Peron’s socialism returns, China and the virus move in and Argentina’s success story fades

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By John J. Metzler

This didn’t have to happen.  But blame toxic politics, the living legacy of the populist Peronist era, and the tipping point of the Corona pandemic, and you discover what is unraveling Argentina’s socio/economic fabric.

Sadly, we see a resource-rich and formerly middle class country morphing into a tragic parody of bad governance and socialist stagnation.

Argentina is a land where many of the political isms of the twentieth century have been tried, tinkered with and usually failed.  There’s always been the theatrical touch in politics as much as in soccer, but somehow because of the country’s vast resources, hardworking farmers, and lastminute political sobriety, Argentina would always muddle through.

The coronavirus pandemic changed this paradigm.

Evita and Juan Peron

Besides creating a widening health emergency, over 67,000 people have died from a population of 45 million, the coronavirus allowed Russia and China to introduce their vaccines to a land whose government has welcomed them.  Argentina’s left wing progressive President Fernandez and his Vice President Christine Kirchner (herself a former president), jumped at the chance to use the Russian Sputnik vaccines, being one of the few countries in Latin America besides Venezuela to endorse this jab.

As in much of Latin America, traditional trade patterns with the USA have shifted precipitously to commerce with the People’s Republic of China; Beijing seeks access to Argentina’s vast natural resources.  This is nothing new, but the pandemic appears to have sealed the deal not only for trade but for closer political relations.

Currently, China operates a space monitoring station in southern Patagonia.  Shrouded in secrecy, the facility is run by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, which reports to the People’s Liberation Army. The station’s 16 story parabolic dish antenna looms in view for miles around.

Interestingly, as Argentina is in the market to replace its phased out French Mirage III jets which formed the spearhead to Argentina’s thrust to capture the British Falkland Island during its ill-fated 1982 conflict, China is now negotiating to sell Argentina 12 of its supersonic J-17 multipurpose fighter jets.

Generations after he died, Gen. Juan Peron’s legacy haunts Argentina; Peron a populist and socialist, along with his popular wife Evita set the political template for the nationalistic Left.

As I wrote from Buenos Aires a few years ago; “Yet the central and enduring political malady affecting Argentina remains the rule and ensuring legacy of Juan Peron and especially his wife Evita who are viewed like a cult of cherished history, trade union solidarity, and with near        religious veneration.”

There’s a searingly poignant warning here; Argentina was along with Venezuela one of South America’s success stories.  But economic mismanagements along with the pandemic has devastated many livelihoods in this once solidly middle-class country.  The government now officially admits the poverty rate has reached 42 percent and jumps to a shocking 60 percent among the young between 15-29 years old.

A tempestuous political scene cursed by bouts of poor governance and a fractious democracy have seen Argentina’s standing decline.  Moreover, democracy is eroded by a moribund economy, with inflation at 47 percent and massive IMF debts underscoring the malaise.

For example, when this writer was visiting this beautiful land just over two years ago, the exchange rate stood at 36 pesos to the U.S. dollar; today the economic downdraft has set the rate at 93 to one dollar!

Sadly, many middle-class residents, especially the young, are leaving Argentina to settle in Europe or the USA.

Freedom House, the respected, human rights monitor ranks Argentina 84/100 in terms of Political and Civil Rights (USA ranks 86/100).  The group adds, “Argentina is a vibrant representative democracy with competitive elections, lively media and civil society sectors.”

Turning to the Heritage Foundation’s reputed “Index of Economic Freedoms” shows Argentina sadly slipping to 148 out of 178 global comparators. This is a tragedy for a country which had much potential not long ago.

One of the world’s wealthiest nations in the early 20th century, Argentina, despite its natural resources and agricultural bounty, has tragically declined in recent years.

Progressive Vice President Christina Kirchner approvingly commented on President Joe Biden’s address to Congress which highlighted sweeping spending and bigger government; “Does it sound familiar?” Many in her government called it a “Peronist” speech.

In Argentina there’s an awkward tango of the political parties who basically need the opposition as their main cause for existence. Later this year both political sides will clash in mid-term legislative elections which will offer a referendum between socialism or hopeful renewal.

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]