“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”
– Ernest Benn
In Argentina, trouble certainly exists. Always has, from the moment João de Lisboa scribbled the shoreline of Río de la Plata on European maps. It shouldn‘t surprise you the wealth contained within such an expanse is difficult to manage. The bigger the wealth, the bigger the fish. And in this case, there are plenty of sharks circling the muddy waters that smell of colonialism, peronism and wars.
Knowing Argentinian politics won‘t save your life, my dear tourist friend. If your trip requires lifesaving skills, you shouldn‘t be learning from this website. But a basic grasp over their politics might help you strike a conversation, understand their grievances and avoid a faux pas. To navigate it, we have to ask the right questions.
The Who – the bigger the pond, the bigger the fish
Ever since the decline of Juan Domingo Perón in the 50s, shit has repeatedly hit multiple fans. Hyperinflation, Corralito, military dictatorship of 1978-1983, Death Flights, war with the United Kingdom… Unsurprisingly, the leadership was not and still isn’t up to the task. Sitting on a throne of gunpowder, the people at the top joyously keep passing each other a lighter. The elections of 2019 only confirmed that the emperor is naked, has a tumor on his chest and is kept alive only through the silent resignation of the voters. President Alberto Fernandez is showing mostly bland colors with a side of populism (not saying it’s a downgrade). His running mate, vice president Kristina Kirchner, is a whole other story.
Kristina Kirchner was in the ground zero of one of the biggest corruption scandals in Latin America. Easily worthy of place on the podium for Bribery in crime Olympics. The scheme, started during the presidency of her husband, Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), was a good ol’ graft. Like Underwoods of Argentina, the First Couple took bribes from construction companies in exchange for lucrative state contracts at triple the price.
Kirchners had literal bags of cash delivered to their doorstep. Much like in House of Cards, the show kept running with just one protagonist. The scheme continued after Néstor’s death in 2010 until the end of Kristina’s presidential term in 2015. Putting aside the real, quantifiable damage she’s done, the money stolen and the cultural impact she’s had (such as loss of trust in justice and public institutions), she’s highly symbolic of the situation in Argentina. A beacon of corruption that refuses to die. With just enough popular support to stay afloat.
Argentina is dealing with a number of internal problems, any one sufficient to set back a more stable state for decades. Combined, the problems are like an allergic blind man with diarrhea in springtime. What seems to be the officer, problem? A 35% of population at poverty line? A ~10% unemployment rate? Over 80% dissatisfaction with the situation in the country? Over 70% budget deficit? Double-digit inflation rates for 9 years (peaking at well over 50% in 2019)? Take your pick. The nation is sitting on a volcano. The constantly rising smoke won’t let anyone forget the time for catastrophe is nigh.
You can hardly blame the government for inheriting massive systemic problems. But you can certainly blame the leadership for perpetuating the situation. Kristina Kirchner has been stealing, by some estimates, as much as 3 mln USD/day for 10 years. And reasons for this are partially embedded in the formal and informal political system.
The What – the bigger the fish, the bigger the rod
Argentina is a federation… that wasn’t. What I mean is – the country fails to fully utilize the benefits of federalism while simultaneously shuns away from a unitary system.
There is an imbalance of power between the capital and the periphery. Argentina is a country of 44 mln people, out of which 15 mln reside in Buenos Aires (BA). A full third belong to one metropolitan area. Córdoba, the second most populous city, is only 1,5 mln people. The numbers, coupled with the fact that BA is THE capital, gives it enormous power, unachievable to other cities. Well how’s that bad? If it houses a full third of the citizens, it’s natural to be at the center of governmental attention. However, it perpetuates the situation of winner taking all. It’s difficult to rule a country of this size, more so when there’s little incentive to settle and finance unpopulated areas.
A bureaucratic box
Argentina is a constitutional republic and a representative democracy. In simple words it means that people elect representatives who govern the country. But the laws, processes and rules must comply with the most important document in the country, the constitution. This document divides the country into 23 provinces and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires (CABA – Ciudad Autonomica de Buenos Aires). Each province has its own provincial government, but there’s one main overarching government – the federal government, which resides in Buenos Aires. The federal government is divided into the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
The legislative (lawmaking) branch is composed of 2 chambers – the Senate (72 seats) and Chamber of Deputies (257 seats). Together they form the Congress. The Senate introduces new bills (requires approval from Chamber and the President), has the power to change how the provinces share the revenues and can influence the impeachment process. The Chamber of Deputies can create new taxes, military draft and can initiate the impeachment by accusing the President, ministers or judges of the Supreme Court before the Senate. Presiding over the Senate is the Vice President, who’s elected as a combo with the President in direct elections.
All seems nice, until you realize that the voting process doesn’t include specific candidates, only political parties. The parties create lists and ordinary citizens cannot express their preference for a specific person. Another point of controversy is about the number of deputies for each province. While the Senate has 3 delegates for each province, the Chamber of Deputies calculates it based on population (the minimum number of delegates per province is 5). On one hand the small provinces wield disproportionate power, on the other, the biggest are also an automatic power bloc. The city of Buenos Aires and the province of Buenos Aires together have 94 votes. You may say it’s exactly representative, even natural to have the strongest have the largest say, but what I’m hearing is – inflexible. There is no way Buenos Aires ever loses importance in the system and this means little incentive to reform. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but when there’s no need to reform, corruption thrives. As the candidates have the right to be elected indefinitely, the “let’s replace 1/3rd of the Senate every 2 years” rule sounds moot. And what do you make of the fact that the Senate is led by the Vice President, the 2nd most powerful person in the Argentine political system? A person that cannot be replaced in case of, say, sudden death?
The President is the head of the executive branch. We could talk about the government as a whole, but in this case it makes more sense to discuss the boss. President is the head of the government, appointing trusted people to be ministers. He/she approves/vetoes new laws, runs the budget and appoints Supreme Court judges. The President also acts as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Gendarmerie) and controls the federal police by proxy of the Minister of Security.
The military is held in check by one person. Sounds reasonable, until a military man becomes that person. Then the wolves hold the keys to the zoo. Sure, there is a system of checks and balances. The Congress may impeach the president if dude’s nasty. But with one entity controlling Buenos Aires, such scenario seems extremely unlikely. Additionally, some presidents delayed or refused to appoint judges to vacancies, resulting in problems with decisions regarding the constitution. Fewer judges in the Supreme Court, fewer people to… convince.
How about the third piece of power puzzle?
Judicial power lies in the hands of the Supreme Court – a 5-member assembly (up until 2006 it had 9 members) that has the highest authority in legal matters. The Supreme Court can deem laws unconstitutional. It’s the Stringer Bell of courts, a court of last resort whose decisions cannot be appealed.
In a country plagued by corruption can we expect one powerful institution to remain truly independent and clean? Especially when a post-dictatorial cleanup is in order. With so many influential people in high places guilty (if not formally then at least factually) of secret executions, kidnappings and abuses, it’s expected some would slip through the cracks, some would find protection from friends and some would manage to avoid justice for other reasons. The way the Supreme Court has handled the Kirchner scandal also leaves many questions unanswered. So at the end of the day, the highest-ups needn’t worry – there’s nobody higher.
It’s important to mention the fourth power – the media. According to Reporters Without Borders, Argentina ranks 64th (out of 180 in year 2020) in the World Press Freedom Index, falling consistently since 2017. Media Ownership Monitor calls the media in Argentina “highly concentrated”, not only across one given medium (i.e. TV or press) but also cross-media. They claim 4 conglomerates have ~56% of market share for TV, ~75% for printed press and ~53% for radio. While it’s concentrated, it’s definitely not a monopoly yet.
Freedom of press took a big hit during the Macri presidency, as the rules of ownership became more relaxed. Simply put, the big ones bought out small and independent media companies. This was Mauricio Macri’s (president in 2015-2019) revenge against Kristina Fernandez de Kirchner (president in 2007-2015). Kristina was highly criticized by the biggest media conglomerate, namely Grupo Clarin. So as the president she created government institutions to oversee media independence, strengthened public media financing and created cultural and political space for NGOs. Macri changed the rules almost immediately after taking the office. Since the presidential elections of 2019, left-leaning Alberto Fernandez is likely to change it once more. His Vice President is Kristina.
Despite many criticisms, Argentina maintains media pluralism, especially given the amount of activity taking place on the Internet. But this is more the result of constant struggle of power than a built-in mechanism. Given the opportunity, one group will gobble up others. And opportunity is good friends with time.
The main newspapers are Clarin (moderate right, pro-catholic, adores Macri), La Nacion (moderate right, bit liberal), Perfil (North American, hates Clarin), Pagina 12 (moderate left), Tiempo Argentino (right wing, progressive), Infobae (centre right, online).
The why – whose blood fertilized it all
How has Argentina found itself locked-in with such a stale, corrupt system? The dictatorship definitely played a role and made significant formal changes to the checks and balances of legislative, executive and judicial branches. But the 70s and 80s were just another chord of the same symphony. The system has roots all the way back to the beginnings of the modern state of Argentina. In my simplistic opinion there were 2 key historical developments:
I. The time of colonies
At the start of the Spanish rule in Latin America, around XVI century, there was 1 governing/administrative body for the majority of South America – The Viceroyalty of Perú. If you’ll notice, it’s not exactly near Buenos Aires or Argentina. Having one administrative centre for an area the size of a continent made things inefficient and time-consuming, but also simple and familiar.
A century later, Viceroylaty of Perú was divided into Viceroyalty of Perú (Lima) and Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (Buenos Aires).
On one hand, it made all the difference, as Buenos Aires grew in importance and was left to decide on matters with more localized perspective. On another, things stayed the same, given the single point of decision-making, be it Buenos Aires or Madrid. People like José de San Martín or Juan Manuel de Rosas grew up seeing and learning the workings of a system where the centre rules the periphery. Where sidelines do what the core tells them to. Where the distant lands with their resources serve the metropole. It’s one matter to even conceive of a different political system. It’s a different matter altogether to create a functioning state without many examples or practice. In short, Argentines unwittingly recreated the only system they had ever truly experienced: strong centre, weak peripheries.
II. The Civil Wars
The Argentine Civil Wars of the XIX century blend in with numerous other conflicts, wrapped together under the name of War for independence. In these wards the patriots fought against other patriots. Because Argentines were the second most dangerous enemy of Argentina (after the Spanish). The birthing pains of the modern state of Argentina saw many competing warlords lead, lose, expand and reward their armies. Eventually, two ideologies – federalism and unitarism – clashed, leaving federalism victorious. The constitution of 1853 laid the foundation and subsequent governments sealed Argentina as a federation. The end of internal difficulties coincided with massive European migration and economic growth, giving the authorities sufficient resources to force their political vision.
Despite its highly advantageous geographic position and natural wealth, Argentina could never dictate its will to other parts of the world. Sure, there were wars and conflicts, but the wars with Chile and UK show the country has never outgrown its regional status. It’s a donkey with the mentality of a racing horse. A hapless tourist spread between the pier and a slowly receding canoe. On one hand, it has makings of a strongly unified country – concentrated power, single language, extremely* homogenous population. On the other, the distances are vast, provinces diverse and their needs differ vastly. Argentina ends up being neither. The leadership unwilling or unable, and society incapable of changing the status quo.
Following the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the main axle of politics is the distinction between Friend and Enemy. The state cultivates the image of Enemy, later to make promises of protection. Therefore, polarization is well-fed and strong in Argentina. Although the following list is not complete, it shows probably the most inflaming, strongest points one can make in Argentina:
- Football – Although it isn’t a political gamechanger, football remains culturally significant. Better to know at least a little bit. The main teams are Boca Juniors (named after the poor Buenos Aires neighborhood La Boca) and their arch-nemesis River Plate. These two have the highest of numbers of fans. However, they’re only 2/5ths of the so-called Big Five. The other three – Racing, Independiente and San Lorenzo – share significantly lower popular support. Still, each club has its traditions, nicknames, anthems, etc.
Homeland of Diego Maradona (anemically) battles the problem of stadium violence. Although hooligans (locally known as barra bravas) make headlines regularly, you’re as likely to encounter one as a board game geeks or other hobbyists.
- Catholic Church – religion, according to religion, is one of the oldest reasons people kill people. To nobody’s surprise, the Catholic Church ignites much emotion. Official statistics claim Argentina is ~63% catholic (and 74% christian). Politicians draw substantial support from the Church, as was the case with the former president Mauricio Macri. The situation doesn’t seem as extreme as in, say, USA. However, opinion about the Church place the speaker firmly on the pro or against side. And let’s not forget the pope is Argentinian and he’s especially controversial in his home country. Jorge Bergoglio (as he was known before upgrading his hat) is accused of helping the military dictatorship to prosecute and execute free-thinking priests and nuns.
- Peronism – this is a uniquely Argentinian brand of socialism with strong populist overtones. This is the supposed alternative to both capitalism and communism, which sees the state balancing out the power of classes vs. corporations. Enacted first in the 1930s by Juan Domingo Perón, it never left the public discourse. So far, the idea has proven unsustainable. But its stench still haunts the politics. One side blames peronism for stagnation, handout mentality and all evils plaguing the economy. The other responds that it’s the main weapon against the perils of capitalist neoliberalism, the only hope of lifting the population out of poverty.
- Feminism – it’s easily the hottest one in recent years. Throes of people protest abortion laws and violence against women. Seemingly just as many people protest the protesters. In the most general terms, feminism means advancing women’s rights. In Argentina it signifies a wide range of topics, such as abortions, sex change issues and a pushback against macho culture. Women are pissed and take their anger to the streets. Pro-choice crowd wears green scarfs, while the opposite camp prefers white. At this point the movement is international, given similar protests in Chile, Colombia and other Latin American countries. And in Argentina, a politician can score a lot of points supporting/fighting this particular Frenemy.
To sum up
Politics is an ever-changing river with hidden undercurrents, formal and informal boundaries, surprising depths and dangerous shallows. It takes time and practice to understand what’s going on, to navigate it successfully and to see past the spectacle. I hope this text has shed some light on the aspects of Argentina that won’t change too quickly. Faces come and go, but the system moves at a continental pace.
Sure, it won’t save your life. But now you can strike up a conversation. Especially if you like listening to complaining.