Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Shevat, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Cry for Argentina -- LIKE a Greek chorus, the words from the musical "Evita'' keep playing in the background as Argentina goes from bad to Peronismo:

Politics, the art of the possible
One shifts from left to right.
One praises fools, one smothers light ...

By my count, Argentina has now gone through three presidents between Fernando de la Rua's resignation a few weeks ago and the hurried installation of Eduardo Duhalde, who was president at press time.

Do you think they reuse those pretty presidential sashes, or do they have one for every new president? If so, I'd love to have the contract for providing them. The only problem would be meeting the demand.

This latest president is a Peronista, which always happens when the country begins to totter and the uniforms decline to intervene. What with Argentina's economy gone from ruinous to chaotic, its presidency resembling a revolving door, and the usual mobs ready to fight each other in the streets, this was the traditional time for the army to take over. As in 1966-73 or 1976-83.

But things are so bad, and so likely to get worse, that not even the colonels wanted to take responsibility for the country. Not yet, anyway. Maybe when the Peronistas fall, too, the president will once again wear military braid, but why take over a failing enterprise before it hits bottom? It'd be like buying a stock too soon.

The unappetizing choice in Argentina was between the left and even further left, the Peronistas and the nuttier. In the 1970s, the violent alternatives to the military boiled down to the Marxist ERP or the Peronist Montoneros, that is, the devil or the deep blue sea. Exiled for 18 years, Juan Peron began sounding like Fidel Castro in hopes of staging a comeback. Once he'd made it, bringing along a new Evita named Isabel as his vice president, Juan D. wasted no time wasting the Montoneros who had brought him to power.

Fascists can be flexible that way, campaigning from the left but ruling from the right. They talk socialism before they get in, and then, once in power, switch to a kind of corporatism -- with the fascist-in-chief acting as CEO. Lest we forget, Nazi is a contraction for National Socialist . The reason we forget is that the socialism was expendable, the nationalism essential. Note how quickly Hitler staged his Night of the Long Knives once he'd overthrown a tottering republic.

These days the news out of Argentina has a distinctly Weimar-esque cast, with democracy discredited, the army biding its time, governments ousted before they're properly installed, banks besieged, and the whole country in Chapter 11.

Argentina's President No. 5 in the past few weeks, Eduardo Duhalde, understands all too well that his country is ripe for a populist dictatorship. Again. But will it be his or some general's? Or will Argentina somehow regain its equilibrium? A lion is in the streets, and its natural prey is democracy.

There are two ways for an ambitious demagogue to turn crisis into personal opportunity: Start a war or inflate the currency. The first, to judge by the Argentines' record against Great Britain over the Falklands, presents certain practical difficulties. But the second is in the offing. Argentina already has started monkeying with its dollar-pegged currency, introducing the argentino to supplement the peso. (The argentino sounds a lot like what Americans called scrip in the Depression).

This new president said he wouldn't devalue the country's currency, which was the surest sign he will. Argentina has already defaulted on its $132 billion in public debt in every way but officially. (It has "suspended payment'' on its bonds.) The next step is devaluation.

A stout Peronista, Sr. Duhalde blames the free market, now known as globalization, for Argentina's troubles. He may try to take his country back to high tariffs, protected industries, funny money and general make-believe. It worked for Peron till economic realities intervened, as they always do. But till then, Juan Domingo, Evita and Isabel had a great ride, and anybody who said different wouldn't say it for long.

A new Argentina, the workers' battle song/A new Argentina, the voice of the people/Rings out loud and long .../A new Argentina, a new age about to begin/A new Argentina, we face the world together/And no dissent from within.

Once again, when Argentina needs a Hamilton who could turn its debt into an asset and create a stable economy, it repudiates its responsibilities. And when it could use a sober Washington, it gets another fast-talking Peronista. Hard times are the health of populism. Argentina remains the country of the future and, at the rate it's going, always will be. Why is that? Why should a nation blessed with such vast resources, including its enterprising people, keep fluctuating between Perons and generals, with democracy and prosperity only an occasional interlude?

¿Quien sabe?

"I don't understand my own country,'' said Jorge Luis Borges, the blind poet who saw farther than the sighted. It was he who called the conflict with the British over the Falklands "an atrocious war,'' and not for the first time inspired the ire of the street. Poets, blind or not, are cursed with seeing too far.

Argentina is blessed with many things, but not a sense of reality. Which is why its defeat in the Falklands War came as such a jolt. Till days before the end, Argentines had been assured all was going well. Just as now they'd been told with disappointing regularity that all was well with their economy, their state, their portfolios and politicos ... and then reality intruded on their little game, and the pieces started falling off the board, one president after another.

It can be quite a shock, reality, and the first reaction of Argentines, as with any people ripe for a take-over, is to look around for a suitable scapegoat -- the Brits, the international corporations, American imperialism ... anybody and anything but their own gullibility, which has always been the Peronistas' greatest asset.

My friend Jaime Malamud is a law professor from Buenos Aires who spent some time teaching at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He used to tell how the regime had assembled a crowd at the Plaza de Mayo to break the news of Argentina's surrender of the Falklands. The people's frustration and anger overflowed, and the assemblage in the plaza had to be disbanded by force -- with three dead and dozens wounded.

Professor Malamud recalled getting on a subway in Buenos Aires less than an hour after the crowd had been dispersed, and listening to the passengers' reactions. Almost all had someone or something to blame, preferably foreign. Only a few dared suggest that maybe the war itself had been to blame -- an irresponsible, immoral, groundless war that had cost some 1,500 Argentine conscripts their lives. But it was so much easier to take to the streets than take responsibility.

When this country's economy collapsed in the '30s, Americans got a president who told us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. Argentina's president du jour will tell its people they have nothing to fear but foreign interests. There will be no need to go into detail and mention that, when he was governor of Buenos Aires province, it ran up millions of dollars in debt and established a reputation for corruption noteworthy by even Argentine standards.

Eduardo Duhalde failed to win the presidency in the last election; now he's got it by default. This is not a presidential succession; it's a Peronist coup. Juan D. would surely have approved, especially of the legal trappings. Around this latest Peron now gather the usual cronies and climbers, all eager to begin the grand dissection of the country once again. And in the background, the generals wait, and see how much they'll tolerate.

Dice are rolling, the knives are out
Would-be presidents are all around
I don't say they mean harm
But they'd each give an arm
To see us six feet underground.

And so it goes. Again.

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