June 10, 2005

A vicious circular



Many people date Argentina’s problems with the rest of the world back to the debt default of late 2001, and with much reason, but in order to really come to grips with the question of where Argentina went wrong, it is necessary to go back deep into the previous century. The 1930 coup, when Argentina parted company with the 1853 constitution for the first time, was spawned by the same serpent’s egg of world depression which hatched Nazism and for far too long Argentina went down the same road. The outside world still has not entirely forgotten the contrasting behaviour of Argentina and Brazil during the Second World War – whereas Brazil declared war on Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini as early as August, 1942, and sent an important expeditionary force (including tank regiments) to fight in Italy, Argentina maintained a neutrality distinctly tilting towards the Axis until almost the very end of the Third Reich (especially after the 1943 coup), subsequently harbouring war criminals.

Within this context the importance of the Foreign Ministry initiative to quash an anti-Semitic secret law dating back to 1938 should not be underestimated. There was nothing overtly anti-Semitic about Circular 11 from mid-1938 signed by then Foreign Minister José María Cantilo (subsequently sympathetic to the Allied cause) instructing consuls ”to deny visas to anybody leaving their country as an undesirable or as the result of expulsion, regardless of the cause of that expulsion” but in the context of 1938 this was effectively slamming the door on Jewish refugees from Europe. Thanks to the work of the Wallenberg Foundation, we know that this circular was not an isolated aberration because only last month the Foreign Ministry removed a plaque honouring 12 diplomats for saving Jewish lives during the Second World War – the dozen diplomats included Luis Yrigoyen (allegedly an illegitimate son of the great Radical leader) who, far from being an Argentine Wallenberg (the Swedish diplomat who saved hundreds of thosands of Jewish lives in wartime Hungary by extending them Swedish passports), regarded his excellent contacts with the Nazis as an end in themselves, giving his German friends to understand that Argentina could not care less when offered in 1943 the repatriation of 100 Argentine Jews as a goodwill gesture towards one of the more pro-Axis South American régimes.

Perhaps Argentina needs more than a bond swap to live down its history.