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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.
A year after Argentina commemorated the first anniversary of the tragic train crash that killed 51 people and injured 600 others, President Cristina Kirchner continues to dress in black.
Yet it is noteworthy that on this anniversary the president dressed in black not to mourn the country’s loss but rather to mourn her own.
The president’s husband and predecessor in power, Nestor Kirchner, died in October, 2010, and Mrs. Kirchner has donned dark attire ever since.
The train wreck, which occurred at the Once de Septiembre station in Buenos Aires, became for many a symbol of everything that is wrong with Argentina – corruption, greed, abuse of power, incompetence, injustice. Many people, especially critics of the government, accused the Kirchner administration of spending billions on a public transportation system that is, by all accounts, worse off now than it has been in years.
One of the things that bothered people about the tragedy was the fact that the president avoided all mention of it for five days. As each day passed, her silence seemed even more inexplicable. She completely ignored the event, behaving as if it hadn’t happened. Her silence on the subject was, to use a literary cliché, deafening. (more…)
For a broader look at Argentina’s controversial agreement with Iran to investigate the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, check out my colleague Shane’s article for The Wall Street Journal here. The terrorist attack killed 85 people and injured hundreds.
Argentina’s government last week told leading supermarkets and electronics retailers to stop advertising in the country’s biggest newspapers. You can read all about it in my article for The Wall Street Journal here.
The organization said the decline stems from “growing tension between the government and certain privately-owned media about a new law regulating the broadcast media.”
That tension, of course, relates mainly to the ongoing war between President Cristina Kirchner and the multimedia conglomerate Grupo Clarin, which would be dismantled if Kirchner is able to fully implement the three-year-old media law.
Clarin has challenged the constitutionality of the law and its implementation is now held up in courts. The outcome will likely be decided this year by Argentina’s Supreme Court.
Kirchner accuses Clarin of being a monopoly that uses its influence to undermine her government and its policies. Clarin, in turn, says Kirchner is simply trying to crush independent media voices and silence criticism of her government.
Whatever the case, the government clearly has a very antagonistic relationship with the media. Top government official rarely, if ever, offer press conferences and almost never grant open, on the record interviews.
The president herself is famous for avoiding the press, making her one of the least accessible democratic leaders in Latin America and in the Western Hemisphere.
The topic de jour in the United States these days is gun control. With the recent massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, people are debating the issue as they haven’t done in decades.
The U.S. is a gun-loving nation is there ever was one. With an estimated 270 million civilian guns in the country, the U.S. has the world’s highest gun ownership rate. There are about nine guns for every 10 people in the U.S.
Even so, the U.S. does not have the highest gun death rate in the world. It is roughly the same as Argentina’s, with about 3 gun deaths for every 100,000 people.
The above chart, published here in The Atlantic, offers an interesting look at how gun death rates in different countries, including Argentina, compare with those of various U.S. cities.
Why compare cities with countries? For one thing, some of these countries have populations similar to those of U.S. cities. For another, it’s just interesting.
*Hat tip to E for this post
President Cristina Kirchner toured the famous Cu Chi tunnels while on a state visit to Vietnam over the weekend. The tunnels, used by Viet Cong forces during the Vietnam War, proved to be a nightmare for U.S. soldiers throughout the conflict.
You can read more about the tunnels here. As noted in a Widipedia entry:
"The 75-mile (121 km)-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam, and turned into a war memorial park. The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, while low-power lights have been installed in several of them to make traveling through them easier and booby traps have been clearly marked. Underground conference rooms where campaigns such as the Tết Offensive were planned in 1968 have been restored, and visitors may enjoy a simple meal of food that Viet Cong fighters would have eaten."
President Cristina Kirchner was given a toy doll made in her image. It was a gift from the Argentine toy industry chamber, given to her while on a trip to Indonesia.
The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires put out this video ahead of this Sunday’s “Súperclásico” soccer match between Boca Juniors and River Plate.
What do you think of the video?
Though she doesn’t speak with journalists or offer press conferences in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s president this week offered two press conferences in the U.S.
Both were with students: first at Georgetown University, then at Harvard.
The students asked many of the questions people in Argentina would like to ask:
How high is inflation? Why don’t you answer questions in Argentina? How is it that Argentina’s neighboring economies can grow quickly without experiencing high inflation or limits on the purchase of U.S. dollars? How did you become so wealthy since taking office?
Cristina Kirchner answered these questions and others. In doing so, she offered a controversial defense of her policies and economic statistics. She denied that inflation is high and said she “permanently” interacts with journalists in Argentina.
Immediately following her claim that she speaks with local journalists, the association of journalists that cover her from the Casa Rosada issued a statement rejecting this claim as false.
Her Georgetown conference went smoothly and Mrs. Kirchner adroitly answered questions the way she wanted to. The Harvard Q&A was different. She angered visibly toward the end and appeared to be particularly contemptuous of one student who said he felt “privileged” to be among the few people able to ask her a question.
U.S. history buffs will note the president’s gaffe at Georgetown. While there she said George Washington won the Civil War (which ended in 1865, when the South’s General Lee surrendered to the North’s General Grant). In fact, Washington won the Revolutionary War and died in 1799, more than half a century before the Civil War began.
For live, ongoing coverage of Mrs. Kirchner and Argentina, follow on me Twitter: @taos
The Q&A sessions are well worth watching. Enjoy.