Juan Domingo and Eva Peron memorial in Buenos Aires
Juan Domingo and Eva Peron memorial in Buenos Aires
Susana Decibe*

Argentina's former Minister of Education Susana Decibe asks if "Peronism" — that brand of Latin American politics named after the 20th century Argentine President Juan expand=1] Domingo Perón and his second wife Eva Perón, and popularly associated with a unique mix of social justice and state paternalism — is to blame for the country's current dysfunctional democracy.

BUENOS AIRES — Argentina emerged from a military dictatorship 30 years ago, and we have yet to establish an intelligent state that acts as regulator and provider of basic services, and attain a more integrated and peaceful society. Worse, the Republic's basic laws are weakened and subjected to debate every time some minor problem comes up, fundamentally unrelated to the national interest.

I wonder: If Peronism has been the political current that has governed for big chunks of this period, is it principally responsible for the fragility of state institutions, persistant poverty, violence, a growing drug trade and the degradation of basic services? Let's see.

The brand of Peronism that has governed in this period has had little to do with the historical movement that worked in the mid-20th century to forge a fairer society and guide the country on the path to industrialization.

Rather than fighting poverty and promoting development, this new Peronism has devoted itself more to representing the vested interests of certain leaders — administrators of territories practically turned into private political estates, or provincial or local leaders often bereft of a strategic vision or concern for development or social inclusion. It has built an efficient system of personal favors, clientelism and dependence that has not so much ended poverty as solidified it.

Not without reason, Peronism has taken the blame for everything these past 30 years, while its current "non-version" has merely had the task of winning and exercising power. My opinion is that Peronism has become a particular form of being Argentine — valued, imitated and even outdone by leaders from other parties and sectors of society.

Adrift

It seems to be a way of disregarding norms, reaching your objective by hook or by crook, or shamelessly trading it in for its own exact opposite. And why not, when there is no moral or ideological anchor?

This decline began with the military dictatorship in the 1970s, and no social or political force could reverse it. There has been little progress since. We learned the value of living in a democracy, but are more determined to right the wrongs of the past than change current problems — even if these provoke deaths or quite considerable suffering.

We seem to find it hard to link the state's shortcomings to corruption or lack of accountability. Without an exemplary administration, nations do not evolve, and ours seems increasingly deprived of the means and freedom needed for participation. Indiscipline, road blocks and looting are given space to exist, but not, it seems, the intellectual and physical means of exercising the rights of full citizenship.

An incipient trend toward decentralization in the 1980s, designed to improve the economy's efficiency, apparently disintegrated into a draining of the state and its resources in the 1990s. Debates, long-term political agreements, transparency and the defence of the public good were absent. Privatizations were supposed to represent a transfer of know-how, technologies and procedures, to make us more capable and competitive. Peronism under President Carlos Menem made bold changes and oversaw Argentina's entry into the free-market economy, while the opposition retreated into a bitter defence of the public sector, even though it knew the model had collapsed.

Thence we came, via a crisis, to a new Peronist phase — of the Kirchner variety. Without any desire to correct mistakes or reflect on past events, a new discourse arrived with the presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, supposedly "national and popular" in nature, and based on an inexistant "youth" following represented by La Cámpora.

Kirchner, Peron: power women — Photo: Presidencia de la N. Argentina/La razon de mi vida/Worldcrunch

Basically, thanks to the high prices our agricultural products have fetched on international markets, a flood of financial resources have created a state that is bloated, unprofessional and incompetent. Around it is a society more divided and violent by the day, infected with drug trafficking and the setting of increasingly anarchical protest movements and uncertainty about the future.

So yes, Peronism did this, but very often with the help of other parties, the judiciary, media, leading actors in the economy, guilds, soccer leagues and large segments of society. From a means of winning and exercising power, it has become a way of coming out of crises. It used to be the Army, now it is Peronism.

In response, and before we start blaming the evident culprits while a "new version" of Peronism emerges to help us recover from this latest crisis, we must instead begin to push the political system in its widest sense. We must launch a profound debate on the type of state we need to build, which commitments we will need to revive a better political culture, and how we can thrive again on the example of a society eager for good customs, lawfulness and peaceful coexistence.

*Susana Decibe served as Argentina's Education Minister from 1996 to 1999 under President Carlos Menem.

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