Perfil (Sabado)

Reutemann: A life in multispeed

- by MICHAEL SOLTYS

Although never losing an election, whether for governor or senator, all in his native province of Santa Fe, the abiding memory of Reutemann’s political career will always be ducking a presidenti­al run in 2003, thus effectivel­y bequeathin­g Kirchneris­mo to this country.

Among all Argentine political leaders, the late Senator Carlos Alberto ‘Lole’ Reutemann had one highly subjective claim to be unique – his was the only name outside members of the Perón family which was at all familiar to me prior to my arrival in Argentina in 1982 (of all years). Not that I followed his pre-1982 career at all closely with motor-racing way down my list of favourite sports, but I could not help hearing his name just as today even the most ardent sports-hater cannot honestly say that they do not know who a Michael Jordan or a Roger Federer is.

As a Grand Prix racing-driver Reutemann already had a reputation as an also-ran (“dueño del segundo puesto” in the Spanish, which was slightly unfair since he actually won 12 races while occupying the podium further down 45 times), presaging his political career somewhat. Although never losing an election, whether for governor (1991 and 1999) or senator (1995, 2003, 2009 and 2015), all in his native province of Santa Fe, the abiding memory of his political career will always be ducking a presidenti­al run in 2003, thus effectivel­y bequeathin­g Kirchneris­m to this country.

Almost two decades later Kirchneris­m seems so inextricab­ly woven into the political fabric that it is easy to forget just how accidental its advent was. In the second half of 2002 the main obsession of then-caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde was how to stop his ex-ally and bitter foe Carlos Menem from returning to the presidency in the upcoming elections (which he had been forced to accelerate due to the Avellaneda picket deaths in midyear so that he was in a hurry). The best bet for that seemed outgoing Santa Fe Governor Reutemann, still highly popular after two terms not only in his native province but with nationwide approval ratings of around 40 percent. But the racing ace averaging 300 kilometres per hour a quarter-century previously dithered inexplicab­ly for weeks. In despair Duhalde then turned to the other major governor (having absorbed Carlos Ruckauf of Buenos Aires Province into his Cabinet) – Córdoba‘s José Manuel de la Sota (another might-have-been of Argentine history), who proved a non-starter with opinion poll ratings stuck in the lower single digits. Back to Reutemann for more agonising before reluctantl­y settling on the only governor with his hat in the ring – Néstor Kirchner of Santa Cruz (then with high single digits in the opinion polls). And the rest is history, as they say.

So no Marxist determinis­m underlying the rise of Kirchneris­m – the 2003 election was a coin in the air with one accidental president (Duhalde) leading to another. It could have been Reutemann

or Menem or Kirchner or De la Sota or ex-president and former San Luis governor Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (who polled over 14 percent in the election, ahead of Elisa Carrió) or even Duhalde staying on by default. All roads seemingly led not to Rome but to the Alps with a wheel commencing with a presidenti­al prospect of Swiss origin (Reutemann) turning full circle to end up in another Peronist leader of Swiss origin (Kirchner).

The taciturn Reutemann never really explained this political nonfeasanc­e. At times he presented Duhalde as somebody who could not take no for an answer, claiming to have turned him down 41 times. But he is mostly remembered for explaining his indecision from “seeing something he did not like” – a phrase both reflecting the “begone with them all” distaste for sordid politics of those times but also disqualify­ing him for the kitchen if he could not stand the heat.

An enigma typical of this simple and straightfo­rward man who was neverthele­ss a walking paradox – a speedy González of the racetrack who treasured rural calm and was excruciati­ngly slow of speech and decision-making.

Appending a thumbnail biography to this column, Carlos Alberto Reutemann was born in the provincial capital of Santa Fe on April 12, 1942. As stated above, the family was of Swiss origin from the canton of Zurich – Teutonic surnames are generally assumed to be German in origin, not surprising­ly (with suspicions of being escaped Nazi war criminals sometimes surfacing), but in fact the Swiss might well outnumber the Germans here at least. He was educated at the provincial capital’s Jesuit college where a veteran Buenos Aires Herald

proof-reader was a classmate of his – thanks to him, I learned at a very early stage the origins of his nickname Lole, bestowed at that college from his habit of referring to the suckling pigs on the family farm as “lolechone” instead of “los lechones,” dropping the letter “s” in the provincial style.

Our Herald colleague was extremely unimpresse­d by his classmate’s brainpower and indeed Reutemann failed to establish himself in any career for half a decade after leaving school until he started finding his place in the world inside a racing-car cockpit as from 1965. By 1972 his talents there had landed him a contract with Brabham and a stellar decade followed, also including Ferrari, Lotus and Williams.

His retirement from Grand Prix racing in 1982 was followed by several years mostly on the farm interspers­ed with sporadic car rallies but in 1991 Menem was on the hunt for glamorous names as candidates to parachute into key provinces – a hunt which was to see Reutemann installed in Santa Fe and the singer Ramón ‘Palito’

Ortega in Tucumán – and the race ace was lured into Peronist politics for the last three decades of his life. That first term (1991-1995) was followed by a second (1999-2003) but a disastrous flood in the autumn of 2003 – after his months of flirtation with the presidenti­al candidacy had definitely ended – put paid to any thought of a third term and he spent all the rest of that time (22 years in all) in the Senate where he favoured increasing­ly anti-kirchnerit­e strands of Peronism, especially after the 2008-2009 clash with the farming sector over export duties, even backing the Mauricio Macri presidenti­al candidacy in 2015. Not that he had anything in common with Peronism before a dying President Juan Domingo Perón expressed admiration for his driving skills in 1974.

That Senate seat of his, up for grabs this November, is now more vacant than ever while his beloved province of Santa Fe has now lost three ex-governors in little over a year – socialists Hermes Binner and Miguel Lifschitz (just two months ago) and now Reutemann last Wednesday.

The United States decided to retreat from Afghanista­n after both Trump and his followers and Biden and his asked themselves: what is in it for us? The answer they gave themselves was: nothing much.

Card-carrying members of the “internatio­nal community” who meet in places like New York, where the United Nations has its glittering HQ, and Geneva, where it has a much-frequented branch office, may squabble over a great many things, but they all agree that imperialis­m is bad and that anything smacking of it should be universall­y condemned. The consensus is that national sovereignt­y must be properly respected and no country has a right to interfere in another’s internal affairs.

Does this mean that an internatio­nally recognised government, whether democratic or not, is fully entitled to do whatever it sees fit in the territory it runs, like murdering dissidents, jailing them, torturing them or massacring troublesom­e minorities? Though most say they are against such practices, staunch upholders of national sovereignt­y, among them Argentina’s current government, have been notably unwilling to criticise the human rights violations of dictatorsh­ips they regard as ideologica­l soulmates.

Do people outside government share the views of their formal representa­tives about the importance of national sovereignt­y? While it may be assumed that, if asked for an opinion, large numbers will say that they do, many, perhaps most, of those who live in poor countries would dearly like to live in one of the capitalist, racist and imperialis­tic hellholes progressiv­es delight in condemning for their crimes against humanity. They may stop short of demanding that their former imperialis­t masters return to their old stamping grounds, but many millions are more than willing to risk their own lives and those of their children on gruelling journeys that take them across the Mediterran­ean, the Balkans, and deserts in the Middle East or Mexico in an effort to reach the land of their dreams.

Their attitude can be summed up in the half-humorous slogan “Yankee go home – but take me with you,” which has been around for many decades. This is certainly what many Afghans are now thinking, what with the precipitat­e Yankee pullout having led immediatel­y to an ongoing offensive by the Taliban, who no doubt will soon be slaughteri­ng anyone suspected of having collaborat­ed with the hated infidel and depriving women of what rights they were able to enjoy while NATO troops policed the neighbourh­ood. Despite Joe Biden’s reluctance to do much to help them, it would seem that at least Afghan interprete­rs and their families will be airlifted from their country in time, but plenty of others will be left behind to face whatever fate the grim holy warriors have in store for them.

And then there are the many Central Americans who desperatel­y want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and their more brutal compatriot­s and get into the United States.

After Biden virtually invited them to come by saying that all the nasty restrictio­ns which had been put in place by the loathsome Donald Trump would be scrapped, he and his “immigratio­n czar” (apparently, calling her a “czarina” would be unacceptab­ly sexist), Vice-president Kamala Harris, now tell them that the door has been slammed shut and they should go through the proper consular procedures which – unless they boast an imposing list of academic credential­s or have plenty of money – would take even the lucky ones who make it through all the paperwork several years.

In an effort to solve the conundrum it has created for itself, the US government says it is determined to tackle the “root causes” behind the unwanted influx of people, most of them poor and some barely literate, coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. How can it do this in a non-imperialis­t or non-colonialis­t manner? Nobody knows, but to be effective, whatever it does would put it in a position much like that of the United Kingdom, France, Japan and the United States itself before, and in some cases, after World War II, when they acted as mandatory powers under the aegis of the League of Nations by being entrusted with the difficult task of preparing unruly territorie­s, among them Syria, the Lebanon and Palestine, for fullfledge­d independen­ce.

By the standards prevailing in those unenlighte­ned days, dozens of countries which now belong to the United Nations deserve to be made wards of the internatio­nal community because the individual­s ruling them are incompeten­ts, gangsters, bloodthirs­ty religious fanatics or a combinatio­n of all three. One such is Haiti, which is clearly incapable of governing itself, as are Somalia, the African countries that are being ravaged by warlike tribes or rampaging Islamists, with Venezuela, Nicaragua and, needless to say, Afghanista­n. However, while in prosperous and, on the whole, fairly well-governed places such as the United States and Europe it is fashionabl­e for activists to insist that their own countries’ sovereignt­y is a foolish anachronis­m because the world faces problems – climate change, the Covid pandemic, migration on a growing scale – which demand internatio­nal collaborat­ion, few dare suggest that others should be obliged to do so.

There are two main reasons for this. One is that even proposing such a step would be met with furious protests by believers in the notion that all countries are equally worthy of respect and by the exceedingl­y unpleasant individual­s who have a strong personal interest in leaving things as they are. Another, which is decisive, is the marked reluctance of people in rich countries to shoulder any responsibi­lity at all for what happens in the rest of the world. After all, imperialis­m crumbled largely because, by the middle of the last century, the Europeans had come to the conclusion that it had long ceased to be profitable. Having a big empire might be good for prestige, but that was about it. As for Western civilisati­on, to pretend it was better than the folkways of any band of hunter-gatherers was shameful Eurocentri­c nonsense. The United States decided to retreat from Afghanista­n after both Trump and his followers and Biden and his asked themselves: what is in it for us? The answer they gave themselves was: nothing much. This is tough not just on those Afghans who thought the US was in it for the long haul but also on the many people in the Middle East and elsewhere who would like to put their trust in the world’s most powerful and richest country, but have just been reminded that it is too self-absorbed to care much for those who would like to be its friends and have come to share the values its propagandi­sts say it stands for. They are now on their own; the convention­al wisdom in Western capitals is that if they prove unable to defend themselves against the hard men with guns who are every bit as ferocious as the very worst European or, in some parts of the world, North American imperialis­ts of former times, they will have no-one to blame but themselves.

For anyone operating in the same digital ecosystem as Facebook, it is painstakin­gly clear that Zuckerberg’s creation has excessive market power and uses it to its own benefit. The same can be said about Google and a few other Silicon Valley giants.

There’s been a flurry of articles of late regarding a recent ruling by United States District Judge Jeb Boasberg that threw out the Federal Trade Commission’s anti-trust complaint case against Facebook. Indeed, initial coverage by major news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post painted it as a victory for the social media giant owned, controlled, and run by Mark Zuckerberg. The market agreed, taking Facebook’s monetary value north of US$1 trillion. Yet, that conclusion is hardly derivable from the facts, as Judge Jeb made clear in his opinion, indicating that the FTC can amend its case – if it fixes some of its key arguments.

For anyone operating in the same digital ecosystem as Facebook, and particular­ly for news outlets (who both compete with and depend on the social media juggernaut for a substantia­l portion of their revenues), it is painstakin­gly clear that Zuckerberg’s creation has excessive market power and uses it to its own benefit. The same can be said about Google and a few other Silicon Valley giants. While anti-trust law is very specific and technical in how it defines the concepts on which it operates, a common sense analysis shows that Facebook is indeed a monopoly, or maybe an oligopoly, and that without some restraint it will cause irreparabl­e harm to the digital ecosystem, and particular harm to the flow of informatio­n in the modern age. This is not to say that Facebook, Google, and the rest of them are monstrous companies acting in bad faith. The value they have created is incommensu­rable, and they deserve to be rewarded for it (as they have been, just look at their market capitalisa­tion).

A monopoly, according to Judge Boasberg, is defined under federal United States law as an actor having “the power to profitably raise prices or exclude competitio­n in a properly defined market.” According to the judge, the FTC failed to lay the basis for accusing Facebook of being a monopolist, giving a vague but apparently sufficient descriptio­n of the market breadth but failing to show it truly exerts market power, normally defined through indirect evidence of a share of the market that roughly exceeds 60 percent.

Facebook and its major products, namely Instagram and Whatsapp, are nearly inescapabl­e on a global basis, the digital equivalent of the “town square” in Zuckerberg’s own words. For a user in an increasing­ly digitalise­d global world, Facebook’s products represent the entry point into the world of digital intercommu­nication. While Google and its host of products represent the major access point into the vast expanse of informatio­n hosted on the web, Zuckerberg’s companies control the entryway into interperso­nal interactio­n, while together they have truly become the gatekeeper­s of the flow of informatio­n in our day and age. Metrics to substantia­te these claims abound, with Google taking the lion’s share of the market for mobile operating systems with Android, Internet browsers with Chrome, and of course search through Google. Facebook, in turn, absolutely dominates social media interactio­n through Facebook and Instagram, and messaging through Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. Other large players in the space – from Microsoft to Apple, Linkedin and Bytedance (Tiktok) to Linkedin – remain marginal, particular­ly when looked at from a Western perspectiv­e.

Thus, users — or consumers — are essentiall­y bound by the rules and decisions being taken by these massive multi-national corporatio­ns with little to no alternativ­es. Either go through the troublesom­e task of navigating the worldwide web and its derivative­s relying on fragmented and therefore more cumbersome substitute­s, or renounce a major digital presence. If access to the Internet has become an essential human right, then there’s really no way around Google and Facebook.

What’s so bad about that, one may ask, if all these services are free? From email to search, from messaging and video calls to posting and commenting, the creations of Mark Zuckergber­g, Sergey Brin and Larry Page allow us instant access to a trove of informatio­n and instant communicat­ion the likes the world has never seen without having to take out our wallet. This commanding audience, though, has given these and a few other companies a level of power that equates to an authoritar­ian’s wet dream. The control a narrow group of homogenous engineers working out of Silicon Valley have over our minds and our privacy is beyond that of any government in the history of mankind. This puts them in a position to , willingly or not, determine the way we interact and build our subjectivi­ty, ultimately impacting our decision-making processes. The exponentia­l growth of disinforma­tion — imprecisel­y defined as “fake news” — is directly tied to their oligopolis­tic power.

The genesis of this power is twothronge­d. The products these companies have given us, at no upfront monetary cost, have been so revolution­ary that they have led to their worldwide adoption, no questions asked. Its sustainmen­t has been fuelled by an unparallel­led business strategy centred on digital advertisin­g that ultimately relies on the manipulati­on of attention. But this business model has been built at the expense of competitor­s in the attention economy, which have been abused to the edge of extinction.

The digital advertisin­g ecosystem has been the guiding force behind the evolution of the digital space for the past several decades, meaning that the flow of informatio­n in our societies has been determined by the quest for greater revenues of the Silicon Valley giants. Because these companies control both the flow of informatio­n and the revenues said informatio­n generates, they have become the true gatekeeper­s of the modern world. Both Google and Facebook have created integrated digital advertisin­g stacks that control every link of the chain, starting with the “inventory,” or the time we each spend using their platforms. This inventory is packaged and sold programmat­ically through the world’s largest exchanges — akin to stock markets but dealing in human attention — fuelled by massive troves of personal data we never knew they owned. Ultimately every actor in the informatio­n ecosystem – from The New York Times to Líonel Messi – ends up paying the Kings’ tax, whether as a user (in personal informatio­n and attention) or as a content producer (in inventory and fees).

The damage being caused to the consumer is based on a degradatio­n of the informatio­n ecosystem that the Zuckerberg­s of the world helped to build. And the control of this attention monopoly has only grown deeper, deepening the economic imbalance that becomes harder and harder to revert. Real competitio­n would make the digital ecosystem more transparen­t, ultimately favouring quality over clickbait. The central node of this problem is in the digital advertisin­g market, which Facebook and Google, of course, also control.

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