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Argentina has often seemed a paradigmatic in Latin America, whether
in relation to the history of Peronist nationalist populism, the military
dictatorships of 1966 and 1976, or the democratic renaissance since 1983.
President Carlos Menem, who came to office in 1989, has been one of the
clearest examples of the national-populist-statist politician now turned
uncritical United States supporter/free marketeer. The economic "revolution"
is being carried out, however, by a still populist if not Peronist politician.
Often seen by political scientists as a paradoxical case, Argentina now seems
to provide a clear case study that may illuminate regional trends. In a broad
review article included in this issue I survey a dozen books in English and
Spanish that provide the necessary background; here I examine the thin,
anemic, distorted democracy now being consolidated in Argentina, which
may well be the face of the future for other countries.
M. A. Garreton (1994: 232) has argued that "in the wake of economic,
social, political and cultural transformations in the international context, a
new sociopolitical matrix appears to be emerging in Latin America." In
Argentina, where we have become used to history as cycles, we now seem
indeed to be witnessing the emergence of a new social regime of
accumulation and political matrix. If the cycle, the "impossible game" of
politics, has been broken, then the implications for a new critical Latin
American sociology (see Osorio, 1993) will indeed be significant. If we are
witnessing a democratic consolidation "of a special type," we are also now
seeing increasing disenchantment with democracy. Exploring the anatomy of
Menemism may lead us to a clearer understanding of the limits of the new
mood of democratic (read capitalist) triumphalism so prevalent in politics
and what passes for political analysis. The "transition to democracy" debates
have now been superseded in practice, and we need to examine the nature
and contradictions of the democratic consolidation and the new democratic
Norberto Lechner, in a wide-ranging review of the "democratic decade,"
has suggested that "the reinstatement of democracy reflects above all the
yearning for a restored sense of community" (Lechner, 1991: 548). This
analysis springs from a belief that the 1980s represented a crisis similar to
that of the 1930s, when intense socioeconomic transformations led to radical
political change, whether in the form of Satalinism, Keynesianism, or fascism.
Yet the intense capitalist restructuring of Latin America has led to social
disintegration with little sign of the new institutions and new mode of
political activity that were promised at the start of the democratic decade.
Political reform has been hindered by a system in which decrees prevail over
consultation and competition overrides cooperation. The new democratic
legitimacy that should have been built around political institutions that
futhered the deeply felt desire for citizenship has instead led to a shortcut
populism creating a fragile and false sense of cohesion and identity on the
basis of emotional appeals. This ultimately is the story of the transition
Alfonsin to Menem that I will now trace.
FROM ALFONSIN TO MENEM
The "decompression" of the military dictatorships of the 1970s began in
Brazil toward the end of the decade, but it was in Argentina in 1983 that the
first and most precipitate transition to democratic rule took place. When
President Raul Alfonsin took office in 1983 -- after defeating the Peronists,
who had been discredited by the chaotic governments of 1973-1976 -- there
was a great flourishing (even inflation) of democratic discourse in Argentina.
The constitution and the due process of law became, once again, important
symbols of political legitimacy. In a country where powerful nationalist
political movements (such as Peronism) and social corporations (such as the
trade unions and the military) held sway, the new mood imposed the primacy
of parliament and the rule of law. There was a virtual cultural pact between
the people and the political parties, or at least sections of them, centered
around the requirement of democratic institutions. As Isidoro Cheresky notes,
the year 1983, with the revalorization of the democratic ideal and the
of authoritarian projects and personalized powers, "seemed to provide
exceptionally favorable circumstances for the establishment of a new political
regime" (Cheresky, 1992: 10). But Alfonsin's regime was not to prove
foundational for a bold new democratic era.
This is not the place for a review of the Alfonsin period (see Epstein, 1992;
Nun and Portantiero, 1987). Alfonsin's campaign had stressed the negative
role of the "corporations," primarily those representing the military and labor,
which he accused of an unholy alliance. The novel (for Argentina) message
was that social demands should be articulated and mediated through the
political system. Governability in Argentina required a neutralization of
corporatism. However, the labor movement was divided and seemed unable
to assume the risks entailed by a non-Peronist government, and employers'
associations were loath to move beyond a zero-sum conception of economic
life. It was therefore impossible to move toward Alfonsin's and much of the
progressive intelligentsia's goal of a social and economic compromise to
consolidate democracy and prevent the recurrence of cyclical instability. The
emphasis on the political moment of the transition led to an underestimation
of the economic moment that was soon to dominate the scene.
The Plan Austral, launched in 1987, was designed to cut the inflationary
spiral with a price and wage freeze and a monetary reform that included a
new currency (see Canitrot, 1992). However, the very success, albeit
ephemeral, of he economic plan reduced the government's reformist will. Adolfo
Canitrot, himself involved in developing the plan, admits that the
government's policy in this regard "had the negative effect of gradually
its capabilities and reducing public confidence in the efficiency of the
institutions of representative democracy, in particular that of Congress and
the political parties" (1991: 129). From 1985 on, the gap between rhetoric
and reality could only grow, and the possibility of a coherent set of
reforms faded. The corporations set to defending their interests. The
organized labor movement carried out 13 general strikes under Alfonsin, in some
ways reminiscent of the period leading to the fall of the Illia government in
1966. For their part, the so-called captains of industry precipitated a virtual
economic coup in 1989 through frenetic financial speculations that led to the
collapse of the Plan Primavera. The state was bankrupt, inflation had reached
a staggering 4,000 percent, and Alfonsin's government had virtually
Carlos Menem took office in July 1989 promising a …