“La administración radical se despidió con la sensación de ser inoperante, ineficiente, e indiferente ante las necesidades de los más pobres. Algunos funcionarios fueron sospechados de corruptos, y la memoria colectiva se reserva el derecho de la duda. Pero también la primera etapa del gobierno de Carlos Menem se está empezando a teñir de esos presupuestos. ¿El Estado nacional es un instrumento para satisfacer el bienestar común o la palanca para que algunos funcionarios, muchas veces en complicidad con ciertos empresarios y sindicalistas coimeros, se enriquezcan con velocidad y sin esfuerzo?”
(“The Radical administration left in its wake a sense of its own dysfunction, inefficiency, and indifference to the needs of the poorest citizens. Some officials were suspected of corruption, and the collective memory reserves the right of doubt. But the first stage of Carlos Menem’s government is also beginning to be colored by these suppositions. Is the State supposed to be an instrument whereby the common welfare may be achieved, or is it meant only as a mechanism by means of which government officials, often in complicity with certain greasy-palmed businessmen and trade unionists, may enrich themselves quickly and without effort?”)Luis Majul
Majul’s narrative, which reads like a dime store thriller, begins three days before “Black Monday,” February 6, 1989, and covers the tumultuous five-month period between that day and July 8, when Raúl Alfonsín ceded the presidency to newly elected Carlos Menem, six months before the end of the former’s official term.
The author gives a blow by blow account of the unfolding hyperinflationary crisis, from the initial surge in February, through the tribulations and fall from grace of two consecutive ministers of the economy, Juan Sourrouille and Juan Carlos Pugliese, the failure of the outgoing Radical and the incoming Peronist administrations to reach any sort of impartial accord regarding the handling of the ongoing crisis, and the social explosion that rocked the nation from late May into June, and finally to the passing of the presidential baton on July 8, in the Salon Blanco of the Casa Rosada.
At the center of the “biggest social and economic mess in the history of the nation” lies the eventual partnership between two countervailing forces: on one hand, the “exporter class,” whose refusal to convert their reserves from dollars to australes in order to bolster the local currency drove the value of the dollar ever higher; on the other, the Menem effect, the businessman’s fear of a Peronist hyper-regulatory government, which supposedly drained the economy of 4 billion dollars, money which might have been used by the Alfonsín administration to combat the crisis. In the event, the two forces coalesced in the so-called Menemtroika, and Bunge & Born, one of the chief offenders among the exporters, was placed in charge of Menem’s Ministry of Economy. The businessmen, who supposedly feared a Menem presidency too much to risk priming the austral, actually found themselves sheltered by his administration.
In any case, it is doubtful whether access to those 4 billion dollars would have done much to counteract the Alfonsín administration’s inability to curb the crisis. Alfonsín’s plans were effectively derailed by the midterm elections of 1987, which were swept by the Peronists, and by the time things came to a head in 1989, his main concern was to get out of the presidency with his reputation intact, and–if possible–to preside over the first democratic transition of power in 61 years. Consequently, talks during those final five months had less to do with economic solutions than with political survival. And thus, the crisis was kicked down the line.
The key moment, as far as Majul is concerned, is the failure of Operativo Retirada (Operation Retreat). This is the name given to the talks between Radicals and Peronists regarding an early and graceful departure from office for Alfonsín, which began immediately after Menem’s electoral victory on May 14. They are, according to Majul, “an overwhelming proof of the suicidal vocation and immaturity of the Argentine political leadership.” This is an opinion voiced by many in the years following the end of the Proceso in 1983; Argentine politicians were not used to functioning in a democratic environment, and had no idea how to include the welfare of the people in their equations of power. Menem’s demand for essentially plenipotentiary powers, which ironically was ultimately legitimated by the departing administration in the July accord, blew the conversation out of the water, and these negotiations, which should have acted as a social palliative, ended in stalemate as the rest of the country imploded.
The book includes 4 one-on-one interviews (“monologues”) set within the context of the crisis of 1989. First, Majul speaks to Juan Sourrouille, the minister responsible for the Plan Primavera, which the author describes as little more than an attempt to keep a lid on inflation for the duration of Alfonsín’s administration and let the “time bomb…go off in his successor’s face.” Then, there is a conversation with Carlos Menem, the successor, about the time bomb and how he dealt with having it thrown in his lap. Next, with a 14-year-old named Martín Laguna, who witnessed and participated in the social meltdown in May and June of 1989, defined by violent looting and equally violent repression. Finally, he speaks with Raúl Alfonsín himself, around the time his term was supposed to have ended, about the way and why things fell apart, and how the former president expects to be judged by history.
Majul concludes his work with a postscript dedicated to a “new creature,” a new Argentine who offers solutions to successive crises out of everyday experience, from the local and the micro, rather than seeking answers from above–a cult of individuality rather than of personality. This, to Majul, is essential: politics, labor, and business are so intertwined and each so closely implicated in the malfeasances of the others that it is virtually impossible for a workable and equitable solution to lie in that direction. It is an optimistic ending, envisioning a country kept afloat by the right action of its people when right action from its leaders cannot be depended upon. Thirty years and several crises after the fact, the reader can decide whether or not Majul’s observations are justified or merely wishful thinking.
©2021 – Vance Woods