wk 2 - democracy course

Buenos Aires Travel Blog

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Group:  Derek, Sohmer, Jessica


Argentina’s chances of a military coup in the next 5 years are very slim.  We have discussed in class the country’s position as an outlier concerning democracy and economic development.  This status of high economic development mixed with a low level of democracy makes any prediction difficult.  Political Science is not quite the hard science that it wants to be which makes any forecast made based on other countries’ examples difficult.  Latin American politics, specifically Argentina, is greatly shaped by people, and leaders continue to alter and shape a country’s direction.  Although anything is possible in Argentina, many factors help support the idea that a coup in the near future is unlikely.

Currently the trend of military coups has taken a modern form of left wing governments.  Democratic alternatives used to elect more socialist leaning politicians have provided for an outlet that used to fuel coups.  Instead of military coups, we now see extreme left parties in power by elections…  most recently with Chile’s Bachelet, Venezuela’s Chavex, and Bolivia’s Morales.

Such alternatives were previously not possible thanks to U.S. foreign relations strategies.  What the U.S. once did to stunt the growth of leftist leaders and their parties is no longer happening in such an extreme form.  The Cold War was the threat used to keep socialist groups from forming.   This led to pseudo-democracies in the form of dictatorships. Higher transparency of U.S. relations in Latin America has stopped this involvement that once ran the region.  Now that these leaders are elected and staying in power, the coups that they pushed to form before, are no longer necessary.  Their political thoughts can be expressed in the form of free governments instead of forcefully military takeovers.

Human rights violations that are so common in military coups are not so easy to get away with anymore.  International protocols make for very difficult dirty wars.  The U.S. seems to be the only country that is able to get away with blatantly ignoring protocols.  All other countries to not have the power to violate such rules, and even though they do, they risk the chances of being held accountable.

In the case of Argentina, we don’t even know if a military coup would be possible if they wanted one.  Since the Falkland war, the presidents in charge have continuously weakened the military.  Alfonsin drastically weakened the military after the end of the military dictatorship by limiting the military’s responsibilities and drastically cutting their budget.  Menem wasn’t as harsh, and played more of an accommodationist role.

Kirchner has continued with weakening the military in repealing two acts protecting military personnel from the dictatorship.  He has also stripped power from heads of military, by giving the positions to his staff members.  Historically in Latin America this is what leads to coups.  Former colonels that are dismissed by the government off heads of military force them to return in the form of a takeover. 

If such a military takeover were to occur though, that would have already happened in 2001.  With the financial crisis, many factors could have lead to a coup.  Historically when the economy is in danger, the military has been known to take action.  Because we are entering in this new stage of democracy though, where the government is stable enough to handles such crisis, coups are less likely to happen.

Some of these thoughts were reiterated by our local yokel Douglas Williams… he said that during the previous military coups, the military acted the way that they did because they didn’t know how to handle the economic situation.  There is no chance of having another coup (according to Douglas) because the memories of the pain that came from the previous ones are still fresh and now the governments now know how to handle their economic situations better.  Assuming that Kirshner is re-elected, shows the support of the peoples towards someone who is continuously keeping the military in check and making them still pay for previous wrongs.  He has done this as a president in three ways… (1) Previously there were government run military secondary schools throughout the country.  These are now prohibited. (2) The military no longer has the authorization to decide military strategy autonomously.  (3) Recently three top leaders of the military were arrested, due to an impromptu day of remembrance for fallen soldiers.  This day occurred without permission from the government on May 25th almost as a resistance to Kirschner’s memorial towards the Disappeared.  At this time he also announced a continued weakening of military power.  This is seen as a silent protest by the military to the direction that the current government is taking.
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Group:  Derek, Sohmer, Jessica

How will Argentina’s economy fair in the next 5 years?  Much has to do with who takes power in elections next year.  Kirchner is currently so popular, that we are going to analyze Argentina’s possibilities for sustaining growth over the next 5 years assuming that the current political and economic policies are continued. 

To get some perspective on this subject, we talked with Adel (for people back home - a local Argentine student).  We asked her, “Is Argentina’s current massive growth sustainable?”  The reply:  “Not likely.”  Not being a supporter of Kirchner, she views the government’s recent moves to block exports of beef and wheat as damaging for the economy in the long run.  She said the tight government control over the economy is not a bad thing, but she found it difficult to accept decisions that so directly negatively affect a sector of the population.  She commented on how hard the decisions are to make, pointing out that while high beef and bread prices are a bad thing for the Argentine people, not allowing them to export is a harsh punishment to certain sectors.  She also noted that these economic decisions are being made by people who are not experts in the industries they are limiting.  For example, limiting exports of wheat will not necessarily significantly lower the price of wheat because there are so many other components that make up the price, but the government officials see it more or less as a one-to-one ratio of limiting wheat exports to lowering the price of bread.  As an example of how difficult these decisions are, she said that the price of Buenos Aires public transportation could be raised because it is currently so cheap, but that the people of Buenos Aires would never allow it.  She concluded that both the people and the government are short-sighted, that the government will not make the tough calls that would hurt a little bit now, but be better for the future.  The best way to sustain growth would be to make tough decisions now that would slow growth somewhat, but would ultimately keep the highest level of growth for Argentina - "Ten years is nothing in the life of a country.” 

Our group agrees with Adel.  Kirchner is a very populist president, maintaining a large base of support through his popularity with the people.  This popularity has helped him consolidate power in his hodge-podge party and become a very powerful, effective president (the reduction of factionalism may even lead to a stronger party system).  But it also means that he is very sensitive to public opinion, not going against it often (a brilliant example:  the Papeleras conflict).  It contributes to a short-sightedness in decision-making required to win over the people and maintain support, evidenced in Kirchner’s administration through many (borderline pork) projects that are more or less quick fixes for social or economic problems, such as plan jefe and jefe de hogar (gov’t handouts of money and food), and halting exports of wheat and beef.  But how long can they be maintained? 

A system conducive to populist presidents is reinforced and exacerbated by the current culture in Argentina of the pueblo to turn to the government when it has problems.  In the United States, there is a culture of self-sufficiency - if you want your wages increased, take it up with your employer or change jobs.  Our pluralistic system of government works through lobbying and lobbyists and interest groups and writing letters to your senator - avenues of political participation that are docile and not very visible.  The unions are so powerful here in BA and so many people work for the state that protests or strikes staged to influence the government to do something in their favor are ubiquitous.  A populist president encourages this type of political participation, while at the same time this type of participation forces (or at least makes it very easy for) the president to be populist, to gain his power directly from answering people’s very outspoken demands.  A vicious cycle that perpetuates this Argentine situation! 

An issue related to rule-by-Populism:  many Argentines (such as JB’s family in Buenos Aires) believe that Democracy is still non-existent in their country.  A government with firmly established institutions and who is not governing through populism would be better able to make the tough calls that would be unpopular at the time, but would be viewed down the road as astute. 

Kirchner’s policies are not putting Argentina in nearly as bad a situation as Menem’s - most importantly because Kirchner is avoiding massive debt, especially IMF loans.  But Argentina’s economy is being artificially propped up right now through heavy-handed government intervention, and though we do not expect it to crash as it did after Menem’s term, we do expect the economy to slow down a bit once these short-sighted controls are forced to end. 

On the brighter side, trade in Latin America looks poised to go nowhere but up and the trade situation in particular for Argentina is promising.  The expansion of Mercosur, combined with the spread of Anti-US feelings and rejection of Western intervention, will lead to an increased economic integration of Latin America.  This means more open markets (within the continent), more specialization, and reduction of tariffs (again, within the continent). 

Furthermore, Argentina, with its weak currency, has booming exports with a myriad of countries.  If another economic recession were to hit Brazil or another major trading partner, it would not be as devastating for Argentina - Argentina doesn’t have all its eggs in one basket, persay.

If Uruguay wins the Papeleras fight and its economy begins to boom, this will add a successful country to fuel Mercosur, in turn fueling Argentina’s growth and providing another trading partner.

On a bigger level, historical trends are in Argentina’s favor - boom, bust, boom, bust.  The cycles last much more than 5 years, and Argentina is still right in the middle of an upswing that should take it well beyond 5 years, hopefully stabilizing and leaving the cycle.

manteiga says:
Hola Sr. Derek!
Just wanted to say I've enjoyed reading about your experiences in and some of the politics surrounding BA. Keep on having a great summer!
-Alicia :)
Posted on: Jun 06, 2006