Below is an article I wrote in March 2014, responding to that year’s feature in the Boston Review, an interview given by the Buenos Aires-based journalist Uki Goñi to a young American expat in Buenos Aires, Jessica Sequeria (who writes for the Argentina Independent and the Buenos Aires Review) The BR Review article I am responding to can be seen through this link: http://bostonreview.net/arts-culture/jessica-sequeira-interview-uki-goni
The deliberate falsehoods and ideological orientation of the interview (in which Goñi presents baseless claims of how infant mortality and illiteracy have been on the increase, among other inventions he presents without citing sources) convinced me to send my letter to the Boston Review, their editors only recently responded. Bear in mind this article was written before the election-campaign bids were announced in Argentina and before the eruption of “Nismania” surrounding the district attorney Nisman’s killing and the various conspiracy theories about Iran and Argentina that milled the Argentine and international attention for some time, as the Nisman controversy and Nismania became the Argentine opposition’s echo of the ‘je suis charlie” spectacle in Europe.
Articles I wrote about Argentina before this one was The Widow Fears A Coup, appearing in Open Democracy,
Open Letter to the Boston Review
By Arturo Desimone
In February 2014 an interview and profile-feature under the headline “Political Hatred in Argentina” appeared in The Boston Review Magazine of Ideas. The reporter Jessica Sequeira interviewed Irish journalist Uki Goñi on his expertise on Argentina not long after his sensational piece “Peso Panic and rocketing prices shake Argentina’s Queen Cristina’‘ was digitally voted top article of the month in the Guardian UK. Goñi’s public identity knows two vastly different apparitions according to the political language he uses.
Unfortunately it seems that in the Guardian and in British newspapers he sounds as a jingoist who fits the Cameron-era well, as his exposés of Argentina with faulty information have a devoted audience in the UK and among Falkland Islanders. His article on ”peso panic” depicts an Argentinian woman screaming desperately in the streets because she has to brave the Buenos Aires summer heatwave with a broken air-conditioner and no fridge.
He transforms into a more rigorous scholar, however when writing in Argentine periodicals, for example when excavating the history of Perón’s acceptance of postwar Nazi immigration or confronting the Argentine Catholic Church. His work appears in national newspapers such as Clarín and Página 12 (the latter publication is of the left-leaning populist establishment, also featuring translations of prominent European leftists like Robert Fisk, Julian Assange and John Pilger).
While denouncing V.S. Naipaul’s travel journalism on Argentina, Goñi at once seems to echo the views expressed in Naipaul’s propagandistic work The Return of Eva Perón. The book was written strategically at the time it would serve British and American support of the 1970’s junta, the junta’s eradication of the democratic framework of Argentina and the disappearance of young intellectuals and artists all in the name of ”anti-communism” and ”anti-Peronism.”
The February interview of Goñi by a young Harvard graduate and expat to Argentina, leaps from the Perón era to the junta without ever mentioning that the dictatorship justified itself as an anti-Peronist and anti-communist regime. The current government’s quest for vindication for the crimes of the ”anti-Peronist” regime of the 70s is one of many reasons why, in the 21st century, the middle class establishment of Buenos Aires has ardently supported a right wing technocrat mayor, Macri, against the federal government. To have an opposition mayor of the capital city is impossible in the authoritarian country described in the Daily Mail and the Guardian. Goñi’s political line has been foremost that of the Argentine opposition rallying behind the parties of Macri and Massa, vocally defended by pundits on Clarin-tv.
Mauricio Macri is the mayor of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, elected on his bid of promising to impose technocracy and an end to politics, he called himself ”the entrepreneur” or the ”impresario”.
Macri’s slogans, that Argentina is a country that ”must be administrated, not governed” is perhaps an echo of the anti-politics of Francist Spanish intellectuals whose idea was to end the political vibrancy and polarization of Spain by imposing a system run by technicians.
As in Spanish and Chilean technocracy, the goal of Argentinean opposition technocrats is founded on amnesia. There has been little amnesia in Argentina of late, and much forceful remembering of the harrowing years of the junta and El Proceso (”The Process”is the name given by Argentinian generals like Videla to the process of reconstructing Argentina, by smashing and eliminating its intellectuals and artists, and restructuring the economy to prepare for the eventual rule of mass privatization).Goñi in the BR interview oddly strikes a parallel with “today’s responsible Germany,” pretending that unlike the German society, the Argentinians are still not talking about The Process years, despite the fact that the right wing in Argentina complains about the constant memorialization of junta-era atrocities.
The mayor Macri often appears on municipal television of Buenos Aires with florid, New-Age-like statements about ”healing wounds” ”time to move on”. Such an urge to forgiveness and amnesty, ”against bitterness” is ironic during a time when the Armenian community of Buenos Aires (the third largest Armenian community in the world) is doing the centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide, and when the Jewish community in Buenos Aires (the third largest Jewish community in the world) still has a holocaust memory, despite that Argentinian Jews also provide much of the Latin American critique of the state of Israel.
The Buenos Aires middle class culture is known for ardently following the publications and television shows of the Clarín media group, which thrives on an amnesiac pattern of mentioning any casualty of crime as desaparecido–one example was the media frenzy surrounding a missing girl, Angeles Rawson, which dominated screens of the Clarín media group’s channels several times every hour on a daily basis, becoming a form of haunting pornography while ignoring other happenings in the Argentine underbelly.
Clarín’s journalism has strived throughout the years of the Kirchner presidencies, to foster the illusion that violent crime rates in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America supposedly only began after the election of populists in the 21st century. The typical criminological piece in Clarín is forensic, it begins with the indignation of a victim of robbery or assault, then lists in bold text what items were stolen, and ends with the typical statement into the microphone, the criminals are not being put in jail.1 Despite that Clarín has presented itself as an opponent or critic of populism and of hyper-presidentialism, Clarin has become the main oracle of a form of ”penal populism”: a populism mostly successful amongst the Buenos Aires and Cordoba middle class, trying to convince recruits in other straits, racking a popular sentiment of vigilanteism and of seeing magical solutions in technocracy. Technocracy in the form offered by the A+ part of Mauricio Macri (currently running for the presidency in the upcoming elections) will allow the citizens to have a permanent vacation from the excitement of political processes and arguments called democracy. Political life must instead be approached as if by pampered janitors and superintendents with a small frame of working hours, on occasion adjusting or polishing one of the machines that maintain the socio-political order and rule of law. With Macrismo, the methodology of Macri who said he modeled himself after New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the presence of police in the city center has quadrupled, quieting crime and keeping it in the slums on the outskirts where a ”shoot first” policy is practiced by the ruthless and fearsome Bonarense police.
A note from the interviewer explains that Clarín is being censored by the government. This is Jessica Sequeira’s misleading reference to the ‘media law” which is an economic ruling still before the Supreme court: if effective, it will restrict the size of a media conglomerate, on the argument that a media monopoly like Clarin’s (much in the style of Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate) if too big becomes anti-democratic.
The media law, which Sequeira carelessly calls ”censorship” would not be able control any of the content of Clarin’s publications, as it only restricts the legal entity of the corporation regardless of its ideology.
But Clarín one of the largest media monopolies in Latin America was challenged by the new laws on media conglomerates not only because of its being a monopoly or its success at enthralling a population with the forensic details of crime news. The Kirchner government arose during an era when official consumerist amnesia regarding the 1970s dictatorship lost its legitimacy after the corruption and Amnesty of the Menem period of the 1990s.
Clarín’s role during the 1970s was to serve as a propaganda outlet for the generals. Pagina 12, the most ardent critic of Clarín, is known today as the most pro-government of Argentine newspapers. The proposed “media law” recently approved in the Supreme Court after it was proposed by politicians of Frente de La Victoria (the Peronist ruling party of the Kirchners, ”Front for Victory”) attempts to break away at a nation-wide media monopoly and to reverse the corporate mergers that went to form the anatomy of media giants, a process that would have been welcome against the abuses by the Murdoch group in Australia and in the United States, particularly during Fox’s small war with Obama. The ley de medios challenge to media-monopoly was on grounds of business and cash-flow, rather than on content or journalism.
Because of the Clarín group’s support for the dictatorship of the 70s reporting exclusively in the favor of the junta and the economic interests of the rural landowners, there was interest in a preventive measure against a media monopoly assuming the same power.
Authoritarian censorship seems non-existent in a country where the major opposition pundit, Jorge Lanata, has prime time for his daily talk show on national television.
Argentina, sadly has the Western democratic societies’ conventional form of censorship, as Umberto Eco defined it during his lectures to an Argentinean audience in Mar De Plata: there is a less traditional censorship that works not by imposing silence, but by manufacturing a vast amount of noise that cannot be filtered and a surplus of information, with no way to find the contrast or quality in the noise-flood. Mass-replicating the same noises and information, until the drone becomes inescapable is more effective than assigning a ministry of information: dissenting views are drowned out while the illusion of unlimited extraverted freedom and consumption is maintained.
According to Diego Gorgal, lecturer at the Catholic university of Buenos Aires, the spiraling crime rates began even before the financial crisis of 2001 during the era of former president Carlos Menem: “The qualitative transformation came hand-in-hand with new conditions in the labour market, the dismantling of the welfare system and, moreover, the development of an informal and, in most cases, criminal economy that took advantage of a retreating state,” pointing to Government statistics showing that crime rose 286 per cent between 1992 and 1995.2 It was during the 90s that violent assaults and highwaymen made entry into the outskirts of Buenos Aires nearly impossible for people from the inner city; cars would often be stopped by gangs of young men with machine guns, the drivers in a strange territory needed to pay tribute to gun-men.
Goñi falsely presents himself as having been central to the attempts to rescue Argentinians from the disappearances by the junta, as if he and other staff of The Buenos Aires Herald were the lone voices criticizing the regime. In fact many were criticizing the regime. The disappearances targeted the best of Argentinian journalists, intellectuals, poets and artists. The memoir Dirty Secrets, Dirty War: The Exile of Robert J Cox by his son David Cox, shows how Argentinian journalists throughout the country were targeted by the regime for writing in Argentinian newspapers about these occurrences. Thankfully the Herald profited from its unique position as the dictatorship was afraid to go after a newspaper representing the Anglo-American community, which had ties to business and diplomacy. Crucial support for the generals’ atrocities flowed from the United States and from the Argentinian rural oligarchs who depended on American and European business.
The disappearance and murder by the state of a young Norwegian university student, Dagmar Hagelin when she was on exchange in Argentina, led to her father Ragner and the Norwegian media exposing the generals amidst international furor.
The persecution of Herald journalists, especially in the case European nationals like Goñi (who in the Boston Review interview quite preposterously claims that he had no passport during the first 27 years of his life spent traveling between the UK and the United States) was less viable for the regime.
Goñi is dismissive of most other intellectuals in Argentina, not mentioning any of the intellectual, literary or artistic giants of a country who were either murdered or made into traumatized survivors of then-secret prisons and concentration camps like the ESMA. There is only some slight effort to please the fashions of consumer-feminism, an ode to ”the courage of women” and mothers and the rational cowardice of macho Argentine men. His attempt to reclaim the events of the 1970’s persecutions from its victims strikes a chord of surprise with his usual Anglo-audience who responded in the abundant comments under the article, most of them supportive of his claims against the current government while clamoring against his ”romanticism” about the disappeared, insisting that the dirty war was somehow a match between equal parties–as if the generals and state terror helplessly trying to repress the dangerous subversives or establish peace during a civil war–towing the propaganda line of the dictatorship and of the groups supportive of Videla who died in 2013.
The detail of 1970s junta history that Goñi fixates upon, is that of the government confiscating refrigerators. The recurring phantom-refrigerator is a macabre echo of his jingoist note in the Guardian, where a traumatized Argentine woman screams hysterically in the street that she cannot afford air-conditioning or a fridge. Such a picture implies the vision that Goñi seems to share with Naipaul, as the latter British Caribbean author, his far superior to Goñi in writing counterrevolutionary-prose, described a caricatural Argentina where people are sheepishly murdered, without any intellectual luminaries, without any history or achievements, where crisis means a housewife screaming in the street about being unable to afford an air-conditioner.
At some point Goñi agrees with the interviewer. Elaborating on the subject of Nazis who came to Argentina after WWII, he says “some of them were very intelligent guys, not all them…this Belgian Nazi wrote in his diary ‘Argentines are fascists who don’t obey orders’. That’s like the best definition I can find…We may look and act like Swedes, but we’re the most corrupt country on earth” Goñi’s analysis is always that of looking at Argentina from the UK. Though there is a deeply embedded history of fascism in Argentina, the outlaw culture and disobedience of rules in Argentina is one that Goñi attributes exclusively to the history of a Nazi presence in the country.
Nowhere does the interview mention other origins, such as how the majority of Italian, Spanish and Jewish immigrants arriving in the late 19th century, (including my grandparents) were anarchists.
The Belgian nazi’s admiration for Argentines, cited by Goñi, then might also parallel Mussolini’s judgment of Italian anarchist culture in his competitive statement made famous by Pasolini, “We fascists are the only true anarchists” which was how Mussolini justified his apparently treasonous switch from anarcho-syndicalism to fascism.
Goñi’s reduction of the work of all Argentine historians echoes Fordism, ‘History is Bunk’, unless written and authorized by him: “Here historians are just as corrupt as journalists, and not very serious about the methods they use to research history; they’re not very good with footnotes and stuff. Argentine historians use the French style to write about something. You know, you lock yourself in your apartment with a bottle of wine and lots of coffee and you think about a subject and then you write whatever your opinion is about the subject. But you don’t actually do any research or get your hands dirty anywhere, except maybe with coffee if it spills.”
The BR could have interviewed Horacio Verbitsky, a journalist who probably had more to say about the murdered priest Carlos Mujica. (Verbitsky, a former prisoner of the regime, today is known for a leftist criticism of the Kirchner government in Pagina 12. He is today concerned with an exposure of the prison system and the ghettoes of Buenos Aires.)
In the Argentinian newspaper Pagina 12 there was recently an interview with the grand-daughter of the exiled poet and militant Juan Gelman. She was a kidnapped baby born to a family to which she had been callously reallocated. The poet died in January 2014, meeting a state funeral and four days of rare silence in the streets of Buenos Aires for his commemoration.3
Daniel Molina, a journalist and art critic who was a torture victim and prisoner during the junta years in 2013 did not hesitate to also denounce the homophobia and machismo among his comrades of the Marxist left guerillas, as he spoke out in his essay ”I began to die around the age of nine” in the Clarín newspaper. This kind of vibrant and changing society is completely dismissed by most foreign press coverage on Argentina and its ”authoritarianism” which is in fact the rebirth of politics in the then-asleep country that once granted an unbearable ”Amnesty” to the war criminals and tortures of the disappeared.
The crime called amnesty was possibly an echo, a farcical repetition of the refuge Peronism once granted to German Nazi party members on the run—the repetition of such history is farce rather than tragedy, because it was the amnesty towards Nazi criminals that allowed their influence and pedagogical relationship with the generals of the 1970s. Unfortunately with the Goñi-Sequeira feature, it seems Boston Review proliferates the habits of the foreign press despite a far less superficial treatment in BR articles about Syriza in Greece or the young socialist movement in Spain—perhaps these countries being closer to Europe has redeemed them from sensational exposé in the journal that titles itself “The magazine of ideas.”
Goñi comes with wild, invented figures, perhaps beginning to resemble the Argentine historian who never practices self-aware writing unless the coffee drips on the page: he invents sky-rocketing infant mortality rates, rising illiteracy rates and children graduating school without learning to read; and one-sidedly paints how the rising indigenous movements are all in opposition to Kirchnerism without any further nuance.
The current Argentinian government draws fire and criticism from the center-right precisely because universal affordable healthcare and state medical coverage are guaranteed, not only for all citizens: immigrants can freely access the hospitals of the country. Is this perhaps what Goñi means with ”a definite decay in public health” he has seen since the 1970s? University education is for free in Argentina and the UBA is renown for its high level, attracting foreign students from throughout the Americas.
The open-doors immigration policy is a radical shift from the more xenophobic 90s of the Menem era, whose consumerism and anti-immigrant rhetoric attempted an experiment perhaps more resembling French Sarkozy-style politics in Argentina, a reign that collapsed with the peso in the major economic crash of 2001. Despite the severity of the current economic crisis that exploded in 2011 and the rampant crime rate, Argentinians remember a far worse crisis and an identical amount of violent crime under a previous government that was anti-populist, pro-American neoliberalism and catered to the most reactionary tendencies of the Buenos Aires middle class in its often racist suspicion of Bolivian, Andean and Paraguayan immigration. The country has gone from Sarkozy-style xenophobia and consumerism in the 1990s to an open doors immigration policy with free healthcare, all during an economic crisis in Argentina that is far worse than what in Europe has justified a xenophobic zeal for deportations and the revival of anti-semitic parties. The current government despite its many flaws, scandals and disappointing aspects seems admirable in trying to build the welfare-state project in Argentina for the first time in our country’s history, during an era when in Europe a far minor crisis has justified the elimination of Europe’s post-war achievements in state-craft. The fall of amnesty for 70s war criminals is as significant to the region as the fall of the Berlin wall.
(the original article is longer, shortened here for blog format)
3(In next-door Chile, preferable to Goñi and Seqeuira and the first South American state to qualify for a US visa-waiver program, not the victims but the actual coup d’etat is celebrated by some constituencies in preparation for the Independence Day of a few weeks later.)
4 Link to World Bank Development Indicator, the figures on Argentina refute Goñi’s claims about rising illiteracy and infant mortality rates: http://data.worldbank.org/data-catalog/world-development-indicators