In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Argentina has a lot in common with Justin Bieber

A joke making the rounds on the Internet says that if Argentina were a celebrity, it would be Justin Bieber — a rich, spoiled, irresponsible teenager, who always repeats the same mistakes, and always blames others for them.

The joke, first made by Florida International University international business professor Jerry Haar at a recent conference in Miami, couldn’t be more descriptive of what’s happening in Argentina these days, and what has been happening in the commodity-rich South American country for the past six decades.

Much like Justin Bieber, the 19-year-old singer who, among other brushes with the law, was recently arrested in Miami for speeding with his yellow Lamborghini while under the influence, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández has squandered Argentina’s biggest commodity bonanza in a populist fiesta, and is now blaming others for the country’s skyrocketing inflation, massive capital flight and crumbling economy.

“What the f--- did I do? Why did you stop me?” Bieber asked the Miami Beach police officer who pulled him over in his rented Lamborghini the early hours of Jan. 23, according to the arrest report.

President Fernández’s televised speech to the nation on Tuesday was not too different. It could be summed up in a few words: Why do critics blame me for the country’s current financial troubles?

Fernández blamed Argentine bankers, supermarket owners and opposition media for the country’s skyrocketing inflation and capital flight. “We are not going to allow them to continue looting the Argentine people’s pockets,” she said, referring to all of the above.

But Argentina’s problems are self-created by the Fernández government. Since 2003, when Fernández’s late husband Nestor Kirchner took office, Argentina’s central government spending has soared from 15 percent to 29 percent of the country’s GDP, according to a new study by the Fundación Mediterránea and IERAL think tanks.

Much of that spending has not been used to build roads, schools or hospitals, but to subsidize electricity, transportation and other public services, the study says. By keeping electricity, transportation and other public services artificially low and giving massive cash subsidies to the poor, Fernández kept the illusion that she had invented a new “economic model.’’

The illusion of prosperity seemed to work while world commodity prices were high, and Fernández had money to give out, but has faded since commodity prices stopped rising while the government kept spending.

Inflation has soared to an annual rate of 26 percent last year, and by some estimates it’s expected to exceed that this year. The Fernández government claims inflation was of 10.5 percent last year, but the figure is not accepted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) nor any other major world financial institution.

Not surprisingly, increasingly nervous Argentines have rushed to buy U.S. dollars and apartments in Miami to protect themselves against coming devaluations. The Central Bank reserves have plummeted from $53 billion in January 2011 to $28 billion today.

And unlike other countries that fall into hard times, Argentina cannot draw foreign investment of loans because it has repeatedly defaulted on its debts. Historians say that Argentina has stiffed creditors at least five times since achieving independence from Spain in the early 19th century.

Argentina’s financial crises are a recurrent phenomenon, says Walter Molano, an economist who has just published a book entitled In The Land of Silver: 200 Years of Argentine Political-Economic Development.

Many other Latin American countries have defaulted on their debts, but Argentina gets bigger headlines because it has done so repeatedly in recent years, in 1982, 1989, and 2001, he told me in an interview from London.

How will this latest crisis end? I asked him.

“Like always,” Molano answered. “There will be a new government that will have to impose an economic package (of austerity measures) with electricity and bus fare increases, and will sign an agreement with the IMF to get a $10-$12 billion credit line in order to re-establish trust from investors and foreign lenders.”

My opinion: We’ve seen this movie several times before. Like in many other occasions, Argentina has lived beyond its means, and — unlike neighboring Chile, for instance — has failed to save during the good years to have money in the bank for the bad years.

Like Justin Bieber, Argentina — a potentially developed country ruined by populism — has to take responsibility for its actions, learn from its recurrent mistakes and stop blaming others for them.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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