The last time we spoke with David Rieff It was a year ago Zoomhe from his home in New York, Infobae in Buenos Aires. This time the meeting is face to face in a tree-lined corner of the Argentine capital, where Rieff —famous American journalist, essayist and analyst—has been traveling regularly for 15 years. Linen hat and blazer, elegant and cool at the same time, he chooses this time to speak in Spanish. A language she learned in Mexico during her youth work in an organization run by priests linked to the Liberation Theology and which he now uses influenced by typically River Plate terms—“kid,” “trucho”—. In fact, a large part of the long talk will be about the Milei “phenomenon” and Peronism. His knowledge of local affairs and characters is at times astonishing.
Rieff (Boston, 1952) says that he has just returned from Ukraine, where he has spent long stays since Putin launched his large-scale invasion in February 2022. He travels to the country both as a writer and as a reporter in war zones — “that’s what you never stop being, I will be until the end of my life.” days,” he says—to carry out a mobile library project for Ukrainian children. The idea, he explains, arose together with other renowned international writers, including Emmanuel Carrère, after a Russian bombing destroyed a century-old children’s library in Kherson.
—Let’s start there, then, with the situation in Ukraine. When we last talked about war, said that both Ukraine and the Russians could win. After the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, kyiv’s difficulties in obtaining new recruits, the decline of Western support… Is this still the case?
—It is more difficult now for Ukrainians. To begin with, I believe that many people in Europe and the United States are tired, fed up, with a war that has been going on for almost two years. There is fatigue in the European Union and especially in Washington. Because the Biden administration is a wounded government right now, for several reasons. There is an immediate problem of supplies to Ukraine, because there is no money. Right now the Germans are increasing deliveries but cannot replace Washington’s contributions. The situation is bad. Russia is bigger. More powerful. And, right now, everyone is focused on Gaza. In Washington, they talk about Gaza all the time. So it is very difficult to focus on Ukraine. That’s why Ukrainians feel a bit like they’ve been abandoned.
—What happens if Trump wins in the next presidential elections? In that case, could the US really cut off aid to Ukraine?
—Well, they wouldn’t do it like that. The result will be a very hard peace for Ukrainians. That is, on terms that are very favorable to the demands of the Russians.
—Let’s say the Americans could force Ukraine to negotiate a peace.
—Negotiate, but with Ukraine from a very weakened position. With Trump in the White House I don’t see how they will be able to continue to insist successfully. Europeans, especially Germans and Poles, are likely to do so. But in kyiv everyone is talking about this: they are terrified of the possibility of Trump winning. And it is obviously a possibility. Although what the Colorado Supreme Court ruled. Now they are going to take it to the Supreme Court, which is right-wing. It’s a setback for Trump, no doubt. But fatal?
—He spoke of a “wounded” Biden government. In what sense?
—There is, as you would say, a very deep fissure on several issues. About Palestine more, obviously. Young people who would normally vote for Biden are fiercely angry with the Democratic Party’s support for Israel. It is something that is also seen in other parts of the world. But in the US, in a certain sense, what is happening is chapter two of that almost insurrectional moment that we have seen after the murder of George Floyd, where there were neighborhoods occupied by protesters for weeks. Furthermore, the American electoral system is not a democratic system. It is a republican system, in the sense that there is no direct suffrage.
—The reason why the Democratic Party usually wins the popular vote and yet does not achieve the majority of the Electoral College.
-Yes, exactly. We have not had our (Hipólito) Yrigoyen. In the US campaign today there are 10 or 11 States that determine everything. Furthermore, voting is not mandatory. Therefore, everything depends on the mobilization of your base. And the Democratic base is weak, disenchanted, to describe it in one word. Many young Democrats are likely to stay home. In Washington, there are also all kinds of rumors about Biden’s health. I don’t think the administration has been a failure. But it doesn’t matter what I believe. There is a perception, no matter whether it is founded or not, that there is more crime, more immigration crisis, with hundreds, thousands of people waiting at the Mexican-American border. It’s not just Latinos, there are Africans, Chinese. Another issue is the price of aid to Ukraine and Israel. The Republicans are demanding that Biden toughen immigration policy and I think the president is going to have to give in on this point, because there are also states where the Democrats could win, like Arizona, where there is anti-immigrant sentiment.
So it’s a difficult time. More difficult than in France, Holland or Argentina? I don’t know. I have the impression that there is a general failure in all Western countries. That the structures have now changed. That classic matches don’t work anymore. The traditional parties do not know what they think, what they represent. They have an administration policy, they have no vision. Those of the classical left and right almost do not exist. And then there is a truly right-wing sector and a truly left-wing sector that is there to fill the scene.
—He talked about Argentina. Don’t you think that Peronism is also one of those classic parties that became a force that administers what exists, but without a transformative vision? And that is why leaders like that of Javier Milei later emerge?
—People are not idiots. They know perfectly well that when Massa spoke in Christian terms, it was a completely cynical gesture. She’s a PJ type, he’s not a Cristina type. Massa is closer to Menem. In this country, I imagine everyone knew it. And then you have the possibility to vote once again for a apparatchik of Peronism or a person, possibly a madman, but who offers you the possibility of something new, with all the possible dangers. Obviously it seems normal to me that they voted for him. With an unprecedented majority in this country since Perón’s second election. The problem with Milei for me is that she has no party. Lula has the same problem and she knows how to handle it. But Lula is a politician. Milei is a phenomenon.
—Milei has often been compared to leaders like Bolsonaro or Trump. Do you see similarities with these leaders or are we looking at something different?
—For me, a person like Milei is very interesting because he is not Trump or Bolsonaro. Trump is a neoliberal, but he doesn’t want to change things too much. Trump’s economic policy had already existed. Milei is a libertarian. An anarcho-capitalist. As a professional analyst it seems evident to me that both Peronism and the PRO are completely exhausted, at least at this moment. The forces not exhausted at this moment are Milei and Juan Grabois.
—Do you see Grabois as an emerging opponent for Milei?
—It is despite its nuanced links with Peronism. He seems to me to be a serious left-wing politician. In the sense of the left of my youth, a militant Catholic. I began my independent intellectual life, independent of my parents who had a very strong intellectual personality, in an Institution with radical Liberation priests. When I see Grabois it makes me think precisely of those movements from half a century ago. It doesn’t seem to me that his speech is a pretext for other things. One could say of Grabois or Milei: “They are crazy.” His policies will never work. But his speeches seem sincere to me. And sincerity in the politics of our time is priceless.
—He wrote a lot on the subject of memory. I think of your book The cult of memory: when history does more harm than good. Milei came to power 40 years after the return to democracy in Argentina, questioning consensuses that were thought to have been acquired, such as the figure of 30,000 disappeared from the last military dictatorship. What does that tell us?
—That everything in life, even the most tragic, will be forgotten. The people of my generation in this country, leftists, have been marked by the dictatorship, by the crimes of the dictatorship, they were formed by the struggle to establish and consolidate democracy. But we are old and there is a dictatorship of old people over the discourse of the left in this country, especially the cultural left. Why would a 20-year-old kid from Córdoba or La Matanza, who not only did not know the dictatorship, but not even her parents knew her, be interested in the past? Until what time are we going to have to honor this event, until what century?
—One would say that so that tragedies like that are not repeated.
—When one says “it wasn’t 30,000, it was 9,000,” we understand the message perfectly. The message is: the dictatorship was not that bad. You understand the message perfectly. He is a denier. The context of the current vice president’s speech [Victoria Villarruel], that there were two opposing sides, is, finally, the moderate justification of the dictatorship: “Well, there were crimes. But also if Montoneros had won.” That seems absurd to me.
That said, I begin my book on memory with the idea that everything will eventually be forgotten. Even the most horrible things. The Catholic faith has no expiration date because it is religion, it is metaphysics. But the events in the story do. And to say, as many people say, that democracy and memory are linked is absolutely unacceptable arrogance. That’s why it seems to me that [los izquierdistas] They have been surprised, not to say destroyed, by the fact that an imaginary kid from Córdoba or La Matanza did not vote for Massa because he did not know how to remember Martínez de Hoz correctly.
—You have been very critical of the movement woke up In U.S.A. He wrote: “It woke up It is not so much an ideology as a business model for a new culture, which is not only congruent with consumer capitalism, but is part of it.”
—Because it is almost tailor-made for the capitalism of our time. The idea of capitalism, of the current free market, is: I want to satisfy all tastes. This is what business schools in the United States call “segmentation.” The discourse of inclusivity is perfect for entrepreneurs because it is a way to have more consumers.
—He also observed something apparently paradoxical: that in the universities where the movement woke up is stronger, the most chosen majors are economics.
—Economics, master’s degrees in business administration and lawyers. But business lawyers. The woke up, or their equivalents in this country, imagine themselves as adversaries of capitalism but they are precisely the current version of capitalism. They are an almost ideal couple. That’s why I think woke up It has been so successful. Because what you see with Gaza is that when capitalism or power doesn’t like a student movement, the resistance is quite fierce. Firing university presidents…
—What do you think of everything that is happening in US universities, the pro-Palestine protests and the accusations of anti-Semitism on many campuses?
—The description of Israel as the last European colony in the world, for a university generation that has grown up thinking of colonialism as the worst of sins, has enormous power. There is also a bit of this idea that we must fight against supremacy and the Israelis are the targets. It’s a bit Frantz Fanon for idiots. It’s stupid. But in the imagination I also think this contributes to the current passion. We have to be honest. I would bet a thousand dollars against 100 Argentine pesos that the majority of young people who shout “From the sea to the river” do not know which river or sea they are talking about. But there is an intellectual, moral, and sentimental context that awakens enormous emotion for them.
—Isn’t there a component of anti-Semitism?
—There is a huge component of that, yes. Defenders of the protesters are absolutely right when they say that there is no necessary link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. But the reality is that in every demonstration there are groups that express anti-Semitic words and slogans. When they put Palestinian flags on a menorah on a campus, it is anti-Semitism. And obviously when they support Hamas… Hamas is not an anti-Zionist organization. It is an organization that has never distinguished between Jews and Israelis. The Hamas Constitution is anti-Semitic. So when they support Hamas, although I think the vast majority do so out of ignorance, they de facto support an anti-Semitic group. There is also a boycott of Israeli companies. There we also approach something unhealthy. I am of Jewish origin, although I have never been interested [la religión]. And I’m not a person who sees anti-Semites everywhere. But I was shocked by the level of anti-Semitism in the demonstrations.
Then, obviously, accusing many of the demonstrations and protesters against Israel of being anti-Semitic does not mean justifying the bombings of Gaza, which seem unjustifiable to me. Because either you believe in the laws of war or you don’t. Because you can’t say that those laws apply to your enemies, but not to yourself. It’s true, Hamas has used Gaza’s civilian population as hostages. I understand that the October 7 attack was a crime against humanity. But unfortunately it was a victory for Hamas. And I think that the Israeli campaign in a sense tries to erase this fact, that Hamas victory. They have lost something very important and they will not be able to change this. Even killing all the historical leaders of Hamas, something they will not be able to do either.
—Is there a double standard from the West when it comes to war crimes, as denounced especially by the left and various Arab governments and the global south?
—Yes, but I also think it’s an excuse. It’s true. But it is a more modest truth. The reason why Germans or Poles are more interested in Ukraine is that they are neighbors for geographical reasons. But there is enormous hypocrisy, for example, in terms of war crimes. Because a person of conscience cannot not report. You cannot say: “It is unbearable that the Russians destroyed Mariupol” and at the same time say “Gaza is very complicated.” That is pure and unjustifiable hypocrisy. I share. But the Latin American left is also completely hypocritical about human rights abuses in Venezuela or Cuba. They don’t say anything when they put Cuban dissidents in jail for demonstrating. The same with Maduro. The left that denounces the hypocrisy of the West has its own skeletons.
—You have been a strong critic of the United Nations, particularly after covering the Bosnian war. A couple of weeks ago, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, invoked a rarely used article of the founding Charter, 99, to force a humanitarian ceasefire, which according to the dramatic terms of his message was the last resort before the definitive collapse of the Strip. Are we in Gaza facing a new failure of the United Nations?
—I think there is an incompatibility between an organization of nations and an organization that has a different moral authority. And we have never solved this problem. After all, what can the UN do? Guterres can invoke what he wants but… all those ideas that could have made the UN what its founders imagined in San Francisco in 1946 have been betrayed, defeated or have simply never worked. The UN has no army, no police, it depends on powerful members. When there is disagreement among powerful members, what can the UN do? You can complain. I am not against Guterres, he inherited the system and cannot change it. In terms of international conflicts, the UN can serve when there is an opportunity for peace, a truce. In context, to maintain and establish the truce, but when there is war… what can you do? If one can speak of the fault of the UN, it is that, by its very existence, it offers false hope, trout, to suffering peoples. In the 1990s, I thought, correctly or not, that it was important to denounce the UN as an institution. Now, it’s not worth it anymore.