Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Argentina

The Neuroscientist Offering a Fresh Diagnosis for Argentina

In tough times, Facundo Manes is signaling a bigger role for himself in Argentine society and politics.
Facundo Manes in an interview in JanuaryFundación Telefónica

In neurology, anosognosia refers to a patient’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge their condition. It’s the term Dr. Facundo Manes uses to explain Argentina’s recurring cycle of recession, debt and inflation.

“We don’t recognize our problems,” Manes told AQ, saying the country is like a patient who has “never followed the right treatment.”

Such crisp diagnoses have made Manes, a best-selling author and neuroscientist specializing in how people make decisions, something of a breakthrough personality in today’s troubled Argentina. Whether opining on artificial intelligence to his more than a million social media followers, or discussing the pratfalls of political tribalism in newspaper and TV interviews, he has become a constant, often comforting presence during a year that included one of Latin America’s most stringent COVID-related lockdowns – and one of its deepest recessions.

Now, calling the pandemic “a window of opportunity to think of a new country in a new world,” Manes, 52, increasingly appears to be testing the waters for an even bigger role – possibly as a candidate in this year’s congressional election or in Argentina’s 2023 presidential race.

“I feel capable of working toward a national project that we need,” Manes told AQ. In an interview, he neither confirmed nor denied having political aspirations, saying: “I’m very happy being a doctor, I’m very happy being a scientist, but I’m in the fight for the transformation of Argentina.”

Manes, who founded a leading neurological research institute and treatment center, may see an opening in a country exhausted by nearly 15 years of la grieta, the term for the bitter divide between Argentina’s dominant political movements led by former Presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Mauricio Macri. Manes says the division is “killing” Argentines, at a time when current President Alberto Fernández, who some saw as more moderate than Kirchner, appears to be yielding more often to her influence and struggling to maintain civil ties with the opposition.

In this context, some see Manes as a non-Peronist who might appeal to some Kirchner fans – after all, he led the team that operated on the then-president when she had a blood clot in 2013. And in a country with the world’s highest number of psychologists per capita, it makes sense that Manes’ cerebral message – that “Argentina’s problem isn’t economic,” but instead stems from the mindset of a country “obsessed with the past” and blinded by its biases – has captured the imaginations of many.

“He’s not a Peronist, but he’s not anti-Peronist,” said Andres Malamud, a political scientist at the University of Lisbon and an informal advisor to Manes. “There are many Peronists that see him sympathetically – at least for now, while he’s not a candidate.”

Last year, in a move common for Argentines with presidential ambitions, Manes started a new think tank. Manes’ group, ConArgentina, consists of over forty thought leaders – mostly men – including former government officials, scholars, doctors, executives and entrepreneurs. The project ostensibly exists to articulate a broad alternative to kirchnerismo and macrismo in time for 2023.

A majority of Argentines don’t fall into either camp, according to the pollster Alejandro Catterberg. But efforts to unite the middle have failed in the past – most recently the campaign of former Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna, who garnered just 6% of the vote in 2019. Manes would also likely have to defeat several formidable opponents, including popular Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, in a primary to lead the opposition coalition in 2023.

“Sinking Titanic”

A big question around a potential Manes candidacy would be whether his discourse can move from what verges at times on that of a self-help guru to that of a policy expert who has the tools to transform an economy in which 42% of the population lives in poverty, according to new data from the second half of 2020.

Manes “knows what he doesn’t know,” said Malamud, and the neuroscientist, for his part, does not claim to be an economics expert. Manes points instead to the economists he talks to regularly, including ConArgentina members Eduardo Levy Yeyati, Marina Dal Poggetto and Martín Rapetti.

“I think Manes is convinced that the only way to move forward in Argentina is by sharing the ownership of reforms, even if we may not at this early stage have the exact form of the reforms,” Levy Yeyati, an economist and the dean of the school of government at Torcuato Di Tella University, told AQ.

Still, Manes, who points to Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso as an international role model – for showing a leader can be “both an intellectual and a man of action” – is pretty clear about a few things. Among them, that Argentina relies too heavily on natural resources and needs to invest more in research and development. Argentina only invested 0.5% of its GDP in R&D in 2018 – just below the Latin American average of 0.6%, according to UNESCO.

Before his education at the University of Buenos Aires and the University of Cambridge and a career in hospitals in the U.S., Manes grew up in the small town of Arroyo Dulce in Buenos Aires province believing, he says, two lies.

“The first lie was that we were a country rich in natural resources. That’s not true today,” Manes said. “And while we have some, we have to add value.”

The second lie he believed was that Argentina was on the road to developed country status.

“To develop, Argentina must invest a lot more in human capital, science and technology.”

According to Manes, this will require distinct elements of Argentina’s economy to work in concert, not against each other.

“I see Argentina as a sinking Titanic. Every family is trying to save itself,” Manes said. “Today in Argentina I see some sectors making plans for their own sector, but we’ve lost the sense of common wellbeing.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brendan O'Boyle is a senior editor at Americas Quarterly, where he writes about Latin American politics, produces the Americas Quarterly Podcast, and manages the publication’s social media presence. Brendan has been featured as an expert on Latin American issues in various outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Tags: Argentina, Argentina elections, Facundo Manes
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