Argentina: what went wrong?

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What went wrong with Argentina? asks Laura Alonso, a leading democracy advocate, political innovator and professional trouble-maker. This is one of the most frequent questions that I have to answer anytime I encounter an international visitor in Buenos Aires or travel abroad.

It has become a nightmare to explain what “strange force” took over a country that once led the third wave of democracy in Latin America. It has been a major civil and political exercise to resist the new spirit of authoritarianism hidden behind a ‘progressive’ mask and to re-pave a new path for democracy, freedom and human rights.

After the extended and profound political, social and economic crisis of 2001-2, both Kirchners’ administrations have undertaken some dangerous steps in international policy. Populism was not only a recipe for domestic policy. It became an imperative on the international and the regional arenas as well. The Malvinas/Falklands conflict was captured by the Kirchners’ populist rhetoric and used as an excuse to initiate or deepen dangerous liaisons with countries such as Cuba, Iran, Syria, Angola, Venezuela and Libya.

The low quality of democracy in Argentina has shown its worst side over the past decade. The distortion of the system of checks and balances, the extreme concentration of political and economic resources on the Presidency, the absolute destruction of federalism, the fragile role of political parties, the weakness of a fragmented parliamentary opposition and an immature civil society created a lethal combination. This seems to be the final phase of long agony of the 2001-2002 crisis. Will it end with the 2015 presidential election?

When President Néstor Kirchner decided that taking easy and cheap credit from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was preferable than loans from the World Bank or IMF, he made the choice to open the door to the ‘XXI century socialism’ populist path. Cheap dollars coming with no control from Venezuela added to the high prices of commodities gave the administration enough money to surf on top of a new wave of populism.

With the new realignment of Argentina, the usual suspects from past decades returned to the table. Rhetoric against free and democratic countries ‘from the North’ was complemented by new and renewed friendships ‘from the South’. The Malvinas/Falklands issue and the ‘anti-Imperio’ slogans were also invoked to gain domestic support from an important portion of the electorate.

Populism is not a strange disease in Argentina’s history. Mr Kirchner had been re-elected governor many times after forcing a reform of the state’s Constitution to favor his ‘indefinite re-election’. He undermined the independence of the judiciary and the press while financed by the wealth of oil and gas royalties. He expanded the ‘state regime’ to the national level with the help of international allies and a favorable international scenario for Argentina, notably the high price for its commodities. Nevertheless, Kirchner’s early death and the civil resistance to a new Constitutional Reform to allow Mrs. Kirchner’s indefinite re-election have been important barriers to the ‘project’. Further realignments are expected towards 2015 presidential election.

Wrong choices, huge costs

A couple of months after Mrs. Kirchner return to office in 2007, journalists revealed  the case of a ‘suitcase full of dollars’ on a private PDVSA  flight from Caracas with Venezuelan and Argentine officials. It was not the only flight. It was not the only suitcase.

In 2008 Mrs Kirchner visited Muammar Gadafi in Trípoli. There she said: “I and the leader of Libya have been political militants since very young, we both have embraced convictions with a strong bias for questioning the status quo.”

In 2010, Mrs Kirchner received Bashar Al-Assad in Buenos Aires, stating that “our country wants to be a main leader in building peace in the Middle East” while DAIA, the central committee of Jewish associations in Argentina, repudiated his visit. In 2012, Mrs. Kirchner shook hands with Angola’s dictator Eduardo Dos Santos in Luanda.

In 2011, Pepe Eliaschev, a well-known reporter, revealed secret meetings between the Argentinian and Iranian foreign affairs ministers in Aleppo, Syria. Two years later, they signed a memorandum of understanding to create a ‘Truth Commission’ to investigate and interrogate those Iranian public officials accused by the Argentine courts with having planned and financed a terrorist attack on the Jewish AMIA community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. On this occasion, President Cristina Kirchner said that it was a ‘historic’ agreement. Why surrender to Iran’s interests? Did Gadafi, Al-Assad, Chávez and the Castros have anything to do with the ‘conversations’?

Cristina’s pictures and meetings with both brothers Castro are usual. Recently, she had lunch at Fidel Castro’s house before the CELAC summit. She tweeted photographs and avoided speaking about the economic situation in Argentina – the country that she has been ruling since 2007. She described as “truly beautiful’ her lunch with Mr Castro, yet made no comments to make about systematic violations of human rights on the island and the ‘Cleansing Operation’ revealed by dissidents and Amnesty International.

However, Kirchner was not the only Latin American leader to ignore what happens in Cuba. Something smells rotten for democracy in Latin America, as Dilma Rousseff, Ollanta Humala, Pepe Mujica and others opted to keep silent, too.

The Castros have regained political volume through Chávez’s oil wallet. They found old leaders that defend and proclaim the biggest mistakes of violent times in contemporary Latin America. The “Latin American revolutionary left” was never democratic. Why shouldn’t most of these old activists be tempted by La Habana?

The proliferation of populist regional organizations, forums and network has presented an obstacle to genuine integration and an strategy for cleansing the Castros’ image and expanding the distortion of democracy and human rights in favor of competitive authoritarianism. Former President of Uruguay, Julio María Sanguinetti, wrote that “The ALBA gathers populist governments and the Cuban communist monarchy”. In the same sense, the CELAC has been designed to varnish many of these governments that reject the rule of law and the liberal basic principles of freedom and human rights.

Both Kirchner administrations have made wrong choices and big mistakes. We understand the costs and why many countries are fed up with Argentina. We feel that at any international forum or meeting.  It has been difficult and discouraging for many of us, as well.

The fight for freedom and human rights never ends. And there is a new generation of young leaders ready to reinvent Argentina. The rule of law, freedom, human rights and an open society are our imperatives. Trust and time – that is the pledge for you, my readers. A new time is coming.

Laura Alonso tweets at @lauritalonso

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