Mystery and myth: perspectives on Argentine politics and history

Reversal of Development in Argentina: Postwar Counterrevolutionary Policies and Their Structural Consequences, by Carlos Waisman. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 329 pp. $40 hard cover, $14.50 paperback. Why has Argentina flopped for some 40 years? From the Per'on dictatorship of 1946 to 1955, through the terrorism of the early 1970s and the bestial repression that followed, to the Falklands fiasco, Argentina has been a political and economic disaster.

Yet in the 1920s, it was far richer in natural resources, living standards, educational opportunities, and social mobility than most of Europe. Its politics were stable, its population - mere 10 million - both homogeneous and productive. If Brazil and Venezuela were essentially third-world countries, poor and authoritarian, Argentina was akin to Canada and Australia as ``a land of recent settlement'' by European immigrants seeking - and finding - a better life.

Then came a downward slide, beginning with the 1930s depression. It intensified under Per'on. ``The Argentine problem,'' with its riots, coups, juntas, and economic decline, had emerged. What had happened? Why? How? This difficult yet remarkably stimulating and often brilliant book offers some answers.

Be forewarned: It is difficult. Political sociology too often brings jargon, clumsy prose, and excessive theorizing in its wake. The sociopolitical concepts fly thick and fast: inclusion and exclusion, moderate and all-out repression, ``demonstration effects'' (say, the impact of the Spanish Civil War on Argentine thinking), anarchism, socialism, corporatism, oligarchical and democratic liberalism, and so on.

So jump ship if Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Barrington Moore are unknowns, or if abstract analysis of group and class rivalries is heavy going. But come aboard if your game is politics as a zero-sum battle, a shifting parallelogram of forces, with the democratic consensus dissolving as Argentines responded fearfully to the dangerous world of the 1930s and '40s.

Carlos Waisman is as good at tracking those responses as he is at demolishing superficial interpretations of the problem. There is the neo-Marxist ``dependency'' theory of Gunder Frank and others, which portrays Argentina as a mere pawn on the capitalist chessboard, driven downhill by manipulation, formerly from London and now from Washington.

Not so, Waisman contends. No doubt Argentine beef and wheat very largely went to Britain, but Argentina enriched itself thereby. It was in fact the decline of exports, as British tariff barriers rose during the depression, that hurt Argentina. Gunder Frank and company - for whom Washington has succeeded London as the global bad guy - undoubtedly will pay no heed, equating capitalist economics with sheer exploitation.

Waisman also demolishes the ``cultural'' explanation so dear to some Argentine right-wingers, to their torturer successors of the 1970s, and to xenophobes of all nations. They allege that immigrant anarchists, communists, Jews, and the villainous, dark-skinned mestizo backwoodsmen all itched to destroy traditional Argentina. A savior was needed, another Mussolini, to bamboozle or repress these barbarians; Per'on was the man.

Many workers did indeed support Per'on; why? Some Western writers offer another ``cultural'' explanation: that Argentines of Spanish and Italian background were backward, authoritarian in outlook, hence susceptible to Peronism. Again, Waisman disagrees, arguing that no one complained about grass-roots authoritarianism so long as Argentina was advancing. Only when Per'on grabbed power did old-time conservatives and good liberals suddenly discover that second- or third-generation immigrants were fascists at heart.

Why then, did Argentina reverse its development - as Waisman puts it - in the 1940s, beginning its self-destructive slide? Waisman places the blame squarely on a group of right-wing politicians, intellectuals, upper clergy, and Army officers. Fearing radicalism and revolution, they demanded an authoritarian state to ensure peace by creating an economically absurd corporatist and protectionist system.

No matter that anarchism was defunct, communism very weak, and organized labor conciliatory and nonviolent; that an authoritarian government would isolate Argentina from a world that had just defeated Hitler; that the ``lessons of history'' derived from Mussolini's Italy and Spain before Franco had no applicability whatever to Argentina; and that protectionism would cause living costs to soar, while the unions would become a Frankenstein monster under Per'on's tutelage. An irrational anticommunism carried all before it, contributing to the eventual collapse of Argentine society in the late 1970s and to the Falklands war.

Not for the last time in Latin America, the unreasoning fear of communism had destructive consequences, and a superficial knowledge of history had proved more dangerous than no knowledge at all, facts no less important for other Americans to remember than for Argentines.

Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

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