There is an old Argentine wisecrack that says: a person who leaves Argentina for six months, and then returns, finds the country completely transformed, but someone who returns after an absence of ten years finds that things are more or less as he or she left them. It is a joke but one whose accuracy would seem to be borne out by the results of the October 27 general election that repudiated the neoliberal government of Mauricio Macri and his Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) party that had been in power since 2015, and instead made Alberto Fernández president and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner the new vice-president. Thus restored to power were the Peronists who have ruled Argentina for nearly twenty-three out of the thirty-six years since the restoration of democracy in 1983.
The outcome seemed to confirm, then, what remains the conventional wisdom for a large part of the Argentine population, Peronist and anti-Peronist alike: that Peronism is Argentina’s natural party of government. This conviction helps explain why Macri’s election in 2015 was seen as a political earthquake: here was a neoliberal, albeit one of the softer type, elected in profoundly corporatist Argentina. But the same belief also accounts why Macri’s repudiation by voters now seems a reversion to the political norm in Argentina and consigns Macri to being the exception that proved the rule—since he has become the only sitting president in modern Argentine history to have stood for re-election and lost.
Such meta-political considerations aside, there were sound practical reasons for Argentine voters to return the Peronists to power. Macri had promised much, from the curbing of inflation to a “business-friendly” modern economy and financial system freed from the shackles of the currency controls imposed by de Kirchner—usually known as Cristina. Argentine politicians increasingly go by their first names, in fact, but not Macri, which is testimony in itself. Macri had also vowed to the rampant corruption that first Néstor Kirchner, who had preceded Cristina as president of Argentina (and died in 2010), and then Cristina herself and her cronies, had indulged in—to an extent outrageous even by Argentine standards. As the former Peronist politician turned political commentator and novelist, Jorge Asís, put it to me recently, compared to Cristina, Carlos Menem, a notoriously corrupt Peronist president of the 1990s, had been “little more than a pickpocket on the subway.”
Most daringly of all, Macri ran in 2015 on a platform to reduce poverty to zero. As president, he never repeated that promise, but Macri did encourage the Argentine people to judge him on whether or not he had successfully reduced economic hardship. And they did.
In short, although there have doubtless been worse governments in Argentine history, not to mention the six times in the twentieth century the military has seized power, none has failed to live up to its promises quite so spectacularly and ineptly as Macri’s. All politicians are narcissists, granted, but Mauricio Macri was an incompetent narcissist: headstrong, unwilling to take advice from all but a small circle of sycophants, and given to mistaking his wishes for reality. Corrupt as Cristina is, even her enemies acknowledge that she’s highly intelligent, whereas even many of his supporters concede, at least off the record, that Macri is not all that bright. More important, the distance between the radiant economic future Macri promised and the havoc his administration wrought is all but immeasurable. As Federico Sturzenegger, who headed the Argentine Central Bank during the first two-and-a-half years of Macri’s term, wrote in the immediate aftermath of Fernández’s election: “With a fall in per-capita income of close to 10 percent and cumulative inflation higher than 300 percent in his four years, it would be easy to declare his [Macri’s] presidency a failure—which, in terms of economic results, it was.” Alberto and Cristina could hardly have said it better themselves.
Vastly rich himself, besotted by fantasies about the wisdom of the global markets, Macri often came across as a left-Peronist caricature of a neoliberal—utterly out of touch with the way poor Argentines lived. So much so that the inhabitants of Buenos Aires slums into which the Macri government had poured money—notably Villa 31, a sprawling immigrant area in the shadow of an expressway—voted overwhelmingly for Alberto and Cristina last month. This dumbfounded the Macri people I spoke with after the August primary election: they had been expecting gratitude, but as polls showed, and as reporting in La Nación, a conservative newspaper that had supported Macri, confirmed, his team were thinking like technocrats not politicians: people might accept the government’s largesse but since they perceived it as offered with disdain, they were, if anything, less favorably disposed to Macri than ever.
The disdain, in fact, flowed both ways. There was a snobbery toward Macri throughout his term, particularly from the political elite, that it’s important to distinguish from the resentment toward Macri so common among poor Argentines. In Argentina, this elite traditionally goes to high-powered public high schools and public universities, whereas Macri’s circle largely went to private Catholic schools and universities, institutions more noted for their rugby prowess than their academic rigor. Indeed, one of the dismissive terms for Macri and his close advisers was “Newman Boys,” after the prep school Macri attended. As José Natanson, the left-leaning editor of the Argentine edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, who was then writing a book trying to explain Macri’s victory, told me in 2015: “For the most part, we quite simply don’t know many of these people. They come from a quite different world from ours.”
But if the political elite was dismayed, the cultural and artistic elite, which, as in most countries, overwhelmingly breaks left, was appalled and outraged. Both in private and in the pages of the “Cristinista” daily, Página/12, there was much hysterical talk about Macri’s victory representing a return of the military dictatorship. This Buenos Aires-based intellectual circle, always jealous in guarding its privileges, is inordinately full of itself—the only other country that comes close is France. This can be picturesque. Argentina, after all, is a country where 800 Lacanian psychoanalysts can issue an open letter protesting the overthrow of Evo Morales in Bolivia and violence against the anti-government demonstrators in Chile. During the presidential campaign, another such open letter supporting the Alberto–Cristina ticket attracted many, if not most, of the nation’s leading writers, artists, musicians, and theater and film people. In contrast, an open letter in support of Macri garnered the support of only a handful of cultural notables, though it did slightly better with economists.
For all that lopsideness of signatories, a number of the best-known on the Alberto–Cristina side were not Peronists in any traditional sense, but had rather been won over by the Kirchners themselves. The gospel of these Cristinistas was not the writings of Juan Perón or even the cult of Evita, but rather the left-populist theories of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, combined with Bolivarian fantasies of the sort that Fidel Castro once succeeded in schooling the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Their enthusiasm could become so extravagant that Horacio González, a distinguished sociologist and head of the National Library of Argentina during Cristina’s second term, could tell me in all sincerity that reports of the Kirchners’ corruption were wildly overstated. “Were they true,” he said, “one could not breathe.” He paused and, after a histrionically deep breath, added, “but you see, I’m breathing!” In a less defensive vein, the Argentine political theorist Ricardo Forster, who, along with González and a few others, had founded in 2008 the pro-Kirchner “Carta Abierta” (Open Letter) group of intellectuals, told me that his support for Cristina was based partly on his conviction that she was “the most transgressive” of all political leaders in the Americas.
The recruitment of these intellectuals’ moral support was carefully planned, in fact, by the Kirchners. According to Julio Bárbaro, an old-line Peronist who had been secretary of state for culture during Menem’s presidency, and served under the Kirchners on the agency regulating communications, Néstor came into office in 2003 by something of a fluke, with only a small share of the popular vote. A governor from the deep south of the country with little recognition in Buenos Aires, he saw that he needed to legitimize himself. Undoing the impunity that the Argentine military had enjoyed since the end of the dictatorship in 1983 was an obvious way of gaining favor with leftist intellectuals, particularly an older generation of writers and artists such as Luisa Valenzuela and Mempo Giardinelli, and leading human rights activists like Horacio Verbitsky and Hebe de Bonafini (of the “Mothers of Plaza de Mayo” group).
Another such move, in 2008, was a trust-busting initiative to break up the media empire of the Clarín Group (with which the Kirchners had been on good terms until then). Bárbaro’s view is a jaundiced one: he believes the left intelligentsia was flattered by the Kirchners’ attention and their willingness to appoint some among them to senior roles in the cultural apparatus of the Argentine state. Such outreach cost the Kirchners little, he says, but gave them the moral high ground, as well as support from circles outside of Peronist ranks, even as they robbed the country blind.
This helps explain why many Argentines accepted, for a surprisingly long time, Macri’s claims that their hardships were caused by the mess Cristina had made of the economy. There was some justification for this—or surprisingly little way of proving it either way. For during the last years of Cristina’s government, Axel Kicillof, the then-minister of the economy (now the governor-elect of the Buenos Aires province) ordered the national statistical bureau to stop publishing its research relevant to poverty. As a result, it is difficult to know by how severe the increase in poverty has been during the Macri years, providing at least some room for Macri’s supporters to defend his record.
From the beginning of 2018, however, this position became unsustainable: as inflation and interest rates rose sharply and the value of the Argentine peso plummeted, poverty spiked—most of all in and around Buenos Aires. Leaders of left-wing social movements—notably, Juan Grabois, a charismatic young activist from a Peronist background widely seen in Argentina as having the ear of Pope Francis—report there is now a nutrition crisis, particularly for children, in poor areas of the city and the surrounding province. Grabois is often accused by his critics of being an alarmist, but statistics gathered by the Catholic Church, as well as testimony from the priests who run emergency food centers, largely bear him out.
Voting patterns in Argentine presidential elections have been fairly stable since Néstor became president: the Cristinistas can count on about 35 percent of the vote, and Cambiemos on about 32 percent. So, as in so many democratic countries, the voters in the middle are the prize. Argentina’s singularity, though, is that many, maybe most, of these voters in the middle are Peronists, just not Kirchnerists. In other words, they are more narrowly Argentine nationalist and less Third Worldist—albeit that Cristina’s actions in government have rarely, if ever, matched her more militant rhetoric, what might be called “Maduro Lite” (some of her supporters are a different story). In electoral terms, this means that when Peronism is united, it is likely to win; when divided, likely lose.
In 2015, it was divided, with another senior Peronist leader, Sergio Massa, opposing the Cristina-anointed Daniel Scioli in the first round of elections. Under Argentina’s somewhat Byzantine electoral system, this entailed a run-off between the two candidates with the most votes: Macri and Scioli. Playing on Cristina’s widespread unpopularity, Macri won—but by a vote margin of less than three percentage points. From this can be inferred that, as Argentine political opinion now stands, a Peronist can win in the first round, but an anti-Peronist can’t. The challenge for Cambiemos, then, in 2019 was to secure enough votes in the first round to thwart an outright Peronist victory, and then to hope to repeat its winning strategy of 2015.
A year before the election, Macri and his people were relatively sanguine about their chances. Cristina was thought to be as hated as ever by wide swaths of the population, so much so that old-line Peronists made no secret of their opposition to her running again and their quest to find someone who could stand in her stead. In the Macrista scenario, Cristina would stand and a center-right Peronist, Massa again or perhaps Alberto Fernández, who had been Néstor’s and then briefly Cristina’s chief of staff but, like Massa, became a fierce critic of her corruption, her economic policy, and her authoritarianism. For his part, Macri and his surrogates would turn to the one weapon remaining in their ideological arsenal: the fear many Argentines, particularly among the middle classes, felt when contemplating the prospect of Cristina’s returning to power.
So this was the Cambiemos plan: Macri would come in second in the first round, and then go on to defeat Cristina in the run-off. It all seemed to make sense, until, one day in May, it didn’t.
For Cristina was way ahead of them. For all her fiery rhetoric, Cristina has shown herself to be a canny politician. She saw just as clearly as the Macri people what Peronism’s challenge would be in the 2019 election, she first assented to a reconciliation with Alberto, which some commentators claim was brokered by Pope Francis (himself a devoted Peronist as a young man). Then came Cristina’s masterstroke: on May 18, she announced via a YouTube video and on social media that she had asked Alberto to run for president while she would run as his vice-president. Peronism was united in electoral alliance baptized, with some justice, as El Frente de Todos (The Front of Everyone).
This left the Macristas’ strategy in shambles—made worse when Sergio Massa, having reportedly turned down feelers from Macri’s team to become Cambiemos’s vice-presidential candidate, rallied behind Alberto and Cristina. Meanwhile, there was nowhere to hide from Macri’s catastrophic stewardship of the Argentine economy, after the Argentine president Macri had been forced, in September 2018, to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund to secure a $57 billion loan, the largest in the IMF’s history. It was clear from the start that Argentina could not honor its repayment terms and economic conditionalities and that these would have to be renegotiated after the election, whoever won.
The Macristas soldiered on, as though the iron law of electoral politics in any country not in the grip of a war, environmental disaster, or refugee emergency—“It’s the economy, stupid,” in James Carville’s phrase—somehow did not apply to Argentina. Never wavering in their defense of radical individualism, they would tell you that Argentines did not want to go back to the corporatist past. Only when the results of the primaries that Argentina holds two-and-half months before the general election showed Alberto and Cristiana winning by 47 percent of the vote to Macri’s 32 percent—a margin of victory so crushing that there was no realistic chance of Macri making it to a runoff—did the Macristas realize the delusion of their “It’s Cristina, stupid” strategy. “They tricked themselves,” Grabois, the activist, suggested to me.
But if defeat in the presidential election did indeed prove to be inevitable, the Macristas could derive some comfort that their leader managed to claw back 2.2 million voters in the second leg, and that in the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, Cambiemos won only one seat fewer than the Peronists. This mattered because any constitutional change Alberto and Cristina might propose would require a two-thirds majority, so Cambiemos have an effective veto over any measure they deem too radical. A closer look at the vote, though, confirms that when Peronism is united, it wins.
In Alberto, the voters have elected a sort of Peronist everyman. In Spanish, there is a distinction between the words “persona” (person) and “personaje” (meaning a personage or important figure). Cristina was the latter; so was Macri. But as one of Alberto’s friends put it in a documentary by La Nación, “Alberto is a person, not a personage.”
Alberto also reflects the protean nature of Peronism: it can be anything: right, left, corporatist, capitalist. Carlos Menem’s government in the 1990s represented rightist Peronism at its apogee. Néstor Kirchner veered rightward during his presidency, while Cristina flirted with left-populist Bolivarian rhetoric but—unlike Maduro in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia—remained on excellent terms with most multinational interests, most controversially awarding the US oil giant Chevron, for example, a sweetheart deal over the development of the Vaca Muerta shale oil and gas fields in northern Patagonia. In this, Cristina often seemed to live up to another favorite Argentine joke in which Juan Peron’s motorcade arrives at a red light and his chauffeur asks, “My general, what should I do when it turns green?” To which Peron replies, “Turn on the left indicator—and make a right.”
For all her formidable qualities, though, Cristina is no Perón, and once Alberto is sworn in on December 10, it seems highly unlikely that she could force him to do her bidding, let alone stand down in her favor—as some Macristas continue to predict will happen, even though it has done so only once in Argentine history (in 1973, when the left-Peronist politician Héctor José Cámpora was elected president but resigned in order to clear the field for Perón himself, newly returned from his Spanish exile, to run and win). This is not to say that Cristina will not be the most powerful vice-president in modern Argentine history, not least because of the influence—her enemies would say, the control—she exerts over the Peronist deputies and senators in Congress.
It is far from clear, though, that Cristina still wants to be president. She has an adult daughter who is extremely ill and being treated in Cuba. She is also under pressure from numerous pending court cases charging her with corruption, though it is improbable that she will be convicted let alone incarcerated. (In Argentina, indictments tend to rain down on the party that is out of power, not on the incumbent leaders. As the great investigative reporter for La Nación, Hugo Alconada Mon, has documented in his book La raíz de todos los males (The Root of All Evils), the Argentine political system is organized around “corruption and impunity,” and whatever else divides them, both the Peronists and their adversaries are enthusiastic backers of winners thanks to this system. Alberto is no exception to this, and shortly before the president-elect’s inauguration, Alconada published an article linking a close adviser of Alberto’s to one of the worst corruption scandals of Cristina’s second term.
Alberto will certainly need to revise the unfavorable terms of the deal Macri concluded with the IMF. But this may not be as difficult as some observers think given that, if Argentina is on the hook, so is the IMF. It is far from clear that the institution’s new director, Kristalina Georgieva, can afford the political and institutional ramifications of yet another Argentine default, which could be as catastrophic as the one that occurred at the end of 2001, not to mention the effect such a default would have on any future political ambitions she may have, most importantly, or at least so it is widely rumored, either at some point becoming head of the European Central Bank, the job her predecessor at the IMF, Christine Lagarde, has just assumed.
It is easy to wax apocalyptic about Argentina. Most, though not all, of its industries are uncompetitive; it is too dependent on exports of agricultural commodities—above all, soybeans; its labor unions are wildly corrupt and exert too great an influence; the public sector is bloated and phantom jobs are commonplace; education is underfunded and overstretched; and social mobility has ground to a halt. The country may indeed be a very “unfinished utopia,” as the political commentator Ignacio Zuleta once called it, but it’s hardly on the brink of collapse—as much as alarmism is a national neurosis in Argentina.
The country remains a highly desirable destination for immigrants—not only from Andean countries and the disaster that is Venezuela, but also from East Asia and, in smaller but growing numbers, Africa. The higher education system may not be what it once was but Argentine universities continue to turn out extremely well-qualified and motivated young people. And the country’s cultural prowess, above all in literature but also in music and the plastic arts, remains a jewel. There are even some industries, nuclear energy being the most obvious, that can compete with the world’s best. Perhaps most important, Argentina is coming to seem an oasis of calm and stability in Latin America, compared to what is already happening in Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela, and what may occur in Brazil with Lula’s release from prison galvanizing opposition to the Bolsonaro government.
Argentines themselves often complain bitterly about the country’s being riven in two ideologically. Yet that divide, which they call “la grieta,” the crack or the rift, does not seem worse than what one sees in the United States, the UK, or France, let alone Brazil. Rather unwisely, though, Alberto has promised as president to close la grieta. That scarcely seems likely; the fault line simply goes too deep. And according to some who know him, his flaws are uncomfortably close to Macri’s, most notably an inability to delegate.
Let’s assume Alberto successfully renegotiates the IMF loan. The four major trade union federations—which are Peronist, after all—as well the social movements led by people like Grabois will surely give Alberto some months’ grace, perhaps even a year. This will be very good news, but what will he do for them, and what will happen after?
Sooner or later, though, Alberto’s status as the anti-Macri will pall just as surely as being the anti-Cristina palled for Macri. The economist Simon Kuznets once joked that there were “four kinds of economies in the world: developed countries, underdeveloped countries, Japan, and Argentina.” He meant this in the most negative sense imaginable—and one might be mistaken for thinking that Guillermo Nielsen, one of Alberto’s chief economic advisers, agreed with him when he insisted during the election campaign that “Argentina today is not a feasible economy.” But the emphasis was on “today,” and what Nielsen implied was simply the conventional wisdom of the Argentine political establishment that, Peronist and non-Peronist alike, prefers to blame that the country’s economic travails on opponents’ policies, rather than on any permanent structural problem.
But Kuznets had a point, and economic success in Argentina has been the exception, not the rule. Menem’s government in the 1990s, for example, stayed afloat on monies accrued from the privatization of state industries. The prosperity coinciding with Néstor Kirchner’s first government owed much to a vertiginous rise in the prices of agricultural commodities in world markets. No such deus ex machina is likely to smooth Alberto’s passage as president. Even if he defies the expectations of both his neoliberal critics and the radical social movement activists, and turns out to be a much better president than Macri, it is difficult to see him extracting either the economy or the polity from the morass in which Argentina finds itself.
David Rieff is the author of At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention and, most recently, The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the Twenty-First Century. His new book, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, will be published in May. (April 2016)