Buenos Aires, Argentina (text)
Oct 4, 2003
|8 SEPT -- 22 SEPT
After only a short time in Buenos Aires, Helen and I noticed a unique "sense-of-self" among Porteños ("port dwellers" - what residents of the city call themselves) distinct from Cariocas (Rio), Limeños (Lima) or Ticos (Costa Rica). Guidebooks describe Buenos Aires as the Paris of Latin America and I think Porteños perceive themselves as societal kin to Parisians, Londoners or Romans - really any major cosmopolitan city. Certainly we did not feel as if we were in a Latin American city during our two-week stay. Porteños look like Europeans - Italians and Spaniards - and we saw few persons who looked of mixed or indigenous descent.
Buenos Aires is a European city. Strolling along Avenida de Mayo could almost be a stroll along Paris's Champs Elysees; resting under the shade of an ancient tree in the Plaza de Mayo could be a rest on a bench in Rome's Piazza Navona. Buenos Aires is conspicuous among the Latin American cities we've visited because it feels like a city out of time and place - too old at heart and too European in flavor to be a New World city.
Helen and I also noticed a subtle pall over the city. Porteños are proud, almost arrogant. But their personal and collective dignity has suffered many wounds: the terrible legacy of "the Dirty War" that cost Argentina some 30,000 of its sons and daughters and the economic meltdown that impoverished millions of Argentines.
Everywhere, we found this wounded sense of self and country. We felt it as we moved through a city that was once the most expensive place to visit in Latin America but that now craves the hard currency of international tourists. Or in the subtle resentment from waiters at expensive restaurants who perhaps chaffed at serving backpackers when once they served only the wealthiest Porteños. We heard it in conversations with formerly upper middle-class professionals - doctors, lawyers, and teachers - who now must work several jobs to survive. Or in the melancholy voices of older Porteños as they softly whispered the words to old tango songs, as if remembering a better time long past. We saw it in the once grand cafes that desperately need renovation but lack capital and clientele to fund repairs. Or in the ubiquitous Se Vende (For Sale) signs that decorated what seemed like every grand building around the city.
Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
Every Thursday afternoon in Buenos Aires, a procession of old women march slowly and silently around the monument at the center of the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the Casa Rosada. These women are the mothers and grandmothers of the thousands who disappeared without a trace during "the Dirty War," the legacy of the six year dictatorship from 1977 - 1983. The quiet procession reflects the silence these women receive from the Argentine government in response to their pleas for the truth and justice for what everyone knows was the state-sponsored murder of their children.
These old women are a stark reminder to all Porteños of the government's excesses in its campaign against leftist opponents during the Dirty War. The Madres have marched like this for years. We saw old photographs of them, taken when their hair was dark, not gray, and their posture erect and hopeful, not stooped and forlorn as it is today. The mothers all wear white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their loved ones. Many carry fading pictures of their children.
Despite what must be their enduring anguish, these women enjoy a warm solidarity among themselves. Twice we visited the Plaza de Mayo to watch them march and both times, the horror we felt for these women was leavened by the friendship they so clearly feel for one another.
The unresolved legacy of the Dirty War further bruises this nation's fragile, wounded pride. A sophisticated, self-styled European nation reduced to domestic brutality and terror by a military regime akin to third-world despots like Pol Pot and Idi Amin. Argentina has taken tentative steps to confront the truth of this period. Two weeks before our arrival in Buenos Aires, the Argentine Congress rescinded the blanket amnesty enjoyed by those associated with the dictatorship and the inquisitorial-style judiciary has moved swiftly to arrest prominent figures suspected of terrible human right's violations, including kidnapping, torture, rape, murder and infanticide.
The Hand of God
As in Rio, I was determined to see the art of Argentine futbol in practice. Buenos Aires offers a magnificent venue in the Porteño neighborhood of La Boca, home of Argentina's most storied club, the Boca Juniors. We set out early one crisp morning and made our way across town to purchase tickets, travelling first by subway, then by bus and finally on foot. But when we reached the stadium, we were turned away - no futbol for two weeks despite two games on the schedule during our stay!
Why? Soccer hooligans - a worldwide phenomenon that mars the beautiful game. At a match the week before, fights between fans of the Boca Juniors and its opponent resulted in serious injuries and mass arrests. An Argentine magistrate, in an effort to force soccer authorities to address the problem of fan violence, ordered the Porteño constabulary not to police the next two Boca Junior matches, in essence forcing the Argentine soccer federation to cancel the games.
It's no exaggeration to say that I was crushed. In a way, the South American leg of our trip was for me a exploration of and immersion in the beautiful game. I was bitterly disappointed that I would not see the team for whom famous Argentines such as Antonio Rattín, Diego Maradona, and Gabriel Batistuta had played.
But we did experience one aspect of Argentine soccer: the cult of personality. As Pele is to Sao Paulo, Brazil, Diego Maradona is to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Everywhere in Boca, Maradona's likeness is on display. I could not keep count of the many children and adults, men and women alike, I saw draped in the blue and gold jersey of Boca, emblazoned with Maradona's number 11. In a way he is as important to Porteños as is Argentina's liberator, General San Martin.
Maradona is perhaps most famous for a goal he scored as part of the national team in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals. The match pitted England against Argentina, the first time the two national teams had met on the pitch since the Falkland Islands War. Five minutes into the scoreless second half, Maradona attempted to play the ball into the penalty area, but an English midfielder beat him to the ball and looped it back toward the goalkeeper. In a flash, Maradona caught up to the pass, arriving at the ball just as the goalie did. Maradona leaped and appeared to knock the ball into the net with the back of his left hand rather than with his head. Television replays confirmed it. Despite howls of protest from the British, the referee let it stand. Maradona would never say his hand had touched the ball. "The hand of God" sent it into the net, he said. Argentina would win that world cup with God on its side!
¿Patria o FMI?
"Welcome to Argentina. Please Spend a lot of Money."
-- Tour guide at the Casa Rosada
Something unprecedented happened during our visit to Buenos Aires: Argentine President Nestor Kirchener stared down the first world and the first world blinked. Kirchener , a center-left president in office for barely three months, refused to make a scheduled $3 billion payment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF, or FMI in Español) until the IMF agreed to rollover $12.5 billion in debt with few strings attached. The IMF initially demanded that Argentina achieve a 2004 budget surplus greater than what was finally agreed to (the surplus determines how much money Argentina will use to pay back its creditors), increase frozen utility rates and compensate foreign banks that lost billions when Argentina devalued its currency in 2001. Kirchener, holding no face cards, refused all of these demands and, in essence, told the United States, the European Union, and Japan, the IMF's principal patrons, to go to hell.
Kirchener's gambit was first and foremost a political act. He chose country over IMF after a decade of Argentine presidents choosing IMF over country. Argentina once boasted the largest middle-class in Latin America. During the 1990s, Argentina was an international financier's fantasyland. Spurred by former-President Carlos Menem's economic reforms, reforms consistent with IMF and World Bank dogma (reduced barriers to trade and investment, liberalized financial markets, deregulation, privatization of state-run services, and currency convertibility - tying the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar), foreign capital flooded Argentina's economy.
But Wonderland collapsed spectacularly in late 2001 and early 2002, when the government defaulted on most of its $141 billion debt and devalued the nation's currency. A wrenching recession left well over a fifth of the labor force jobless and threw millions into poverty. Argentina still struggles to right itself.
Argentina's collapse was paradoxically the result of neo-liberal economics taken to its logical extreme (irrational exuberance and Wall Street chicanery, the type that pushed Enron and WorldCom stock to grossly-inflated levels, played a part, too). Argentine policy makers essentially ceded discretionary authority over their economy to financial markets.
Now, more than half the nation lives in poverty and Kirchener decided his first priority was to satisfy the needs of his people and not the needs of international governments and financiers. So Kirchener bluffed - if the IMF failed to reach agreement with Argentina (thus allowing international capital to return to Argentina and Argentina to begin negotiationg payments to private creditors holding $90 billion in Argentine debt), Argentina's economy would absolutely crumble. But the shock waves of such a collapse would also stagger already shaky first-world economies. So the first world told the IMF to make a deal. Score one for Argentina, whose people sorely needed a prop to its bruised ego.
Mall as Metaphor
Along a busy pedestrian walkway in downtown Buenos Aires is the Galerias Pacifico, an upscale shopping mall housed in an elegant, turn-of-the-century stone edifice. Relative to malls in America, Galerias Pacifico is modest, with three compact floors of small shops selling expensive European and American finery (Christian Dior, Cacharel, Chanel, Gucci, Burberry, etc.); the bottom level is, of course, a food court. This hardly seems like a place remarkable enough to encapsulate an entire country and its people. But within those walls is Argentina in a nutshell: its cosmopolitan sense of self; its bruised ego; its outrage; and its passion.
Mingled amongst the expensive shops was a large painting on display called "Con Los Pies en La Tierra." The canvas reveals a bound, nude woman in obvious pain and distress. Ogre-like feet painted crimson rest like a jackboot on her shoulders. The artist lost his daughter in the Dirty War. I can't think of a mall in America that would display such a graphic representation of an equivalently awful period in our history.
A central dome divided into five sections dominates the mall. In 1945, five different muralists painted the dome; each facet is unified in flow and color and the different subjects form a cohesive theme. One in particular astounded me. Called "Fraternity," the mural depicted men of different races clasping hands in fellowship. More striking was the depiction of a nude black man and a nude white woman embracing. Again, this was painted in 1945!
Above the retail levels of the malls is a cultural center. One exhibit displayed the work of the contemporary Argentine artist, Cesar Lopez Claro. His large canvasses obsessively rehash the 2001-02 economic collapse, in particular the riots that ended in 25 deaths. In bold, bright colors, Lopez depicted the clash between soldiers and protesters and the Congress building which was briefly set ablaze. And in more muted tones, and by using everyday trash as an additional medium, Lopez painted destitute Argentines in solitary and lonely settings and with a profound expression of hopelessness. Again, this social commentary was displayed in a mall where only the rich could shop.
As in every American mall, the downstairs level was a food court. But shoppers at the Galerias Pacifico do not dine at McDonalds or Chick Filet or Subway. Their fast food is just as affordable but so much more palatable (except to a vegetarian): thick steaks slathered in chimichurri, a marinade of olive oil, garlic and parsley washed down with a smoky Malbec, for example. For lighter fare, shoppers dine on cured ham and flaky biscuits. Or they satisfy a sweet tooth with an Italian-style helado, perhaps Dulce de Leche, a flavor Americans desperately need to discover. Again, this is a food court in a mall . . . a mall!
In a corner of the food court, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, Porteños of all ages, shapes and classes gather for an Argentine passion: the tango. The tango is a sensual and erotic dance, but in no way is it crude. Performed by professionals, the dance is an astonishing display of precision and dexterity. Professionals on Broadway performing Fosse got nothing on these dancers!
At first, we attended the shows for the professional performances. But after our first Friday visit, we returned again and again as much to watch Porteños dance in an impromptu milonga (tango dance hall) while the professional dancers changed costumes.
An interesting aspect of Porteño culture is wrapped in the tango. While couples that arrived together would always dance together, most of the regulars (many of the attendees, as we discovered) were not part of a couple. Women, generally older women, would arrive early to stake out seats around the dance floor. And a cadre of well-dressed generally older men would stalk the perimeter searching for partners with whom to dance. This "amateur" version of the tango was slower, less precise but more sensual and in a way melancholy.
Again, this expression of community and culture found its outlet in a mall!