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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2002

Argentina: A nation too few believe in

LONDON -- Five presidents in 12 days; riots and looting that have left 32 dead; the biggest default on sovereign debt in history; and the prospect of a return to military government or a toned-down, spruced-up version of fascism lurking around the corner. What is wrong with Argentina?

That question is the main topic of conversations with foreigners in Argentina even in the best of times, because the Argentines themselves can't understand why their country has fallen so far below their own and others' expectations. Only 100 years ago, somebody who had more money than they knew what to do with was known in France as "riche comme un Argentin" (as rich as an Argentine). Nowadays even Argentina's long-despised Brazilian neighbors are better off.

Why has a resource-rich country with a relatively well-educated and homogeneous population, which was once a leading destination for the same sort of European emigrants who headed for the United States and Canada, ended up as a by-word for political incompetence and economic failure? A century ago Argentina had a higher per-capita income than Canada, and thought it owned the future. Now it's sliding back into the dismal patterns of a past that Argentines had desperately hoped they were finally leaving behind. What is wrong with Argentina?

A little story. Twenty years ago I was in the western Argentine city of Mendoza, collecting a large debt from a local paper that ran the Spanish translation of this column. (It always helps if you show up in person.) While the accountant was totting up the debt and digging up the money, they sent me off to lunch with the journalist who ran the editorial pages -- who happened to be from Buenos Aires.

My companion, like about half the population of Buenos Aires, was of Italian descent. Most people in Mendoza, like those in the other cities of the Andean foothills, were of Spanish descent. And frankly, many Mendocinos looked down on the pan-European ethnic stew of Buenos Aires as a non-Hispanic rabble, reserving their deepest contempt for those of Italian descent. So this second- or third-generation Italian-Argentine, who had not been enjoying his time in Mendoza, began to tell me what was wrong with Argentina.

There was even more wrong than usual at the time, as this was during the "dirty war" in which tens of thousands of rebels, dissidents and innocent people were tortured and killed by the military regime that then ruled the country. But his explanation was a new one to me: it was all about how immigration had let his country down.

The problem, he said, was that Argentina had originally been settled by Spaniards, who made good soldiers but were hopeless at everything else. Then mass immigration from Europe, and especially from Italy, got underway toward the end of the 19th century. That was the time of the great boom in Argentina, when Buenos Aires briefly imagined it was a rival to Paris -- but then the dictator Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in the 1920s and cut the flow of Italian emigrants.

By now we were well into the second bottle of wine, and my lunch companion was getting louder and louder as he went into his peroration about how Argentina would be a perfectly sensible country today if only the Italians had become the majority and were now running the place. All the neighboring tables had fallen silent, and the people around us were looking deeply unhappy about what they were hearing. I threw some money down and dragged the man out of the restaurant before we both got lynched.

It was complete nonsense, of course, but it also reflected a basic truth about Argentina. The old postcolonial Hispanic society, whatever its virtues and defects, was overwhelmed by the wave of mass immigration that crested 100 years ago, but the new multiethnic country never quite gelled. Everybody speaks Spanish, and the place goes in for public displays of nationalist flag-waving that rival those in the United States. But way down deep, nobody believes in Argentina.

It may have begun with random bad luck, like having a persuasive scoundrel like Juan Peron seize power at a time when the country was facing grave economic difficulties. After a while, however, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Argentina cannot govern itself because Argentines do not trust themselves to make the right decisions. So even in democratic interludes Argentines regularly give power to plausible rogues whom no sane person would entrust with the duty of parking his or her car.

The present interim president, Eduardo Duhalde, is such a man. He was vice president under the arch-rogue, President Carlos Menem, and faced media allegations of corruption and even drug-trafficking during his time in office. Ex-president Menem himself is dreaming of a comeback in the election promised for 2004, and even that could come to pass. Argentines don't believe that anyone but a miracle-worker can get their country back up on the road after most of a century stuck in the ditch, so that's what they keep looking for.

Back in the days when Argentines were still rich and arrogant, other South Americans used to tell a nasty joke about them: How do you get rich quick? Buy an Argentine for what he's worth, and sell him for what he thinks he's worth.

If you tried that today, you'd lose money. And that is Argentina's real problem.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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