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With the G20 summit a reminder of Argentina being once again a relatively accepted part of the world economic order, it has only been by digging into my childhood memories that I have realised what a crazy ride the past four decades have been for the country.
I remember the whispers after a neighbour was snatched by the military during the guerra sucia, or dirty war, of the late 1970s and early 1980s; the Falklands/Malvinas war of 1982; protesters demanding democracy as that war ended; my father glued to the radio listening to the results of the 1983 presidential election as military gave way to democratic rule; Diego Maradona scoring his goals against England in the 1986 Mexico World Cup; tanks on the highway after a military uprising against President Raúl Alfonsín in 1987; my mother buying me medialunas — Argentine croissants — at spiralling prices during a mad moment when the austral was currency.
And all that happened in the first decade, more or less, of the four that I have been alive.
As a journalist I have covered everything from the end of the war in Colombia to the beginning of a dictatorship in Venezuela, but conveying the story of Argentina is a different matter entirely. The 2001 economic implosion, and subsequent default, left an indelible stain. Admittedly from my comfortable position of by then living abroad, it was painful to see ageing Argentines banging pots outside banks demanding back their vanished savings, or begging on corners to buy medicines.
Argentina is now again at the centre of a crisis in emerging markets. It can be blamed on the gradualism of President Mauricio Macri and the arrogance of his entourage, but also on the populist legacy of his predecessors, the husband and wife double act of Cristina Fernández and Néstor Kirchner. Looking further back, there was also Fernando de la Rúa, who fled office in late 2001 in a helicopter after two feeble years, the flamboyant Carlos Menem and his scandal-ridden governments and the flawed economics of Alfonsín in the 1980s that led to hyperinflation. And that is not to forget the ruthless military juntas, the chaos of the 1970s government of “Isabelita” Perón before them, and the demagogical corporatism of Juan Domingo Perón.
Peronism, with its cunning ideologies of both left and rightwing, is a consequence of our own unhinged schizophrenia. Perón is supposed to have said that all Argentines are peronistas. Writer Jorge Luis Borges differed with him, calling Perón’s followers “neither good nor bad, but incorrigible”. Later, Tato Bores, the political comedian who died in the 1990s, said that we Argentines must take a cacho, or chunk, of the blame for our troubled history, though most should go to our rulers and economic mandarins.
No wonder I have lost faith in policymakers. When markets react to Argentine news, I cringe. We may be a G20 economy, but with interest rates at more than 60 per cent, the adage that there are four kinds of economies — developed, under-developed, Japan and Argentina — still applies. Argentines, critics say, have short memories. I disagree. I left the country 20 years ago and, much like the Argentine novelist and nostalgist Julio Cortázar used to do from Paris, I sigh for Buenos Aires.
Flashbacks to when and where we suffered are a useful exercise because Argentines are again living with inflation, recession, poverty and a bailout. It helps us conclude that our crises depend heavily on the human factor of politics and that this is where we fail. The flip side is that with our resilience, we succeed. Even if, remaining true to form, Argentina is a rogue economic outlier, the size of its economy ballooned 12-fold between the 1976 military coup and last year. Life expectancy grew by almost a decade in the same period.
And, today, we do not have people being “disappeared” at the orders of generals. Despite its crises and neuroses, Argentina is a better country than when I was a child. Dirty wars, hyperinflation and proto-populism are, at least for now, a thing of the past. We have suffered, yet we have learnt some things. Though support is slipping, the latest Latinobarómetro poll shows that Argentines continue to believe democracy is the best system of government. Almost four decades of continuous democratic rule is no minor feat for us. There remains much worth fighting to keep.
Andres Schipani was born and brought up in Argentina and is the FT’s Brazil correspondent
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