Broken Promises? The Argentine Crisis and Argentine Democracy (review)
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Reviewed by
Edward Epstein and David Pion-Berlin, eds., Broken Promises? The Argentine Crisis and Argentine Democracy. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006. Tables, index, 288 pp, hardcover $75.

This collection of essays intends to examine the effects on Argentina's democracy of the crisis that exploded in December 2001. To this end, the editors' introductory chapter offers a working definition of that crisis. Their argument navigates between a subjective, endogenous perspective and an objective, exogenous view of how to identify a crisis. On the one hand, the authors postulate that the word crisis refers to "the effects of sharply worsening perceptions held by the citizenry as a whole (or by some strategic subgroups) of then prevailing political conditions"; on the other hand, they assert that "a sense of crisis" would persist until "a new pattern emerged that became widely known and accepted" (p. 4). To assess the presence and duration of an occurring crisis, observers should look for indicators of public confidence in democracy and democratic institutions. Poor indicators would signal the existence of a crisis; their improvement would point to its termination.

The "Argentine crisis" is thus defined as a crisis of public confidence in democratic institutions. Using data from Latinobarometer, electoral statistics, Transparency International, and local confidence indexes, Epstein and Pion-Berlin contend that the crisis brewed in the late 1990s, exploded in 2001, and subsided in 2003 with the inauguration of President Néstor Kirchner.

Their arguably restrictive definition of a crisis soon meets its limitations when it confronts the topics discussed in the articles that make up part 2, "The Causes of the Crisis." José Nun's piece on the Argentine democratic process frames Argentina's drama as a disjunction between democracy and modernization: neither has served to bring the other into existence. This disjunction would be rooted in the type of capital [End Page 198] accumulation prevailing in the mid-1970s: roving banditry, which purportedly annihilated domestic industry, created massive social exclusion, depleted state coffers, weakened public institutions, and thereby impeded the consolidation and successful performance of representative democracy.

Marcelo Sain's work on the police of Buenos Aires Province points to an entirely different object. By depicting the policia bonaerense as a structurally corrupt, inefficient, and essentially rogue organization, Sain characterizes the Buenos Aires provincial administration as a failed state, incapable of guaranteeing basic human rights to a population permanently threatened by the delinquent behavior of those recruited to fight crime.

Jorge Schvarzer's article on the costs of the Convertibility Plan traces the effects of Argentina's currency board regime between 1991 and 2001 on areas such as domestic production, exports, employment, income, fiscal accounts, and the monetary and financial system. By tracing how initial successes became burdensome rigidities, Schvarzer follows the trail up to the collective crash of a bankrupt state, an impoverished society, an uncompetitive industrial sector, and a terminally ill financial network.

The topics discussed under the rubric of causes of the crisis therefore seem to suggest that the crisis was generated by a particular type of economic organization and a failure by democratic administrations to rein in corrupt security forces. But neither these articles nor the introduction explicitly addresses the (potential) linkages between those causes and the "Argentine crisis" defined as a crisis of public confidence.

Such linkages, though still underanalyzed, become more conceivable in the articles on citizen responses grouped in part 3. Epstein's essay on the piquetero movement in Greater Buenos Aires condenses the burgeoning literature on this new social movement of informal workers. Mapping organizations, their leadership, and their styles of action, Epstein describes how the historical legacies informing piquetero groups have framed their repertoire of protest and their relationship with state actors, placing those groups rooted in and more accustomed to party politics closer to cooperation with the government on social policy implementation.

The piece on neighborhood assemblies by Maristella Svampa and Damián Corral outlines the diverse paths and fates of urban activism in two sociologically and politically different experiences of citizen mobilization. While the upper-middle-class assembly of Palermo, staffed by professionals and social scientists, retreated more or less quickly and peacefully from street action to social safety networking, the...