Contrary to the popular song by Andrew Lloyd Webber, there has been much to cry about in Argentina. Bad economics, worse governance and a populist president are three headline-grabbers from across the South Atlantic.
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner gave, figuratively, the middle finger to international investors and did in Spanish over there from a position supreme power what Julius Malema threatens to do here, though he is marooned on the opposition benches.
Cristina as she is universally known nationalised industries without compensation. A few years back that’s what happened to Spanish investors in her country’s largest oil company. And unlike local trade and industry minister Rob Davies she and her government did not rewrite their bilateral investment treaties. They simply ignored their undertakings and refused to implement judgments made under them.
These shenanigans coupled with cooking up conspiracy theories against her opponents at home and abroad proved the winning formula for her and her late husband to win three elections on the trot.
And, of course there were the uber-strong Argentinean trade unions on her side. The alliance of Cristina’s Peronist party and organised workers was the path to power for the movement first founded seventy years ago by Juan and Evita Peron, it seemed the formula could simply in the words of Argentina’s late enemy, Margaret Thatcher, ‘go on and on.’
But in a stunning reversal of fortune last Sunday, weary and ever more impoverished Argentines turned their backs on Cristina and her party. Instead of lining up behind her chosen successor, by a narrow margin the country swung behind a new president, the centre right candidate Mauricio Macri.
Here at home, of course, the big local news was Jacob Zuma trying to breathe some life and unity into fracturing COSATU. Now a pale and divided shadow of its former self, our trade union federation is still seen as the most reliable vote deliverer for the ANC. That’s one explanation for our government’s decision to raid the entire contingency reserve of national treasury and splurge over the next three years a whopping R65bn on public servants salary increases.
“We pay you and you get out the votes for us’’, is nothing much more than a self-preserving protection racket. But just in case mere money doesn’t do the trick, at the Cosatu gathering this week, our President decided to inject some good old class warfare into proceedings.
Having told the Jewish community on Sunday night to get its back behind the business-friendly National Development Plan, two days later in Midrand he sang a very different note.
No word for the workers about the NDP, which COSATU regards with about as much enthusiasm as the Romans viewed the Visigoths. Instead, our president advised the brothers and sisters to get united around a hatred of capitalism.
He was reported by Eyewitness News telling the comrades, “It’s the capitalist class that must make a profit. As a result the alliance and Cosatu must be united to fight this enemy.”
Quite aside from utterly contradicting his pro-market reassurances so recently given on official visits to Netherlands and Germany, there’s something very Argentinian about the president railing against the evils of capitalism.
When Kirchner’s populist and eccentric economic course drove her country over the fiscal cliff a few years back, she too railed against capitalism.
This led The Economist magazine –which by then so disbelieved her government’s official statistics that it refused to publish them – to produce a memorable headline on her political bipolarity. It read, “Capitalism for her friends, socialism for her enemies”
This referred to something which weary taxpayers and fed-up citizens here will strongly identify. Despite foaming against capitalism in her country, the President, her friends and her immediate family had grown staggeringly rich through crony deals, raiding the fiscus for dubious projects and ensuring that the party faithful were placed in key positions in every parastatal, from the national airline to agricultural boards and the state broadcaster.
Just how closely the party ousted from power in Argentina last weekend was embedded with the trade unions and government agencies, and how precarious it becomes when a long dominant party starts to lose its grip on power was relayed to me in an e-mail from a close friend in Buenos Aires.
Michael, a top lawyer in the city, sent me an account of his work as a polling monitor for the opposition in the outer suburbs of the capital. He wrote:
“The postal service, in charge of collecting ballot boxes and conveying them to the central counting station, sent in employees to collect them without proper ID. Given so many stories of stolen or “intervened” ballot boxes I refused to let them take them away until a high official from the post office arrived and certified her identity and took responsibility for them.
But I had to put up with the wrath of the local Peronist observer, a mobster looking bullying post office civil servant and even the threats of the police who wanted me to sign a self-incriminating statement and then tried to get me arrested for “preventing postal employees from leaving” and for “interfering with the natural flow of ballot boxes.”
In the end, and after what he describes as “two very tense hours”, a compromise was reached and the ballot boxes left the polling station without incident and Michael did not have to sign any statements.
He ended his note observing, “This is an example of the old Argentina that will be left behind with the new government.”
As hope renews across the South Atlantic, one can’t help but wonder, as they used to say in the trailers at the local cinemas here, whether this movie “will be showing on this screen soon.”
Originally featured in the Sunday Times