Argentine democratic revival heightens interest in US election

The Monitor has invited foreign correspondents in the United States to describe, in a series of occasional articles, how they cover the presidential election. This reporter is from Argentina. Argentine politicians visiting Washington frequently question me about the United States presidential campaign. Their curiosity is stimulated by the fact that next year we also elect a president in Argentina as well as congressmen, senators, and governors.

Our electoral system is in many ways similar to yours, now that Argentina has fully recovered its democratic traditions with an astounding vigor that is resisting the most serious economic crisis of our history. Yet there are striking differences.

In Argentina we also have primaries, and the candidates campaign everywhere. But we have nothing to compare to the long, drawn-out selection process that takes place in the US before the party conventions.

Argentine politicians are always asking about the nuts and bolts of political campaigning. Their observations, whether made seriously or in jest, always relate to the Argentine situation and are useful guideposts to the interests of Argentine readers and what needs to be explained back home.

Take, for example, Sen. Joseph Biden's withdrawal from the race after the revelation that, in a campaign ad, he had plagiarized a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock: Argentine politicians were interested more in the power of such an event to ruin Senator Biden's chances rather than in the event itself.

Argentines are also interested in the financial aspects of political campaigning in the US - which from our perspective involve huge amounts of money. The activity of fund-raisers and the dependency of the candidates on their contributors are important topics.

The Gary Hart story, for instance, was followed closely when his candidacy collapsed amid revelations of his affair with Donna Rice and as a consequence his money dried up, leaving the candidate near bankruptcy.

In covering the US campaign, I must introduce Argentine readers to little-known or new personalities. In my first US campaign in 1984, Mr. Hart, Jesse Jackson, and Geraldine Ferraro were the most interesting personalities, as they represented elements of renewal who challenged established structures or customs.

I vividly recall my first meeting with Jesse Jackson, which took place in 1984, in a Baptist church in Washington, D.C. The brew of religious, racial, and political elements, together with his special style of oratory, was something completely new for me. I could neither understand it nor explain it without referring to the social background and history of this country.

In 1988 the Rev. Mr. Jackson occupies the limelight more than ever, and the workings of his campaign continue to illuminate little-known aspects of American society to the Argentine reader.

In Argentina we have nothing like the relation between religion and politics that exists in the United States. Therefore Pat Robertson's candidacy was another center of attention, and it required me to write about his television congregations and their political and economic strength.

Aside from the scandals that have lately engulfed some of the television evangelists, the phenomenon of televised prayers awakens the curiosity of my readers.

The personalities of the other candidates fit in better with the traditional mold of the political hopefuls in many countries, though there still are notable differences.

Argentines' interest in George Bush, Robert Dole, Michael Dukakis, Paul Simon, or Albert Gore Jr. has been centered almost exclusively in their messages and in the political forces they represent. In their cases I do not need to explain to my readers the political pull of religious groups or the rising self-awareness of great sectors of the black population.

As the conventions near and there is virtual certainty as to the presidential nominees of the two parties, the focus of Argentine interest turns naturally to how the victory of one candent has warmly backed Argentine democracy, and all signs indicate that it will continue to do so, no matter who is elected president in our two countries.

But with respect to the economy, the steps taken by a new administration could seriously affect Argentine interests. In general, it can be said that the announcement of new protectionist measures, or even hinting at them, is not good news in Argentina, where we are striving to increase exports in order to dig ourselves out of the debt crisis.

Nor would new subsidies for US agriculture be welcomed in Argentina, since American commodity exports compete with Argentine exports in the world market.

Of course, the US plays a large role in our major problem - the foreign debt. For the moment we can see no substantial differences in the attitudes of Republicans and Democrats with respect to this issue.

In any case the attitude of the US government has not been definitive nor clear in this matter, and it has helped only to stave off an impending crisis by providing bridge loans. As the unpayable debt grows and grows, it has become an ever expanding universe ready to collapse on us at any moment. Unfortunately, on this issue of vital importance to Argentina and the hemisphere, the US political campaign has been silent.

Julio Crespo is US correspondent for La Naci'on in Buenos Aires.

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