By Henry Reichard
The man had been born in Argentina, but his manner was unmistakably estadounidense. One could hear the taint of those years he had spent in the United States in his voice — in his ability to seamlessly shift from a husky Argentine Spanish to a businessman’s crisp English mid-sentence, in the impatience he spoke with in both languages, in the curt and peremptory way he addressed his underlings, for whom he never seemed to have much regard. But the underlings had also sensed it in his obvious disdain for their nocturnal hours, which rarely permitted them to arrive at the institute before 10:00 a.m., yet frequently allowed them to leave as early as 4:00 p.m. They had known it was growing when he instituted a mandatory check-in at the entrance, as a means of ensuring that everyone worked a full eight hours. And they had become unable to bear it any longer when he began, stealthily at first, then rapidly and unabashedly, to dismiss those employees who were, in his opinion, superfluous. Gabriel Sánchez Zinny was clearly competent, was the picture of prim professionalism, and was also, within a year of becoming director of the Argentine National Institute of Technical Education, wildly unpopular. I mention him not because he has any sort of international significance, but rather because he was always, for me, the nearest face of the political and economic reforms that have been reshaping Argentina ever since the election of its most recent president, Mauricio Macri.
I met Gabriel while working as an intern at the institute in the summer after my freshman year, only half-a-year after Macri had been elected president in December 2015, and I soon discovered that the director was even more impatient with the faltering Spanish of a native-born estadounidense than he was with the speech of his Argentine employees. I only spoke with him on a handful of occasions; on all of them, he quickly decided to address me in English. He had been appointed a few months before I arrived, and his reforms at the institute were only a small part of the larger reforms Macri was implementing across the country — reforms aimed at curbing a national government that had, in Macri’s opinion, become bloated and overbearing under his predecessor, Cristina Kirchner.
Macri’s victory in the December election had been close, and many Argentines were still not sure how they felt about him. Some were concerned that his reforms might destabilize the temperamental Argentine economy. A few even feared that they might lead to an economic collapse like the one in 2001, which had forced Argentina to default on its foreign loans. It was hard to think back on those years of widespread poverty, on the political turmoil so frenetic that the presidency had once changed hands three times in twelve days, on the economic uncertainty that was even worse than the hyperinflation of the 1990s, without having to silently suppress a shudder. No Argentines wanted to risk revisiting those days, so in his own country Macri’s reception was ambivalent. Outside of Argentina, however, his election was typically acknowledged with a silent but heartfelt hallelujah.
His election was greeted most enthusiastically by certain US hedge funds that had, for fifteen years now, held on to defaulted bonds from 2001 and lobbied unsuccessfully to make the Argentine government repay them in full. Cristina Kirchner had called these funds vultures saying that they were holding the Argentine economy captive, particularly after they started seizing Argentine property abroad to make their point. But Macri — a president with a self-professed commitment to repairing Argentina’s fraught economic relationships — might be willing to strike a deal. His election was cheered by many foreign businesses, who hoped the new president would relax the stifling tariffs implemented by his predecessor. And it was greeted with cautious optimism by some foreign economists who had taken an interest in Argentina’s singular history, and who wondered if Macri might finally be the president who reversed an extended decline that had, by now, lasted for nearly a hundred years.
A street mural in Buenos Aires. One of the captions translates to “When tyranny is law, rebellion is justice.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, when its per capita income was the seventh highest in the world, when it was one of the world’s top five exporters, when its literacy rate was 65% — a level that most Latin American countries would not match even fifty years later — there seemed to be little doubt that Argentina would soon become a global power. Looking back, economists still argue about what went wrong. The fall began with the Great Depression, which hit Argentina harder than most countries, not only destabilizing its economy but also initiating ten years of political instability and repression that is now referred to by Argentines simply as the “Infamous Decade.” The ensuing years were marked by political and economic instability, frequent coups d’état, and rampant inflation rates that only occasionally dropped below the double digits and, in 1990, briefly peaked at a little over 20,000%. The default in 2001 was perhaps an all-time low; afterwards, first Néstor Kirchner and then his wife, Cristina Kirchner, were able to partially repair the ruined Argentine economy.
But the Kirchners’ heavy-handed regulation of currency exchange rates and international trade, coupled with the enduring stigma of the default, made it hard for Argentina to rebuild relationships with foreign countries. Furthermore, under Cristina the government concealed a level of corruption that could have humbled Nixon. Perhaps one could overlook the fact that José López, the Kirchner’s former secretary of public works, was arrested in June 2016 while attempting to hide more than two hundred pounds of paper money and luxury items within the grounds of a convent. But it was difficult for even the most permissive Argentine to ignore the allegation that Cristina had arranged the murder of prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18, 2015 — the day before he was planning to deliver evidence that would, he claimed, prove that Cristina had collaborated with Iran to conceal its involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Macri was not entirely clean himself, having several questionable business relations, but he was certainly cleaner than Cristina. That was part of the reason why he was able to win an upset victory over Cristina’s political successor from the Justicialist Party in 2015, running on a reform-based campaign and on a promise to return Argentina to what it once had been.
Walking around the crowded streets of Buenos Aires, it is hard to avoid seeing remnants of this Argentina that was. There is the famous Teatro Colón completed in 1908: a massive opera house of grey concrete with space for 3500 spectators and acoustics good enough to make it one of the five best concert venues in the world. There is the Ateneo Grand Splendid opened in 1919: a theater-turned-library with gracefully curving balconies, a frescoed and dome-shaped ceiling, and an elegant cafe set within the former stage (the cafe is almost elegant enough to justify the pomposity of the library’s name). Of course there are also the shantytowns that one tries to ignore on the outskirts of the city, the beggars sitting on the sides of streets perpetually littered with caca, the ATMs that sometimes do not work because the banks have not supplied them with enough money, the little children who seem to be on every subway and who walk along trying to sell you one-dollar pencils, or fifty-cent hair ties, or jolly ranchers from a large bag for a quarter apiece. They are all a part of Buenos Aires, just as the Teatro and the Ateneo are a part, and they all must weigh heavily on the mind of any politician who seeks to reform the country.
A mural on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The caption on the lower banner translates to “One people, all the voices.”
So far, Macri’s reforms seem to be helping the country. His deregulation of the peso initially sent inflation up to a precarious 40%, but since then it has dropped to a more moderate 22% — less than it was at the end of Cristina’s presidency. He has succeeded in negotiating deals with many US hedge funds, most notably with Paul Singer’s Elliott Management, and his removal of many export tariffs and of controlled pricing has opened up the Argentine economy to international trade. His party’s decisive victories in the midterm elections of last October, particularly in Buenos Aires, are interpreted by many as a referendum on these successes.
Yet Macri’s popularity in his home country continues to be tenuous, and most Argentines — who learned long ago that their country’s economy was about as predictable as a tropical storm — refrain from premature optimism. Recently, I contacted my old homestay in Buenos Aires — a kind and old Argentine man named Luis who lives with his wife Marcela in a small apartment near the Teatro Colón. “¿Soy optimista?” he reiterated over the telephone, his voice just as gravelly and perhaps a little more tired than I remembered it, when I asked him if he was optimistic about his country’s future. “Well, I want to be. But…” And launching off that “but,” he told me how Macri’s deregulation of the exchange rate has made the dollar, which was worth about thirteen pesos when I was in Argentina, now worth closer to twenty; told me how everything is more expensive than it was six months ago, which has been a basic fact of existence for his entire life; told me how almost all of his friends are constantly trying to exchange their pesos for dollars, since they cannot be sure that the former will retain half of its present value within a year. “En Argentina, no vivimos. Sobrevivimos,” he concluded wearily. “In Argentina, we don’t live. We survive.”
Simply surviving for a while, though, is what many experts say will be necessary if Argentina wishes to regain its former prosperity. There is little consensus regarding what caused the country’s long decline in the 20th century, but most economists (at least, most foreign economists) will tell you without hesitation that Argentina would be better off now if the Kirchners had spent less money on welfare programs for poor Argentines and had committed more of their country’s capital to paying back US hedge funds. A 2014 article in The Economist, titled simply “The Tragedy of Argentina: A Century of Decline,” ends saying that
“Argentines themselves must also change. The Kirchners’ redistributive policies have helped the poor, but goodies such as energy subsidies have been doled out to people who do not really need them. Persuading the population to embrace the concept of necessary pain will be difficult…because reform requires [Argentines] to confront their own unprecedented decline. No other country came so close to joining the rich world, only to slip back. Understanding why is the first step to a better future.”
Reading these words, I was reminded that sometimes it was easy — remarkably easy, in fact — for a young estadounidense working at a summer internship in Argentina to learn about the country’s long and colorful history of corruption, its irresponsible economic policies, its inexplicable failure to join the developed world, and to begin looking down on the argentinos that bustled against him on the streets. Sometimes it was possible for him and his friends to forget the unspoken argentino maxim that an estadounidense was, as a rule, arrogant until proven otherwise. (“They even call themselves Americans in their own language,” the argentinos would mutter, “as if theirs were the only country on the entire continent.”) And sometimes, when the estadounidenses forgot, and spoke more freely about Argentina than they usually did, and began referring to themselves simply as americanos, certain argentinos would look at them askance, and would ask about a certain radical who, as they had heard it, was achieving a remarkable level of popularity in the Estados Unidos.
“No,” the estadounidenses would always reply when this man was mentioned, shaking their heads and laughing. “Trump no puede volverse presidente de los Estados Unidos. Es Imposible.”
Footnote: Trump can not become the President of the United States. It is impossible.
Henry Reichard ‘19 is a Math and Physics major in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.