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Annoying neighborliness

Study compares the histories and rivalries of Brazil and Argentina

If the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is bilateral, the knowledge that one country has concerning the other is unilateral and based on prejudice. What separates us in the football stadiums, unites us in mutual ignorance: history. “The approximation between Brazil and Argentina is highly desirable, not only on the economic plain but also in culture. One of the major pathways to reach this objective consists in an improved knowledge not only of similar characteristics, but also of characteristic differences”, wrote Boris Fausto, author, in conjunction with Fernando Devoto, of Brasil e Argentina: um ensaio de história comparada [Brazil and Argentina: an essay on comparative history] (Editora 34). “The current agenda between the two countries cannot ignore History, but cannot take it as an inhibiting element.” And most certainly there is no lack of reasons.

In the race for South American dominance, Argentina, in the middle of the 19th century, leapt ahead, only to stutter: it was a republic before Brazil, but the constant fighting between the bossy rulers of Buenos Aires and the other provinces impeded the formation of a united nation. Imperial Brazil, conservative and pro-slavery, guaranteed a stable political system and an identity that the Argentineans had lacked, with a State that couldn’t even emit its own coin. A goal for us. Nevertheless, between the years 1900 and 1937, our neighbors advanced, thanks to diversified exports (contrary to the monoculture of coffee) with wheat, cattle and the arrival of levies of immigrants, moving forward with a GNP per capita that was higher that Brazil, Spain, Italy and Switzerland, being compared to that of Germany. A goal for them. But an “wrong” step would mark the Argentine’s destination: wagering on its strong linkage with England.

According to the authors, whether it be in exports (between 1927 and 1929, the English absorbed almost 30% of the total) or in support through foreign capital (67% of the money that went into Argentina came from England), Argentina dispensed with the newly born powerful America to remain in favor with The City. Brazil, monarchy and republican (the latter in particular) preferred to open its arms to brother Yankee, and, in spite of being an agricultural country and independent, managed, over the long term, to show that it had made the correct economic choice. When the Second World War was hatching, even the Germanic Getúlio Vargas realized that it would be better to align himself with the allies.

The English preferred that the Argentines remain neutral, guaranteeing the provision of food to their island. When the conflict had finished, Argentina was baptized, by the United States, as the “worst pupil in the class” and excluded from the exporting nations that benefited from the Marshall Plan, related Messrs. Fausto and Davoto. During 1949, the total value of exports fell by half and imports were reduced, impeding the necessary entrance of capital goods and raw materials that had sustained the industrial growth. “The different international positions of Argentina and Brazil during the war would be remembered for a long time by the Argentinean elite as a serious error, which would permit its neighbor to gain advantages in the consolidation of an alliance with the United States”, the authors observe.

“This Argentinean confrontation with the powerful country in the North came from a much older tradition, which had always been founded upon the international policy of the conservatives (and which would be inherited by Peron), possibly thanks to a strong alliance with Great Britain.” This would be echoed in the future in a speech of ex-president Carlos Menem, who saw the superior Brazilian progress as the fruit of this past error, and in the recent attitude of president Kirchner, who refuted Mercosul, of regional stamp, in favor of The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an alliance preconceived by the United States.

This “tripping over on the ball” would explain a good part of the Buenos Aires resentment towards Brazilian growth, in spite of the many conquests of the Argentineans throughout their history. After the United States, Argentina was the country that most attracted immigrants to the Americas. Whilst Brazil was for a long time, a rural country, with a dispersed population, made up of ex-slaves, the Argentinean State, since the 19th century, carried out an educational crusade to eradicate illiteracy, urbanized itself very rapidly and made of its inhabitants, citizens with a greater degree of political participation. Success was inevitable.

But it didn’t come about. To a large degree, as well as being wrong in its choice of partner, a characteristic facet of the Argentineans was a determinant in the frustration of  the growth of our neighbors. Love for the past would make them live “in the medium of a growing national sentiment that the future of Argentina lay in the past; In Brazil, on the contrary, the future appeared to be in the future”, the authors note. Thus, Brazilian authoritarian nationalism, especially during the Vargas era, was essentially secular and more pragmatic than that of Argentina, which gave importance to the armed forces, seen as the only institution capable of  putting an end to”chaotic” liberalism and to impose order in the country.  This even reflected itself during the two revolutionary movements of the decade of the 30s. The national divided himself between the liberal São Paulo citizens who wanted a “new republic” and the military who had desired a strong Brazil. In Argentina the current was only one and ran in the direction of a return to the past, going back to the mythical “golden age”.

President Vargas
The Vargas government, contrary to their Argentinean colleagues (more antiquated) worked well with the industrial groups and with the political elite, which facilitated the process of substitution of imports that occurred during the 1930s and looked towards an intense expansion of national industrial activity. The neighbors had maintained themselves prisoners to the opportunities of the agro-exporting sector, whose days were counted. As well as this, “Argentina was a divided society, above all in the field of politics and the military. Contrary to Brazil, power was breaking up and not concentrating itself”, the researchers note. In the same way as the initial duality between Imperialism and Republicanism, the Brazilian “lateness” functioned better than the “progress” of the Buenos Aires power brokers.

The ascension of Peron to power brought with it even more difficulties. Rejected by the elite, the ex-colonel turned to the masses and implemented a Populist government that gave to the labor unions power without precedence and raised as a banner a relationship of tensions and competition with the United States, in the same manner as the conservatives of the decade of the 30s. The country isolated itself in a capitalism of the State, whilst in Brazil, the Dutra government had opted for development based on market liberty, in the opening up of the economy and in the drastic reduction in State action.

“Both countries had difficulties in many similar points and a development marked by ‘stop and go’. The two of them oscillated between periods of growth and crisis, expansionist policies and then an adjustment, with the State playing an important role in its reorientation”, the authors evaluated. Only that, in the expansion phases, Argentina gave priority to consumption over investment, whilst Brazil did the opposite. Goal for us. Curiously enough, during the decade of the 50s, the two countries reached a technical draw. In the Brazilian side, president Juscelino Kubitschek had consolidated national democracy and had planned the industrial development moved forward by foreign capital. On the Argentinean field, president Frondizi had proclaimed the same idea, but the civil power did not gain force with the fall of Peron and the democracy of the neighbor continued being arbitrated by the military.

The ability of JK to dribble around national conservatism and to implement his goals, was worthy of a star player, since he did not get mixed up with ideological sources. President Frondizi came up against, without back-tracking, the hostility of the top military and his measures brought about considerable social discontent an ideological-political debate of a mobilized society, with workers reticent to give up their conquests gained under Peron. And whatever attempt to impose the State as a guide for the economy brought reminders of the Peronist past, which had horrified the elite.

In this manner, Argentinean industrialization occurred in a climate of impromtu planning, with low technical preparation. The result was chaotic industrialization, with many factories disputing a very restricted market, which generated limitations in large scale gains and increased costs. Both here and there, nevertheless, the political wind had begun to blow in another direction and both the presidents with visions of industrial development set the scene for military dictatorships. “The economic and social elite of both countries showed a clear and growing tendency to inconformity, which would lead them to strengthen their desire for institutional rupture”, stated the researchers. “The armed forces, although sometimes acting for their own ends, very often they tended to be the mouth piece or the instrument of the elite classes. Democracy never took off during this period, a cost inbuilt into both country’s power groups.” Own goal for both teams.

In spite of the equally damaging situations, one must agree that the Brazilian national dictatorship was less repressive and stable than the similar situation in Buenos Aires, “whish has to do with the ample provocation of the social debates, the amplitude of urban guerrilla actions and the greater institutional fragility of the Argentinean military regime”. But: contrary to the Brazilian military rulers, the Argentineans did not attempt to modernize the State and to improve the economy.

Their brutality was only interrupted by the disaster of the Falkland Islands, which determined a sudden transition to democracy, with the realization, in 1983, of general elections. During this half time interval, the two countries had suffered “the fiasco of economic plans, which generated a sensation of dismay, or, in the Argentinean case, of despair within recent years”. But today, “there is in the envisioned Argentina the idea that the Brazilians have become too big for their boots, that they have hegemonic pretensions on South America.”, stated Boris Fausto during the interview. It was good when we only had a misunderstanding about who was the better player: Pelé or Maradona. The game continues.