Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich outraged many a few days ago when he declared before Congress (and later during one of his daily Casa Rosada press briefings) that the ruling Peronist government he belongs to had ‘practically eradicated poverty’ in Argentina. How does this square up with reality? Well, not so well unfortunately.
As many have been quick and sensible to point out, poverty is still very much a part of life for hundreds of thousands of Argentines. To say that we have ‘practically eradicated it’ is nothing short of flipping the bird to these swathes of the population struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table. He has ‘practically’ denied their existence.
The ever-useful and necessary website Chequeado, which performs the unenviable and presumably unending task of fact-checking what politicians and other people in positions of authority say, confirmed the inaccuracy– or just plain untruth- of Capitanich’s misguided comment:
“Although the indicator [of poverty] fell during the Kirchner period, a significant proportion of people still fail to purchase basic foodstuffs…official DIGIT Center statistics show that in the fourth quarter of 2013 around 4.4 percent of people were living below the poverty line, equivalent to 1.8 million people.”
(Source: Olivia Sohr, Chequeado, 04/09/14)
1.8 million people? That’s a lot of people to ignore. It’s a number that surely splashes a great deal of egg on Capitanich’s face. Like so many other political figures past and present, it seems like he’s wound up proving Orwell right on what the deal is with political language:
“‘It’s designed to make lies sound truthful…to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Well put George.
But what is even more amazing to those of us who think Cristina’s current A-Team aren’t all completely incompetent and have actually had some decent social policies over the years is the carelessness and callousness of uttering such a damning soundbite. Capitanich has forged a ready-made blunt instrument with which the ranks of the opposition will clamor to have a swing at him and the government; a choppy storm in a pretty sizable teacup. As if they didn’t have enough of those to deal with. Not to mention more serious storms.
This part of his speech, delivered to the Lower House on September 3rd, was supposed to inject a bit of optimism for Team Cristina’s and the “Victory Front” or “Front For Victory” (FPV), the party that’s been in charge since 2003, while simultaneously maligning the opposition, who have rarely seen eye to eye with the FPV over state-subsidized welfare. Cristina and company may be besieged by a list of problems so long that, if they were turned into a book format, would function as a useful, bulky doorstop or a lifetimes supply of readable kindling. But poverty is one thing they can chest-thump about with some legitimacy now and then.
As Capitanich also proudly outlined in his speech (on firmer footing with actual facts) poverty rates have declined in dramatic fashion since the FPV took the wheel. Since the Kirchner dynasty started here, back with Nestor in 2003, the percentage of Argentines below the poverty line was slashed from a disgraceful 50 percent to just 5.4 percent in the last quarter of 2013, according to official UN statistics. This is, undeniably, a remarkable achievement in just over a decade.
Therefore the certain swagger the government has when addressing social issues is obvious and also justified. Usually. So, when the public – be they the opposition, academics or just those of us who actually notice the number of homeless families out on the streets here in Buenos Aires – quickly responded to Capitanich’s claim with criticism, his compadres in the government, led by Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, were eager to leap in front of him like bit-parts in a mediocre action movie and take the swarm of journo and twitter bullets heading his way.
“It’s untenable to say there is much more poverty,” Kicillof retorted in response to a survey released by local University UCA, which claimed child poverty has risen since 2001. “We all agree that poverty fell, then we can discuss by how much” he maintained. And so the debate now descends into an unsolvable to and fro over numbers and methodologies. More political hodge-podge that tries and fails to distract us from the issue at hand: that the Cabinet Chief seems to be grossly out of touch with this issue of the poverty remaining in Argentina.
Of course, any elected politico can be proud of the progress they or their party make in tackling social inequality (if any). Especially here in Latin America, where poverty has crippled development for so long. It’s also not completely kosher to simply hold a gun to the head of every minister who makes ill-informed statements while delivering an impassioned speech, tempting as it might be in the digital age where not much passes unseen or unheard.
But this new reality and its offspring – Twitter, Wikileaks and Chequeado are just some examples – means democracy can become and is becoming more transparent. So our representatives ought to be more measured in what they say, what they do. Though the FPV’s record on poverty is impressive overall, this doesn’t warrant behaving like a 21st Century Latino Pangloss: blindly optimistic of the past, present and future while the world keeps on suffering around you. This blatant sludging of the facts by Capitanich won’t do. We aren’t stupid. We’re watching. And we know when you’re lying.