Special to WorldTribune.com
BUENOS AIRES — Nobody strolling the streets or riding along the massive tree-lined avenues of this amazing city can fail to be impressed by the size, vitality, and the pulse of the Argentine capital. Moreover so much of Argentina conjures the word — potential: its size, resources, and traditions.
Yet modern Buenos Aires, evokes a strong nostalgia too, not so much of impressive architecture from a bygone age, but of something missing in the modern era where inflation, massive government debt, and anemic economic growth have endured as an albatross to this once thriving country of forty-four million people.
Now as Argentina prepares for crucial presidential elections in October, this land of huge potential but striking contradictions will choose between polarizing political candidates.
Wracked by a turbulent and troubling history, the past century has witnessed Argentina evolve from one of the world’s most promising and prosperous places in the early 1900’s to a country falling below expectations today.
“Argentina started the 20th Century as one of the richest ten countries in the world. For a while its economic position in the world was comparable to that of, say, Germany today. It had a per capita income much higher than that of Japan and Italy and comparable to that of France,” writes Vito Tanzi a former IMF official and noted author on the Argentine economy.
Argentina’s GDP per capita income according to the Word Bank currently stands at $13,400, relatively high for Latin America but far below neighboring Chile or for that matter European lands from where it once lured immigrants such as Italy $36,000 and Spain $32,000.
A tempestuous political scene cursed by bouts of poor governance, military rule, and now a fractious democracy have seen Argentina’s relative standing decline in comparison to many states.
Yet the central and enduring political malady affecting Argentina remains the rule and ensuring legacy of Col. Juan Peron and especially his wife Evita who are viewed like a cult of cherished history, trade union solidarity, and near religious veneration.
Though Peron’s rule ended in the mid-1950’s and the popular Evita died in 1952, the high octane populism and state socialism of the Peronista era endures, serving as an weighty political millstone to the system.
The tenure of president Christina Fernandez Kirchner, aka CFK, between 2007-2015 reinforced the undercurrent of powerful political trade unions and strident left-wing populism.
In 2015, Argentines elected Mauricio Macri the popular mayor of Buenos Aires as President and enacted long overdue free market policies to revive a moribund economy and reestablish closer ties to the USA.
Macri’s government for example has been playing a key regional role in supporting the democratic opposition in Venezuela.
Macri is facing presidential elections later this year but with a possible challenge from the discredited Christina Kirchner who remains embroiled in a number of serious criminal allegations relating to her presidency.
Though the economy expanded in his first years, Mauricio Macri faces strong economic headwinds. To support the battered Peso currency, the government borrowed a further $56 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year.
GDP for 2017 grew by 2.9 percent but in 2018 contracted by 2.2 percent. Inflation last year rose to 48 percent. Argentina’s recession is expected to continue throughout 2019, according to International Monetary Fund.
A suffocating bureaucracy has hampered economic efficiency. Nonetheless Argentina ranks 83 out of 100 in the annual Freedom House standing of political rights and civil liberties. Moreover there’s a free and independent media.
As South America’s second largest economy, Argentina is a member of the economic G-20 group of advanced and emerging economies and recently hosted the Summit in Buenos Aires.
Traditionally strong trade with the USA has now been surpassed by China. Massive Chinese infrastructural investment in hydroelectric dams in Patagonia and sweeping agricultural
imports have made Beijing a close commercial partner of Argentina.
As a major food producer, Argentina depends on exports which have been depressed in recent years.
Despite its economic woes, Argentines exhibit a strong sense of nationalism; street names for generals, colonels and captains abound. There’s a powerful aura of history and national identity with flags everywhere. A certain nostalgia pervades society too.
Argentine politics are a bit like the national dance the Tango: intense mood swings, seductive, and melancholic. Nonetheless, the all encompassing state, stands as the silent chaperone to the national polity and politicians.
So what’s Argentina next move? Elections will decide whether the path of free markets or the lure of socialism capture the heart of this capricious nation.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]