How to Destroy a Rich Country

The next election may determine where America is headed -- to a restoration of its greatness, or to a retreat into the obsolescence of history.  Before one casts a vote, an example stands before us of a country that made the wrong choice, warning us what to avoid.

The country is Argentina, chiefly unknown to most Americans, apart from its creation of the tango . This ignorance on our part is inexcusable, since Argentina resembles an America that went awry.

Argentina's statistics are astounding.

Argentina is a little less than half the size of the continental United States, with a climate that runs from polar in the south to tropical in the north.  Most of Argentina's land mass is in the subtropical belt, where one finds the pampas -- arguably the best beef- and grain-growing region on the planet.  The warm extended growing season gives Argentina an advantage over our cooler Kansas and Nebraska.  There are times when Argentina has exceeded the USA in cattle product exports, and this production has been going on for over a century.  Its grain exports are enormous, and much of the planet depends on Argentina for food.  This is all the more amazing when one considers that Argentina has only 41 million people, one eighth the population of the United States.  In the early 20th century, the ratio vis-à-vis the United States was even smaller, and still the Argentines could outperform us on agricultural exports at times.

Argentina, like the United States, had massive European immigration from 1870 to 1920.  Large numbers of Italians, Germans, French, Jews, Welsh, Christian Arabs from Syria and Lebanon, Swiss, Basques, Croats, and Galacians from Northwest Spain settled in.  There were even some Irish, English, Poles, Ukrainians, and Scandanavians, though in considerably smaller numbers.

Blacks constitute only 3% of the Argentine genome, and most of those who carry African genes are now partly white through intermarriage.  The chief nonwhite minority are the indigenous native Indians, who constitute about 19% of the Argentine genome.

On a genetic level, Argentina may be more "European" than we Americans, though tending more to the Mediterranean than the Nordic.  About half the population has traces of Indian blood, but even these often pass for swarthy whites.  For all intents and purposes, Argentina, until recently, was a white European country, and boasted of it.  The real shocker is that Spanish-speaking Argentina may have more Italians than Spanish, which is why they say ciao (which they spell chau) rather than adiós.

It also has a liberal constitution roughly based on the American model.

It is a Christian country.  Until recently, it was overwhelmingly Catholic, though Evangelicals have started to make inroads.  They have a tiny Muslim population.  However, Islam holds the affections of only 1% of the population, and those tend to be non-practicing.  The country was culturally, racially, and religiously extremely unified in a manner which is exceptionally notable.

Argentina should have given the United States a run for its money in wealth, power, and influence.  In fact, around 1900, Argentina's growth rates were surpassing even those of America.  A smart European immigrant might have chosen Buenos Aires over New York as the destination of choice.  Many did.

So what happened?

How did a Christian country, with a European population, a negligible racial problem, and enormous natural and agricultural wealth screw up?  How did a country with a liberal constitution cycle in and out of dictatorship?  How did a country that was the fourth-richest per capita on the planet in 1929 fall so hard?  How is it that Argentina regularly cycles between enormous first-world wealth and third-world economic collapse?

The answer, in a word, is government.  Argentina is a frightening example to prove that bad government can destroy even a potential heaven on earth.

Argentine government has regularly cycled among grotesquely corrupt elites who cared nothing at all for the poor and socialist governments trying to redress the damage caused by the elites, who would then spend the country into bankruptcy and social disintegration, followed by a military junta that tried to clean up the mess, and that would then reinstall the corrupt elites.  This cycle effectively defines Argentina's history.

In the 1930s, during the Depression, the corrupt elite overthrew the socialist President Hipolito Yrigoyen, with the assistance of Standard Oil, to install right-wing strongman José Uriburu.  Later, in order to preserve the wealth generated from agricultural exports to the British Empire, the government signed the scandalous Roca-Runciman trade agreement which allowed Britain to dump its goods in Argentina while giving Argentina only a minimal grain export quota.  The elite sold out the country to preserve their status.  Argentine industry was hammered, and the urban poor destroyed, just to keep a few land barons in money.  The government was overthrown by a fascist military coup in 1943, partly out to correct the abuse, only to have one junta leader, Juan Perón, overcompensate and spend the country into bankruptcy with social programs.  Though initially right-wing, Perón would later turn out to be a grotesquely socialist strongman who would squander Argentina's enormous postwar wealth so foolishly that it astounded the planet and is still the stuff of legend.

The enormity of the damage can be understood only when one realizes that during World War II, one quarter of the food in Britain came from Argentina on credit.  By 1945, the situation had reversed from Argentina's low in 1933, and now Britain was in serious debt to Argentina.  Argentina was swimming in wealth.  Argentina was arguably the second-richest nation on the planet, and possibly the first, when one realizes that it had no war debt like the United States.  When Perón demanded that Britain pay up, he nearly collapsed the British economy, and Britain had to ask for America to intervene.

A wise Argentine government could have properly encouraged the windfall to be allocated for maximum benefit.  Perón set up hospitals and schools for the poor -- which infuriated the ruthless landed elite, who preferred a subservient underclass kept as peons and servants.  He properly redressed some of the disparity.  He gave women the vote, though with his election-rigging, it was as much a charade as anything, but it made Perón a popular dictator of sorts.  He would have won the elections without the rigging; he just preferred landslides.  His movie-star wife, Evita, made for good press.

But Perón started spending the war surplus like a drunken sailor.  He bought thousands of tractors from the United States that no one needed.  He tried to start a jet fighter industry to compete with the United States -- a fiasco of enormous proportions.

Perón purposefully picked unnecessary fights with Britain (He demanded the Falklands back in 1945) and America, upset at Argentina's bullying of neighboring countries.

Perón's most scandalous waste of money was financing an Austrian war refugee, Ronald Richter, who claimed to have come up with a way to harness energy from cold fusion.  No one really knows if Richter had a Ph.D., but he convinced Perón, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the idiotic scheme and caused an international panic in 1951, when he announced that Argentina had produced a fusion reaction -- before the USA or Russia.  For a month, though skeptical, the world held its breath, worried that some Nazi refugees might actually have pushed an Argentina run by a lunatic Perón to the front of the atomic race.  In the end, it turned out to be a fiasco and became a gigantic embarrassment, but not before the Argentine government had once again squandered the national wealth.

Eventually the military, which had initially installed Perón, overthrew him in 1955, after two previous failed attempts to get rid of him, and Perón fled to Spain.  He was followed by a series of military and progressive government administrations.  The progressives were always threatened with military takeover if they went too far.  The military was terrified of a very real underground Peronist movement coming back to power, which Perón was organizing from his exile in Spain.  At times, the military overthrew presidents who stepped out of line.

Eventually, civil strife forced Argentina to allow Perón's return in 1973.  He soon resumed power.  After his death, there followed a government led by his incompetent third wife, Isábel Perón, and another junta, which installed itself to prevent a communist takeover in 1976.  The brutal and corrupt junta fell in 1983, after its defeat in the Falklands War.  This was followed by a semi-competent government which, saddled with an economic disaster, could not decide if it wanted to be conservative or interventionist as regarded the economy.  Then came the government of Carlos Menem who, claiming to believe in a free economy, sold rich nationalized industries to private companies for a song in deals so corrupt as to be breathtaking.  Free spending ruled the day, and Argentina collapsed in 200,1 when the middle class had their life savings wiped out literally overnight, while the rich were allowed to rescue their foreign reserves.

Then came the reign of the left-wing Kirchners, whom the Argentines ruefully call the Clintonistas, after Bill and Hillary -- and the only thing preventing another junta from cleaning up the mess, once again, is that the army was downsized after the Falklands debacle.

An imperious elite which cared nothing for the poor and sold out the country to foreign powers and multinationals.  Conservatives who acted only for the rich, followed up by socialist governments who overspent Argentina's incredible wealth into enormous debt.  Politicians who catered to violent mobs.  An impressive military which, though vicious at times, quite often had no choice but to intervene to save the country from descending into civil war and chaos.

Argentina's present president, Cristina Kirchner, is a Peronist, who is presiding over another currency collapse.

It takes effort to destroy a country like Argentina -- a country which should have succeeded effortlessly.  Serious effort -- idiocy at this level is not an accident.  It has to be coordinated.

Does this sound like the America that is starting to develop?

Vote accordingly this November -- and read some memoirs on how to survive the collapse of a modern country due to government incompetence.  The Argentines have a lot to say about it.  We Americans should listen.  The advice comes from experts.

Mike Konrad is American.  He runs a website,, where he discusses the considerable legacy of Arab-Christians in Latin America.  He wishes his facility in Spanish were better.

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