Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 121-132
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Crying for Argentina
The Branding and Unbranding of Area Studies
Since August 2001 Argentina has become ubiquitous. Wherever one has turned for information about the world since that moment, from the New York Times to London's Independent to the television news, it has been impossible to avoid mention of Argentina. Current news coverage of the country, in both the front and business sections of international newspapers, is almost as omnipresent as in the late-1970s and early 1980s. The unstable final months of Fernando de la Rua's government, and the musical chairs of political leadership that followed his resignation in December 2001, recall that earlier period when the world was bombarded with all things Argentine. Culturally, the country's prior moment at the center of the world stage gave us that pop ode to Peronism, “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina,” which functioned as an ironic anthem for the national football (soccer) team's 1978 World Cup victory in Buenos Aires. More infamously, there was the “dirty war” and then the Leopoldo Galtieri–Maggie Thatcher saga: the ideologically overburdened standoff over the Malvinas (the Falkland Islands to the British), which offered neither country much in the way of resources but plenty of political capital for the two right-wing leaders.
Since August 2002, there has been plenty of crying for and in Argentina. Locally, football clubs have been going bankrupt as they try to match the salaries their players could command in a Europe ever more hungry for Latin skills. Further afield, in the fall of 2001 sub-Saharan African governments cast covetous glances toward the east coast of Latin America to see if Brazil and Argentina could secure loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The black postcolonial [End Page 121] world watched, as it were, to see how the brown postcolonials fared in Washington. Not well, it turned out, in Argentina's case: the refusal of a bailout led to financial disaster for one of Latin America's most prosperous economies.
With the entire continent put under economic strain by Argentina's inability to make payments on its foreign and national debt, other countries in the region—from eastern neighbor Uruguay to northern neighbor Brazil—have seen their markets plummet. Fears of a Latin American collapse, still believed to be greatly exaggerated (despite the August 2002 bailouts reluctantly offered to Uruguay and Brazil), are in turn raising anxieties that the region's troubles might have the international effect of what happened in Asia in 1997: the Argentine collapse is seen as similar to the implosion of the South Korean economy that set off a regional crisis among the Asian tigers. Economists are warning that “Venezuela could be the first South American domino to go in a bout of Latin-American contagion threatening the continent after the collapse of Argentina . . . . Colombia is seen as another weak economy ripe for speculative attack” (Elliot 2002). As Argentina struggles to find its way out of the malaise, replacing one ineffectual, transitional government with another, untying the peso from the U.S. dollar, floating the currency, metropolitan indifference to the Latin American situation could result in a worldwide economic crisis. Since so much of Latin America's economic fortunes ride on Argentina, financial centers up north and across the Atlantic are now, somewhat belatedly, holding their collective breath.
Most newsworthy, since the beginning of the upheaval, has been the civil disobedience in Argentina. Socially conscious and largely peaceful as it has been (the occasional violence serving as a reminder, to viewers and readers, of the havoc wrought by the austerity measures of the de la Rua government), the crisis has nonetheless had global consequences. In August 2001, after a particularly intense period of protest, former Labor Minister Patricia Bullrich insisted, “We need an image of peace and stability” (New York Times, 9 August). In the protests, unemployed workers and students have made common cause with the Argentine middle class as bureaucrats, university academics, and...