Argentina’s economic crisis through the myopic lens of the New York Times
Journalists often say that journalism is a “first rough draft of history”, though most often as a defense against criticism of poorly researched articles. Still, even with the limits of time and resources that make in-depth reporting difficult, I would expect and hope that any journalist making a claim to be creating that “first rough draft” would have at least a basic knowledge of the history of the subject that she or he is reporting upon.
Enter the New York Times’ recent article by Peter S. Goodman on Argentina’s “economic misery” which manages to make a mishmash of Argentine history in order to make an awkward argument against the possible return of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in the coming elections. During her two terms in office (2008 – 2015), the Times showed great disdain and little understanding of Argentina’s first elected women president.
Since my aim at BA City Guide is to illuminate Argentine history, culture and daily life, rather than writing a long rambling essay in response to the article, I will just pick five points with the aim of giving you a more complex and nuanced portrait of Argentina. (Because that is why I am here.)
First, Peronism and left wing populism. Goodman claims the current “President Mauricio Macri has broken with the budget-busting populism that has dominated Argentina for much of the past century”, but the fact is that populism “budget-busting” or otherwise has simply not dominated Argentine politics consistently throughout the last century. The only periods we could really call “populist” are the three presidencies of Juan Domingo Peron, from 1946 to 1955, when he was removed by a violent military coup, and 1973-74, and the Kirchnerist period from 2003-2015. If anything much of the second half of the 20th Century was dominated right wing military coups including the last civic-military dictatorship (1976-1983) which disappeared 30,000 citizens.
Second, who is President Macri and where did he come from? The article paints a picture of Mauricio Macri around his election claims to be a reformer, but the author neglects to discuss Macri’s own history or how he came to power. President Macri was born into wealth, an empire that his father, Francisco Macri, built largely through business dealings with the military dictatorship during the 1970s. That is, the man who “would cease the reckless spending” of Argentina came to power on a fortune that was made by government spending, with no transparency or accountability. I believe we refer to it in the U.S. as “crony capitalism”.
Third, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her indictments for corruption. Strangely the article mentions the indictments against Fernandez de Kirchner, none of which have been decided upon so these are still allegations, but does not mention that Macri had many more indictments against him, and that these were resolved in his favor after he became president, a number by judges he had promoted. I am not claiming that Fernandez de Kirchner is innocent or guilty, but I would have hoped that a journalist reporting on a president who claimed he would end corruption would at least mention that evidence was brought against him in the Panama Papers about undeclared offshore funds, as well as well substantiated cases of wiretapping against his political enemies.
Fourth, the Vulture Funds! How did an economic correspondent for the New York Times like Peter S. Goodman forget to mention the 2.4 billion dollar debt that President agreed to pay after 12 years of resistance?! President Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007) managed to renegotiate 93% of Argentina’s debt. 7% though was bought up by a number of “vulture funds”, most famously Elliott Management, which specializes in buying distressed securities. The Kirchnerist governments refused to pay this debt at the originally negotiated rate even after losing in the U.S. appellate court in New York in what was regarded by some to be “the sovereign debt trial of the century.” When Macri came into office he capitulated to Elliott’s demands with the aim of getting better access to foreign markets, but the decision put Argentina in a much worse debt situation than any of the social welfare and subsidization funding by the Kirchner’s. How can anyone attempt to understand the current economic crisis without including a USD 2.4 billion increase in debt that will take Argentina a century to pay off?!
Fifth, “a century ago, Argentina was among the wealthiest nations on earth.” Well, yes, and no. Indeed, Argentina grew enormously in terms of wealth and population during the golden age (1880 – 1920), but this was not something that could be sustained indefinitely. And whereas, farmer Roque Tropini who is quoted in the article is proud to believe that Argentine was turned into prosperity by the backbreaking labor of pioneers like his grandfather, the reporter – who I would hope would present a more complex vision – should mention a history of loans and trade negotiations with the British and a period of immigration and investment that ended with the Great Depression and the beginning of the “infamous decade” which was marked by military rule. This golden age has become a myth in Argentina of a period that we could somehow return to, “if only…” but it ignores the mass exodus out of Europe during this period and the great need of Europeans to import agricultural product from places like the U.S. and Argentina.
But what is saddest to me about the article is that it was written by an “economic correspondent” who has no experience in South America. His NYT bio states that he is based in London, was previously based in New York, and spent six years in Shanghai. You would think the NYT would care enough about Argentina to actually assign such a lengthy report to someone who had understanding and experience with the economy upon which he is reporting. Or maybe you wouldn’t.