Although the NZ media did not pay much attention to them, Argentina and Mexico celebrated the bicentennials of their independence from Spain this year (Argentina on May 25 and Mexico on September 16). Much fanfare and parading happened in both nation’s capitals, and a wide array of patriotic rhetoric was heard. But the sad truth is that both states are disappointments and long time failures. They certainly are not in the same league as Somalia or Yemen, but for the majority of citizensÂ in each country the hallowed promise of independence has come up short. The failure in both instances rests not with foreign imperialists but with the respective political and economic elites.
Argentina and Mexico are the fourth and fifth largest countries in the Western Hemisphere and blessed with abundant natural resources, a variety of climates and geography, extensive coastlines and close commercial ties to greater Europe dating to 1810. They have well defined borders and are peace with their neighbours (even if those borders are permeable and historic resentments occasionally arise–but none of this compromises trade or good relations with neighbours big and small). The strategic sectors of their economy are under state or domestic capitalist control (or both). They both exhibit considerable foreign policy independence.
Yet, 200 years after independence, neither has fulfilled its promise. Mexico is in the midst of a vicious civil war between a variety of drug cartels and the state that poses the risk of it disintegrating into neo-feudal enclaves and autonomous regions barely under the nominal authority of a failed central state apparatus. Argentina, although not the financial basket case that it was in 2001-02 or the state terrorism experiment that it was from 1976-82, remains a nation in which corruption at all levels of society is an art form and in which patronage and nepotism are the hallmarks of political life.
This really should not be. Both countries have produced, among many other lines of contribution,Â Nobel laureates, writers, artists, musicians, actors, medical pioneers, legal scholars, diplomats, human rights champions, renown architects and more than a few good political scientists.Â The number of such luminariesÂ is disproportionate to the total population of each country, so it is clear that the talent pool runs deep in each case. Yet time and time again, year after year, decade after decade, the tides of national fortune ebb and fall so that neither country has come close toÂ fulfilling the promise of its naturally-givenÂ and human potential. That is a pity, and a waste.
I grew up in Argentina and have spent a fair amount of time, both personal and professional, in Mexico. In my younger years, when my leftward tilt was more pronounced, I joined those who blamed the US and imperialism in general for the woes of theseÂ and all other countries in the region. Dependency theory was my theoretical crutch and, as a prescription, revolution was to me the best answer to the region’s problems.
I was wrong. Mexico had its revolution in 1917 and although the nature of its authoritarianism changed, the fundamental socio-economic and politicalÂ problems underpinning it did not (the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas was a reminder of that). Although a looming presence, the US is not the primary source of Mexico’s ills (although its drug consumer market is certainly a part of it). Although nominally democratic for a decade, Mexican politics remains infested with cronyism, corruption (now often drug related) andÂ a lack of transparency. Socio-economic actors of all types see the state as a trough from which to feed when in power or in favour rather than as a neutral mediator in redistributive conflicts.
Argentina has not had aÂ revolution but not for lack of trying. I was personal witness to the Montonero/ERP campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the last gasp of the Peronist mythos inÂ person (Peron died in1974 after returning from exile the year before). That onlyÂ precipitated the state terror experiment and the return to shallow consumerism for which Argentines–or least those living in Buenos Aires–are famous. The attitude towards holding power is similar to that of Mexico, and the “state-as-money bag” approach is also endemic amongst the Argentine elites.
After the neo-liberal experiments in both countries, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was 50 years ago. Working class dissent remains a simmering pool that remains unmitigated in each case. Crime haunts the streets (more in Mexico than in Argentina, but bothÂ at much higher rates than before 1960 or even 1990), and uncertainty about the future is rife amongst all but the upper ten percent of society.Â Even the national soccer teams have failed to live up to popular expectations, which in of itself is symptomatic of the larger malaise each is living through.Â And yet the politics of elite greed continues unabated in both countries, now under ostensibly democratic aegis.
All of which is to say that as much as it is nice to celebrate longevity, it is human folly that has prevented these two countries from developing into fully mature states that are nourishing and representative of their citizens. My hope is that the youngerÂ generation of citizens exposed to the excesses of the past 25 years in both places will work harder than their parents and ancestors at giving them the political leadership that they so rightly deserve and which was sorely missing from the official grandstands during the celebrations.