Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across Argentina last week to demonstrate rising concern over the country’s future. People protested plans to overhaul the judicial system by reducing the independence of courts. They also complained about corruption, crime, inflation, “being lied to” about inflation, and speculation that the president plans to change the constitution so she can remain in power perpetually.
This was the third massive anti-government protest of its kind since September, and it was a healthy reminder that some aspects of Argentina’s civic life are alive and well, even flourishing.
Protesters were peaceful, cheerful, friendly, upbeat, energetic and, by all appearances, happy. What follows are some thoughts about the protests and their possible impact.
In his 1993 inaugural address, U.S. President Bill Clinton said this about the United States: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” The peaceful, ebullient nature of last week’s protest reminded me of Clinton’s phrase. While the protesters focused largely on what is wrong with Argentina, their civil behavior was a healthy display of what is right with Argentina.
Those who took to the streets were, by and large, thoughtful, articulate, well-informed, polite and passionate. In many ways, they represent what is right with Argentina. Regardless of how you view certain government policies, the protesters I encountered were exemplars of ethical conduct. They offered thoughtful commentary on cultural, economic, judicial and political matters. If there were angry, aggressive protesters, I did not see them. By any measure, the protests seemed to be a constructive manifestation of democratic discontent. In this sense, they were a reminder of what is right about Argentina’s democracy – a reminder, in President Clinton’s parlance, that “there is nothing wrong with Argentina that cannot be cured by what is right with Argentina.”
As happened in the two previous protests, Argentina’s government largely ignored them. Initially, at least, President Cristina Kirchner said nothing of the protests while her cabinet members downplayed their significance. Planning Minister Julio De Vido later ridiculed the protesters, saying that the only people who took to the streets were people “who wanted to visit Miami.” To a large decree, De Vido’s comment was really a non sequitur. Simply put, it made no sense, literally.
I saw no protesters who expressed any concern for Miami. Nor did I see anyone carrying any banners or posters that mentioned Miami. De Vido’s comments may have been aimed at distracting attention from the protesters’ real complaints – corruption, crime, inflation, etc. Polls shows these are the issues that people are most worried about. De Vido was likely trying to make the protesters look like spoiled wealthy people who were complaining about the government’s crackdown on the sale of U.S. dollars. Many people have found it hard to buy dollars to travel abroad to places like, say, Miami. Whatever his point, it was mostly irrelevant to the protest.
The government’s effort to ignore the protests made me think the protesters are somewhat akin to people who are stuck in a bad marriage – a marriage in which their partner ignores them, not just part of the time, but most of the time.
Imagine being married to someone who never acknowledges the value of what you are saying. Imagine being married to someone who does not apologize or listen to you carefully. How would you feel if you were married to someone who wanted to dominate the conversation at all times and in all places?
At some point, sooner or later, you might want a divorce. The protesters wanted to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be respected. This, at least, is what many of them said in interviews. Many of them would like to hear the president say, “I’ve heard your voice. I understand your concerns. Thank you for sharing them in such a peaceful, civic matter. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to meet your needs. But now that I better understand your needs, I will work to meet them.”
Of course, the president didn’t say this. It isn’t her style. The president seems to consider questions and critiques to be unmitigated attacks on her presidency. In the past, she and her cabinet members have equated political dissent with treason. They have indicated that people who question the government’s policies are in reality seeking ways to overthrow the government. In everything, according to this worldview, there is a conspiracy.
When the protesters wanted the president to listen, she may have believed they were seeking a divorce. The marriage between Argentina’s president and many of her people is not a happy one. It is riddled with the kind of flaws that plague and can eventually ruin real life marriages – contempt, distrust, stubbornness, a failure to listen, difficulty in apologizing and a tendency to belittle instead of to forgive. To be sure, this is sometimes true of both parties.
If past behavior is any indication of future behavior, this is a marriage that is bound to fail. It will worsen with time, leading both sides to despise the other with growing contempt, distrust and either covert or overt hostility.
In last week’s demonstrations, protesters seemed to be saying to the president, “Listen, we’re headed in the wrong direction. We need to do some things differently so we can get back on the right track. Can you please acknowledge what we’re saying so we can work on it together? If so, we have a chance, but we need you to listen.”
The president did not listen, or at least she didn’t indicate that she had. What’s worse, in the protesters view, is that she ignored them entirely, pretending not only that didn’t take to the streets but that even if they had it would not make any difference to her. This kind of reaction seems likely to make matters worse. It seems destined to lead the protesters to seek a divorce, which is almost most certainly what they will do at the ballot box when they vote in next October’s mid-term elections.
With opinion polls indicating that only 29% of the population supports the president, her strategy toward the protests seems risky. Time will tell, as it does it does with most marriages.
Click here to read the article we wrote about the protest for The Wall Street Journal.