- - Monday, November 23, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s something hopeful to sing about in the Argentine. The election of Mauricio Macri, 56, the center-right mayor of Buenos Aires, as the new president is an attempt — the latest — to write permanent finis to the Peronista epoch in the nation’s history.

Juan Peron and his shrewish and beautiful wife, Eva (aka Evita), ruled the country for less than a decade, 1946 to 1955, but his presence and then Evita’s, have cast a long shadow across the country since. Senor Macri, in fact, who campaigned for change and a return to market economics, once dedicated a statue to Peron. Endowed with enormous natural resources, the Argentine economy has often danced to the seductive music of the Peronistas.

At the turn of the 19th century Argentina was well on its way to replicating the living standards of Europe and the United States. From 1880 to 1905, expansion resulted in a dramatic growth in gross domestic product, with per capita income rising from 35 percent of the American per capita income to 80 percent. But the Great Depression took a toll, and by 1941 its GDP fell to about half that of the United States.

Peron, a devoted admirer of the European fascist dictatorships of the 1930s, was originally installed as president in a military coup, and appealed to the rapidly growing industrial work force. He pledged respect for workers and built a government-controlled Peronista union organization of 2 million workers. He attacked the legacy of the country’s corrupt oligarchic regimes, with their lip-service dedication to democracy, and courted the Argentine underclass, the “descamisados,” or “shirtless ones.” The glamorous Evita became a national and international icon, the toast of the beautiful people everywhere after she died in 1952.

Peron nationalized railroads, strategic industries and services, improved wages and working conditions, paid off the external debt and achieved nearly full employment. But the economy went into decline in 1950 because of the unsustainable rapid growth of Evita’s elaborate social welfare benefits, and with her death and a falling out with the military, Peron’s day in power ended abruptly. But for seven decades the Peron legacy dominated Argentine politics and even became something of a model for the rest of the continent.

Mr. Macri’s victory on Sunday now sends a signal throughout Latin America. Buenos Aires has long been an important cultural influence in the Spanish-speaking world, and his triumph is the most significant defeat of a candidate of the left in South America for more than a decade. He faces formidable obstacles, not least the memory of the example of President Carlos Menem, who in the 1990s attempted to correct the Peronista drift, privatizing state-owned utilities and cutting the size of the government. His free market program collapsed in 2002.

Mr. Macri proposes a formidable agenda. He wants to lift at once restrictions on imports and on U.S. dollars. He must tame inflation, surging at 30 percent annually, with devaluation of the currency. The president of the Central Bank, AlejandroVanoli, a Peronista, offers no help. He insists he will finish his term of office in 2019. Mr. Macri promised the powerful farm lobby that he would eliminate corn and wheat export taxes and a quota system, and he will have to redeem that promise amid a sagging world commodities market.

He enjoys popularity as a former executive of the Boca Juniors, a soccer term. Indeed, he once aspired to soccer stardom himself, and he was described during the campaign as the spoiled son of a rich Italian immigrant father. He is likely to face a hostile Congress. But if he succeeds it could be a turning point not only for Argentina, but for the continent.

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