Argentine politics and whatnot

Buenos Aires Travel Blog

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The most notable thing about this week's adventures in Argentina was the visit to the Congress. Yes, we visited a nuclear power plant this week too, but the legislative process is a bit more familiar to me than fusion. Or is it fission? I'm not an engineer...

I digress: The visit to the Congress shed light on similarities and differences to the American system. We met the leader of the opposition Radical party, who noted that it's extremely difficult to achieve anything legislatively in the opposition. In the American system, the party out of power cannot, obviously, introduce legislation and expect for it to pass -- but they can certainly bollocks up the works for the party in power. Specifically, in the U.S. Senate, the 60-vote requirement to break a filibuster makes passing any law difficult.

It was also interesting to hear how the president quite easily gets his way in terms of legislation. The opposition leader told us that he could not recall a time in his lengthy political career where a law with strong presidential backing did not pass. That is certainly not true in the U.S. During the first six years of Bush's presidency, he was lucky to have a Republican-dominated Congress willing, often, to rubber stamp Bush's initiatives. With the change in both chambers, President Bush is having a tougher time.

The strong presidential system in Argentina also indicates the relative weakness of other institutions like the legislature and the courts. This, too, is distinct from the American system -- though the debate rages in the U.S. about how much power Bush is consolidating in the American presidency. I can see how a stronger-presidency system would have benefits in efficiently realizing legislative outcomes. That is, in the American system the Congress debates endlessly and bills are larded up with pork. The downside, obviously, is the old bromide: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The last curiousity of Argentine politics is Peronism. So what is Peronism? I don't think anyone really knows; some kind of populist notion of Argentine political identity. I asked a couple Argentines what they think it is and they didn't seem to know, either. But Peronism has been a fixture of politics here for more than 60 years. We read in the book, "A Funny, Dirty Little War," that a generation ago aspiring politicians attempted to out-Peronist. The funny thing: very lean on specifics.

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The key difference between Argentina and Chile lies in their economic strategies. The models each nation employs suit their political and geographic situations. Each country also has a peculiar heritage that also accounts for its behavior in the economic sphere. In terms of heritage and culture, Argentines and their government fancy themselves among the elites in the region. Argentines expect to be recognized as regional leaders and act accordingly. They expect to be recognized for their contributions in the sciences and their economic clout -- especially when compared to other Latin and South American countries. Chile, on the other hand, pursues a strategy that reflects its peculiar circumstances. Chile's most notable characteristic is its slender shape and mountainous terrain. Such terrain makes a Chile a more isolated nation, with the connections between destinations within the country characterized by difficult, mountainous travel. Chile's economic strategy in a certain sense reflects this isolated character. The nation's leaders seek to maximize their opportunities by dealing with countries on a bilateral level, rather than through multi-lateral institutions like the Argentines.
Economically, Argentina in many ways demonstrates a more favorable economic sitation. It is the world's eight largest country and has a long coastline like Chile with mountains, grassland and vast rivers. It has extensive network of roads, rail and electricity to facilitate economic growth. It competes in agricultural commodities all the way up the value chain to include advanced technological services such as nuclear power and satellite services. Nevertheless, Argentina must compete with first world nations in this area while its endowment of wealth reflects a more third world status. Further, in the agricultural area, Argentina must compete against the U.S. and E.U. nations and their enormous agricultural subsidies. Thus, Argentina must be nimble in the spheres where it competes.  We saw this particularly demonstrated in national investments in its technological sector. Representatives from the state firm INVAP SE discussed how their local state government with national support created a company that competes in the nuclear business with successful niche applications. INVAP officials explained how they were successful in selling research reactors with applications in the sciences and medicine. Recently INVAP signed a $160 million deal to build such a reactor in Australia. Argentina has also sold technology to Peru, Algeria and Egypt.  Company officials noted that Argentina lacks sufficient capital and expertise to compete in nuclear power generation, but its efforts in the niche of research reactor construction demonstrate Argentina's nimble competitiveness and willingness to support advanced technological industries.
In addition, Argentina has also been very proactive with nuclear nonproliferation.  In 1967, Argentina was one of five countries in Latin America to sign The Treaty of Tlatelololco in 1967, establishing a nuclear  free trade zone.  This treaty was the first of its kind in the world.  In 1991, Argentina also signed ABACC (Brazil-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials).  The highlight of ABACC lies in its peaceful purpose.
Chile's strategy is markedly different. Officials from the Chilean foreign ministry explained how they've worked a series of bilateral trading agreements, especially with the U.S., that facilitates trade in their commodities -- especially currently high-priced copper. In recent years the Chileans have signed dozens of such deals while staying only peripherally involved with regional trading groups like MercoSur. Nations in this trading block are required to accept regional tariffs and budget restrictions, and the Chileans don't feel it's in their best interests to follow such a regime. This strategy has extensively advanced Chile's relationship with the U.S., which has gone beyond trade and into close military ties.


In contrast to Argentina, Chile is little developed in the area of nuclear energy.  However, despite previous territorial disputes, Argentine officials are ready to cooperate and sell nuclear technology with Chile.  Officials in Argentina are well aware that Chile has to import much of its fuel.  Argentina has much to gain in resources should Chile request this trade. 


What partially may account for Chile’s history of bilateral deal-making is their war with Peru in Bolivia. Just before the turn of the 19th Century, British commercial interests operated in disputed territory between the Chileans and Bolivians under Chilean authority – due to its relative political stability. When the Bolivians demanded taxes were due from the British Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company that refused to pay them, the Bolivian government threatened to confiscate its property. Chile responded by sending a warship to the area in December 1878. Bolivia announced the seizure and auction of the company for February 14, 1879. Chile threatened a military relation, and soon its threat would be put to the test. Peru was dragged into the conflict due to a secret treaty they made with Bolivia in mutual defense against the Chileans. Argentina entered the story after Chile settled a series of land disputes with Argentina on terms favorable to the Argentines to keep the Argentines from fighting against Chile. The strategy worked, however the cessions to Argentina kept Chile from acquiring valuable agricultural lands throughout the country that may have led to further development.


Today, however, Argentina and Chile (and other neighboring nations) had a very similar history. Both had military juntas take over for elected governments, which eventually led to a return to democracy. Their departure from the regimes occurred under much different circumstances, however. The Argentine military junta succumbed to a series of embarrassments: domestically with its famed “dirty war” and internationally with its catastrophic invasion of the Falklands and subsequent war with Britain. The Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, was an international pariah, but eventually ceded his dictatorship peacefully to popular sovereignty via a referendum. Today, Argentine democracy is apparently more inclusive of a variety of parties while the Chilean system tends to disenfranchise young voters who feel the system does not represent their interests. 

In conclusion, Argentina's and Chile's economic culture reflects each nation's unique history and geography. Through time, however, politics and geography merged to bring both nations into a common bond. Today, we find that Argentina and Chile want to follow separate paths to development. Argentina wants to assert its regional clout in the multilateral arena while Chile wants to capitalize on its unique allocation of natural resources to maximize its opportunities. In both cases, we see how the forces of history, geography and politics shaped the two nations to become what they are today.


The free week and week four in Argentina for me were slightly less eventful in a certain sense, but more interesting in others. Unlike the other members of the group, I stayed in Buenos Aires during the free week, mostly to rest from a very busy week in Chile where, among many rewarding and edifying activities, I caught a cold. I also have a friend here who I originally met in Atlanta who's been showing me around town. She's off to Israel soon for a month so we decided to hang out these past couple weeks. We went to a milonga (tango bar) and the little resort town of El Tigre.

I feel a little strange about writing the following, but my inner journalist compels me to write about my experiences warts and all. My friend who's going to Israel is, not surprisingly, Jewish. One evening we went out and met some folks who were celebrating another guy's birthday. The birthday boy was a bit imbibed, and littered his conversation with her with some anti-semetic comments. And he continued even after she told him she's Jewish. She explained to me later that such is life in Argentina, and tries to maintain a positive attitude. Another friend of mine was riding a train when he noticed an orthodox Jew dressed in the traditional way -- beard, dark suit and hat, and so on. A man on the train was giving this guy a hard time about how Jews cause all the problems in the world. The man had a similar attitude: that such is life in Argentina. I like 98 percent of Argentines am Catholic, and note that the Holy Roman Apostolic Church has pursued policies that I don't recall reading in the Gospel -- and in Argentina especially. Ariel Sharon had his issues, too, but my friend and the guy on the subway probably weren't directly responsible for his behavior.

This is not to suggest that a lot of people here are anti-semetic. I don't believe that's true, partly because there is such a large established Jewish community. However, there seems to be a willingness by the few who have openly hostile views not to keep certain sentiments to themselves. There doesn't seem to be the same social pressure in Argentina as there is in the U.S. -- where of course anti-semitism exists -- not to make such statements publicly. This is obviously not good. On the positive side of the ledger, however, the politicians make a point to visit the Jewish neighborhoods when campaigning -- encouraging their constituents to respect different races, cultures, religions, etc. I also saw a notice in a restaurant, citing a national law, against discrimination of any sort. In spite of a few bad apples, civil society nevertheless reigns in Buenos Aires. My overall impressions remain overwhelmingly positive, but suffice to say this ain't Ft. Lauderdale.