Buenos Aires Herald (February 12, 1987): The old-new frontier*

by , under Enrique

Comment: It’s sad to point out 25 years after writing this opinion piece that Argentina has become a poorer country. Emigration continues to be the rule, not the exception. The opening up of the economy to foreign investment during the 1990s was a disaster. Too many foreign companies did not invest in Argentina to make it more efficient but to pillage its natural resources and markets. Corruption continues to be one of the country’s biggest issues and keeps Argentina from attaining its economic potential. 

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To govern is to populate. 

Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-84)

Although Alberdi coined the phrase more than a century ago, it is still by and large true even though the statement has in mind Anglo-Saxon emigrants as opposed to Latins never mind Amerindians, blacks or Orientals. 

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As most long-range programes int his country, Argentina’s immigration policy turned out a failure. The flow  should have been continuous and the vast empty patches of the countryside populated; new blood should have injected viror, social dynamism balanced with tolerance – political stability and economic prosperity should have been the rule.

True, Argentina did gain from the millions of immigrants that helped raise this country’s mid-19th century population of roughly one million to around eight million in 1914, paving the way for Argentina’s present-day 30-million-strong population.

As opposed to Australia, Canada and the US, during the early 20th century Argentina was in its own league when compared to the foreign-to-native ratio.

For instance, in the 1914 census 30 percent of the national population was composed of foreigners and, for Buenos Aires alone, this figure reached 40 percent. Add to these latter percentages the children of these original immigrants and the above-mentioned ratio becomes even more impressive.

No wonder why writer Manuel Gálvez, in a sarcastic allusion to Alberdi, said “to govern is to Argentinize.”

However, a number of internal and external factors – the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, domestic strife and instability, among others – curtailed the flow of immigrants thus giving way to a new demographic phenomenon: Argentina emigrants.

For those Argentines that left from the 1960s on, those who had made their homes here for a generation or two, Argentina became a stepping stone in their long search for a country that would offer them a decent existence.

Undoubtedly, the effects of this emigration are self-evident: hundres of thousands of Argentines – many of these qualified professionals – have caused a serious brain and qualified labor drain on the country, let alone speak of the flight of capital, ingenuity and hard work that are synonymous with the latter reality.

Probably the saddest fact was that Argentina could do little about halting this trend And, even today, the economic conditions aren’t attractive enough for Argentines living abroad to return en masse to the country.

 Although the Radical administration [of President Raúl Alfonsín] has roughly 20 months left in power, it has ventured – voluntarily or involuntarily – to open up the closed doors of the economy as the recent 40 percent sell off of Aerolíneas Argentinas to Scandinavian Airlines proves.

This week another important step was taken by deregulating the petchem, steel and iron industry sectors. Naturally, these ar only previews of what will happen to other sectors such as telecommunications, railways, electric power et all as the months unfold ahead.

The interesting question about all this is if these economic structural changes will pave the way for a stronger, self-confident Argentina.

Considering that the country’s economic transformation will be a long, bumpy ride, it is not likely that this Southern Cone nation will be a magnet for Argentines living abroad or foreigners in the near future, which is undoubtedly one of the major obstacles in transforming this country into a modern 21st century republic.

Will anything be done to those political, economic and social impediments that reversed the immigration trend and encouraged Argentines to leave be deal with effectively it the upcoming years?

As one foreign businessman told this journalist: “Although Argentina has 30 million people it functons as a country of two million.”

As far as both Alberdi’s and Gálvez’ phrases are concerned, to govern effectively in the late-20th century is first to modernize and, in the early 21st century, to repatriate and populate.

*This column was originally published in the Buenos Aires Herald on February 12, 1987. 

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