Juan Facundo Quiroga, a brutal 19th-Century provincial warlord from La Rioja, reigned for decades over northwest Argentina with his gaucho army until he was waylaid and murdered by rivals from powerful Cordoba province.
Carlos Saul Menem, the Peronist party’s presidential candidate who styles himself after Quiroga, complete with long-flowing hair and extravagant sideburns, appears likely to avenge that insult by defeating Cordoba province Gov. Eduardo Cesar Angeloz in today’s election.
The flamboyant Menem, the La Rioja governor who crusades on a populist campaign theme of “Follow Me,” leads in all the polls in his race for president against the businesslike, bespectacled Angeloz, candidate of the centrist Radical Civic Union, the governing party.
Euphoria that accompanied the return to civilian rule in 1983 has evaporated with the onset of hyperinflation running at 3,000% annually, depressing salaries and a currency that has lost four-fifths of its value against the dollar since February.
Menem, a fiery 58-year-old lawyer, has capitalized on disgust with the economic failures of Radical party President Raul Alfonsin in forging a lead of 6% to 8%. Building on the Peronist party’s traditional working-class base, Menem has sought to dispel latent fears of Peronism’s authoritarian past to attract middle-class voters as well.
The disillusioned Argentine people have turned to him in their quest to rediscover this nation’s former prosperity, now just a distant dream.
How is it possible, Argentines ask, that a country that laid claim to sixth place among world economies in the 1920s, equal to that of France, is now 86th and falling?
Angeloz, a year younger than Menem, has groped to find ways to distance himself from Alfonsin’s economic wreckage, applauding the president only for having consolidated civil liberties since he took office in 1983 after a harsh seven-year dictatorship. The liberal wing of the party did not go out of its way to help Angeloz campaign, feeling that he was abandoning Alfonsin even though the candidate had little choice, given the nationwide anxiety and rage over the economy.
In the final days of the campaign, Angeloz began to emphasize the turbulent history of the Peronists, founded in the mid-1940s by then-Col. Juan D. Peron, who held sway until he was deposed by the military in 1955, and then again briefly from 1973-74 until his death, when he was succeeded by his third wife, Vice President Maria Estela Peron.
Recalling the days after the 1976 coup against Maria Estela Peron, when secret police rounded up left-wing revolutionaries, Angeloz said in his stump speech: “Never again will a Montonero (guerrilla) or a green Ford Falcon come in the night to take away people’s children just for thinking differently.”
In his final rally to a throng of 300,000 supporters in central Cordoba, Angeloz hit hardest at Menem, saying that when both were at Cordoba University Law School, “I was on the side of those who defended university reform, and he was a member of the General University Concentration, a grouping of fascist origins.”
The reference to fascism struck close to home for the Peronists, who pride themselves on the internal “renewal” of the party since Alfonsin’s victory in 1983. After decades in which Peron himself dominated every decision and a clique of autocratic union bosses were in control, the party democratized itself and nominated Menem in an open primary election last July. In an upset victory, he defeated the party’s urbane president, Gov. Antonio Cafiero of Buenos Aires province, who counted among his supporters most of the party hierarchy.
As the attacks against him mounted during the campaign, Menem angrily accused Angeloz of having been cozy with the last military regime, while Menem spent five years in jail without being charged with any crime. Angeloz adamantly denied having such links.
Menem, an amateur race car driver who is often photographed with starlets, likes to invoke the memory of the caudillo Quiroga, who was called “the jaguar of the north,” and early 19th-Century dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, both folk heroes to many.
Deriding that sentiment, Angeloz said he favors the memory of Juan Bautista Alberdi, a famed constitutionalist, and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a mid-19th Century president who emphasized education and culture. Sarmiento condemned Quiroga and other provincial caudillos as tyrants who scourged the land.
Menem counts on support from the rural provinces, which have a heavier say in the election than urban areas, but he is also considered likely to win Buenos Aires province, home to one-third of the 20 million voters. Menem needs about 46% of the popular vote to win a majority of the 600 electoral college votes at stake. If he falls short of the 301-elector majority, fierce bargaining will ensue for minor-party electors.
After three military uprisings and a bloody leftist attack on a military base in January, both front-running candidates are sensitive to the need to get along with the armed forces. Both deny that they favor an amnesty for human rights abuses during the dictatorship--trials of officers brought Alfonsin into continuing conflict with the military--but many believe an amnesty by another name is likely, whoever wins.
Angeloz, shunning any links with Alfonsin’s economic policies, promised to privatize chaotic, deficit-ridden state enterprises, to slash the inflationary budget deficit and to promote private industry and exports. Alfonsin was virtually invisible during the campaign and never appeared with Angeloz.
Despite accusations that Menem is vague and contradictory on some issues, he galvanized the hopes of the poor and the working class, invoking the memory of Eva Peron, the president’s legendary second wife who died in 1952 at the age of 33, as he promised a “productive revolution.” At every campaign appearance, he spoke against a backdrop of a huge portrait of Juan and “Evita,” recalling their generosity to the descamisados , or shirtless ones.
Menem also insisted that a newly democratized Peronist party now balances the demands for social justice with the need for a modern, technocratic state. Yet he offered virtually no specifics on how he would end inflation, raise salaries and cut government spending at the same time.
Menem said that his party, more a social movement embracing nationalists from left to right, would prove pragmatic rather than ideological, privatizing state businesses where necessary and placing greater emphasis on private enterprise. Juan Peron initiated a wave of nationalizations of industries that now generate more than $2.5 billion a year in deficits.
To protect his consistent lead in the polls, Menem sought to avoid gaffes and contradictions, which dogged him early on.
Angeloz seized on a Menem remark about someday recovering the British-held Falkland Islands, known here as the Malvinas, as a sign of his opponent’s rashness, but the likeable Peronist enjoyed a kind of Reaganesque Teflon coating: nothing stuck. He later promised never to lead Argentina into a war and said that his Falklands statement was a figure of speech.
There was little debate on Argentina’s huge $60-billion foreign debt, on which the government has paid almost no interest in more than a year.
Most parties agree that without economic growth, political stability will remain elusive. A 64-year-old homemaker, standing in a depleted supermarket aisle where prices were being marked up as she shopped, said she was voting Peronist: “Freedom, yes, it is important. But you can’t eat freedom.”
Argentine elections, when they do take place, are among the fairest on the continent, and no one has raised the possibility of fraud. No one need fear a repeat of Panama in the pampas.