able to achieve there or any that it might have planned for the immediate future. Meanwhile, the war completely undermined any previous bargaining power Argentina might have had with the islanders resulting from the Falklands then having basically been administrated by a British trading company and having had to count on vital mainland Argentine services, such as regular local flights to and from the islands and complex urgent medical treatment.
Despite the horror and sadness that the islanders suffered during the war, since then, they have gained enormously. Since that tragic time 30 years ago, their population has doubled, they have been fully recognized as British citizens, they have their own governing council, they have ample military and economic protection and promotion from London, their infrastructure has been vastly improved,  and most important of all, they have gained top diplomatic priority: The British government has repeatedly and unequivocally stated since the war that no decision about the future of the islands can be taken without the prior approval of their inhabitants.
Regarding Argentina, meanwhile, a recent statement on Twitter by the local Falklands government reads: “Argentina say their claim to our home is a global issue, yet the one people they won’t talk to are the Falkland Islanders. Hypocrisy?”
Try as Kirchner surrogates might to convince the public that the president’s Malvinas crusade is an altruistic campaign to return the islands to their rightful Argentine owners, considering this administration’s continuous dog-wagging strategies—from its anti-Clarín campaign to its juggling of the books at the National Statistics and Census Bureau and to its use of the Tax Board as a political tool with which to pressure its opponents and publicly discredit them—this seems less than credible. It appears far more likely that the Malvinas have been rolled out of storage and dusted off once more as the perennial “anti-colonial” warhorse around which Argentines will always rally, and, in the process, rally around whomever is willing to, once again, keep on beating that basically dead horse on a nationalist soapbox.  Or will they?
The tack the Kirchner government is taking on this issue is defiant, arrogant, disrespectful and ill-advised. While it might appeal to the most blindly nationalistic sectors of the population, the tactic of publishing open letters to Prime Minister David Cameron in London newspapers or of railing against British colonialism in the UN, while ignoring the very existence of the Falkland Islanders, as the president has done, seems almost infantile as well as inflammatory. If it “plays” at all, it does so to the chorus, and fails entirely to take into account that Argentine public opinion of today is not the same as it was in 1982. War taught the majority of Argentines some lessons about rash nationalist extremism, about the realities of war beyond incendiary speeches and false glory, about carnage, loss, defeat and humiliation. Those kinds of recollections are what prompted local protesters, following the Ghana government’s seizure of the Argentine naval training Frigate Libertad—in a dispute over a government bond default—to hold up signs chiding the president for talking about taking back the islands when she wasn’t even capable of bringing home a frigate.
The Frigate Libertad
But Cristina Kirchner seems to have an innate problem understanding the application of “register” to her rhetoric and once an international legal decision forced Ghana to give the ship up, she climbed aboard with a band of followers she took with her for the occasion and harangued the officers and crew with a battlefield-like address in which, of all the level-headed quotes by founding patriot General José de San Martín that she could have picked, she chose the one about fighting until there was nothing left to fight with and then, loosely translated, “fighting bare-assed like our brothers, the Indians.” Fighting what? Fighting whom? Evidently anybody and everybody who isn’t a loyal member of the Kirchner band.
"We'll fight bare-assed like our Indian brothers."
Anyway, this sort of silly grandstanding on the part of the president has done little more than consolidate the resolve of Britain and the Falklanders not to give an inch of ground and has served only for London to decide to bolster its garrison on the islands by 150 additional troops and to call a referendum for March 10-11 of this year in which the islanders will be asked to answer a single, simple question: “Do you—yes or no—wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”
It’s not hard to figure out what their answer will be.
One of Bariloche's St. Bernards with City Hall in the background...
Another case of wagging the dog?
Wagging Patagonia Style. Meanwhile, the Andean ski resort of Bariloche remained at the top of Argentine national news schedules this past week as Mayor Omar Goye resisted the Kirchner government’s attempts to lay all blame on him for the pre-Christmas supermarket riots (previously reported on here), which began in that municipal jurisdiction and spread to towns and cities in ten other provinces. Try as they might, the president’s emissaries, Río Negro Governor Alberto Weretilneck and national Senator for Río Negro Miguel Pichetto couldn’t convince Goye to make the grand gesture the national administration was asking of him and step down, after it came to light in the press that his questionable practices were the probable cause that sparked the rioting.
Suspended Bariloche
Mayor Omar Goye
The job of forcibly removing Goye, then, fell to the local City Council, which, obviously under instructions from the Kirchner administration via Weretilneck, sifted through the city charter until they found grounds for suspension of the mayor from his duties. These included his loss of backing from the national and provincial governments, his questionable payment of AR$190,000 to a “social cooperative” that was among the chief organizers of the riots, his frequent absences from the city (the most telling one being on the day of the riots) and his general ineptitude. Goye was suspended for sixty days and given ten days to present his defense. After the 60–day period the municipal government is ostensibly bound to call a popular referendum to decide whether the mayor’s removal will be definitive or not, but the national government is obviously holding out hope that Goye can be convinced to quit on his own before then. In the meantime, he has been replaced by City Council Chairperson María Eugenia “Maru” Martini as the interim head of the municipal government. Martini immediately called on the Goye cabinet to present their resignations. She also reported to the press that she had been receiving telephone threats and other intimidatory pressures from the Goye camp. The disgraced mayor himself indulged in a bit of the fiery hyperbole the Kirchnerists are known for, telling supporters and detractors alike that this was “a war that’s only just beginning.” He also countered his suspension by calling for that of seven city council members on the same grounds leveled against him, since, he reasoned, if they had supported his policies, they were as guilty as he was. While this didn’t speak very highly of his government’s platform, it did indeed seem to make a point about shared blame.
In the end, the mayor’s disgrace and ouster would also appear to be a bit of dog-wagging. He has hinted repeatedly that if anyone other than the rioters were to blame for what happened, accountability stretched far beyond him and his immediate collaborators. He has tangentially sought to implicate the national government in the political and material support his administration has lent to social pressure groups like the ones involved in the riots and looting.  And, clearly, the wildfire spread of the disturbances from his jurisdiction to others more than a thousand miles away (including major cities like Rosario and Buenos Aires) makes it hard to see Goye as anything but the tip of the iceberg. The risk of trying to harness an unruly mob for political ends is, of course, that of losing control over the mob’s leaders, which begs the question of whether what started in Bariloche and went national isn’t, perhaps, a case of formerly loyal political “shock forces” going rogue to prove a point and to extort more power from their handlers.



rab said...

The alarming fact is that wagging the dog works, because we let it. It worked in 1982 and continues to do so, without significant challenges.
Thank you for your thoughtful reminder!

Dan Newland said...

No, Rab, thank YOU for your comments and readership.
I actually question whether it's true that it still works. I feel the president's drop in recent opinion polls is a sign that it doesn't. I mean, yes, at least in our lifetime, Argentina's claim to the Malvinas/Falklands will be an issue, especially since so many young men who believed in that cause and were conned and swindled by the Proceso into fighting a war that was never meant to happen spilled their blood there. But I feel too that it would be difficult, also in our lifetime, for any politician to ever again rally support for any but diplomatic efforts to back that claim. Yes, there will always be a minor segment of the population that will cheer, pound drums and even riot when stirred up by the kind of empty rhetoric populist politician irresponsibly employ, but if the rally didn't include free barbecue and charter bus transportation, I think it's unlikely that segment would even show up, let alone "fight bare-assed like our brothers, the Indians."

Javier said...

I fully agree with your analysis on the government's approach to the Malvinas issue. Most of the people here in Argentina suspend their critical judgement when faced to the "Malvinas topic", and it is sad that the government persistently uses this fact to divert the attention from much more critical matters. Thank you for this bright blog entry!

Dan Newland said...

Thank you for reading me, Javier. I think your "suspension of critical judgment" theory is a good one. After living in and writing on Argentina for more than four decades it's even hard for a Yankee like myself to speak clearly and objectively about the Malvinas/Falklands Issue. The statement and motto that "las Malvinas son argentinas" is so ingrained in the Argentine culture that it seems any discussion of the subject within the boundaries of the country's territory must start from that premise. In fact, the only other place on earth where there must be just as clear-cut an opinion on this topic (albeit, to the contrary) is on the Falklands themselves, where the islanders are even more convinced this simply isn't true, because for them, those islands are their home, and have been for nearly two centuries. And the culture in which they have developed is as estranged from Argentina's as that of people from anyplace in the British Isles.
The strictly territorial argument in the dispute between Argentina and Britain totally disregards this fact and blithely ignores the population of the islands and their nearly 200 years of Falklands culture. Just last year, after a meeting of the UN Decolonization Committee, Falklanders tried to hand an official letter to the Argentine Delegation proposing the opening of direct talks between Buenos Aires and Port Stanley. The letter was flatly refused, since current Argentine foreign policy only considers London its valid interlocutor.

James B said...

I know a veteran of the Malvinas war who claims that as a British POW, he was treated like a king compared to the horrific conditions he was subjected to as an Argentine soldier.

If the Argentine Govt was truly concerned about correcting unjust land disputes they would be handing back the entire country to indigenous people. How about "let sleeping dogs lie" instead of "wag the dog"?

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for your comment, James, and for reading me.

rab said...

I hope one day the "dog" may wise up, Dan! The last time I dared to hope was 2001. Remember "que se vayan todos!"?
Did we learn anything since? I cannot bring myself to be optimistic but I do hope that you are right!

Dan Newland said...

I do indeed remember it, Rab. The problem with the ¡que se vayan todos! was that it was led precisely by some of the worst of those "otros" and a lot of people deluded themselves into thinking that it was a non-partisan uprising, when it was really a civilian coup manipulated by the same Peronist elements that eventually brought the Kirchners to power.
Change needs to be grassroots and based on genuine democracy. New people, new movements and new ideas are the answer, a clean, authentic sweep of the political board and a hard line against corruption backed by the kind of authentically non-partisan pressure mustered last November 8, rather than just another wolf in sheep's clothing or another autocrat with a rubberstamp Congress pretending to be the savior of democracy.

Julio said...

"unwarranted deterioration to which Argentina has been subject in the past decade" Dan, ¿como no te hiciste amigo de OSvaldo Soriano? ¡tienes fibra para la ficción!

Asi que en Argentina las cosas han empeorado en los últimos 10 años...

a esto no te refieres ¿no es asi?
a esto otro menos aun

¿en términos de que mides la "unwarranted deterioration " ?

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for you comment, Julio. Let's see...Argentina's reserve situation is so grave that it is in virtual default; inflation is out of control; since reserves have practically been released to the discretional use of the Executive Branch, the peso no longer has any backing and is plummeting in value and citizens have been prohibited from trying to protect the value of their saving by buying foreign currency; imports have been closed, so Argentina is being punished by other countries that it used to trade with; the country has been aligned with every autocratic, renegade and dictatorial regime imaginable and is turning its back on the countries that Brazil, for instance, has courted in order to take its place as the world power that it is fast becoming, while Argentina has all but slipped from view on the world stage; the country's infrastructure is in the toilet thanks to neglect and corruption in concession management....I could go on all day, but I'll stop here for now.
Anyway, thanks for reading me and for making your stance clear. These are issues that need to be debated.