The shocking cover of this week’s Noticias, Argentina’s leading news magazine, highlights the cultural, political and social crossroads at which Argentina finds itself following the recent death of former president Raúl Alfonsín.
The cover shows former president Néstor Kirchner paying his respects to the man who valiantly restored democracy to Argentina in 1983.
Alfonsín’s death sparked a profound and pervasive feeling of respect and nostalgia for the former Radical Party leader’s values, integrity, sense of decency and, above all, honesty.
Alfonsín’s many ideas about how to govern the country weren’t always popular and were in many cases exceptionally flawed. In some ways his presidency was a failure. He didn’t even finish his term in office, leaving six months early because of his gross inability to conquer the hyperinflation that was destroying the economy.
But in the most important way, Alfonsín’s presidency was a success. He set the country back on a democratic path and did so with integrity, a deep sense of moral obligation and a commitment to respect those who disagreed with him. Alfonsín sought to impose nothing on others but the power of his ideas and the requirement that everyone live by the same democratic standard.
He was the first democratically elected leader to die in modern times. For this reason alone, his passing is historically significant. But it is emotionally, socially and politically significant because his death has reminded Argentines of something that is missing from modern life: respect.
Modern Argentine politics is a brutal, no-holds-barred game of brinkmanship dominated by brute force and the coercive imposition of power. Animosity, not amicability, defines the current political culture. It is an angry game of bitter insults, where politicians question not the logic of each other’s ideas but the personal motives underlying them.
It is the most dangerous kind of politics because it is the most cynical form of governance. It is statecraft built on distrust and a common assumption that the opposition is neither honest nor patriotic. It is the politics of paranoia, where dissent is equivalent to betrayal. There is no such thing as the loyal opposition, only those who seek to undermine democracy and overthrow the government.
For many Argentines, the apotheosis of this style of politics, its manifestation incarnate, is Néstor Kirchner. Fair or not, for millions of Argentines, Kirchner represents everything that is aggravating about the country today: the bitterness of its social and political discourse; the hostility; the anger, the rancor, the constant blaming and assigning of culpability; the continual insistence on remembering the country’s painful past; the countless references to the divisions that reigned during the Dirty War; the focus on the lost years of the dictatorship; the name calling; the distrust; the assumption that those who disagree with you seek your destruction; the supposition that being respectful is a sign of weakness and that dialogue is an admission of defeat.
Alfonsín, at least as people seem to be remembering him, stood above all of this. He stood for many of the things that are missing from today’s political culture. As a result, his death has awakened a tremendous sense of nostalgia for one of the key traits that characterized him: decency.
His death represents an inflection point for Argentina, potentially a point of no return from which the bitter politics of the past will struggle to survive amid a renewed desire for civility and virtue. The Kirchners, who have delivered some of the most virulent speeches in modern Argentine politics, will now have to think twice about the Argentine appetite for rancor and incrimination. No longer will they so easily be able to engage in their traditionally firebrand accusations against the “oligarchs and coup mongers” who seek to overthrow them.
With Alfonsín’s death, something has changed; attitudes have shifted, softened and become less tolerant of intolerance. Suddenly, a society that seemed to tolerate an unceasing quotidian onslaught of anger and aggravation has turned the key, and, it would appear, closed the door on the wrathful disputes of the recent past.
Kirchner, as he himself disclosed, was not thinking about any of this as he gazed at Alfonsín’s corpse in Congress. When asked what was on his mind at this very moment, Kirchner said he was thinking about looking at the body of his own father. It was an admirably honest answer. But it was not necessarily the answer of someone who was cogitating deeply about the meaning of Alfonsín and his legacy. It was not the answer of someone who was reflecting critically about his own role – and his own duty to society – as a former president himself.
To be fair, Kirchner may already have done this or may have done so afterward. But what is certain is that the broader society at large is doing so right now. An entire culture is reflecting on the meaning of Alfonsín’s legacy, asking itself what he meant to the country, what he continues to mean to it, and what the country can and should be learning from his life and death.
The Noticias cover is almost entirely unappealing. It is ugly. But it is no more ugly or unappealing than the current political climate itself. Moreover, it is no more ugly than the unfortunate fact that the current government did so little to organize a proper memorial for the man who returned Argentina to democracy.
Alfonsín’s funeral presented the government with a perfect opportunity to heal open wounds by uniting all of the country’s democratic presidents in a unified display of dignified respect for their fellow patriot. Imagine the message such a gathering could have sent to a nation that is too often divided by class, ideology, political affiliation and history.
Instead, with President Cristina Fernández in London, former president Kirchner did virtually everything possible to avoid contact not just with former presidents but also with his wife’s own vice president, Julio Cobos. If ever there was a time for the current government to set aside its partisan battles and personal animosities, this was it.
In some ways the cover almost seems disrespectful. After all, in its first edition since Alfsonín’s death, shouldn’t the magazine have displayed a tribute to the historic president by showing him in his finest form, in his finest moment? Surely, his finest moment, the one that will be most remembered by Argentines, is not the last act of his pale, lifeless body on display in Congress.
And yet in other ways, what seems to be emerging from the massive, unexpected outpouring of support for Alfonsín is that his finest moment is yet to come. His finest moment lies in the enduring legacy that he has bequeathed to the nation. His finest moment lies in the transformative power of the message that was his very life. More than a message, it is a call. A call to embrace the honesty and decency and respect that he seemed to represent.
Alfonsín’s policies weren’t always adequate, but his dignified approach always was, and this is the message that he seems to have left for the country. It is a message that contrasts radically with the antagonistic foundation of Kirchner-style politics. And only once this message – this call – has been heard will Alfonsín truly have carried out his last act.
*Kudos to Darío Gallo over at Bloc de Periodista for the heads up on this week’s cover.