Argentine economy, public health unraveling

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — A recent visit to Argentina brought home the fact that, just four months after her inauguration, President Cristina Kirchner’s government is unraveling.

The resignation of Martin Lousteau as minister of economy — probably due to a mismanaged dispute with farmers over new export tariffs and a policy disagreement with former President Nestor Kirchner — is serious cause for concern. Either the government changes its policy, particularly with regard to the agricultural sector, or it will confront new and more serious crises.

Corruption, although far from unknown in the country, is now rampant. Political pressure on the mass media has rendered them ineffective as a voice of opposition. Inefficiency is widespread.

In addition, many Argentines believe that real political power is still in the hands of the former president, the husband of the current one. If so, it is a power that is not being used for the good of the country.

A political rally in my home province of Tucuman, in the north of the country, showed one of the ways in which government funds are frequently misused by the Peronist party now in power. When President Cristina Kirchner attended the dedication of a rural hospital in the town of Aguilares, a poor town in one of Argentina’s poorest provinces, she was wildly cheered by the multitude — almost all of whom had been paid with government funds to attend the rally.

The president exhibited her characteristic trademark: a speech on the need to redistribute resources. But the redistribution her government promotes seems to favor only those in power, many of whom are said to have amassed enormous fortunes in a short span of time.

Questions persist about the fate of millions of dollars in oil royalties that the federal government paid Nestor Kirchner during his tenure as governor of Santa Cruz province.

The government has repeatedly stressed its commitment to human rights, and has strongly supported the demands of both the Mothers and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. Both groups have spent many years looking for disappeared children and grandchildren, seeking punishment of those responsible for the disappearances.

Such commitment, however, has not translated into other areas of people’s rights, such as the right to enough food and health care. Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentine Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told me in Buenos Aires, “This government doesn’t have a coherent human rights policy.”

The president’s combative discourse has only increased antagonism among social groups, as in the recent confrontation between the government and members of the powerful agricultural sector. That confrontation has led to strikes and roadblocks that have impeded the transport of food to Argentina’s main cities, causing sharp increases in the prices of basic goods.

Almost 40 percent of the population now lives in poverty and lacks adequate food and medical care. The inflation I noticed during my previous visit in August 2007 remains rampant. Independent economists estimate a rate of 30 percent, more than double the official rate. The disparity is due to the government’s arbitrary changes to cost-of-living indicators through the national statistics institute, Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Censo — a respected institution till now.

In its perverse reasoning, the government is keen on building a high-speed train (bullet train) at a cost of $4 billion. The train would connect only three important cities (Buenos Aires, Rosario and Cordoba).

Greater benefits would flow if those funds were spent on rebuilding Argentina’s vast railroad network, which was practically destroyed as a result of recent Peronist government policies. This is one of the most pressing needs for transporting agricultural products.

Although some advances have been made in public health, much more needs to be done. Maternal mortality levels, which are closely related to the quality of health services, show big disparities between provinces. For example, in the province of La Rioja, maternal mortality is 16.9 deaths per 10,000 live births, while in the capital city of Buenos Aires it is 1.2 per 10,000. Infant mortality levels show a similar disparity.

What Argentina needs now is a massive program of public works, along with serious policies aimed at improving the educational level and health of the population.

Special policies must address Argentina’s youth problems. Adolescent lives are impaired by widespread drug abuse and the lack of job opportunities. Training programs are needed to meet new demands in the workplace.

Argentines had hoped that Cristina Kirchner’s policies would take advantage of better prices in world markets for Argentina’s basic export commodities as well as rising tourism revenue. This has not been the reality, however.

Cesar Chelala, based in New York, is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for a human rights article on Argentina.