Support 100 years of independent journalism.

14 January 2002

How viveza brought down a nation

Argentina's plight should be a warning to us all, argues John Carlin: a get-rich-quick mentality lea

By John Carlin

One of life’s great puzzles for the man on the Buenos Aires omnibus is why Argentina, which has everything going for it, is such a basket case, while Japan, seemingly having so little, has been such a success.

Japan is a densely populated archipelago scarce in natural resources whose society is hierarchically structured and whose politics – until not all that long ago – was quaintly feudal. Argentina is a vast, empty, fertile land unfairly blessed not only with oil and gas, but with a people whose standard of education is the highest in Latin America, and whose habits of thought and tastes in clothes, food, fashion and the arts are entirely European.

Yet Japan is the supermodern, democratically stable, capitalist colossus; Argentina has spent the past 50 years manically see- sawing from bust to boom and bust again, from properly elected governments to military coups and banana republic dictatorships. (True, Japan has been suffering prolonged recession, but its continued prosperity and stability only underline the contrast.)

The man on the omnibus (an unusually well-off type, in truth, as few can afford the fares any more) will be quick to remind us – for like all Argentinians he is a proud man, rather superior in his bearing – that there was a time when things did follow the natural order. In 1908, Argentina, the eighth-richest country in the world, had a per capita GDP higher than Germany, France and Holland – never mind Japan, which trailed far behind. Twenty years later, Argentina, now also a flourishing democracy, continued to cruise along at number 12 in the world rankings, still comfortably ahead of Japan, and miles ahead of Italy and Spain – the two backward nations from which immigrants poured into Argentina a century ago, and to which many of their children, rummaging frantically in cupboards for ancient birth certificates, want to return today.

Few place much faith in Eduardo Duhalde, Argentina’s fifth president this festive season, or in the protectionist measures he has announced, the first consequence of which was a dramatic devaluation of the peso. An old friend in Buenos Aires sent me an e-mail describing Duhalde “as yet another Peronist char-latan” and anticipating “the disappearance of ‘Argentinian civilisation’, as happened with the Etruscans”. My friend is a doctor and mother of two children. Her husband owns a jewellery shop. About two months ago, they were forced by lack of funds to abandon their flat and move in with her mother.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Her predicament is utterly typical, and so is her pessimism. Maybe Duhalde will prove her wrong in the short term, but it is certain that financial measures alone will not be enough. As Felipe Gonzalez, the former Spanish prime minister and a close observer of Argentinian affairs, said recently, “the problem is not economic . . . Despite the depth and gravity of the economic, social and financial crisis, the problem is political.”

By which he meant that it is not the latest batch of politicians, as most Argentinians appear to believe, that is to blame, however corrupt and larcenous they might have been. It is the Argentinians themselves who bear the responsibility for their predicament.

What is their problem? As the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, the city with the highest ratio of psychoanalysts in the world, would be sure to point out, it is manifold and deep. Reduced to its essentials, however, it is this: an abysmal lack of national consensus, of patriotic purpose, of social solidarity.

No shortage, on the other hand, of nationalistic posturing. I last lived in Argentina between 1979 – when the military regime of Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri and co, the most Nazi-ish of all Latin American juntas of the time, was at the height of its power – and 1982, when Mrs Thatcher and her Task Force did the Argentinian public the service (as yet unacknowledged) of disposing of the military and ushering in an era, uninterrupted as I write, of civilian rule. One episode from that period has always stayed with me.

In 1980, a visiting team of English rugby players, called “the Penguins”, climbed a wall one drunken night and stole an Argentinian flag. The news made indignant front-page headlines all over the country. A couple of days later, an English friend of mine who was living in Buenos Aires spoke of the incident to a friend, in English, in a crowded bus. My friend expressed his surprise at all the fuss being made over a stolen flag when no one – not in the press, not anywhere – was even mentioning Argentina’s 20,000 or so stolen people. Suddenly a middle-aged gent who understood English and had overheard the conversation leapt to his feet, explained its gist to the assembled passengers and shouted to the driver: “Sir, stop this bus immediately! This man has insulted our holy fatherland. He must get off the bus now!” The driver did as he was told and so, to warm applause, did my offending friend.

Almost as depressing as what the military were then doing was the head-in-the-sand complicity of the public, the selfish disregard for the horrors – the tortures and “disappearances” – that so many of their compatriots were enduring. The point was reinforced in April 1982 by the fervour with which hundreds of thousands gathered at the Plaza de Mayo to celebrate the junta’s transparently expedient “recovery” of the Malvinas.

Part of Argentina’s problem arises from the absence of a history around which principled patriotic sentiment – as opposed to flag-waving cant – can flower. The pitiful truth is that were it not for the official myth of eternal enmity towards the English, a people for whom many Argentinians actually feel a cringing admiration, there would be little on which to hang the sky-blue and white Argentinian flag. As a British child growing up in Argentina during the 1960s, it was with some confusion that I responded to the daily reminders at school about the “piratical” nature of los ingleses and that I memorised the details of Argentina’s most memorable martial feats, their Agincourts, their Waterloos – the two “invasiones inglesas” of Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807, landings (they did really happen) by British sailors and red-coated marines which the Argentinian citizenry pluckily repelled.

Yet a short and not particularly interesting history does not entirely account for, much less does it excuse, today’s sorry state of affairs. Otherwise you would have to ask why Australia (another country that offers a painfully illuminating contrast) is such a prosperous and stable place.

A large part of the answer to the Argentinian conundrum lies in the aspirations of the immigrants who arrived at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Whereas those who went (voluntarily) to Australia, as to the United States, did so with the intention, by and large, of settling, those who went to Argentina usually did so with the intention of becoming very wealthy very soon. They called it “hacer la America” – “to make your America”. The idea was to return home to Calabria or Galicia after a few years of hard work enviably loaded with cash.

Only a small minority succeeded. Those condemned to stay behind have bequeathed to modern Argentinians a set of characteristics that distinguish them from all other Latin Americans: an indelible nostalgia for Europe coupled with a southern European contempt for the US; a deep frustration that, by some error of God, in GarcIa Marquez’s phrase, they have ended up living not on the Mediterranean, but on the southern tip of South America; an adolescent longing for the idea that the miracle that evaded their ancestors will happen to them and that they will get rich quick.

That is, in large part, the secret of the abiding success of the Peronist party. The reason Juan Domingo Peron and his wife Evita came to power in 1945, remained there for ten years and have never left the hearts of at least half the Argentinian population is that they offered to make true the Argentinian Dream. Vote for us, went their message, and all of you – every single one of you – will win the Lottery. And indeed, for a while, Argentina, brimming with beef and grain, reaped a post-Second World War peace dividend. But the illusion of prosperity ended once the nations of the north got back on their feet, whereupon Peron was ousted in a coup.

Whether it is Peron’s legacy or whether it is something that comes from deeper within, Argentina’s tragic flaw is the corrupt ineptitude of its dominant national ethic. While in countries such as Japan and the US – the most apt and dramatic counterpoint of all to Argentina’s historic failure – the virtue that society holds in highest esteem is honest toil, in Argentina the attribute that generates the greatest degree of admiration is what they call “viveza“. Or, to use its more common adjectival form, to be “vivo“. Which means, literally, to be alive, but its real meaning is a form of cunning or sharpness or quickness of mind in which cheating, whether by beating the system or making a fool out of an individual, is the defining ingredient.

A good example would be Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, which he explained in a documentary for Channel 4 last year in terms of pickpocketing – an art which, he said, Argentinians held in high esteem. So the most idolised individual in Argentina since Evita Peron sees no contradiction between praising the viveza of the pickpocket and denouncing the “thieves” who, as he and the majority of his compatriots never tire of saying, have run the country these last 50 years.

What all this translates into is a society where, with undoubtedly many honourable exceptions, the prevailing objective – the big idea – is to succeed by one’s wits with a minimum investment of time and energy. Regrettably, Argentina’s unique 20th-century trajectory from developed to (putting it very kindly) developing nation shows that short cuts don’t work. To sustain success a nation needs to work hard and pull together. As Felipe Gonzalez says, there is only one thing for it, to start from scratch and build a “New Argentina” around “a shared project, a great national accord”.

That will not be particularly comforting to the clever, fashionably dressed, oh- so-European idler on the Buenos Aires omnibus, though it does provide him with the answer to the Japanese puzzle. The lesson, quite encouraging for the rest of the planet, to be drawn from the Argentinian catastrophe is this: it is not the roulette of geography that shapes the fate of a nation so much as the will and the values of its people.

John Carlin writes for El Pais

Topics in this article: