When Argentine president Cristina Kirchner nationalized the Spanish-owned YPF oil company this past April, Washington Post correspondent Juan Forero proclaimed her “the standard-bearer of populist nationalism in Latin America.” At the time, her decision played well at home: One poll found that 62 percent of Argentines supported it. Yet the YPF seizure was a desperate move by a desperate government trying to boost its domestic political standing and camouflage its economic failures. Seven months later, Kirchner’s approval rating is deep underwater, and her government is facing enormous public protests.
On November 8, an estimated 250,000 to 700,000 Argentines poured into the streets of Buenos Aires to express their grievances. The march lasted close to four hours, and the Guardian confirmed that it was “Argentina’s biggest and noisiest anti-government demonstration in a decade.” Other Argentine cities, such as Córdoba and Mendoza, witnessed their own protests, and the expatriate community held demonstrations outside Argentine embassies and consulates around the world: from Miami to Melbourne, from Madrid to Montevideo, from Montreal to Munich.
Argentines are mad about sky-high inflation. They’re mad about rising crime. They’re mad about corruption scandals. They’re mad about proposals to amend the constitution so that Kirchner can seek a third term. They’re mad about government efforts to curb press freedom and weaken opposition media outlets.
In short, they’re mad that Kirchner has been governing like Hugo Chávez.
Consider her record over the past five years. Since 2007, when she succeeded her late husband, Néstor, as president, the Argentine government has nationalized private pensions and seized the country’s largest airline (Aerolíneas Argentinas). It has grabbed a majority stake in a foreign-owned oil company (YPF). It has used central bank reserves to repay public debt (although Argentina is still refusing to repay all of its defaulted debt from 2001, and it still owes roughly $9 billion to Paris Club member nations). It has imposed draconian currency controls and “the largest number of protectionist measures worldwide” (according to the Latin Business Chronicle). It has doctored inflation figures. It has doctored poverty figures. It has persecuted journalists and statisticians for reporting the real numbers. It has tolerated and encouraged corruption. It has launched aggressive, relentless attacks against Grupo Clarín and other unfriendly media outfits.
Hence the runaway inflation, and the food shortages, and the energy shortages, and the astounding capital flight, and the warnings from rating agencies, and the threats from the International Monetary Fund, and the condemnations from global press organizations.
If not for Cuba and Venezuela, Argentina would be the lowest-ranked Latin American country in the Heritage Foundation’s 2012 Index of Economic Freedom. It ranks 158th overall (out of 179 countries or territories). By comparison, in 2003, the year Néstor Kirchner was elected president, Argentina ranked 68th (out of 156). The dramatic decline of economic freedom has chased away foreign investors and turned Argentina into a country where, as investor Sin-ming Shaw recently reported from Buenos Aires, “supermarket shoppers are limited to one bottle of cooking oil per customer.”
Of course, the Kirchner government continues to publish bogus inflation figures that downplay the extent of the crisis. But nobody takes those figures seriously, and the IMF has given Buenos Aires until December 17 to provide accurate numbers or else face censure.
Before Argentina’s IMF deadline arrives, Grupo Clarín will encounter a different deadline: It has until December 7 to unveil a plan for selling most of its broadcast licenses.
Citing this deadline, the Global Editors Network (GEN) has declared a “press freedom crisis” in Argentina and warned that “independent journalism is facing a major threat.” On October 11, GEN board member Alejandro Miró Quesada said that “the attack on Clarín is symbolic of the political pressure which media are facing throughout the region.”
Not only has the Kirchner government attacked Grupo Clarín and other media companies, it has also attacked independent statisticians. On September 7, the American Statistical Association sent a letter to the U.S. State Department complaining about a “continuing pattern of harassment and human rights violations, including the repeated imposition of confiscatory fines and threats of criminal sanctions, carried out by the Government of Argentina against a group of statisticians and allied professionals for compiling and disseminating price statistics using methods not approved of by that government.”
This is happening in a country with Latin America’s fourth-largest population and its third-largest economy; a country with great potential but a seemingly endless capacity for self-destruction. Kirchner is certainly not the first Argentine leader to pursue a disastrous form of left-wing populism. But her radical, 21st-century Peronism has squandered a commodity boom, destroyed an economy, and made Argentina a global pariah. Indeed, her stubborn refusal to honor debt obligations stemming from the 2001 default recently prompted Ghanaian authorities to detain an Argentine navy ship as collateral. Such are the humiliations that Argentines are now forced to endure.
Back in May, shortly after Kirchner nationalized YPF, Nobel Prize–winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa called the decision “totally demagogic and senseless.” Those four words sum up her entire presidency.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.