Argentina to Israel – Don’t Keep Your Distance

A look at the Argentina Netanyahu visited – how closer relations would reap benefits for both countries, as each has an abundance of what the other needs.

Netanyahu and Macri are all smiles as Israel and Argentina enter a new era of closer relations (photo by GPO)

According to an old joke, after the creation of the world, all the countries turned to God and complained: “How is it possible that you have given to one sole country so much wealth, vast areas of fertile land that can feed 400 million people without even moving a finger, mineral deposits, water reserves and so much more?” God stared at them and said: “Don’t worry. In that country, I will put the Argentinians”

The Argentine national past time, which occupies more hours than even soccer, is to dissect and analyze the reality of this unique – and absurd – country.  A country where it is very difficult – some even say impossible – to explain how is it that instead of being the super power we were destined to be, today we are actually a third world country, in decline, with deeply contradicting realities.

So what is the nature of this country, the Argentina that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will find during his visit this week? He will visit a country that struggles with a deep divide. An internal split between those enthralled by and who have benefited from a corrupted populist model which is embedded in the cultural and structural DNA of the country, and those who try to implement the measures necessary to escape our predicament.

Argentina is the third biggest economy in Latin America, following Brazil and Mexico; the second largest in South America; because of its economic size, it is part of the G20.  Despite its huge potential, over the last 50 years it has gone through repeated economic crises; it has switched between economic and political doctrines to overcome unprecedented strife. We experienced 180 degree political shifts during the same decade, going from conservative policies to state intervention policies, and even ultra-liberal measures and privatizations.

Argentina seemed, in the beginning of the 1960’s, destined to be a superpower. In 1952 the Peronist government paid off the foreign debt completely, transforming from a country in debt to one with a 5 billion dollar surplus. By 1966 poverty reached only 1%, the population had a high level of social mobility, an exceptional academic system and very low illiteracy rates. It was a country admired for its development, culture, possibilities, middle class, and infrastructure. Immigration from the beginning of the 20th century had allowed Russians, Polish, Spanish, Italians and others, among whom not few were Jews, not only to escape poverty and persecution, but to make the dream of being rich come true.

It is impossible to say exactly when the decline of the last 50 years began, but there is no doubt that the military coup of the 1970s (be it remembered that it was by no means the first) and its horrendous consequences marked the future of the economic, political, social and cultural scenario to come.

Huge debts with a permanent and growing fiscal deficit forced the country to declare the largest default in history, after more than a quarter of a century of a recovered democracy that failed to solve an unsustainable legacy of the the Military Junta.

Following yet another economic default in 2001, a restructuring of the debt carried out by President Nestor Kirchner saw the country enjoy great economic expansion, as a result – among others – of the high prices of commodities. Once again, the richness of the land offered salvation and many resources for the state. Yet, as was the case in the past, instead of using and capitalizing on that extraordinary income for genuine development and growth, the income was squandered on welfare policies. These were initially necessary in the face of huge poverty and unemployment, but were perpetuated unnecessarily overtime as an instrument of political populism and unlimited corruption.

When President Mauricio Macri was elected in December 2015, he was met with a broken state, an unsustainable fiscal deficit, out-of-control inflation of more than double digits, 30% poverty, a stock exchange that did not allow buying or drafting foreign exchange currency and prevented trade with the rest of the world. In short, chaos. Macri’s challenge is not only economic but also political. It’s important to remember that no non-Peronist administration has ever completed its term over the past century. With those words, almost everything has been said.

His greatest political challenge comes the former president Cristina Kirchner. She is still supported by millions of followers even though accused in countless corruption cases; suspected of plotting an unconstitutional agreement with Iran, even considered to have committed “treason against the homeland” in a cover up for those terrorists responsible for the worst attack suffered in the country, the AMIA bombing. The plot was exposed with hundreds of details, wiretaps and others by the late prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who hours after filing his complaint in the house of representatives was found dead with a bullet in his head…

This is part of the scenario Netanyahu will find upon his arrival. A country deeply polarized and divided; a government trying to survive the harassment of mafias and very powerful sectors, and even some less powerful but all the same, violent. This puts the government at the edge of the precipice. A government desperate for some prevision that may enable the administration to gain time and put the house in order, to attract investment, after so many years of isolation, when the only ideological partners of the country were Venezuela, Bolivia, China and maybe Iran.

Netanyahu arrives to a country in which not only Israel and the Jewish community were stricken by the still unpunished terrorists that attacked the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA, but also where the collaborators and local accomplices of those crimes amble freely in the streets. A country that, following more than two years of the murder of a federal prosecutor, it does not label the case as murder. A country where Jewish leaders and others were accused from the highest magistracy of treason, accused of being foreign economic partners and agents of the Israeli government for opposing the memorandum with Iran. Perhaps the most notorious anti-Semitic political pogrom that the Argentine democratic history can recall.

Some criticize Macri’s administration for what they call impious adjustment, where state taxes and service tariffs have strongly stricken the pockets of the middle and lower class, while others call it a Kirchner-like administration of good manners, claiming that instead of cutting the fiscal deficit it has even increased it.

All the above having been said, nobody should ignore the enormous potential of Argentina and its importance at a geopolitical level in this pendulum continent. As from the very moment that Macri came to power, the expectations of change and growth have been increasingly high. The population is impatient with a daily routine, where the pocket is restricted and the ideology speeches are used “to bring water for their mill”. Anxiety grows in the search for immediate and magical solutions. The average citizen wants realities and not perspectives and promises. The first indications of economic growth in recent months are not enough to satisfy needs or calm the waters.

It is, no doubt, a moment of opportunity and risk for Argentina.

For Israel, Argentina can be a place for huge investments, a joint venture partner, or a sales market. Urban security, and everything connected to fighting crime and drug trafficking are a state priority. Argentina seeks the urgent exploitation of its extensive natural resources and is inviting foreign investors. At a geopolitical level, Argentina leaving its historical and recent populism that was  very anti-American and consequently anti-Israet, could be good news for the continent.

In many aspects – even though deeply different for its opposing realities: Israel lacks natural resources while and in Argentina there is a surplus and enough to spare – the idiosyncrasy, creativity, and striving force of these two peoples at the time of overcoming difficulties are very similar.

The 100,000 Argentinians who migrated to Israel with their barbecues, soccer, soap operas, tango and much more, have successfully become part of the Israeli society. The major Jewish community residing in Argentina, with deep Zionist roots, the Israelis who have come over the last few years, the many friends and non-Jewish admires of the startup nation can all consolidate a future of close relationship and good business.

The land of good beef, dulce de leche, beautiful women, Maradona, Messi, Mercedes Sosa, Facundo Arana, Lali Esposito and so many others, even Pope Francis, is a permanently rich soil, well predisposed, which calls for talent, creativity, character, constancy, and Israeli determination to flourish.

Miguel Steuermann is Director General of Radio Jai, La Radio Judía de Latinoamérica

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