The Catholic church on Wednesday chose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as its new leader, henceforth to be known as Pope Francis, and one immediate consequence is that San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Manu Ginobili is no longer the world’s most famous Argentine. The 76-year-old pope probably can’t drive the lane with the same acrobatic derring-do as his celebrated countryman, especially in those long robes favored by the Catholic clergy, but we’re sure he’ll bring other valuable skills to the job and we wish him well.
With Argentina enjoying a rare moment in the international news, it seems a good time to take note of a few other stories emanating from that troubled and often overlooked land.
One is the nation’s recent decision to stiff American bond holders out of about $1.3 billion of sovereign debt. A United States court has ordered the Argentine government to pony up the money, but its lawyer told the panel of judges last month that it doesn’t much care what a United States courts says. The move has left international financial markets worried about the possibility of a massive government default, which would be the heavily-indebted country’s second in the past 11 years, but the Argentine government is also unconcerned with the financial markets have to say.
Nor is the government concerned with the opinions of the Spaniards, who are vigorously protesting the Argentine government’s recent nationalization of the Spanish oil company YPF. Argentina paid a bargain basement price of no money at all for the company, which is the largest business in the country, and plans to run it as a state-owned corporation. Given the government’s notorious record of inefficiently running its many state-owned corporations, one can expect that the oil company will soon be worth what the country paid for it.
In a related development, the Argentine economy is in a shambles. The country has boasted of some impressive increases in its gross domestic product the past several years, mostly on the strength of rising commodity prices, but no one really believes the government’s boasts. Particularly dubious is the government’s claim of a 10 percent annual inflation rate, which sounds awful enough but is well below the 26 percent that more objective observers are reporting. The International Monetary Fund has grown impatient with the government’s statistical legerdemain and threatened to expel Argentina, but once again the Argentines don’t seem to care.
Firmly in charge of all this mess is President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a more comely version of the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. The widow of a past president and the current heir to the party of Juan and Eva Peron, which is somehow the only explicitly fascist party in the world that still enjoys the approval of the international left, Kirchner has cracked down on political dissent and anyone who questions the government’s economic statistics. Like all Latin American leftists she has also clashed with the Catholic church, which has an annoying habit of insisting that government is not the highest power over individuals, as she has sought to make contraception a universal entitlement and legalized same-sex marriages.
All of which might explain why the Obama administration has been taking such a painstakingly neutral stance on Kirchner’s saber-rattling threats to take the Falkland Islands away from the British. The tiny specks of land off the Argentine coast have been under British rule for 180 years, are almost entirely populated by English-speaking people of British descent, and by a landslide margin of 1,518 to three the country recently voted to remain a part of the British empire. These facts and a “special relationship” with Britain were sufficient for the Reagan administration to offer all its help to Margaret Thatcher when she had to tack the islands back from the Argentines in 1982, but the Obama administration has been so careful not to back Britain that in its statements of neutrality refers to the territory by its Argentine name. This has not played well in Britain, but neither Obama nor Kirchner cares about that, and any debt-ridden, numbers-fudging, dissent-quashing government that wants the Catholic church to help dispense birth control is unlikely to take a strong stand against another.
The new pope was reportedly a staunch critic of Kirchner during his years as Argentina’s bishop, which bodes well for his papacy. If he can drain the occasional three-pointer, he might go down in history as one of Argentina’s greatest men.
— Bud Norman