Supporters of Presidential candidate Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Argentina, crying for change

Outsiders are underestimating the scale of Argentinian discontent

Sometimes, living in Argentina, you have to pinch yourself to believe how a country blessed with so much can deliver so little — first to its own people, then perhaps to the world. Yet, if you shed a tear some days, it’s not just about the state of the country at home, but the way some in that wider world misread what’s happening here. They see modern Argentina as a cradle of brave, left-wing pioneers, instead of corrupt, power-hungry folks who have run the place forever.

The self-inflicted damage is all too evident. Argentina represents one of the world’s leading breadbaskets, with farmland that can do it all, yet almost half of its own population lives below the poverty line. Hunger is truly a scandal when you consider Argentina’s potential to feed a billion people across our planet.

Then there’s energy. Patagonia boasts the world’s second largest deposit of shale oil and gas, an energy field the size of Belgium, capable of producing a million barrels of crude a day. What an opportunity in the age of war in Europe, given the fear not just of prices but of shortages! Don’t hold your breath and wait for Argentina to deliver on that front, though.

Even in the hi-tech landscape, this country produces talent and innovation that leads Latin America with companies such as Mercado Libre, the Amazon of the hemisphere. Nonetheless, in the words of Wanda Weigert, a boss at the software giant Globant based in Buenos Aires: “our young stars are fleeing the country because they see no future here.”

This month Argentina goes to the polls, and it could well elect a right-wing maverick who looks like a Donald Trump or a Jair Bolsonaro — the militaristic autocrat who ruled Brazil until last year. Javier Milei, brainy economist, avowed libertarian, jihadist in spirit and bizarrely a fellow who counts his mastiff dogs as advisers, might well oust the Peronists who have run the country for decades. Rather, they have run it into the ground. Just consider inflation: now at 120 per cent annually, with 20 different types of exchange rate for the US dollar and record foreign debt.

Despite all this, no less a global voice than the Guardian sees Argentina’s crisis as being down to the world at large, not the government at home. “Argentina’s problems are not fiscal, caused by excessive government spending, but external, caused by excessive borrowing in US currency,” declares a trenchant editorial, blaming the likes of the International Monetary Fund for lending so much, so as to benefit its creditors. “Let the people die whilst you accumulate reserves” — that’s the punchline for the IMF at the end of a diatribe.

The Guardian should come and see hunger in the land of plenty

Oh, please, you think, if you live with what’s been happening here for years. This is such economic revisionism. The Left in Europe is often trapped in the past when it comes to Latin America. It celebrates a political class that espouses socialism and care for the poor, whilst ignoring the obvious consequences of their policies: spending a lot more than they have and printing money so much as to fuel sky-high inflation. This is not to mention the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars whilst in power — corruption writ large.

The Guardian should come and see hunger in the land of plenty. Only the other day, a mother of three toddlers named Mercedes Gimenez stood agonisingly in a bakery in rural Mendoza, counting her pesos and wondering whether she could afford bread for her kids. “We eat once a day,” she explained, adding that she couldn’t afford aspirin for a fever. “It’s the way many live.”

The Guardian’s headline took the Euro-Left’s line even further. “The danger to Democracy is real,” declared the leader writer on Argentina’s election. For sure the maverick Milei voices scary extremism, and he has a temper that should concern all of us. He declares the state “a criminal organisation”; he attacks the climate crisis as a “Socialist lie”. He even accuses the Argentine Pope of being “evil”. Then he promises to row back on abortion rights, create a market for human organs, and cut GDP immediately by a staggering 15 per cent, leading the Guardian and others to see a fascist in the making.

What the Guardian’s diagnosis ignores — indeed, buries — is the history of those who have run Argentina since General Peron and Evita seized power back in the post-war period. Their latest successors, the Kirchners, the late Nestor and his wife Cristina, came to power in 2003 and have stayed till this day. Cristina is now Vice President, after being President between 2007 and 2015, having taken over from her husband in a democracy that became a dynasty. When she is not battling corruption charges, she is attempting to transform the judiciary.

Seen through another lens, Milei’s remarkable ascent is democracy at work — in a land where brutal dictatorship is part of the memory bank. This is a country that has failed to be the sum of its parts for so long. This is a population impoverished in a land where leaders can stash away tens, if not hundreds of millions. They are turning to a technocrat politician, strange as he seems, who promises change above all else. It is striking how the next generation has opted for Milei. The polls suggest a tidal vote for him from young Argentines in this election.

“I don’t believe a word coming out of the mouths of the main parties,” says Maximo, a 21-year-old IT student. “I love Milei, and if he doesn’t win this election, I’m leaving Argentina.There’s no future for us if it’s more of the same.”

It’s time for some in the wider world to open their eyes a little, see the tragedy of Argentina for what it is. A country crying, yes, but for a tomorrow that works, not a yesterday that failed its people. That history allowed those in power to steal beyond belief whilst claiming to side with the poor they created.

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