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Clones?

/ 08:09 PM February 17, 2014

“Don’t cry For Me Argentina” is a song from a 1978 Broadway musical. Evita Peron sang this from the Casa Rosada balcony, expressing regrets and defiance. “No llores por mi  Argentina/ The truth is I never left you / All through my wild days / My mad existence/ I kept my promise….”

Few remember that the Marcos dictatorship banned that song. Officials of the Cultural Center of the Philippines were told the play “Evita” was verboten. Uneasy censors thought Imelda Marcos’ life cloned that of Evita.

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“The parable of Argentina offers lessons for many governments,” The Economist said this week. “A country of the future got stuck in the past… The country’s 100 years of decline taught that good government matters.” Has this lesson been learned?

Yet, “a century ago, Argentina stood out as the country of the future.” Its GDP per head was higher than that of Germany. The country had fertile land and benign climate. It introduced universal male suffrage in 1912—ahead of the Philippines in 1935. “(It also had) an educated population and the world’s most erotic dance. Immigrants tangoed in from everywhere….”

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Now, the country is a wreck. Argentina is at the center of an emerging-market crisis—again. “President Cristina Fernandez is merely the latest in a succession of economically illiterate populists, stretching back to Juan and Eva (Evita) Peron, and before.”

Forget about competing with the Germans. The Chileans and Uruguayans, whom Argentines looked down on, are now richer. Children from Brazil and Mexico do better in international education tests. (In the early 1970s, the Philippines was second only to Japan in economic performance. By the time the Marcoses scrammed to escape People Power crowds, the country had been gutted to Asean’s pauper status.)

“The danger today is not totalitarianism,” The Economist wrote: “If Indonesia were to boil over, its citizens would hardly turn to North Korea as a model.” (Hear that, National Democratic Front’s Joma Sison and Luis Jalandoni? From the bourgeois comfort of Holland, they threaten to wage people’s war here.)

So, where is the danger? That of “inadvertently becoming the Argentina of the 21st century. Slipping casually into steady decline is not hard. Weak institutions, nativist politicians, lazy dependence on a few assets and a persistent refusal to confront reality will do the trick.”

The economic crunch of the early 2000s left Argentines permanently suspicious of liberal reform. But its “decline has been largely self-inflicted. The Perons built a closed economy that protected its inefficient industries that Chile’s generals opened up in the 1970s and pulled ahead. Argentina’s protectionism undermined Mercosur, the local trade pact.” Fernandez’s government does not just impose tariffs on imports. It shoots itself in the foot—by taxing farm exports.

Argentina did not build institutions to protect its democracy from the army, (Remember our Rolex 12? Juan Ponce Enrile, Eduardo Cojuangco, plus 10 generals, got Rolexes from the dictator for imposing martial law.) So,

Argentina became prone to coups.

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Unlike Australia, Argentina did not develop strong political parties determined to build and share wealth. Its politics was captured by the Perons and focused on personalities and influence. (Isn’t that a mirror image of the Philippines? In a study of the elites, over two decades, political scientist Dante Simbulan pinpointed 169 families. They’ve produced 584 public officials, including seven presidents, two vice presidents, 42 senators and 147 representatives.)

Another clone: “Argentina’s Supreme Court has been repeatedly tampered with.” (Corazon Aquino fired the Marcos Supreme Court after assuming office through People Power in 1986—except for Claudio Teehankee who was the lone independent voice. He was to become chief justice.)

Political interference destroyed the credibility of Argentina’s statistical office. Graft is endemic. Argentina ranks a shoddy 106th in Transparency International’s corruption index. (The Philippines improved its score in Transparency International’s Index 2013, which ranked 177 countries from “highly corrupt” to “very clean.” We came in 94, up from last year’s 105th. We lagged behind Singapore [5th]  but was ahead of  Cambodia [160th]. The country was bracketed with Algeria, Colombia and India.)

“Building institutions is a dull, slow business.” But Argentine leaders preferred the quick fix—of charismatic leaders, miracle tariffs and currency pegs, rather than, say, a thorough reform of the country’s schools.

“Argentina’s decline has been seductively gradual.” It didn’t reel from dictators as monumental as Mao or Stalin. In the downward spiral, Buenos Aires cafés continued to serve espressos and medialunas. That makes this especially dangerous.

The bigger threat festers in the emerging world, The Economist asserted. Uninterrupted progress to prosperity takes the sheen of bogus inevitability. Too many countries surge forward on commodity exports, but neglect their institutions.

Their weaknesses could be exposed just as Argentina’s was. Populism stalks many emerging countries; constitutions are being stretched. Overreliant on oil and gas, many are ruled by kleptocrats strapped with a dangerously high self-regard.

In Turkey, the autocratic Recep Tayyip Erdogan blends Evita with Islam. In too many parts of emerging Asia, crony capitalism remains the order of the day. “Inequality is feeding the same anger that produced the Perons.”

Would Imelda sing as Evita? “And as for fortune and as for fame / I never invited them in/ Though it seemed to the world they were all I desired/ They are illusions…”

(E-mail: [email protected])

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TAGS: Broadway, Evita Peron, Imelda Marcos, Marcos dictatorship, news, The Economist
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