A nerve specialist for a nervous country
There is such a thing as Divine Providence or serendipity or whatever you want to call it. Last Thursday found me totally stuck for a topic. After all, the screaming headlines in that day’s newspapers were about Argentina hitting 100,000 coronavirus deaths and I could hardly write: “And that reminds me of all the other times 100,000 Argentines died in a pandemic.” As a last resort I googled today’s date of July 17 to see if it had any significance which could give me a lead and lo and behold, to my extreme good fortune, the search engine informed me that today is Neuroscientist’s Day. All roads lead to Facundo Manes these days, it would seem.
The pandemic death toll is totally unprecedented but the Facundo Manes phenomenon is not nearly so unique – Argentine politics lends itself to loads of hype surrounding a complete outsider. As G.K. Chesterton warned us a long time ago, those who believe in nothing end up believing in anything – the systematic scepticism of Argentines and their extreme cynicism about their political class point that way.
In an interview carried by this newspaper a fortnight ago, Radical Senator Martín Lousteau (one of the biggest Manes enthusiasts) very sagely observed when questioning the opposition preference for repudiating Kirchnerism’s institutional outrages rather than offering crisis alternatives: “Nobody defines themselves by what they are not.” True enough but then people should define themselves by who they are and this naturally leads to the question – who is Facundo Manes? Lots of excited talk about him as an electoral gamechanger but has he given any hint as to the concrete policy proposals which Lousteau thinks the opposition should be offering? What is his solution for inflation? For crime? For the creation of quality jobs? Or even his antidote to the pandemic within his own special medical field?
From his answers to such questions (or lack thereof) Manes thus far might as well be the “Nowhere Man” of the Beatles song. But a nobody he is not as an eminent authority in neuroscience and nor is that is his self-image – on the contrary, he declined a similar midterm run in 2017 by explicitly saying that he could not be anything other than top candidate and these days he is already fancying himself for the presidency in 2023, ahead of any political experience. Evidently somebody ready to run before he can walk but if we are to follow Bob Dylan’s advice: “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand,” then his expertise in the incredibly complex and obscure world of neuroscience renders him immune from any criticism.
So who is Facundo Manes? Back to Google. Not much the wiser after a quick read of his Wikipedia bio. An impressive career in neurobiology after graduating from the Medical Faculty of UBA Buenos Aires University followed by a masters in Cambridge. Nor is he merely a lab geek because he has shown administrative skills in heading Favalaro University and Foundation as well as placing his own specialty on the map in Argentina by creating INECO (Instituto de Neurologia Cognitiva). But none of this would seem to have much appeal to the average voter, never mind the downtrodden of his native Greater Buenos Aires (he hails from Quilmes with his Tucumán-born father a typical hinterland migrant to that urban sprawl) and yet it is precisely there where his growing fan club dreams that he can shatter the Peronist stranglehold. Where he does grow closer to the common touch is in his constant television appearances over the last decade, while he really sprang to fame in 2013 by operating on then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s subdural haematoma (sounds more impressive than a blood clot). Yet making him out to be a political equivalent of Lionel Messi as a potential idol of the Greater Buenos Aires masses still seems a colossal stretch.
But if we only know a tiny percentage of the billions of neurons and cells in the human brain, as Manes continually tells us, ditto for his political future. Instead of speculating further, time for this column to embark on its mission of relating the present to the past (especially 34 years of personal newsroom experience at the late Buenos Aires Herald).
Not only has there been no lack of outsiders and parachuted candidates in Argentine politics – there is even a precedent from the Manes specialty, namely the “neuro-peronist” Raúl Matera (1915-1994) with whom I once shared a family wedding reception. In my first year at the Herald the prestigious neurosurgeon was a presidential dark horse for the 1983 elections but the Peronist candidacy eventually went to Italo Argentino Luder. Matera was actually a Peronist presidential candidate in 1963 when any such thing was totally banned, as well as being Juan Domingo Perón’s personal delegate in Argentina during various years of the General’s 1955-1973 exile.
For a further example of an outsider injected into politics we need look no further than the subject of last week’s column – the late Carlos Reutemann. The race ace generated something of the hype of hope which Manes seems to be producing – engaging in political chitchat at diplomatic receptions, I was surprised by how many establishment figures (from what ex-president Mauricio Macri calls the “red circle”) and shrewd political pundits were tipping Reutemann as the great white hope of Argentine politics on the back of having been an “automatic pilot” governor of Santa Fe in convertibility years. Singer Ramón ‘Palito’ Ortega also entered politics from nowhere in the same year (1991) as governor of Tucumán but never grew beyond his native province.
The list of outsiders in Argentina politics is too long for the remaining space of this column – there have been so many parachuted candidates that they even include a couple of actual paratroopers, former San Miguel mayor Aldo Rico and Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni today. The two main contenders in the 2015 election were outsiders when they entered politics – Macri was president of a football club (Boca Juniors) when he became City Mayor while Daniel Scioli was a race ace (like Reutemann but on water not land) and a businessman before running for Congress in 1997.
Only enough space now remains to say – Happy Neuroscientist’s Day, Facundo Manes and any of his colleagues who might be reading this column!
As G.K. Chesterton warned us a long time ago, those who believe in nothing end up believing in anything – the systematic scepticism of Argentines and their extreme cynicism about their political class point that way.