Erosion of Argentina’s wealth and work ethic

by Cesar Chelala

BUENOS AIRES — Perhaps there is no better observation of the government of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner than the one given by Mario Vargas Llosa, the latest Nobel laureate in literature. Vargas Llosa said Kirchner was leading a corruption-riddled government.

“I love Argentina,” he told me recently in New York, “and it hurts me to see what is going on in your country.”

The death of former President Nestor Kirchner will make things only more difficult for Kirchner, who has made serious mistakes on several fronts. These include using rough tactics to dismantle the INDEC (National Institute of Statistics and Census). Technical personnel have been replaced with those loyal to the government. As a result, the institution has lost all credibility.

According to the government, inflation in 2009 was below 8 percent. Yet, independent economists and consumer groups peg inflation at 15 to 18 percent.

This doesn’t faze the president, who insists that Argentina has a phenomenal economic growth rate. The astronomical rise in subsidies for poor families, however, belies her assertions. In the country’s usual paternalistic culture, Kirchner has taken that paternalism to extremes.

The work ethic, an essential component of the social fabric necessary for a country’s development, is rapidly being eroded.

Kirchner has also developed a confrontational style of government. As with many authoritarian leaders, she states that those who are not with her are against her and are to be treated accordingly. She has surrounded herself with a coterie of sycophants who seem to isolate her from reality.

One of her ministers attends some meetings with a gun, which he ostentatiously places on top of a table before starting the discussion. She doesn’t seem to realize that people increasingly oppose her policies and condemn her imperious behavior.

While outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva incorporated 30 million poor into the middle class through his economic policies, more than 25 percent of Argentines live below the poverty line, a situation that has been sharply criticized by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Buenos Aires’ Catholic archbishop.

“We are noticing dramatic poverty and unemployment,” said Cardinal Bergoglio in 2009. “More and more people are sleeping in the streets and they have become disposable materials.” Cardinal Bergoglio’s words followed a message by Pope Benedict XVI to the Argentine government demanding action to combat “scandalous poverty.”

“There is no other country with such social regression, such social shame,” stated Bernardo Kosakoff, director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Argentina.

That’s easy to believe. As I write this, I am seated at a popular restaurant in Buenos Aires. Through the window I see a very old woman bent under the weight of the largest plastic bag I have ever seen full of garbage, which she collects from garbage cans on the street.

Meanwhile, the Kirchners’ personal fortune has been reported at having reached outrageous levels. The Anti-Corruption Bureau is conducting an investigation into alleged malfeasance by Kirchner after a sworn statement by the couple stated that their assets had grown 158 percent in a year.

While quite efficient in their own financial affairs, the Kirchners have failed to create the conditions for Argentina’s future development. With the death of former President Nestor Kirchner, who many people believed was the real power behind the throne, Cristina Kirchner has the opportunity to change policy and make the kind of government the country desperately needs.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., writes about human rights and foreign policy issues.