Argentina: the failure of a civic idea

By Edgardo Krebs
[The Washington Post, January 13, 2002]

As a teenager, when I took the train each morning to school in Buenos Aires, I was endlessly puzzled by graffiti scribbled in red paint across a wall next to the tracks. It read "Rosas vive". Juan Manuel de Rosas was a caudillo, or military dictator, who had ruled Argentina with an iron fist.

But in 1965 Rosas had been dead for almost a century. I thought that cries of "Palmerston lives" or "General Grant is alive" -- pegging political hopes and aspirations on ghosts -- would have sounded absurd in England or America.

Not so in Argentina. The walls of Buenos Aires at the time were covered with similar inscriptions -- "Peron vuelve", and "Evita vence". This obsession with the past, with the return of bloody, failed utopias and dictators, was like a nightmare that cast a pall over the future, making it hardly

Eduardo Duhalde, the current president of Argentina -- the fifth man to assume that post in less than three chaotic weeks -- blames the almost surreal free fall of the country's political edifice on an inadequate economic plan, one inspired by free-market ideas. But something much more vital than the economy has collapsed in Argentina: namely, the country's prevailing myths. "History is mere history," the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges used to say. "Myths are what matter: They determine the type of history a country is bound to create and repeat." What has devastated Argentina, forcing its people to face a brutal reckoning with reality, is the failure of a civic idea, not an economic one.

This civic idea elevates the role of caudillos such as Rosas -- strong men with alleged preternatural powers, who are supposed to lead the country to glory. To its misery, Argentina has been ruled by a string of caudillos through its history, and Gen. Juan Peron -- president from 1946 to 1955 and again from 1973 to 1974 -- was the last and most notorious one.

Since its founding as an independent nation in 1810, two forces vied for power in Argentina -- the "unitarians" and the "federalists." Although broad comparisons between countries are always inadequate, the Argentine unitarians resembled American federalists. They were "men of books and laws," as Borges put it, who sought to produce a constitution, a professional political class and a centralized government divided into executive, legislative and judicial branches.

The Argentine federalists, in contrast, had much in common with American anti-federalists. Eminently represented by caudillos, they were suspicious of a republican model of government and believed in direct democracy of a kind. Rosas, a powerful and eccentric Buenos Aires landowner, was the most astute and successful of them all. His decades-long rule represented the temporary defeat of the Madisons, Hamiltons and Jays of Argentina (who went by the names of Echeverria, Alberdi and Sarmiento). Under Rosas, it was risky to read foreign books, and when his young nephew -- the future writer Lucio V. Mansilla -- was caught poring over Rousseau's "Social Contract," he was whisked away by the concerned parents to a remote ranch.

As Borges has argued, Argentina lost its course when it chose the wrong guiding myth at the beginning of the 20th century -- preferring the charismatic caudillo over men of law. The turmoil of the previous century had deeply transformed the country. A series of civil wars had ended with the triumph of the unitarians; a liberal constitution (inspired by the U.S. Constitution) had been passed in 1853; the Pampas Indians (who once controlled two-thirds of the province of Buenos Aires) were defeated in the 1870s. By the end of the century, Argentina had joined the world economy as a successful exporter of agricultural products. Massive numbers of European immigrants poured into the country.

These changes forced the old elites to seek a definition of what it now meant to be an Argentine. They looked for the answer in two books that distilled the Argentine experience since independence: The epic poem "El Gaucho Martin Fierro," written in 1872 by Jose Hernandez; and "Facundo: Or, Civilization and Barbarism," Domingo F. Sarmiento's 1845 book.

The first tells the story of a disenfranchised gaucho who crosses the frontier to escape the police after having killed a man. Fierro settles for a while with the Indians, and then returns to civilization but remains a hunted man.

Facundo, on the other hand, is a critical biography of a caudillo, and a passionate advocacy for the rule of law, and the benefits of freedom and democracy. Sarmiento had traveled widely in the United States and in 1862 became the Argentine ambassador in Washington. He admired the energy and vitality of the United States. More than 100 years before political scientist Benedict Anderson of Cornell University wrote "Imagined Communities" -- arguing that nations, in order to exist, have to be first imagined as such by their members -- Sarmiento saw in the United States a community that was actively inventing itself. Connected by the telegraph, by periodicals and by trains, the United States showed signs of dynamism and resourcefulness that Sarmiento desired for Argentina. While Sarmiento was still in the United States, he learned that he had been elected president, a role that he discharged with the energy of a Theodore Roosevelt, bringing in industries, scientists, and a conc! ept of modernity and civility based on universal education.

Borges, who once wrote of Argentines that "Sarmiento dreamed us all," recognized in "Facundo" the forward-thinking template that would enable Argentina to reproduce and continue to reinvent itself in the future. In "Martin Fierro," instead, was a dead end. The idea of grievances and a fugitive, Borges thought, should not be the basis for a national myth.

But Fierro won, promoted by a circle of nationalist writers who saw in the gaucho the repository of all the country's virtues -- horsemanship, courage, independence and loyalty to friends -- making him the ideal symbol for caudillos to adopt and manipulate.

Throughout the 20th century, Argentine politics followed the style of the caudillo, the illuminated interpreter of the masses, always suspicious of foreigners and cosmopolitanism. It has been dominated by the concept of the "historical movement," an expression first applied in the early 1900s to the Radical Party, created by president Hipolito Yrigoyen. Radicalism was supposed to enfranchise an emerging middle class of immigrants and their children. The Peronist Party of the 1940s was the second historical movement -- intended to enfranchise the workers and the dispossessed of Argentina.

Both movements are populist and have a clear millenarian core. Both have had a tendency to blame others for Argentina's ills. Their discourse framed the country's political life throughout the 20th century.

What seems to be happening now is that the model of governance they represent, their understanding of Argentina and the world, their politicians, have run themselves into the ground. The effects are devastating.

Up until the 1930s, Italian and Spanish peasants could afford to travel to Argentina to work in the wheat harvests and then return home with a profit. The landowners, meanwhile, traveled to Europe in style, taking cows on board for fresh milk and purchasing Monets and Cezannes to decorate their
apartments in Buenos Aires. All this came to a halt in 1930 with the emergence of the old authoritarian mystique. Peron, who as Argentina's military attache in Rome had learned to admire Mussolini's methods, was the end result of this trend.

After 70 years of authoritarian regimes of onesign or the other, the grandchildren of the Italian and Spanish immigrants who once flooded Argentina's shores are queuing up at the doors of the consulates of the old European homelands, desperate to undo their ancestor's passage. For 70 years, after each cyclical disenchantment with their government, Argentines have had, or have willed into existence, a provisional hope to hang on to, but have not been able to produce a functioning civil society. The past 30 years tell the story all too clearly.

In the mid-'70s, when Peron's return to office resulted in a civil war (the "dirty war") and a state of almost anarchy, the hope was with the military. When the "dirty war" and the defeat in the war against Britain over the Malvinas/Falklands Islands melted the military out of office in the mid-'80s, the hope was embodied by the Radical Party's Raul Alfonsin. When this hope was demolished by hyperinflation and Alfonsin left office before his term was up, Carlos Menem, a Peronist, was ushered in, blessed by a swell of euphoria, privatizations and the mirage of a local currency tied one to one to the dollar. After 10 years, Menem left under a cloud of corruption. The unlikely savior was Fernando de la Rua, an opaque career politician who eroded himself out of office in December, leaving riots in the streets, the consequences of which are still unraveling.

For Argentines it has been a bitter stretch, during which the country has cannibalized itself, eating up its material resources, its citizens, its prospects and finally its illusions. International economists, lending institutions and foreign powers should realize that you can work long hours and come up with brilliant plans, but these mean nothing if they are not held up by assets that go beyond GNP indicators. The neatness of numbers is the most perverse of all fictions. One of the main things a political order has to produce is a future. What now drives housewives in Argentina out of their homes and into the streets banging empty pots is not that they have run out of dollars, but the visceral and frightening realization that they have run out of a future.

Edgardo Krebs, is a research associate at the department of anthropology in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. He was born and raised in Argentina.



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