The Recapitulation: Argentine Peronism Goes Global
Argentina made one major mistake in its history: relying on exports.
It was an easy mistake for Argentines to make – vast natural resources and a population too small to absorb the produce. Its beef exports regularly surpassed the USA, even in the 1930s, while its population was a mere 12 million. In the first three decades of the 20th century, this made for a great building boom and obscene displays of wealth. After World War I, when Argentina had made a fortune supplying the war-preoccupied Allies, the scions of the cattle barons took off to Europe to spend lavishly. The phrase "rich as an Argentine" entered the world lexicon.
During this time, the very rich traveled to Europe, especially to Paris where they painted the town red with their parties, their music and their beautiful women. It was the French, seeing how lavishly the argentines spent money, who coined the phrase "riche comme un argentin" or "as rich as an argentine".
The phrase would soon be forgotten. The Crash of 1929 put an end to that.
Nations became protectionist. Suddenly no one wanted Argentine beef or wheat anymore. Britain, formally a massive buyer of Argentine produce, closed its markets, reserving what openings were available for Canadian and Commonwealth exports.
Exporting one's way to wealth was shown to be a disaster. It had produced short-term goals, but the imbalance was not sustainable against shock. Argentina dropped from fourth place in per capita wealth to poverty. In the end, Argentina was driven to negotiate the humiliating Roca-Runciman treaty, which allowed some Argentine beef into Britain in return for giving Britain permission to dump manufactured goods and coal on Argentina. She had become an economic vassal of England with a one-sided treaty that would destroy Argentina's industry merely to stave off a few cattle barons from belt-tightening.
The treaty was corrupt from the start, and the public was furious that some land barons had sold out the country. The Argentina Senate, never a model of honesty, passed the bill.
Argentina was also required to keep a good portion of its reserves in the Bank of England. Such was the groveling that Vice President Julio Argentina Roca said, shamelessly, "It can be said that Argentina is an integral economic part of the British Empire." From a rising republic, which competed with the United States, Argentina sank to barely one step above a colony. The humiliation was total.
Now you know why Argentina flirts with fascism: their "democratically elected" leaders are unscrupulous and sell their country out. At least the fascists stood up to the British bankers.
Argentina would have remained a vassal except that World War II occurred, and Britain again had to purchase massive amounts of Argentine produce while its youth were off fighting the war. By the end of the war, the roles of debtor and creditor were reversed. Argentina was filthy rich again.
In the meantime, in 1943, Perón and his fellow officers had deposed the politicians who had sold out Argentina. Revenge was now in mind. Perón would demand that Britain pay off its quite substantial debts and return all of the Argentine cash reserves home. In dollars, because who wanted the exhausted British pound in 1945? On top of it all, Perón demanded back the Falkand Islands. Britain was faced with imminent collapse, and the British had to ask Truman for help.
U.S. markets were then shut off to Argentine produce and manufactured goods, and Argentina went from massive exporter to importer overnight. Déjà vu all over again. Perón did not take the hint – back off from provoking America and Britain – and he still spent like a drunken sailor. By the '50s, Argentina was broke...again.
Argentina had never quite mastered the idea that total government interference in the economy is a disaster. Nor has Argentina ever quite grasped that a stilted, uneven economy cannot sustain itself. But Perón was not the last, and the fallacy would be recapitulated every generation in Argentina.
Essentially, China and Brazil have followed down Perón's path. China has kept its currency below market value, frowned on individuals investing outside China with their savings, kept its economy keyed to exports, and created make-work projects: empty ghost cities. Perón would have been proud of them. Only they are now finding out what Argentina discovered in 1929 and in 1950. It doesn't work.
When one's economy is lopsided to exports, the damage is just as bad as, maybe worse than, an economy geared to imports. The economy cannot sustain a shock. When importers stop buying the exporter's goods, the locals who have become accustomed to good jobs, and better living, have to be placated. Suddenly, the exporter has to draw down its foreign reserves to purchase what it formerly could have traded for, had it traded honestly. The market is ruthlessly fair in this way. It abhors imbalances.
China's reserves fell $500 billion in 2015.
At that rate, China would be emptied out in four years. Likewise, the Saudis are hemorrhaging funds, and their reserves are expected to crash in five years. Brazil, which a few years ago was booming, is now in deep recession. Its economy was keyed to supplying commodities to China, a China that is now collapsing. Its oil industry collapsed with the price of oil. And don't forget the $17-billion Petrobras corruption scandal. Of course, Japan Inc., the exporting giant of the 1980s, never recovered fully from the 1987 crash. Germany, another exporter, will be in serious hurt soon enough. Fancy BMWs are the first luxuries to go in hard times.
The descent will be rapid. Perón took Argentina from vast wealth in 1945 to poverty in just a few years, which seems to be the pattern Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and China are following. In fact, Perón was sort of a trailblazer with this sort of maneuver.
In the 1950s, Perón even sank hundreds of millions of dollars – in today's money – on a project to produce cold fusion, thanks to the crackpot schemes of the scientist Ronald Richter, a man with a past so shady that no one knows if he was Austrian or German, or even if he received a doctorate. With this new atomic technology, Perón hoped he could finally liberate the Falklands. Shades of Kim Jong Un, and underground H-bombs. Scientific Peronism lives on in today's global warming.
We underestimate Juan Perón and classify him as an Argentine kook. In reality, Argentina is history's premier archetype for the national self-destruction of a rich nation. A look at today's mess shows that Peronism is alive and well...in China, in Brazil, in Saudi Arabia, in Putin's Russia, and...in the fusion research facilities of North Korea. There should be graduate colleges courses on the Perón era. He defined the paradigm.
Argentina and Perón set the standard in the first half of the 20th century, and every successful tin-pot dictator since then has recapitulated his policies, though not quite as gracefully. No one seeks to emulate Hitler; everyone admits Stalin was a thug; Mussolini was a buffoon; but Perón's legacy is alive, well, and growing. Perón fue el dictador máximo. ¡Y qué estilo! Other dictators might follow his polices, but none with such panache.
The Peróns knew how to put on a show while they bankrupted Argentina. The present imitators are poor shadows of their talent. No one will be writing operas about Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping, Dilma Rouseff. Hillary is no Evita.
Then the final irony: Argentina has finally elected a free-market conservative, Mauricio Macri. The worm has turned. An era has passed. At least in Argentina, the show is finally over. In the rest of the world, Act II is only starting.
Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who is not Jewish, Latin, or Arab. He runs a website, http://latinarabia.com, where he discusses the subculture of Arabs in Latin America. He wishes his Spanish were better.