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Argentina rejects reform?

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After a crushing defeat for Macri in August’s primaries, most Argentines expect a win by the opposition left wing Peronists, who first came to power in 1946 under the populist general Juan Perón and, as the country’s dominant political force, who have overseen much of Argentina’s deterioration during the past half-century from its covered position as one of the richest in the world earlier that century.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Villa 31 in Buenos Aires, which, situated around train tracks just a stone’s throw from the city’s most elegant neighbourhoods, is one of the most emblematic slums. It is filled with foreigners seeking to access Argentina’s free schools, free universities and free medical services, subsidised, power, fuel, public transport etc.

President Macri’s government invested huge sums here in an attempt to integrate the slum and many others into the rest of central Buenos Aires — even forming plans to divert a major highway that slices right through it. But still residents voted overwhelmingly for the opposition in the primaries. This experiment raises the question of  whether the new apartments and schools etc was money well spent..

There is an old joke in Argentina, that you can leave the country for a couple of weeks and come back to find that everything has changed. But if you leave for a couple of decades, when you return nothing will have changed. That goes for the enduring popularity of Peronism in the Buenos Aires slums.

For some, the inexorable advance of poverty in Argentina has been caused by what a close adviser to Alberto Fernández described as three failed cycles of “neoliberalism” — the 1976-83 military dictatorship, the period in the 1990s under Carlos Menem ( Peronist ) that culminated in Argentina’s ruinous financial collapse of 2001, and now Macri’s presidency.

By contrast, he says, most Peronist’s do not governs for the poor and relies on it for political support. Averse to the kind of austerity programme implemented by Macri, Peronist policies are instead aimed at protecting the lower working classes.

But Loris Zanatta, an expert in Latin American populism and Catholicism at the University of Bologna, suggests a more disquieting reason. He defines Peronism, which lifted its social doctrine from the Catholic Church, as a kind of “Jesuit populism”.

At the core of Latin American populism, he says (also seen in the rhetoric of other leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez), is an idea that “the poor are the custodians of a pure identity, not corrupted by economic interests, money, egoism or individuality”.

Zanatta argues that, “In a culture that sanctifies poverty, it is very hard to eliminate it.” He contends that the poor deliver such a decisive electoral advantage for Peronism that the party has become a “factory” of poverty. If the poor are more likely to vote for Peronism because of its redistributionist policies, then it suits the party to ensure that the majority remain poor, and dependent on the state. “Peronism feeds off the poor,” he says.

The most recent Peronist government was accused of “us-and-them” politics that have deepened the rift in Argentine society. Shortly after winning her second term as president in 2011, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner told ecstatic supporters, “Vamos por todo” — meaning “Let’s go for everything”. This sent chills down the spines of the opposition and investors, who saw it as a clear threat to private property and the state itself.

Among the critics of the 12-year period when Fernández and her husband Néstor Kirchner ruled was the Buenos Aires “slum bishop” Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who railed against not just poverty but some of the worst corruption seen in modern times.

The FT revealed recently, however, that the Pope had played a significant role in paving the party’s path back to power by encouraging a reconciliation last year between the more moderate Alberto Fernández and the radical but more popular former president Fernández de Kirchner, who had fallen out a decade ago. She will — unexpectedly — run as his vice-president.

In a culture that sanctifies poverty, it is very hard to eliminate it. Peronism lives off the poor

Loris Zanatta, University of Bologna continues, “Francis follows what happens in Argentina by the minute. He follows Argentina almost too closely,” says a well-connected Jesuit priest. “Like John Paul II with Poland and his war against communism, it’s the same with Francis and capitalism.

“He can’t lose in his home territory,” he adds, clarifying that although the Pope “is not an outright anti-capitalist”, the kind of “neoliberal” capitalism that Macri is accused of by critics is clearly not to his taste.

Eduardo Valdes, Argentina’s ambassador to the Vatican until 2015, agrees that the Pope’s thinking “has much more in common with Cristina [Fernández] than the neoliberals”. But he insists that “the Pope is much more than just a flag carrying Peronist”.

The political divide will be difficult to bridge. Macri’s opponents say that he has failed to unite Argentines, despite a campaign pledge to do so. As he tries to appeal to as many voters as possible, Alberto Fernández has sought a more centrist course than Peronist predecessors.

Some behind the scenes in his camp even fantasise that the Pope — who many believe will visit the country next year — could help put an end to the “grieta”, as Argentina’s social divide is known. They point to his contribution to the peace process in Colombia and the thawing of US-Cuba relations. Zanatta scoffs at this idea: “The Pope is the grieta,” he says.

Sociologists have long argued that Argentina’s “bipolar” society is doomed to drastic swings of fortune. Exposed to such vicissitudes, poor Argentines have little choice but to get on with their lives as best they can.

Unless there is a miracle it seems Argentina is doomed to return to its past.

Source: Part of an article from the FT UK

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