Where Is Santiago Maldonado?

As Argentina's right consolidates power, an activist's disappearance at the hands of the police has unearthed memories of the dictatorship.

A march on September 1, 2017 in Buenos Aires calling for the return of Santiago Maldonado. luzencor / Flickr

Just as the 2014 Argentine presidential race was getting under way, Ernesto Laclau was interviewed by the conservative La Nación newspaper. Asked about the prospects of neoliberal candidate Mauricio Macri, he replied, “He has the same odds of becoming the constitutionally elected president of Argentina as I do becoming the emperor of Japan.”

Shortly after, Macri and his Cambiemos coalition pulled off a shock victory in the 2015 presidential race.

This year, Cambiemos achieved another vital win in the August 12 primary elections. More than an election, the primaries represented a nationwide straw poll to gauge the general political mood. The largest takeaway lesson is that Cambiemos, with a firm hold on one-third of the electorate, is the nation’s minority-majority party of choice, while the remaining two-thirds in the opposition finds itself completely fragmented among a half-dozen competing parties. The Left now has to come to grips with a sobering reality: Argentina’s first democratically elected right-wing party has shown itself capable of becoming the nation’s majority political force.

The results hit hardest in the camp of former president Christina Kirchner. Kirchner had gambled that, fragmentation notwithstanding, her candidacy in the Buenos Aires province was strong enough to run unopposed on her own platform and outside the Peronist political machine. Thus, focus was trained all last month on Argentina’s most populous region, with 40 percent of the electorate, where the race between Cambiemos’s conservative candidate Esteban Bullrich and Cristina Kirchner was held up to scrutiny in an attempt to divine the political future of the nation.

Although the results of that race are still in dispute (a technical tie seems the most likely outcome), and even though a second-place finish in midterm general elections in October would be enough for Kirchner to take a seat in the national senate, the numbers emerging from the primary have put a damper on progressive hopes for a leftist turn-around in 2019: where the progressive candidacy of Kirchner represented a Hail Mary for the opposition, her failure to win in anything but strongest terms possible would represent a major fumble on the path to her 2019 bid for the presidency.

One major current event may throw a wrench into Cambiemos’s plans: the most high-profile case of a disappeared person since the end of the dictatorship. The disappearance of Santiago Maldonado — and eyewitness accounts alleging he was captured by the militarized police — has sparked huge protests, and interrupted Cambiemos’s careful attempts to paper over the historical relationship between the Right and authoritarianism.

A Brave New World

The recent election cycle has shed new light on the ambitious nature of the Cambiemos project: first and foremost, to build a governing consensus among the different sectors of Argentine society; second, Macri’s team of technocrats and business elites wants to establish itself as a beacon of reaction on the continent.

As far as the latter is concerned, Cambiemos enjoys the unique privilege of being the only political force to notch an electoral victory against Latin America’s “pink tide.” As if to drive that point home, Cambiemos candidates could be seen during the recent election campaign boasting of their “republican” credentials and inveighing against Venezuela’s “socialist authoritarianism” in the same sentence.

Leaving behind the halcyon years of the pink tide, Latin America finds itself entering a revanchist political cycle: in Venezuela, there are public lynchings of citizens who “look like Chavez supporters” (i.e., dark skinned), and in Brazil, the runaway popularity of presidential aspirant and hate-monger Jair Bolsonaro portends a dark future, to say nothing of the virulent racism that drives the anti–Workers’ Party rhetoric on the right; it is perhaps only in Argentina that one finds the semblance of a peaceful political transition.

Yet despite appearances, in Argentina too there are mobilizations of class resentment against the perceived beneficiaries of the Kirchner’s “Won Decade,” invariably the poor and marginalized. In a recent stump speech, Kirchner’s conservative opponent Bullrich boasted that the Cambiemos project was progressing day-by-day, “laying another meter of asphalt, putting another kid behind bars.” Later dismissed as a slip of the tongue, Bullrich’s criminalization of poor youth goes hand in hand with an emerging cultural politics that sees political corruption, government welfare, and petty criminality as part of a sinister Mobius strip of authoritarian-populist-clientelism.

In fact, for the last two years the government and media has attempted to stigmatize any social expression that does not walk in perfect lockstep with the neoliberal program: the popular sector is painted in broad strokes as “mafioso,” and political opposition is branded a Kirchnerist conspiracy.

Before the primaries there were still lingering doubts whether Cambiemos had what it took to become a majoritarian political force. The reason, in the most immediate context, is the government’s dismal economic performance: plummeting consumption, diminished real wages, creeping inflation, rising unemployment, depressed industries, and an estimated third of the population living below the poverty line.

All things considered, one could reasonably expect the kleptocratic party to be on its last legs. But the government’s economic blunders are offset by their political acumen, a fact reflected in the polls where most of the party’s major political figures enjoy approval ratings that hover consistently around 50 percent.

Defying a common Argentine adage, the people clearly don’t “vote with their wallet.” Kirchner had hung her success on the eternal validity of that kind of thinking and had rebranded herself as a committed anti-austerity warrior (admittedly, she may have more right to the title than her counterparts in Brazil’s Workers’ Party). On the face of things, with successive rounds of austerity and, in the last months, a savage attack on labor and worker militancy, it seemed like a reasonable maneuver on the part of the ex-president. But the Cambiemos platform has revealed that, beyond the immediate experience of the economy, the electorate is oriented even more by the prevailing interpretation of the brute economic reality. And on that account the Cambiemos narrative has taken the upper hand.

The Cambiemos Formula

Cambiemos began life in 2005 as PRO (Propuesta Republicana), a political platform with its base in the city of Buenos Aires. It was there that Macri and his main political adviser Horacio Rodriguez Larreta began to hone their formula: initially, the twin pillars of “security” and “post-material values” proved successful in capturing the sizeable middle-class vote concentrated in the nation’s capital. The latter values, including “green” initiatives, free Wi-Fi, organic food markets, bike paths, etc., spoke to the middle-class’s self-perceived commonality with their counterparts in the First World, while the security protocol would represent a cordon sanitaire against those in the slums and outskirts.

The natural outgrowth of an increasingly segmented society, that platform expanded as PRO assumed a national projection in the form of Cambiemos: the crown jewel in the new “values-driven” platform was undoubtedly the “culture of work,” a meritocratic social vision that is slowly displacing Argentina’s longstanding “culture of the worker.”

The Cambiemos government is neoliberal, but its particular brand of neoliberalism is tailored to the domestic balance of powers: adopting what some call a “gradualist” policy, the government’s basic tack has been to announce dramatic measures — regressive tax hikes, deep budget cuts, the redistribution of income towards the wealthiest sectors — and then backpedal as necessary in the face of popular reaction.

Where the Left has regarded these about-faces as popular victories, the government has managed to capitalize and present them as a token of their conciliatory, democratic spirit. In fact, Cambiemos seems to have an inch-perfect read on public opinion: with little fuss they have preserved the outgoing government’s most popular social spending programs, and more generally, there are few outward signs of orthodox neoliberalism’s anti-government ideology on display.

In a country where the neoliberal label is political kryptonite, Macri’s Cambiemos choreographs a careful dance with Argentina’s neoliberal past. Throughout the 1990s, Carlos Menem’s neoliberal government was still reading from the Peronist libretto, paying lip service to shared abundance and redistribution as it slashed government funds and privatized public utilities.

The Cambiemos project, by contrast, conflates the “enthusiastic citizen” with the “entrepreneurial subject,” encouraging the precarious and unemployed to channel their civil unrest into individual, market-based solutions rather than roadblocks and strikes. Forming an even starker departure from the neoliberalism of the 1990s is the current government’s political inheritance: Menem came to power in 1989 on the heels of a massive hyperinflationary crisis that was temporarily tamed by neoliberal nostrums.

By contrast, Macri assumed the mantle of a nation that was emerging from a period of unparalleled (albeit uneven) economic growth. In other words, Macri has entered the terrain on significantly more stable political and economic ground than previous administrations, with the full backing of the national bourgeoisie but also, and equally important, with considerable pushback at the level of popular resistance.

One of the masterstrokes of the Cambiemos project has been to seize on Argentina’s national culture of “self-management” and translate that DIY value into a vision compatible with neoliberalism’s “culture of precarity.” From the insurrectionary response to the 2001 crisis — with its factory takeovers and horizontal assembly democracies — to the integration of informal work into micro-cooperatives during the Kirchner years, all the way up to the “neoliberal subject” of the Cambiemos project, there is a paradoxical connection between the post-2001 experiments in worker self-management and the “worker-entrepreneur” at the heart of Macri’s cultural revolution.

In an important sense, the last year and a half has seen the neoliberal wheat separated from the progressive chafe: Macri has been more than happy to preserve and even expand on Kirchner’s Argentina Trabaja (Argentina Works) program, which provides a meager income for thousands of cooperatives across the nation. Despite the patina of worker control suggested by the term “cooperative,” the practical reality is that Argentina Trabaja represents the height of precarity, where beneficiaries are more like welfare recipients than workers capable of negotiating the terms of their employment.

The coup de grace for Cambiemos was their ability “depoliticize” the state, to step back from the agonism that defined the Kirchner regime and present politics as a routine matter best handled by experts. In practical terms, this has meant separating government programs from any broader social vision. The Right is hastening the end of the era when social rights — rather than individual rights — framed the public’s relationship to government.

Pockets of Resistance

Kirchner may have faltered out of the gate in terms of offering a decisive electoral challenge to the Cambiemos project, but there are social forces alive in Argentina that bear within them the kind of sharpened historical-political sensibility that Cambiemos will do well to bury before it can proclaim itself victor.

Indeed, while the government has been busy touting the recent election results as a popular mandate for the Cambiemos model, the recent case of Santiago Maldonado has thrown that popularity into serious doubt.

Again, at issue is the most high-profile case of a disappeared person since the return of democratic rule in 1983. Santiago Maldonado was last seen a month ago defending the indigenous Mapuche territory in the Chubut province against the assault of the National Gendarmerie, which intervened on behalf of the proprietor Benetton Company. While Maldonado’s capture by the militarized police was verified by numerous eyewitness accounts, Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich and the Cambiemos government have roadblocked any attempt to investigate the matter and continue to deny any knowledge of Maldonado’s whereabouts. By all accounts, the forced disappearance of Maldonado may end up painting the current administration as a government willing to embrace the tactics of state terrorism associated with the dictatorship.

Judging by the massive size of last Friday’s demonstration in repudiation of the government’s actions, Maldonado’s disappearance was a bridge too far. Unwittingly, the Macri government has managed to connect the dots between official attempt to erase the historical memory of the dictatorship and the particular social vision it holds for the future: from disputing the official number of the “disappeared” during Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976–1983), to offering reduced sentences for convicted human rights violators and home arrest for many high-profile figures connected to the dictatorship, “change” has become indistinguishable from historical amnesia.

The reason why is just as simple: a closer look at Argentina’s human rights movement reveals that real change and progress are the historical outcome of society’s self-organization and struggle, rather than the inexorable unfolding of liberal democracy and entrepreneurial initiative. Particularly in the context of the Maldonado case, Cambiemos spokespersons have been at pains to argue that the revitalized human rights struggle is actually a byproduct of the Kirchner’s opportunistic “politicization” of the human rights movement.

The truth, however, is that the movement, with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (an association of Argentine mothers whose children were disappeared during the dictatorship) leading the charge, has always been uniquely “political” when compared to other post-dictatorial states throughout the region.

To reduce a long and complicated history to a few simple lines, Argentina alone among the post-dictatorial societies of Latin America (the case can be made for Bolivia, too) experienced a period of democratic transition that was not only not the byproduct of a compromise between civilian and military forces, but was in fact a prolonged period of political contestation and instability punctuated by renewed coup attempts. Thus, rather than mediating in the smooth brokerage of power between competing political sectors, the human rights struggle became a token of society’s autonomy with respect to the vagaries of political power.

On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the military coup, the Mothers read a public statement in which they solemnly remembered and vindicated the ERP, Montoneros, and other groups affiliated with the violent armed struggle of Argentina’s left-wing guerilla movement. The Mothers’ revival of that attempted revolutionary struggle may seem like an anachronism. But it exemplifies an attitude towards the past as a “memory that can flare up in a moment of danger,” to paraphrase Walter Benjamin.

A few short months later, the Cambiemos-stacked Supreme Court ruled in favor of a reduced sentence for a man who had previously been convicted of acts of torture during the military junta. Perhaps innocuous when compared with the imminent threat of austerity, the Mothers nevertheless responded by calling for a demonstration and in a matter of hours Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo was filled with half a million protestors. “Ni olvido, ni perdon” (“Don’t forgive, don’t forget”) is the expression of an uncompromising social solidarity and marks the boundaries around which social conflicts can be drawn in sharp relief against the warp and woof of national history. “Macri” may not be reducible to “Videla,” but just the same, attempts to relegate the dictatorship to the past through executive fiat has a certain irony that the Mothers and other groups are ready to call out.

The Confederación  de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (Confederation of Workers of the Popular Economy) represents another bright spot in a political landscape otherwise characterized by its paucity of ideas. As a kind of AFL-CIO for the precarious and informal sector, the labor central headed by the charismatic and formidable Juan Grabois is a curious conjugation of elements: a movement that foregrounds Argentina’s deeply-ingrained “culture of labor,” where “full employment” is a virtual national shibboleth, and, paradoxically, a tactical awareness that Argentina’s place in the world economy means that up to one-tenth of the national labor force is structurally redundant.

Seizing on the volatile impossibility of that situation, the confederation, made up of thousands of militants and hundreds of thousands of recyclers, street vendors, sweatshop workers, and the unemployed have been responsible for some of the most powerful street demonstrations in the last years, a radical rebuke to the reactionary fantasy of idle welfare recipients.

True to its workerist origins, the group is beholden to no political party and has crossed swords with Kirchner and Macri alike in defense of autonomous worker power. The confederation is also not without its contradictions: the so-called Social Emergency Law, which provided a million jobs and enhanced social benefits for members of the “popular economy,” was a major victory on the part of the confederation; still, many on the Left criticized specific aspects of the bill that to some resembled a peace treaty with Cambiemos, while others criticize the general orientation of the movement insofar as it does not attempt to break the ceiling of informal employment (the ILO estimates that 51 percent of employment throughout Latin America falls into this category). More complex still is the movement’s connections to Pope Bergoglio [Francisco], who has for years maintained a close relationship with Grabois.

Meanwhile, Argentina’s women’s movement is a portent of things to come. Organized under the banner Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), the group that was instrumental in the recent International Women’s March. More than “intersectional,” at present the national women’s movement is the closest thing Argentina has to a movement of the masses, a movement-of-movements that is capable of coordinating political organization and strategic analysis in line with the current socioeconomic landscape: precarity, deindustrialization, social disintegration, and hardening inequalities.

The movement, like the other two mentioned here, lacks a political vehicle to articulate its aspirations at the institutional level. That the current elections are dominated by three women —Elisa Carrió and María Eugenia Vidal for Cambiemos, Cristina Kirchner for her own Unidad Ciudadana Party — may not be remarkable unto itself, but as Verónica Gago suggests in a recent piece, “the political” is being increasingly filtered through the figure of “the feminine” in a way that, while it might assume a predictable format at the level of representative politics, is much more explosive on the streets.

Those familiar with history of Argentina will know that, on the subject of radical change, the forward march of the South American country tends to follow a peculiar logic: Juan Peron’s ascendance was precipitated by a spontaneous industrial action on October 17, 1945; the radicalization of the seventies was inaugurated by a popular insurrection in the city of Cordoba in 1969; the Kirchner years, for better or for worse, would have been unthinkable without the so-called “Commune of Buenos Aires” during the 2001 crisis. This history, of spontaneous social ruptures that produce real changes in politics, can give cause for hope in the otherwise bleak Argentinian landscape.