Never the next great power: Argentina’s future is always stuck in the past

People light candles next to a sign that reads “I am Nisman” during a protest over the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, at the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, January 19, 2015. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian
People light candles next to a sign that reads “I am Nisman” during a protest over the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, at the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires, January 19, 2015. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

Argentina, mired in corruption and ineptitude, has swallowed Alberto Nisman – and the truth.

The stunning death of the federal prosecutor, the day before he was to testify before the Argentine congress about his allegations against the country’s president and a more than decade-old unsolved bombing, has confirmed — as if more proof were needed — that Argentina is its own worst enemy.

Argentina entered the modern world with great expectations. Its European genealogy and natural resources were taken as virtual guarantees of prosperity and progress. Visitors to Buenos Aires produced a literary genre of their own, fawning over the “sumptuous boulevards” of a cosmopolitan city that was heralded as “the capital of the continent.”

This is the starting point for just about every narrative of Argentina. Its “incomplete modernity,” its status as a “stillborn great nation” or a success story that somehow derailed makes it difficult to imagine how to set its history on another course.

Long governed by the politics of victimization and a culture of national lament, Argentines are experiencing a moment of clarity in the wake of Nisman’s death.

Questions surrounding Nisman’s demise have gripped the Argentine public. Why would a high-ranking prosecutor kill himself hours before delivering the most important presentation of his career, which implicates President Cristina Fernández in an international cover-up? Was it suicide or murder made to look like suicide? Rumors and conspiracy theories swirl through the nation.

Nisman was in charge of investigating the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center, which killed 84 people, the deadliest terror attack in Argentine history. In his presentation, which has been disclosed, he accuses the president and her foreign minister of striking a secret deal with Tehran. In exchange for cheap Iranian oil, Argentina would create a red herring to convince the world that local right-wing groups, not Iranian officials, were responsible for the blast.

Depending on whom you ask, Nisman was a hero for democracy, a casualty of internecine politics, the marked man of rogue Argentine intelligence agents, or the victim of an international terrorist conspiracy. Some on the anti-U.S. left have even painted him as an agent of the CIA advancing Washington’s agenda against Iran.

Democracy in Argentina has proved disappointing and even dangerous over the 32 years since the end of military rule. Argentina is an atomized society, riven by insecurity and mistrust, where the only collective truth is a sense of constant crisis — economic, political, even moral — that has become a defining feature of daily life.

Fernández leads without long-term policies or plans, as many have noted. She runs the country in a day-to-day mode, putting out fires and garnering support with populist tactics to achieve short-term objectives. Unlike in previous eras, when the military took control of the Casa Rosada presidential palace once a decade, her civilian government is in control. It has a “monopoly on violence,” as sociologist Max Weber said of functioning states. But today the state — ineffective, shrouded in scandal and wracked by economic crisis — does not have a hold on much else.

Argentina has indeed fallen from grace. It was once a promised land of economic opportunity and South American modernity. In the late 19th century, Argentina’s gross domestic product rivaled that of the United States. Now, however, the old saying, “To be rich as an Argentine,” has disappeared from the nation’s lexicon.

The country’s spectacular decline is, for many scholars, a source of intellectual debate. Answers to the million-dollar question of “what happened?” are often given as specific dates: 1929, when the Great Depression battered global trade and agricultural prices on which the Argentine economy was based; 1946, when Juan Perón was elected president, only to create a legacy of authoritarian populism; and 1976, when the military junta seized power, unleashing a reign of terror known as the Dirty War. Each is cited as a watershed moment — when history could have taken a different turn.

But this discourse of failure is hardly new. Throughout Argentina’s history, virtually every generation has deemed the country a failure. In the 1890s, modernizing elites declared the country too primitive and backward to succeed as “the Yankees of the South.” Rather than reform the nation from within, leaders looked to Europe for solutions to the country’s problems.

At the turn of the 20th century, the elites were fretting over the country’s unfulfilled promises after a tide of immigration — mostly peasants from impoverished Spain and southern Italy — generated new anxieties about national identity, social unrest and criminality.

In 1946, when Perón took office, promising nothing short of “a new Argentina,” Jorge Luís Borges, the country’s celebrated teller of elusive fables, pronounced Argentine state-building a failure. “The state is an inconceivable abstraction,” Borges wrote. “The Argentine is an individual, not a citizen.”

For Borges, the idea that the state contains the moral actions of its citizens, as the philosopher Hegel suggests, was a “sinister joke” in Argentina.

Years later, during the junta’s Dirty War against political and “moral” enemies, the generals insisted that only military rule would reverse the country’s pathological decline and elevate it to its rightful place in history.

What does it mean when every generation sees its nation as a failure? In Argentina, where there are famously more shrinks per capita than anywhere else, this question demands closer scrutiny.

Rafael di Tella, a Harvard economist from Argentina, makes the search for a usable past — a history that can help solve the problems of the present — seem an exercise in futility. “If a guy has been hit by 700,000 bullets,” he explained to The Economist, “it’s hard to work out which one of them killed him.”

The living corpse of Argentina needs a new narrative, one that dwells less in the past and more on today as a point of departure.

Stirrings of change are becoming evident. On Feb. 18, a silent march organized by lawyers to mark the one-month anniversary of Nisman’s death drew an estimated 400,000 people into the streets of cities across the country. In soggy Buenos Aires, signs of defiance flashed under a sea of umbrellas: “I am Nisman,” “Argentine justice stinks,” “You can’t suicide us all.”

Fernández’s supporters accused the protesters of judicial “coup-mongering” and “politicizing tragedy,” as if Nisman’s investigation, which has now implicated two heads of state and a number of government officials, bears no relation to the powers-that-be.

While few doubt, in Argentina or elsewhere, that the truth about Nisman will remain buried in a sham investigation, controversy over the case continues to escalate, with new developments breaking frequently.

At stake is more than solving the mystery of a slain Jewish prosecutor. Or even bringing long-awaited justice to the victims of the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, the country’s largest Jewish community center. Nisman has come to symbolize Argentina’s culture of impunity and the shaky ground on which its democracy stands.

Weeks after the bombing, my family and I visited the crime scene in Buenos Aires. On a crowded sidewalk, I stared through the slats of a makeshift fence, built around the crater that had once been the Jewish community center. I remember seeing a group of policemen, my eye caught by the white sleeves of their uniforms, as they loitered in a corner of the rubble, eating and smoking, talking and laughing.

They seemed unbothered by the open cemetery on which they stood. Twenty years later, after Nisman has been labeled a martyr for the truth, and with the country reeling under crisis yet again, Argentines are abandoning apathy and illusions of failed grandeur.

To set history on a new course, they must remember Nisman at the ballot box during this October’s presidential election.

Daniela Blei is a historian and an editor of scholarly books in San Francisco. Her family is Argentine.

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