A dip in strange waters

October 25, 2011 § 7 Comments

I don’t usually do politics. Not, at least, in an active sense – I’ve always thought university politics to be a bit petty and tedious (this may or may not be justified), and have never really seen the appeal of having to toe a particular party line. Since coming to Argentina, though, it’s been more of a part in my life. Admittedly, this is mainly because politics has been everywhere you care to look in the run-up to yesterday’s elections.

Not just posters, though there are thousands upon thousands of them, but graffiti, murals, and people handing out leaflets in the street. Young people are intensely involved, it seems, which is a welcome change from the UK.

On the other hand, much about the electoral campaign was completely bizarre. I can think of only one concrete policy mentioned by any of the candidates, which was a proposal for free wi-fi everywhere by Alberto Rodríguez Saá, who ended up with 8% of the vote. Everything seemed to be proposed in entirely personal and emotive terms.

No one was better at doing this than the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (always just Cristina). Her husband, Néstor Kirchner, died suddenly a year ago, but is still a constant presence in her speeches, spots and posters. Having been president from 2003 to 2007, most people expected him to run again this year. Since he can’t, he is now being converted into a quasi-mythical figure along the lines of Perón or Evita (both still very present). Cristina tends to refer to him just as ‘él’ (him), and the implication is lost on no one.

This was the last TV ad of her campaign:

The most striking thing here, apart from the fact that the production shows she had about twice as much money as anyone else, is that the entire video is about how Néstor lives on in his achievements. In other words, Cristina campaigned for four more years in power on ‘La fuerza de él’ (the strength of him). The compassion she received from large parts of the population in the wake of his death, and still, for me speaks volumes about the way Argentines relate to their leaders.

I’m nervous about making any sweeping pronouncements about Argentine politics, given my limited, outsider’s perspective but here are a couple of thoughts. Life in Argentina has clearly got better under Néstor and Cristina since the crisis of 2001. How much that has to do with them is debatable. There are big subsidies from the state for areas of transport, food, and child benefit (amongst others), and the economy is growing quickly. Opponents would say, though, that current levels of public spending are unsustainable, especially since the economy is largely dependent on the (decreasing) price of soya and the strength of Brazil.

Anyway, leaving opinions to one side, the straightforward fact is that Cristina wiped the board with the opposition on Sunday. She received 54% of the votes for president (her nearest rival got 17%). Moreover, it looks as if her part will have an absolute majority in the congress, something not very common here.

I went along to the Plaza de Mayo yesterday evening to see the celebrations of her supporters. The huge crowd that gathered to watch her victory speech on big screens reacted with huge cheers for her, and with total silence in the passage(s) where she remembered Néstor.

A short time after the televised speech, Cristina and Amado Boudou, her new guitar-playing, motorbike-riding vicepresident, arrived in the square. This was the cue for total madness. Despite repeated pleas from the organisers for people not to push and to put away their flags to let others see, pushing and flags were in abundance. Nonetheless, we managed to get quite close, and got a few (not very good) photos of the stage:

Cristina's the one with the red hair

The atmosphere all evening was that of a festival, with music, dancing, fireworks, beer and barbecues. Despite my reservations about Cristina, I found myself quite swept up in it (not just physically). Cristina is a hugely charismatic speaker, and she and Amado were content to just let themselves go on stage and dance and sing in a way that I can’t imagine David Cameron doing (well, I can, but it’s utterly ridiculous). In other words, everything was far, far more human than politics at home ever manages to be.

A cynic would look at this all and dismiss it as so much manipulation of the electorate. There may be an element of that. There was also an strange element of selfishness in the way all the different political groups and movements (supporting the same person!) fought with each other to get closer to the action, to make themselves more noisy and more visible. But for all that, it was a unique and stirring experience. Something which, if you’re still reading, you can probably tell by how much I’ve ended up writing about it.

More than ever, comments are welcome – particularly from Argentines if they want to tell me that I’ve got it all wrong!

(One more thing I can’t let slip into oblivion – a woman who saw us looking touristy with weighty cameras tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘Stay in Wall Street!’)


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§ 7 Responses to A dip in strange waters

  • Silvio says:

    Argentinos y nuestra idiosincracia.

    El 27/10 se cumple un año del fallecimiento de Nestor K., y es de esperar una movilización igual o incluso más masiva a la que viste el domingo Paul.

    Se que entender nuestra política en general, y al peronismo en particular, es un verdadero dolor de cabeza para cualquier extranjero.

    Los argentinos, como cualquier otro latino, son apasionados. Esa pasión rige nuestra conducta en todos los ámbitos de la vida, y la política no es una excepción.

    Tenés que considerar que este pueblo fue víctima de años de postergación y sufrimiento. La dictadura y el neoliberalismo hicieron estragos en nuestra sociedad durante decadas. Yo puedo comentarte mi caso particular: Cuando explotó la crisis del 2001 mi papá se tuvo que ir del país en busca de trabajo, y como mi mamá es docente de colegio público, sufrió en esa epoca las medidas de ajuste que redujeron su salario en un 13% y pagaderos no en peso, sino en PATACONES (un sistema de cuasi monedas/bonos que se implementó para cubrir la falta de efectivo)

    Desde que Kirchner asumió en 2003, y luego también con Cristina, el crecimiento y la mejora fue muy fuerte para muchos sectores. Puntualmente, mi papá volvio a Argentina luego de 5 años y consiguió un gran trabajo y mi madre no solo recupero el 13%, sino que recibió considerables aumentos.

    Ojo, reconocemos que falta mucho por hacer, pero es inevitable para muchos sentir un gran cariño por él. Es, ciertamente, una figura icónica. No digo que eso sea correcto, solo que es algo que sucede, porque esa es nuestra cultura. Con toda su idiosincracia ajaj.

    Espero verte en algun momento!


  • Carlos says:

    I think you’ve got the jist of it spot on! There is no model here, no government action, nothing but emotional talk and a careful media and visual performance.
    I for one, have not been able to find anything coherent in this weirdly demagogic government, having recently returned from living in the UK for almost a decade (nothing to do with this government BTW), I share your amazement at the light touch on content that CFK (and most of the opposition) seem to thrive in.
    Voting CFK because her husband is dead is just weird. Acknowledging they did some stuff to pretend their cared about human rights is another interesting debate (they never were part of the team of politicians actively working with Mothers of Plaza de Mayo during the 70s/80s and 90s, in spite of all their rewriting of recent history they tried to do). Providing money to help mothers with children is great, as it is the support for unemployed (when not abused). I am not in favour of what they did to pension funds, what they encouraged on mining rights (see Barrick Gold) or what they allowed Shocklender to do with government funding, or their media outlet buyouts, or their import blockages and most of all, what they achieved in dividing society. The attitude they created is totally messianic, as if they are the Illuminati and any critic is a fascist.
    I despair about the “model” and the direction that we can perceive it moving forward. The total dominance of the Congress means they can expropriate further private companies to get hold of the cash they need to sustain this model – unless they stop subsidising or they pay back to the bond holders that prevent Argentina re-entering the international loan vehicles.
    I am astounded there is no serious debate about security or education. When there is a time of growth, that’s the opportunity to build the foundations for the future – I don’t see this lot caring much about that…

  • paulmerchant says:

    Silvio y Carlos: gracias por sus comentarios! Aunque parezca imposible, estoy de acuerdo con lo que dicen ambos. Hay tantos aspectos para tener en cuenta…

    Silvio – este finde me escapo a Uruguay, pero si querés, nos juntamos la semana que viene, con nuestro querido Julien.

  • Laura says:

    Paul amigo! Bienvenido a la argentina! No coincido con vos en que no haya habido políticos que hayan hablado de gestión. Cristina con cada uno de sus Spots hablo de los logros de su gestión desde las primarias a hoy y la izquierda dio también propuestas muy concretas. Acá las personas también representan luchas, ideas,se transforman en símbolos, por eso Nestor es hoy tan recordado, porque inicio en Argentina un cambio que recoge las banderas del peronismo, peronismo que fue torturado, proscripto, asesinado y que como siempre vuelve a renacer porque es la forma en que los trabajadores luchan por sus derechos. No podemos decir que el gobierno no haya tenido injerencia en el crecimiento económico acá crecemos mientras en Europa y EEUU se derrumban de hecho sobrevivimos a la crisis de 2008 sin problemas y eso no es solo suerte, es una política económica que lo avala y que si bien tiene que luchar con problemas estructurales de la Argentina como la dependencia a la soja, porque de hecho la argentina en los 90 se desindustrializo totalmente y por ello seguimos con ese tipo de problemas, este gobierno trabaja para mejorar eso. Que bueno que hayas podido ver un poco de los festejos y esto de mas que para una lineas torpes en un comentario pero cuando quieras lo charlamos mejor. Besos y nos vemos en la facu.

  • paulmerchant says:

    Laura – tus líneas son sin duda menos torpes que las mías!

    Me interesa mucho lo que decís: estamos de acuerdo en que personas acá se pueden volver símbolos…si lo señalo, es porque es un fenómeno mucho menos frecuente en el Reino Unido. Reconozco también que en tanto extranjero me resulta casi imposible entender la fuerza de tales símbolos, no habiendo presenciado ni estudiado los acontecimientos que los dan valor.

    En cuanto a la gestión, quizás mis palabras fueran un poco exageradas…no quise decir que nadie haya hablado de políticas concretas, sino que esas políticas parecían tener poca importancia comparadas con el discurso emotivo dominante. Eso es algo que pasa en toda campaña electoral, pero acá me parece particularmente destacado.

    En fin…como decís, estaría bueno poder charlar todo esto en persona. Tomemos un té/mate en la facu la semana que viene!

  • […] (Who is ‘he’?), the answer would come quite easily: Néstor Kirchner. I’ve written here before about how President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner effectively invokes the memory of her […]

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