Democratic Dishonesty

President Cristina Fernández Kirchner has reason to be optimistic. The first female president of Argentina is very likely to be competing for reelection in October and the latest opinion polls show that she is significantly more popular than her political rivals. Although the President’s popularity has taken dips in the past and her political career has seen its share of scandal, the government has been able to quickly recover its levels of popular approval. In 2009, President Kirchner achieved only slightly more than 30 percent approval in opinion polls; however, in a more recent Ipsos-Mora y Araújo poll, 65 percent of those interviewed described the presidential image as “good,” or even “very good.”

This image turnaround did not occur without considerable effort and care to ensure the constant flow of uplifting news in the country. After Kirchner took power in 2007, Argentina has faced increasing problems with the believability of information disseminated to the public. This economic stronghold of Latin America—ranked third largest economy in South America—may have improved its markets, but threats of inflation still exist and may be exacerbated by a government that disguises economic realities behind the rosier images it presents the public.

Inflation in Argentina has slowed to ten percent, reports Indec, the government-controlled statistics office. Contrary to the official number, however, private-sector economists estimate that inflation has shot up to 25 percent. Independent estimates of poverty at 30 percent are also well above the official 12 percent estimate. Ever since former President Nestor Kirchner dismissed several Indec statisticians and replaced them with political appointees in early 2007, the office has been accused of fabricating economic reports. The former president of the central bank, Martin Redrado, has also accused the government of manipulating data from the statistics agency. Doubts about the validity of Indec’s calculations of the consumer price index have caught the attention of international organizations.

The government insists that price increases, such as the 40 percent rise in food-prices since the beginning of 2011, are normal in a booming economy that had grown 9.1 percent in 2010. Argentina has long dealt with problems of inflation. Argentina’s hyperinflation from 1975 to 1991 sometimes caused storeowners to adjust their prices at an hourly basis. Today, a return to hyperinflation seems unlikely. Nevertheless, the government is cautious when handling issues of inflation, even taking care to step around the word with phrases such as “price dispersion.”

Despite the booming economy, there are still fears of inflation as the central bank increases money supply. Indec’s unreliability has only made things worse. Though Argentina may be Latin America’s third largest economy, it is only sixth in the region for foreign direct investment. In addition, economists say that the government has worsened inflation by providing unreliable economic data; suppliers and producers operate on their own perceptions of inflation and raise prices “seemingly at will,” according to the New York Times. In February, the government even fined economic research firms US$125,000 for publishing inflation measures that differ from the official count.

Unfortunately, the fining of private economic research firms is only the latest in a series of government attempts to silence information contrary to what it reports. In 2009, the President pushed through a controversial “Media Law” that gave the government more power over broadcast media. The new law was meant to replace an old dictatorship-era law that concentrated media power in the jurisdiction of a few companies. The government claims that the Media Law will diversify public media. Though the old law was outdated, the new law gave the Kirchner government exceptional powers over the regulation of broadcasts. Scholars have noted that the new rules could restrict freedom of expression, especially the provision giving the president authority to appoint members of the broadcast regulatory body. Ironically, Argentina’s press freedom award went to Hugo Chávez this year. This award lauded the Venezuelan president for dismantling media monopolies, when the president only recently set new regulations that forced the closure of many pro-opposition radio and cable television stations.

In March, Argentina’s leading newspapers Clarín and La Nación were forcibly prevented from being distributed. La Nación’s circulations suffered long delays, and Clarín failed to be delivered altogether. The organizations blamed the government for strict censorship that interrupted deliveries. The truck drivers’ union, whose leader had close ties with the government, had in fact carried out the censorship.

In November 2009, the Association of Newspaper Editors of Buenos Aires issued a statement in which it claimed that the actions of the truck drivers’ unions had been the fiercest attack on the free circulation of newspapers the country had seen since its return to democratic rule in 1983. Kirchner’s conflict with Clarín can be traced back as early as 2008. The government considers Clarín a media monopoly, which has historically wielded much political influence in Argentina. La Nación had reported that the cumulative rate of inflation has been 120 percent through the last four years, though the government has reported it to be 39 percent in the same period.  Such press censorship, in addition to the government’s fining of private economic research firms, does not make it seem like a reliable inflation rate will circulate the country soon.

As the election approaches, economic conditions in Argentina seem to be improving. In March, Goldman Sachs forecasted that Argentina’s gross domestic product would grow 6.8 percent, a marked increase from its previous forecast of 5.6 percent. Meanwhile, the Central Bank of Argentina forecasts a growth of at least six percent this year.

However, the government’s attempts to manipulate economic data and silence criticism not only dismantles its credibility, but may also worsen its inflation as foreign investors become more skeptical about Argentina’s true economic situation. 

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Maria Shen

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