EspañolOn Tuesday, President of Argentina Cristina Kirchner appointed the philosopher and ruling-party supporter Ricardo Forster as head of the Secretariat for Strategic Coordination of National Thought, an entity that will fall under the purview of the recently created Ministry of Culture.
The appointment, formalized through presidential decree 837/2014, elicited widespread criticism and baffled intellectuals, politicians, and journalists. Regarding his new position, Foster, a former deputy candidate, said that despite conversations he has held with the president, he did not expect this decision. “I’m surprised that the government chose to appoint someone like me as secretary, because the nomination wasn’t settled. It involves accepting me as I am, and I say what I think,” he assured.
Forster, who holds a PhD in philosophy, is one of the founders of Carta Abierta, a loose group of intellectuals from different disciplines who support the Kirchner administration’s policies. Before being appointed National Thought Secretary, he ran for a national deputy seat as a Front for Victory (FPV) party candidate.
The intellectual said he agreed with the current government’s agenda. “I think the state is key to the development of a society’s cultural life,” he said.
The decree states that, as secretary, Forster’s primary responsibility will be to “design, coordinate, and implement a national thought research center, according to the guidelines established by the secretariat.”
Some of the agency’s objectives include: “To advise the minister of culture and present proposals on issues of national and Latin-American thought. To interact with the various federal research centers throughout the country, aiming to promote them and grant them a larger institutional framework.”
Forster also assured that the secretariat won’t impose thought control or “be reduced to a single vision.” He added, “The aim is to bring a diversity of voices, not to create a dogmatic monolith.”
He also said he believes it is a great achievement that the national government is creating the conditions for discussion and research forums to grow. However, regarding his intellectual background, the public official stressed that his training was not exactly Peronist: “My background is in the European tradition of the Frankfurt School, in particular, the thinking of Walter Benjamin.”
In 2011, Forster had expressed his discontent with the designation of 2010 Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa as Buenos Aires’ book fair commencement speaker. “The Book Fair needs a plural, democratic voice, and Vargas Llosa today represents a huge provocation from the free-market right-wing, having uttered harsh criticisms about Argentina,” Forster said at the time.
“Ministry of Truth” or Diversity of Opinions?
Several dissenting groups and figures voiced their opposition to the creation of the new secretariat and Forster’s new position, comparing it with Joseph Goebbels’ Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, or with George Orwell’s 1984 “Ministry of Truth.”
Other Argentinians went further and cataloged this new state agency as part of the Maoist Cultural Revolution. “It is a vile, vile thing,” said Forster in his defense about the Nazi comparison. “Today, when we talk about national thought, we are not referring to the nationalism of the 1920s or 1930s. We are engaging in discussion within the context of a modern global society that has homogenized cultures and has progressed in accordance to a corporate logic that puts everything on the same level, making sovereignty a concept devoid of any meaning,” he added.
He argued that nowadays, “nationalism, and especially from Latin America, is a big challenger, a great threat to the neoliberal global power.”
The day of the appointment, journalist Jorge Lanata said during his show on Mitre Radio: “What could national thought be? Maybe the opposite of foreign thought?” He also joked about the borders of national thought: “Where does it begin and where does it end? Maybe it has embassies in foreign-thought land.”
The founder of the newspaper Página 12 continued by questioning, “Why don’t they just say it, that national thought is what they think? Forster will coordinate what we think. Period,” laughed Lanata.
Marcelo Longobardi, another renowned Argentinean journalist, said that from now on the government won’t consider thinking done by the people, but instead what “the nation” thinks. “Individuals that don’t think like them will be labeled conspirators,” he said on his show.
Former National Deputy Eduardo Amadeo, now leader of the opposition party Renewal Front, also strongly criticized this secretariat, comparing it to Nazi book burnings. “The national thought is an excuse to divide people. You are on this side; fine, I congratulate you. Forster was put in that position to impose a single mindset, so that all schools teach the same, so that all media say the same. And if we follow down this path, we’ll end up burning books,” reflected Amadeo.
For his part, Augustine Etchebarne, director of Freedom and Progress Foundation, wrote in Fortuna that this new institution closely resembled the Ministry of Truth from Orwell’s 1984. “The Ministry of Truth, with its omnipresent and vigilant thought police, was devoted to repress all dangerous thought or words.”
Jorge Capitanich, the Kirchner’s chief of staff, said these criticisms “are inappropriate and uncalled for. With Ricardo Forster we are on the right track.” He added, “There is no doubt that he is qualified for the job.”
Argentina’s Peronist Background
Ricardo López Göttig, a PhD historian, says this move is related to Argentinean historical revisionism, which argues that the ideology embodied in the first Constitution of Argentina in 1853 was “a foreign thought that had been imposed from abroad.”
In statements given yesterday to the talk show A Las Ocho, the historian explained that those who wanted to force national thought upon the population during the Peronist era had ideas with roots in “Italian Fascism and the Spanish Falange (a fascist political party ideology).”
López also said that this secretariat is nothing new. “[When] the Peronists voted in Congress to make the Peronist-Justicialist ideology the national doctrine, it was an attempt to create a national thought; a single national mindset. The idea was to create a completely anti-liberal, anti-cosmopolitan vision.”
Meanwhile, journalist José Benegas summarized the issue by saying, “In the case of Argentina, this is very curious, because it’s a country of immigrants, so deep nationalism is absurd. This is about trying to justify arbitrary power from different angles.”
EspañolComplete and utter disconnect with reality. That is the only thing that comes to mind upon hearing about the latest bill that has made its way through both houses of the Puerto Rico legislature and is on its way to being signed by the governor. The bill in question is intended to make workplace harassment illegal. On its surface, like so many interventionist laws, it sounds good. Who wants to be harassed at work? Yet, Puerto Rico already has sexual harassment laws in place, and those laws have been routinely abused. This new bill would redefine illegal "harassment" in such a broad sense that it's a sure fire way to ensure no new businesses open up on the island. It guarantees Puerto Rico's economy never recovers from its multi-year recession. Senate Bill 501 defines “workplace bullying” as: "ill-intended, unwelcome, repetitive conduct, whether it be verbal, written or physical, on behalf of the employer, its supervisors or employees, distinct from the legitimate business interests of the company, that creates a hostile, intimidating, humiliating, and offensive atmosphere, impedes the healthy tenure of the employee in the workplace, that can bring scorn, belittle or professionally destroy the employee, and that threatens his/her constitutionally protected rights, including his/her dignity." Among the highlights of the bill, it includes making a host of behaviors illegal including, but not limited, to: "slanderous and harmful expressions about a person, using foul language; hostile and humiliating comments of professional incompetence in the presence of co-workers; unjustified threats of termination stated in the presence of co-workers; frivolous disciplinary actions; and humiliating rejection of work proposals or opinions." In other words, if an employee makes an insane suggestion, and the boss rejects it outright in front of other employees, the employer can be sued. For major corporations who spend millions on special training programs for managers and whose pockets may be deep enough to handle such suits, this law might not prevent them from investing or expanding in Puerto Rico. However, for the small business operator and those major companies that are not prepared to handle such liability claims, it is the end of the road. Small businesses move the economy, although they never get the press that the big players do. Every remaining small business in Puerto Rico will be at risk of bankruptcy if this law is passed. Every single disgruntled employee, who is marginalized at work because they are a bad employee, will take advantage of this law and destroy what little is left of the island's economy. This new bill actually makes sense when one considers a report by MuniNet Guide. The website’s report, “Puerto Rico: A View from the Ground,” is well worth a read. The website had a team visit the island and interview business leaders, reporters, government officials, bankers, and others to get a better feel for what is really happening. Among the highlights of the report is this gem: Theme #2: There is still no great sense of fiscal urgency on the part of the administration. As surprising as that may sound, most of our sources complained that the Padilla team still doesn’t grasp the full severity of the current situation. The governor has already backed himself into a corner with his promise of “no layoffs.” In Puerto Rico, politicians can’t get themselves re-elected if they pursue massive layoffs, as the former Governor Luis Fortuño found out in the last election. At least for now, the current administration seems content to fiddle within the current system with changes in work rules and department consolidations, etc... Interestingly, although the General Fund’s operating expenditures were presumably “cut” by about US$762 million between FY2014 and FY2015, the cut only amounts to $185 million if you compare FY2015 with FY2013. In other words, the FY2015 spending “cuts” may be viewed as just a reversal of the large expenditure increase built into the FY2014 budget. Raising revenues through taxes, not cutting spending, remains the preferred solution, despite its negative effect on the economy. Where will the administration get tax revenue funds if thousands of small business owners go out of business due to fear of liability, or the cost of specialized insurance that is bound to crop up after this kind of law takes effect? Running on populist notions and fears may help people get elected, but at some point the demons released by populist pandering come home to roost, and a new demon must be blamed for the inevitable economic collapse. One could hope the current administration will refuse to sign this bill, but that hope would be a waste of time. As they say, "Hope is not a plan." I often wonder, could these political leaders possibly be that stupid? Time and time again, however, they prove that yes — yes, they can. I cannot help but think that these actions, designed to destroy business and the free market, must be intentional. To what end, however, is yet to be revealed. The bottom line is, if you are currently planning to open or expand a business in Puerto Rico, don’t; especially if this bill is signed into law.