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ARGENTINA: Nation Pays Debt--To Democracy

by Eduardo GaleanoThe Progressive
January 26th, 2002

It started with an explosion of violence. A few days before Christmas, a crowd of hungry people began looting supermarkets.

Among them, as is usually the case, were a few criminals. As the chaos spread and blood was spilled, the Argentine president spoke on television. What he said, more or less, was: Reality does not exist; the people do not exist.

And then the music began. It started with very little, cooking spoons hit against pots in kitchens across the city. By nightfall there erupted throughout the streets of Buenos Aires a concert of the collective uproar. At the sound of these kitchen pans, the indignation boiled over, and the multitude invaded the neighborhoods, the city, and the country. The police responded with shots. But the people, unexpectedly powerful, overthrew the government. The invisible ones had taken center stage -- a rare occurrence.

The system is blind -- not only in Argentina, not only in Latin America. For the most notorious economists, the people are mere numbers. For the most powerful bankers, they are debtors. For the most efficient technocrats, they are problems. For the most successful politicians, they are votes.

The people who overthrew President De la Rua were proof of the force of democratic energy. We are democracy, the people said, and we are fed up. Or does democracy consist merely of the right of voting once every four years--the right of making a selection or of being betrayed? In Argentina, as in many other countries, the people vote, but do not chose. They vote for one person, and another governs: the clone governs.

The clone, once in power, does the opposite of what the candidate promised during the campaign. In the famous definition of Oscar Wilde, a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Cynicism passes for realism; and thus democracy is made to lose its value.

According to current polls, belief in the democratic system of government is lowest in Latin America. A recent poll by The Economist showed that only six of ten Argentines, Bolivians, Venezuelans, Peruvians, and Hondurans, fewer than half of all Mexicans, Nicaraguans and Chileans, not more than a third of Colombians, Guatemalans, Panamanians, and Paraguayans, less than a third of Brazilians, and a mere quarter of all El Salvadorans believe in democracy.

A grim picture, but a bonanza for demagogues and messiahs in uniform. Many people, particularly the young, feel that the true home of politicians is the cave of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

A childhood memory from the Argentine writer Hector Tizon: Along the Mayo Boulevard of Buenos Aires, Tizon's father pointed to a man selling brushes and shoe polish on the sidewalk. That man is Elpidio Gonzalez. Take a good look at him. He used to be vice president of the republic.

Those were other times. Sixty years later, the 2001 legislative elections were flooded with blank and annulled ballots, something never seen before, a world record. Among the annulled votes, the winning candidate was Clemente the Duck, a famous children's story character, who had no hands so he couldn't steal.

Latin America may have never suffered a political looting like that of the last decade. With the complicity and cover of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, always demanding austerity and transparency, one government after another stole even the shoes of galloping horses. In the years of privatization, they raffled off everything from the paving stones of the sidewalks to the lions of the zoo.

On the orders of those who were really in charge, countries were handed over to pay the foreign debt. Yet, in the able hands of Carlos Menem and many of his colleagues, the debt mysteriously increased. The citizens, the invisible ones, were left without a country, with a gargantuan debt to pay, the broken plates from this distant feast, and with governments that didn't govern because they were ruled from afar. They did the bidding not of the citizens that voted for them but the bankers with veto power.

Now that we are at war against international terrorism, all doubt has vanished about what was once a burning question: What to do with the market terrorism that is battering the vast majority of humanity? Or aren't the methods of the international organizations that dictate finance, trade, and all else on a global scale terrorist?

They may not practice extortion and other crimes, but don't they kill gradually by suffocating people and starving them to death instead of blowing them up with dynamite? And aren't they bombing to bits the rights of workers? And assassinating national sovereignty, national industry, and national culture?

Argentina was the teacher's pet of the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. So it goes.

Ladies and gentlemen, bankers first. When the captain commands, the sailor takes orders: more or less, this was the first message of President George W. Bush to Argentina. He declared that the new Argentine government must ''protect'' its creditors and the IMF and implement a policy of ''greater austerity."

Meanwhile, the new provisional president of Argentina, who will take the place of De la Rua until the next elections, botched his first response to the press. A journalist asked him what his priority would be, the debt or the people, and he answered: "Debt." Old Sigmund Freud must have smiled in his grave. Adolfo Rodriguez Saa immediately corrected his answer, saying that he would suspend payment on the debt and use these funds to create jobs for the legions of the unemployed.

The debt or the people: That is the question. And now the people, invisible, will make their demands and keep watch.

About a century ago, Jose Batlle y Ordonez, president of Uruguay, was attending a football match and commented: Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were twenty-two spectators and 10,000 players?

Maybe he was talking about physical education, of which he was a great promoter -- or about the sort democracy he would prefer.

A century later, in neighboring Argentina, many of the protesters wore the jerseys of the national soccer team, their most loved and trusted sign of identity and country. With their jerseys on, they took over the streets. The people, tired of being spectators of their own humiliation, have made it on to the playing field. It won't be easy to get them off.

Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano is the author of ''Memories of Fire'' and ''The Open Veins of Latin America.''