It’s awkward for me to write something that might discourage people from traveling to the countries where I work, especially since that might discourage them from buying my books and other products, but it would be negligent to ignore what’s gone on the last few days in Argentina. Most notably, in the Patagonian resort city of San Carlos de Bariloche, there’s been systematic looting of supermarkets and other businesses, but the problem has since spread to suburban Buenos Aires, the city of Rosario, and other localities.
While Bariloche’s reputation is that of an elite getaway, its southern suburbs – known as the “Alto” – consist of deplorable shantytowns in what has become a classic juxtaposition of haves and have-nots. As always, in this polarized and politically dysfunctional country, there is a partisan element to the disorder, though it’s not entirely clear who’s to blame and who’s to restore order. The federal government blames the political opposition and, most notably, teamster’s union leader Hugo Moyano. It has sent in 400 Gendarmes (roughly comparable to the US National Guard) to control the normally peaceful streets along the Lago Nahuel Huapi shoreline.
Moyano, who has challenged the government to arrest him if it has proof, has about as much reformist credibility as the late Jimmy Hoffa, but there are unmistakable political elements in the crisis. Moyano, a former ally of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has fallen out with her and since organized a general strike and protests in Buenos Aires’s central Plaza de Mayo. The confrontational Fernández, whose popularity and power are declining despite an impressive re-election victory in late 2011, cannot run again unless there’s a constitutional amendment (which her partisans are aggressively lobbying for).
Argentine politics, for better or worse (usually worse), often plays out in the streets rather than in weak institutions such as the Congress, so it’s possible to interpret the current disorder as an early manifestation of the battle for succession even though the next presidential election is nearly three years away.
One friend of mine, who lives in Bariloche's prosperous western outskirts, observes that the looting “seems to be organized” and that a group called Primero de Mayo operates with the support of city mayor Omar Goye, who is a “Kirchnerite” but not, apparently, a supporter of the president. At the same time, Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli is a conservative Peronist who, while publicly supporting the president, has taken a hard line against looters in the Greater Buenos Aires suburbs of Campana and San Fernando. The president’s close advisers mistrust Scioli, who served as vice-president under her husband, the late Néstor Kirchner, and has presidential ambitions of his own.
Another friend, from Buenos Aires, has summarized his opinion of the current crisis, emphasizing that in his opinion “This is not going to blow up. This is not 2001 [when the country suffered a complete economic and political meltdown]. The Peronists are in charge, and they’re not going to let things get out of control.”
Still, he sees serious problems that are going unaddressed: “Bariloche has more than 40 percent of its population below the poverty line…On my last trip, I saw them making houses out of produce crates.” Also, he adds, there is a culture of impunity from the top to the bottom, as “Last week a mob of 20 guys destroyed the Casa de Tucumán [the local office of the provincial government in the capital] with no arrests. Why not loot, if there are no consequences?”
On another issue, he emphasizes, “The most important factor is inflation. Cristina has said ‘If we had 25 percent inflation, the country would explode,’ and she was right.” In addition, he says, this is “a government more worried about its power struggle with Clarín [the country’s most important media conglomerate] than with the people’s real problems (inflation, unemployed youth and personal security).”
Still, as he maintains, a disorderly collapse like that of 2001 is unlikely. Even in contentious places like today’s Bariloche, this is unlikely to cause more than minor inconveniences, and the best advice is to steer clear of political demonstrations unless you really understand what’s going on. If you don’t understand what’s going on, well, you’re not alone.