Are we such a poignant sight? President Bush has declared himself moved by Uruguay’s plight, although there is no indication that he could even locate our country on a map. Perhaps what has touched his heart has been the selfless readiness of our president, Jorge Batlle, to stand in the front line against Cuba, Argentina, or whoever else he is told to oppose—who knows. The fact is that Bush said: ‘We have to lend a hand.’ And the international credit organizations, in the noble role of the parrot on the pirate’s shoulder, then said exactly the same.
Our legislators hurriedly assembled and, by a majority deaf to all discussion, in no time at all passed the law that gave the coup de grâce to the state-banking sector. The reasoning was straighforward: approve this or you won’t get the money. The deputies craned their necks, searching the sky for the descending plane. The dollars didn’t come by air, but they arrived: ‘1500 million dolores’, said the US ambassador, who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. The error told the truth.
From the cradle, Latin American countries were born into independent life mortgaged to British banks. Two centuries later, as a Montevideo taxi driver puts it: ‘They say the Lord will provide. They think God runs the IMF.’ Our creditors have changed over time, and now we owe much more. The more we pay, the more we owe; and the more we owe, the less we decide. Held captive by foreign banks, we can no longer so much as breathe without permission. Latin Americans live to ‘service the debt’—which goes on multiplying, rabbit-fashion. It grows by four dollars for every dollar we get, and yet we celebrate every new dollar as if it were a miracle. As if the noose around our throats was going to lift us from the bottom of the well.
For several years now, Uruguay has been dedicated to turning itself from a nation-state into a bank with beaches. Through the mouth of its ambassador, the US has recently confirmed this as our destiny. A service economy, entering the globalized world by the back door. What better way of integrating ourselves into the market than through our own disintegration? Banks are set up; bankers get rich. The government, itself governed, puts on a show of governing. Closed factories; empty fields; we produce beggars and policemen—and emigrants. All night, even in the depths of winter, the crowds queue for passports: young people now retracing the journeys their grandparents made from Italy or Spain.
Our savings have made fortunes for the bankers who have usurped them. For years, the cinema has been showing a continuous performance of the same film: bank vaults emptied by their owners, and society as a whole burdened with unrecoverable debts. Protected by client confidentiality, the financial conjurors disappear money just as the military dictatorship did people. They leave behind a trail of swindled savers and employees racked by insecurity, and a public debt that charges everyone for the fraud of a few. Private banks, deemed worthy of so many multi-million-dollar rescue operations, lend money to those who have it and not to those in need. They are increasingly divorced from the realities of production and work, or of the little of those that are left to us. This extraterrestrial financial enclave, however, has just been recompensed by the new law that stabs the state-banking sector to death.
If we carry on like this, sooner rather than later public-sector companies will become our only form of liquidity when the unpayable external debt falls due. It will be an execution of the state, by a firing squad of creditors. The popular will—which came out against privatizations in a plebiscite ten years ago, by more than 70 per cent of the vote—will count for little.
More state, less state, almost no state—or one reduced to the functions of surveillance and punishment (of whom)? But if the international financial dictatorship is enforcing the dismantling of the state, only the lack of domestic controls can explain the scandalous impunity with which some of Uruguay’s banks have been cleaned out. ‘The regulators are not psychic’, explained a pro-government deputy. Final responsibility for safeguarding standards lies with a cousin of the President of the Republic.