Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Argentina's Presidential Couple

It’s not often full page newspaper spreads here in the UK are dedicated to Latin American politics. So perhaps it was quite a surprise to find Monday morning's newspapers adorned with the face of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina’s newly elected President. But given the uncanny resemblances between Cristina and the only other Argentine political figure we’ve ever bound to have heard of, Evita, perhaps it shouldn't be too much of a surprise after all.

I don’t think even in Argentina people were able to get too overwhelmed by the whole election. For many the result was a forgone conclusion right from the very outset of the campaign. Was this down to the success of her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in bringing the country back from the economic and political quagmire of 2001/2002? Or was it down to the inability of the opposition forces to unite against a charismatic female leader who was always able to draw on the inevitable Evita undertones and resemblances as a sure means to derive support from the Argentine masses? Furthermore the election campaign was an unorganised affair, with people wondering as to why Nestor Kirchner chose not to stand for re-election, and why it was that Cristina spent much of the campaign abroad and less than willing to participate in debates and unveil concrete policy issues?

So Argentines are yet again left in the dark as to what expect from the future. Whilst the emergence of yet another female as a head of state in Latin America (Michelle Bachelet became the President of Chile last year) in otherwise macho dominated arena can only be a good thing, it still remains unclear as to whether she will be able to do anymore than her husband in redistributing the profits the country seems to be raking in with an annual growth rate of 8%, or be able to anything to dampen the impression of Nestor’s Kirchner’s perceived undermining of democratic processes. And how will she be able to reposition Argentina internationally after Kirchner’s presidency has left Argentina isolated, given his anti-US rhetoric and strong ties with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela? One thing is for certain, dinner at the Kirchner’s must be quite something if her policies start to deviate considerably from those of her husband’s.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Britain's 'forgotten' invasion of Argentina

Anglo-Argentine relations have always had me slightly perplexed. Being British things naturally become clouded, either by the Falklands or Argentina’s regular ability to knock us out of various football world cups - and I guess Argentina notions of England (though not British) are based upon much the same things. But in reality there’s so much more. Argentina’s fascination with typical British sports such as polo and rugby, the dominance of English-style architecture with regards to train stations and haciendas, to name but a few things. Whilst living in Argentina these things soon made me realize that Anglo-Argentine relations have been about far more than fruitless wars over tiny inconsequential islands and football matches.
Surprisingly perhaps, Britain’s colonial empire never formally penetrated Latin America. Weak South American states were never transformed into yet more British colonial outposts. Instead throughout the 19th century we focused on trade and the (forceful) creation of open Latin American markets, as a means to sell our homemade manufactured goods. An “informal empire” or “business imperialism” of sorts. And it was with Argentina, more than any other Latin American state, that this was evident. But things in Argentina could have been so, so different.

Last Friday’s seminar, an event co-hosted by my institute (the Institute for the Study of the Americas) and the Argentine Embassy, was a commemoration of the bi-centenary anniversary of Britain’s invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806. The auditorium was full with a noticeably large Argentine contingent. What better way to spend a Friday afternoon reliving the accounts of one Argentina’s proud nationalistic moments in history, moreover, one that involved the catastrophic defeat of the British. The Argentine ambassador welcomed the guests, and proceeded in a highly diplomatic fashion to paint a rosy picture of Anglo-Argentine relations, taking an obviously large bypass around the misfortunate events of 1982. Though I’m sure much can be gleaned from his phrasing of how the UK came to acquire the Falkland’s in the first place with the use explicit use of the term “invasion”. Thereafter two prominent Argentine historians gave their impression of the importance of Britain’s invasion of Buenos Aires.

A notable point about the invasion was that it was never officially sanctioned by the British government. It was more of a rogue operation by a couple of maverick British Navy officers. In that sense it resembled the highly successful conquest policy of the Spaniards and its swashbuckling conquistadores. So whilst the venture was initially a success with Buenos Aires being captured, it merely succeeded in stirring a hornet’s nest and an Argentine militia soon had the British forces on the run. Ultimately this set in motion the desire for an independent Argentina in 1816. Strangely though, the whole British invasion is hardly mentioned in our history books, a mere footnote at most.
But I don’t want to bore you any more with too much historical information. Thankfully the talk didn’t linger on for too long, much to the satisfaction, no doubt, for the rest of the audience as well. An extravagant wine reception to be put on by the Embassy awaited and most Argentines were equally itching to find their way to the nearest TV screen to enjoy Argentina’s thumping of France in the rugby world cup (soon we're going to have world cup defeats in rugby to those accumulated in football to our list of grievances).

Monday, 22 October 2007

Yet More Manipulated Figures - this time in Argentina

As mentioned in my previous post, one shouldn't always take at face value economic statistics, especially when they enable the ruling powers of the day to revel in the data's overwhelmingly positive outlooks. Last week Cuban economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago warned us about the significant economic growth figures coming out of Cuba, and suggested the various ways in how they could have been 'manipulated'. Well today I came across the following article, "Will Cristina Head Off Another Crisis?" The articles relates, as in a similar fashion to the reliability of Cuba economic data, to the reliability of Argentina economic statistics and as to whether or not the Argentine government is taking increasing liberties with regards to the compilation of such statistics (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7035500.stm).

Despite Argentina's impressive growth in the recent years, it can be said that President Kirchner has taken a very hands-on and at times quite unorthodox approaches as a means to boost growth and curb inflation. For instance during my stay in the country, Kirchner encouraged a nation-wide boycott of various international petrol companies (most notably Shell). He saw their price increases as highly detrimental to his own attempts curb to inflation.
Now it seems fiddling with official economic statistics may be his latest of weapons to curb inflation. So whilst 'official' inflation rates stand at 9%, many believe it actually to be as high as 15%-20%. Who to believe? Well according to one economist, "since January, when the government doesn't like what the official figures are telling it - it decided basically to modify those figures." And these can never be too promising when the actual institute for the collection of economic data in Argentina (INDEC) actually start demonstrating themselves protest over this supposed government interference.

Aside from the manipulation of statistics the BBC article quite rightly highlights other pressing issues which can be easily forgotten amidst the figures of seemingly impressive economic growth. Economic growth means little when it's poorly distributed. An example of which can be seen in Argentina's southern oil-rich province of Santa Cruz. Violent labour disputes continue to highlight the disaffection towards the regional government and its ability to distribute the benefits of the oil boom. An in the far north, in the province of Chaco, people continue to be dying of hunger and living in houses made of mud and sticks and without access to running water. Furthermore the article draws or attention to how the sudden rise in genetically modified soya in Chaco, whilst enabling short-term gains, will likely lead to vast tracts of lands being left barren due to the soils' lack of nutrients, something that will prove highly detrimental for the land in the long-term.

So whilst the signs of economic growth may be evident to see for those stuck in the splendour of downtown Buenos Aires, or for those who limit themselves to looking at GDP growth statistics - whether you believe them or not - all isn't as rosy as it seems.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

The Cuban Economy at Crossroads: Fidel's Legacies and Raul's Alternative Paths

Of the many things the Institute for the Study of the Americas highlights as unique is their impressive seminar series. Many an afternoon the institute is visited by top Latin American scholars who are given the chance to spell out their latest theories and consequential musing on developments within evolving areas of study in the region. We students are encouraged to tag along, sit at the back quietly and observe what we one day may wish to be a part of. Today’s afternoon talk was no exception.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago an old hunched Cuban, whose student days in Havana were lived out amidst the actual Cuban Revolution, and whose CV lists 70 odd books and 200 plus articles on Latin American economics gave a talk titled, “The Cuban Economy at Crossroads: Fidel's Legacies and Raul's Alternative Paths”. Of all the seminars I had been attended so far here at the institute this was by far the most well-attended. Unsurpringly I suppose.
Because what is it about Cuba, of all the Latin American countries that constantly brings out the crowds? Go in to your local Waterstones, head towards the Latin American history section - if such a section even exists - and guaranteed 90% of the books on sale will be associated with the now mythical events of the Cuban Revolution or biographies depciting its equally mythical protagonists, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. In Latin American terms, it’s an anomaly, geographically, culturally, historically and most definitely politically. Any study of Cuba does little to enhance our understandings of what may be considered the more typical Latin American states, their societies and their economies. Since the end of the Cold War, Cuba has been of little relevance in the grand scheme of things. Its economy, insignificant; its political weight, equally insignificant. So why should we continue to devote so much attention to Cuba, to continue to want to understand and ultimately to advise as to how this island best can tackle its uncertain future. It would be no revelation to note the leftist leanings amongst many Latin American departments so perhaps therefore it's no surprise that we all like to sit back and admire this plucky little island that took on the giant to the north , politically, militarily and ideologically. This socialist experiment was one that never became mired by the dreary Eastern bloc imagery of grey, uniform populations. No Cuba did socialism in style, under the palm trees, with Cuban cigars and Bacardi all to a Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack…or at least that’s the imagery we wished to bestow upon it. And if nothing else, we can supposedly bang on about its relatively high standards of health and education. But really these excuses and false impressions can only go for so long.

Slight tangent that…..but anyway Carmelo Mesa-Lago did much in his hour long presentation to dispel the myths of the current state of the Cuban economy. When Fidel eventually leaves us all he’ll be leaving behind an economy that is in desperate need of reform. Carmelo’s PowerPoint presentation, whilst low on clear informative bullet points, was high on deep complex economic data graphs (thankfully this week’s class in economics had brought me up to speed on my GDP’s and trade balances). Recent economic data shows that Cuba has seen impressive growth, but as far as Carmelo Mesa-Lago was concerned such data had been ‘manipulated’ by the Cuban government so as to hide its continual sluggish growth. In fact the whole presentation was based around looking behind the raw numbers of Cuba’s economy whilst basically coming to the conclusions that a) Cuba’s economy was not performing very well, b) that much of the Cuban economy was sustained by either unnaturally high commodity prices and Hugo Chavez’s generosity and c) that Cuba would be best off if Fidel finally decided to call it a day, and let his younger brother implement vital decentralizing and liberalizing economic reforms.
Admittedly pages full of confusing numbers and percentage points didn’t leave me nor much of the audience gagging for more. Instead his conclusions were meant by quite skeptical glances and belief that he was yet another of these economists that wished to do away with any form of state involvement in the state, let market forces do their thing. Perhaps audience members were unwilling to do away with the socialist dream, or perhaps they were making valid concerns as to not let Cuba’s admirable ambitions and ideology become swept away in one single stroke.

As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out. Cuba has to move on from what Fidel and all that he stood for, onto a system that is more sustainable and not dependent on the financial hand-outs that Hugo Chavez seems more than happy to continue with. Surely this can be achieved along with equal goals of maintaining a strong health and education system that has won Cuba so many accolades from abroad.