Argentina crisis: citizens suffer when loyalty means more than truth

Tough times. EPA/David Fernandez

On February 18 2015, Argentina’s judicial community will assemble in a March of Silence on the streets of Buenos Aires. No slogan, no noise – just silence.

The protest is a stand against the political crisis which has engulfed Argentina since the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who died the day before he was due to present his findings on the 1994 bombings of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires.

The chaos that has ensued shows how utterly disconnected Argentina’s political leadership is from the reality of its citizens’ lives. Nisman’s death was the drop that sent the cup running over.

Smoke and mirrors

Since the return of democracy in 1983, Argentina has struggled to build accountable and transparent institutions, with strong separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. Judges directly appointed by the president are not uncommon, as is arbitrary and unaccountable presidential interference in the economy and society.

Argentinians have become accustomed to the unpredictability of daily life. Today, they may be able withdraw cash and buy US dollars; tomorrow they may not. Today, they may be able to receive overseas parcels from internet purchases; tomorrow this may be restricted to two packages a year.

Citizens and businesses have been creative in surviving the arbitrariness of life imposed by their political leadership. I heard the case of one factory being registered in Brazil and its workers paid via bank accounts in Uruguay, while production took place in Argentina. This is not to avoid taxes or by-pass the law, but simply to survive and continue production activities in a byzantine world of complex and arbitrary regulations.

Nisman’s death was the tragic consequence of a corrupt, some would even say mafia-like, political system gone out of control. In her address to the Senate on February 11, Argentine literary critic Beatriz Sarlo said that while she saw sadness at the death of Perón, Alfonsín and Nestor Kirchner, the mourning at Nisman’s death is of another order:

People cried on my shoulder and they cried on each other’s shoulders. It is a people who feel their destiny is subordinated to forces they do not know; it is a people who do not know if these forces can be mastered and overcome.

Paradoxically, one of the strongest forces distorting and undermining Argentina’s integrity is an intense culture of loyalty.

Loyal to the end

Being loyal to another person and defending them at whatever cost – even the truth – is an entrenched hallmark of political life in Argentina. There is even a special day to affirm its value, El Dia de la Lealtad (Loyalty Day), celebrated every year since 1945 on October 17.

In addition to polarising Argentinian society, the ingrained logic of “you’re either with us or against us” blocks any search for compromise and trivialises honesty in public life. Loyalty to one’s chosen leader trumps the truth.

This tendency has serious economic consequences.

In its Labour Panorama of Latin America, the International Labour Organisation has refrained from publishing real wages data from Venezuela and Argentina. Since 2007, the Argentine National Office of Statistics has interfered with its inflation statistics.

In 2013, an interview between a Greek journalist and the Argentine minister of the economy went viral when the minister said he did not know the inflation rate, and guessed it was probably around 10.2%. According to private economists’ estimates, out-of-control and unaccountable government spending had led to a 40% annual inflation rate by the end of 2014. Argentina also has the highest proportion of public spending in relation to its GDP in the world, estimated to be 46%.

Meanwhile, in 2014, something like 5m pesos per day (about US$600,000) was spent on government publicity. A large proportion of the public budget is also spent through special extraordinary presidential decrees, outside legislative control.

Argentina’s term-limited president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. EPA/Cezaro de Luca

Nisman has been the most public victim, but there are already many hidden and indirect victims of the corrupt political system: the young people who fall prey to the drug trade, those who pay the costs of macro-economic mismanagement, and those who suffer the lack of adequate public infrastructure and quality social services.

Nunca más” (Never more) was the cry of the return of democracy in 1983. It’s now time to say it again: never more can people’s lives be sacrificed for the sake of a political ideology and loyalty. Next year will mark the bicentenary of Argentina’s independence from Spain. It would be a good year to replace the loyalty day with a day of truth.