A few days ago, Argentina decided to nationalise YPF, which is the largest oil company operating in the country. It's doing this by expropriating almost all of the YPF shares currently owned by Spanish firm Repsol. The move has resulted in Spain — and with it, the entire European Union — condemning Argentina, and threatening to relatiate with trade sanctions.
This is the latest in a long series of decisions that Argentina has made throughout its modern history, all of which have displayed: hot-headed nationalist sentiment; an arrogant and apathetic attitude towards other nations; and utter disregard for diplomatic and economic consequences. As with previous decisions, it's also likely that this one will ultimately cause Argentina more harm than good.
I think it's time to ask: Argentina, why do you keep shooting yourself in the foot? Argentina, are you too stubborn, are you too proud, or are you just plain stupid? Argentina, ¿que onda?
I've spent quite a lot of time in Argentina. My first visit was five years ago, as a backpacker. Last year I returned, and I decided to stay for almost six months, volunteering in a soup kitchen and studying Spanish (in Mendoza). So, I believe I've come to know the country and its people reasonably well — about as well as a foreigner can hope to know it, in a relatively short time.
I also really like Argentina. I wouldn't have chosen to spend so much time there, if I disliked the place. Argentines have generally been very warm and welcoming towards me. Argentines love to enjoy life, as is evident in their love of good food, fine beverages, and amazing (and late) nightlife. They are a relaxed people, who value their leisure time, never work too hard, and always have one minute more for a casual chat.
During my first visit to Argentina, this was essentially my complete view of the nation. However, having now spent significantly more time in the country, I realise that this was a rather rose-coloured view, and that it far from makes up the full story. Argentina is also a country facing many, many problems.
What pains me most about Argentina, is that it seems to have everything going for it, and yet it's so much less than it could be. Argentina is a land of enormous potential, most of it squandered. A land of opportunities that are time and time again passed up. It's a nation that seems to be addicted to making choices that are "questionable", to put it nicely.
The most famous of these voluntary decisions in Argentina's history was when, in 1982, the nation decided to declare war on Great Britain over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). By most logical counts, this was a bad decision for a number of reasons.
Diplomatically, the Falklands war was bad: most of the world condemned Argentina for attacking the sovereign territory of another nation pre-emptively — few countries were sympathetic to Argentina's cause. Economically it was bad: it took a heavy toll on Argentina's national budget, and it also resulted in the UK (and the wider European community) imposing various trade sanctions on Argentina. And militarily it was bad: by all accounts, it should have been clear to the Argentine generals that the British military was far superior to their own, and that a war for Argentina was almost completely unwinnable.
Argentina shocked the world again when, in late 2001, it decided to default on its enormous debt to the IMF. Around the same time, the government also froze all bank accounts in the country, and severely limited the bank withdrawals that private citizens could make. Shortly thereafter, Argentina also abandoned its 10-year-long policy of pegging its currency to the US Dollar, as a result of the economic crisis that this policy had ended in.
While this decision was one of the more understandable in Argentina's history — the country's economy was in a desperate state, and few other options were available — it was still highly questionable. Defaulting on virtually the entire national debt had disastrous consequences for Argentina's international economic relations. In the short-term, foreign investment vanished from Argentina, a blow that took many years thereafter to recover (and one that continues a struggled recovery, to this day). Of all the choices open to it, Argentina elected the one that would shatter the rest of the world's confidence in its economic stability, more than any other.
And now we see history repeating itself, with Argentina once again damaging its own economic credibility, by effectively stealing a company worth billions of dollars from Spain (which, to make matters even worse, is one of Argentina's larger trading partners). We should hardly be surprised.
Culture, not just politics
It would be a bit less irrational, if we could at least confine these choices to having been "imposed" on the nation by its politicians. However, this would be far from accurate. On the contrary, all of these choices (with the possible exception of the loan defaulting) were overwhelmingly supported by the general public of Argentina. To this day, you don't have to travel far in Argentina, before you see a poster or a graffitied wall proclaiming: "Las Malvinas son Argentinas" ("The Falklands are Argentine"). And, similarly, this week's announcement to nationalise YPF was accompanied by patriotic protestors displaying banners of: "YPF de los Argentinos".
So, how can this be explained culturally? How can a nation that on the surface appears to be peaceful, fun-loving, and Western in attitude, also consistently support decisions of an aggressive character that isolate the country on the international stage?
As I said, I've spent some time in Argentina. And, as I've learned, the cultural values of Argentina appear at first to be almost identical to those of Western Europe, and of other Western nations such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Indeed, most foreigners comment, when first visiting, that Argentina is by far the most European place in Latin America. However, after getting to know Argentines better, one comes to realise that there are actually some significant differences in cultural values, lying just under the surface.
Firstly, Argentina has a superiority complex. Many Argentines honestly believe that their country is one of the mightiest, the smartest, and the richest in the world. Obviously, both the nation's history, and independent statistics (by bodies such as the UN), make it clear that Argentina is none of these things. That, however, seems to be of little significance to the average Argentine. Indeed, a common joke among Argentines is that: "Argentina should be attached to Europe, but by some mistake it floated over and joined South America". Also particularly baffling, is that many Argentines seem to be capable of maintaining their superiority, while at the same time serving up a refreshingly honest criticism of their nation's many problems. This superiority complex can be explained in large part by my second point.
Secondly, Argentina has a (disturbingly high) penchant for producing and for swallowing its own propaganda. For a country that supposedly aspires to be a liberal Western democracy, Argentina is rife with misinformation about its own history, about its own geography, and about the rest of the world. In my opinion, the proliferation of exaggerated or outright false teachings in Argentina borders on a Soviet-Russian level of propaganda. Some studies indicate that a prolonged and systematic agenda of propaganda in education is to blame for Argentina's current misinformed state. I'm no expert on Argentina's educational system, and anyway I'd prefer not to pin the blame on any one factor, such as schooling. But for me, there can be no doubt: Argentines are more accustomed to digesting their own version of the truth, than they are to listening to any facts from the outside.
Finally, Argentina has an incredibly strong level of patriotism in its national psyche. Patriotism may not at first seem any different in Argentina, to patriotism in other countries. It's strong in much of the world, and particularly in much of the rest of Latin America. But there's something about the way Argentines identify with their nation — I can't pinpoint it exactly, but perhaps the way they cling to national icons such as football and mate, or the level of support they give to their leaders — there's something that's different about Argentine patriotism. In my opinion, it's this sentiment that fuels irrational thinking and irrational decisions in Argentina more than anything else. It's this patriotism that somehow disfigures the logic of Argentines into thinking: "whatever we decide as a nation is right, and the rest of the world can get stuffed".
It really does pain me to say negative things about Argentina, because it's a country that I've come to know and to love dearly, and I have almost nothing but happy memories from all my time spent there. This is also the first time I've written an article critical of Argentina; and perhaps I've become a little bit Argentine myself, because I feel just a tad bit "unpatriotic" in publishing what I've written.
However, I felt that I needed to explore why this country, that I feel such affection for, continually chooses to isolate itself, to damage itself, and to stigmatise itself. I'm living in Chile this year, just next door; and I must admit, I feel melancholy at being away from the buena onda, but also relief at keeping some distance from the enormous instability that is Argentina.