Flags are flying at half mast in Argentina today after the sudden and unexpected death of former president Nestor Kirchner of a heart attack at the age of 60.
Serving as president of a nation with an unfortunate history of unstable periods of democracy sandwiched between decades of brutal U.S.-backed military dictatorships and taking the baton immediately following a devastating economic collapse, Kirchner took on a challenge with remarkable similarities to the challenges Barack Obama faces as president of the United States today, though perhaps, in domestic terms, even greater in scale.
Shortly before the beginning of Obama’s election, the U.S. suffered the inevitable collapse of a financial system designed to explode. In 2001, shortly before Kirchner became president of Argentina, rampant privatization and an unsustainable currency bubble created by an artificial 1:1 dollar-peso ratio led to the collapse of an already fragile economy. The international financial institutions basically took all the currency out of the economy and fled, leading to an immediate currency devaluation.
To make matters worse, it was obvious that the banks had seen this coming, encouraging people to sign their mortgages in dollars instead of pesos when they were worth the same amount, and foreclosing on them and leading them homeless after the currency devaluation, when they only had access to now practically worthless pesos. And in the U.S., banks are bending (or breaking) the rules to foreclose on people’s homes having convinced buyers that the rates on their adjustible-rate mortgages were never going to go up when they were fully aware that the bubble was about to burst.
Argentina was in debt to the IMF, and leveraged into taking their bad advice to solve their financial issues through privatization and deregulation. The economic collapse created an unemployment rate in the 20s, with an existing rampant underemployment and undercompensation problem. Corruption had become ingrown in the political, judicial, and police systems during the military dictatorship, and the policy at the time was the “punto final” (full stop), an equivalent to Obama’s policy of “looking forward, not backward”. The middle class crumbled, and in a society of rich and poor with very little inbetween, the poor created their own profession, becoming “cartoneros” and digging through the trash on the street for recyclable materials and hauling them by hand to recycling centers to earn money for food. Many continue to work today, but when they first appeared, they filled the streets.
The reasons many Democrats feel disillusioned with the Obama administration seem to fit into three categories, with a general common theme: he appears to be unwilling to work for the change that he promised.
People get a sensation that Obama is not representing them, but instead is representing established political and economic interests.
People feel that Obama is willing to cave in to the political opposition, but takes an iron fist when it comes to criticism from the side he claims to represent.
And people feel that Obama is turning a blind eye on or even continuing the illegal policies of his predecessor that put the very foundation of our democracy in jeopardy.
What the Obama administration doesn’t seem to understand is that yes, people like a reasonable politician who’s willing to compromise and work with the other party and be pragmatic in order to get things done, but sometimes it’s seemed like what we’ve gained in our efforts to compromise haven’t been worth what we’ve given away. And while the opposition may label you a socialist or a Communist or try to mischaracterize your message, even if they are convinced that you’re a little more left-leaning than they would like, if you can prove that you are a strong leader, people are willing to accept your leadership even if there are some policy disagreements. And if you stand by your positions and take that strong leadership role, you’ll never be caught flip-flopping or contradicting yourself, and you won’t make the kind of backroom deals that make people question your integrity.
Take a cue from the late president of Argentina. He faced similar challenges, and rose to the occasion, becoming an extremely important political force in the entire region.
The economy of Argentina is still struggling, and the inflation problems seem insurmountable. Like Obama, Kirchner didn’t have the ability to completely restructure a system desperately in need of replacement, practically beyond repair. Remnants of a non-progressive tax system, including a hefty value-added tax, are still in place from the days of the military dictatorship. Cost of living and wages are two very different numbers, and the marginalization of “villa” (shantytown) areas and a lack of class mobility lead to a frightening crime rate.
But there have been improvements since the collapse, and this is because Kirchner’s administration stood up to the IMF and the disastrous reforms they attempted to impose. Right now, the U.S. and many other nations around the world are responding to the economic crisis by pushing for so-called “austerity” measures, which will do untold damage to the economy by pushing more people into poverty, but will free up state funds for further handouts to the richest people in the world. Why is Obama surprised that the American left is upset with him when he himself creates a deficit commission to put Social Security on the chopping block?
The people of Argentina suffered under a military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 during which some 30,000 people were tortured and murdered in the name of fighting “terrorism” and “communism” after a military coup which Henry Kissinger played a role in orchestrating, concurrent to the dictatorships in Chile under Augusto Pinochet and many other nations in the region. These nations actually worked together under CIA supervision to develop internal policies of persecution for political beliefs and associations.
In the United States, after an election of questionable democratic validity in 2000, George W. Bush filled his cabinet with members of a think tank known as the Project for a New American Century, which lobbied for the invasion of Iraq on behalf of a group of individuals with an economic interest in doing so. After the September 11 attacks, this administration used the political momentum to start an illegal war. Their crimes didn’t stop there. Torture became commonplace in the name of fighting terrorism, both by the hands of our own military and intelligence officers and by our foreign allies with our knowledge.
Among those of us who believe torture should not be U.S. policy, the 2008 election became the focus of an important discussion to decide something which is a fundamental question into the nature of our democracy: do we open up a can of worms and punish war crimes, or do we attempt to move on for the sake of stability?
In the U.S., against the wishes of many of their constituents, the Democratic Party leadership and Obama himself decided before Bush’s term ended that impeachment was off the table, and afterward that our policy was to look forward, not backward.
And when the ghost of Latin American military dictatorships came back to haunt us in the form of a military coup in Honduras, Kirchner led the rest of Latin America in pressuring them to reinstate democracy and in refusing to recognize their illegal government, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled Latin America on behalf of Obama’s State Department not to support them in their fight for democracy, but to ask them, pressure them, and even threaten them to try to convince them to recognize the new government of Honduras and ignore the human rights violations committed there.
The price of impunity becomes clear in the case of South America. Pinochet lived free and wealthy until his death at the age of 90, and today, Chile suffers deep scars from his rule. Openly fascist movements are not uncommon, and private paramilitary contractor Blackwater used former officers from the military dictatorship as a recruiting pool for their operations in the Middle East.
In Argentina, however, while fascism and sympathy with the military dictatorship and its war criminals exist and may even be on the rise, they are much less common and less mainstream, more subtle or hidden. The fascist ideology of the military dictatorship has taken a far greater blow in Argentina than in Chile, and at least part of the reason for this has to be the actions of Nestor Kirchner.
His predecessor, Carlos Menem, had passed legislation closing all cases concerning disappearances (the bodies of many of those killed were thrown out of airplanes into the ocean), murders, torture, and stolen and illegally adopted children from the dirty war. When Kirchner took office, he eliminated this legislation and began a long process of investigation leading to the human rights convictions of the perpetrators of these crimes which continues today.
This is the way you fight against an ideology that runs contrary to the rule of law, not by showing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity that they are correct in believing they are above the law by offering them impunity, but by demanding justice, equal justice for all, regardless of how much political power they wield, regardless of how much wealth they control, regardless of what retribution they may promise (remember, in Argentina, these investigations were conducted knowing that the threat of another military coup always exists).
You don’t fight torture by classifying the documentation of torture to sweep it under the rug. You don’t do it by claiming you will end all practices of torture and no longer hand over prisoners to entities that will torture them only to be caught in a lie when Wikileaks gets their hands on the documentation showing that these practices continue today. You don’t do it by claiming the right to extrajudicial execution of anyone in the world, including your own citizens. And you don’t do it by claiming you will close the most famous torture and illegal detention site ever built by your government, only to leave it in operation well after your own self-imposed deadline.
You fight torture and crimes against humanity by talking about it openly and honestly. You do it by naming those responsible and pursuing their prosecution. You do it by taking their painted portraits down off the walls of the institutions they once controlled, as Kirchner did with Jorge Videla, the president of the military dictatorship who sits in jail today and will for life. You do it by shutting down the institutions they created and turning them into museums, as has been done with the Naval Mechanics School in Argentina that was used as an illegal detention and torture center under the dictatorship. You expose these people for what they are, criminals of the worst sort who destroy our democracy, who tarnish our national identity, and who hurt our nation in a way no terrorist ever could, by darkening our soul.
Instead, we’re trying to rewrite history and cover up what crimes we can and minimize the importance of the crimes we can’t. State secrets are invoked to block the legal process. Photographic evidence of torture is classified to avoid embarassment. Criminals are allowed to walk free.
Take a cue from Kirchner. Impunity sends a clear message that anyone who takes power can commit any crimes against humanity they wish, and that puts us in a position to be dragged back into our brutal past before we even regain our good standing as a beacon of democracy. “Looking forward” is the way backward. Justice is the way forward.
If we really want to move forward, first we must look back, stand firm, and declare, “Nunca mas!”