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Buenos Aires And the Crazy Politics of Argentina

The Sexy Couple in LaBoca

We took the overnight bus/cama or sleeping bus (I wish) to the Big Apple of Argentina,and then stayed for a couple of nights in a bad hotel room. After two days of running around like crazy, we rented a small apartment in a nice section of town, Palermo, and set up home here for the next few weeks, until our return.


Our Corner

Our Street

There are a number of on-line sites if you want to rent in BA, but it is not easy to tell what the place is really like, and how quiet it is, unless you see it in person. For that reason we waited until we got here. It is apparently unusual to to shop around in person for a short term rental, but we persevered and they accommodated us. The rental agent did not have the authority to do the paperwork, and so we had to meet with an elderly Jewish couple who were renting the place for their daughter. They had us sign off on an itemized list of every piece of furniture, including the number of forks, spoons, glasses and cooking utensils, just to make sure they we didn't break or run off with anything. A bit on the paranoid side.

Buenos Aires is a big, busy city, a bit like New York, but without the same ethnic diversity. Up to 1/3rd of the entire population of 40 million, lives in the greater district. The comparison between NYC and BA works on another level as well, in that some of people from Buenos tend to be more cosmopolitan and better educated, and hence, like New Yorkers, look down at the rest of the country and see other people as hicks. There's that famous New Yorker cartoon with Manhattan and then California, with little in between. While I am originally from The City, I'm a confirmed up stater now after almost 35 years, and I must say it does get tiring to hear how terrible Albany is, when all everyone from downstate knows about is the train or bus station.

Within a few days of our arrival, Nanette has already visited the local Zara and bought some new clothes for the first time in eight months. I have developed a fondness for the blue shirt I have worn for the entire trip, and have no interest in changing it now. We have settled into a very nice, relaxing, pattern. Each day we choose a different part of town to explore, which is easy to do on the subte, (or subway), located just two blocks away.


Shots of Downtown

On Sunday we went to the antiques market in San Telmo, and began our search for leather jackets which are relatively cheap here, what with all the beef they eat.


Tango on the Streets

Yesterday we spent in typical Buenos fashion. We lazed around until 3PM, and then went to the Belles Artes Museum for a couple of hours in the afternoon. We went back later in the evening for a piano for four hands concert. The thing we didn't do, which is also typical, is stay up most of the night.

There are foreign restaurants of course, but for the most part parrilla, the barbecued meat that is served all over the country, is also very prominent here. We are enjoying cooking in our own kitchen again, and have discovered a shop around the corner which sells homemade pasta, uncooked, along with pesto and red sauce. All we have to do is boil for about two minutes and we have a delicious dinner. We have found many fresh vegetables and can, at long last, make a really good salad, something that for inexplicable reasons doesn't tend to be served in restaurants.

We also had a grand tour of the city with a woman we first met in Huaraz, Peru. Celeste, who is a personal trainer, told us to be sure to look her up when we got here. She and her younger boyfriend Mariano, a lawyer, drove up from LaPlata, two hours south, to take us around in their car and point out the highlights. Among other places we visited Casa Rosada, The Pink House, akin to our White House, and we saw the parliament buildings as well, where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still march to protest the desaparacidos.


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This seems like a good place to insert a short discussion about Argentine politics. I want to preface this by saying that Argentinians are some of the warmest and most hospitable people we met. They love to talk to foreigners, and are very open about sharing their emotions, probably because so many have an Italian background. We loved them, but, to put it mildly, Argentina is a crazy place.

As Feitlowitz indicates in A Lexicon of Terror, it has a history of self-destruction. Many authors describe the country as enigmatic, paradoxical, etc., because since 1930 it has lurched from one economic and political crisis to another. From 1930 there have been at least 9 military coups, several rigged elections, and other presidents have been openly appointed by the army. And yet, the population is the most educated in South America with the highest literacy rate. The country is rich in natural resources, and in the 1920's and later, it was the 8th largest economy in the world. Buenos Aires was often considered the Paris of South America.

So why should they have so many problems? There has been no lack of speculation. Feitlowitz says that the basic structures of Argentina have remained feudal. The strongest elites have continued to be the landowning oligarchy, the Catholic Church, and the military.

Jonathan Brown says in A Short History of Argentina, that there has been a problem with social discrimination since the indigenous culture was destroyed in 1879. Hard manual labor and poverty were always equated with dark skin, and whites lost status if they worked with their hands. The oligarchy favored immigrant gringos over creole workers, and the upwardly mobile immigrants, most of whom settled in Buenos Aires, were quick to adopt the same attitudes toward race and color. Resentment simmered in the working class and, as Brown puts it, every landowner, employer, shopkeeper, and patrona monitored the behavior of their poorly paid employees because they feared a revolt. Authoritarianism which began with the elites, was later embraced by the middle-class and by the army, a largely middle-class institution.

Colin MacLachlan points out in his book, Argentina: What Went Wrong, that by 1880, the oligarchy had created a democratic illusion which continued well into the concordancia and the decada infama (1930-43). During this period which started with the overthrow of Yrigoyen by General Uriburu, three major political parties got together to create a government which controlled the political process for the benefit of the wealthy. Fraud and corruption were rampant. In 1943 there was another army coup in which Juan Peron participated. Three years later he won a reasonably democratic election by margin that only increased as time went on.

If anyone is representative of the conflicted Argentine society it is Peron. On the one hand he advocated for the lower class, the shirtless ones, by promoting social justice. He nationalized certain industries, increased basic wages, and improved working conditions for the poor. For that reason he became the darling of the workers. At the same time he was an admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, and sheltered many Nazis. After the election, he further consolidated his power by ousting anyone, including union leaders and other politicians, who dared to disagree with him. Although he was initially successful economically, things later spun out of control. He was despised by the elite, and to some extent by the upper-middle class intelligentsia, who saw him as a populist demagogue. His wife Evita was also beloved by the poor, almost to the point of sainthood. She gave away millions, advocated universal suffrage, and behaved in an autocratic fashion that brooked no dissent. Despite being a voice for the common people, she reveled in a trip to Franco's Spain, where she was treated like royalty. Other Argentinians considered her a lower-class whore. She died young of cancer, and is still idolized by much of the country.

In 1955, after he antagonized the Catholic Church, originally an ally, the army once again moved in and threw Peron out of office, It also outlawed the Peronist party, fearing it had tilted too far to the left. Peron was exiled to Spain, not to return for 18 years. During this time the army largely ran the country through a series of puppet presidents. The economy was stagnant, or worse, and the workers and labor unions, angry that their party was illegal, protested the rolling back of previous economic benefits through a series of riots and strikes. As in other parts of the world, the 60's were a time of of protest and social upheaval. A small radical left wing group, the Montoneros, and a few others, staged some high profile assassinations and kidnappings. As the 70's began, the number of armed attacks increased in number, as did the retaliations by right wing paramilitary groups. The army became concerned that the country was sliding into chaos, and legalized the Peronista Party once again, hoping this would provide an outlet. The Peronists swept the elections of 1973, but Peron himself was forbidden to run for president. He came back into the country shortly thereafter in what was supposed to be a triumphal return, but instead his right wing supporters opened fire and massacred his left wing supporters. He then denounced the left, after he had spent years encouraging them abroad. Another election was held shortly thereafter, which he won with 61% of the vote. About a year later with the economy still in trouble,, he died of a heart attack, and his third wife took over.

Isabelita, as she was called, unleashed the Triple A goon squad to try and finish off the Montoneros, and was generally seen as a completely incompetent and inept president. The army again intervened in 1976, with the vast support of the middle and upper classes. Even such liberal papers as La Opinion supported what was initially called, The Gentlemen's Coup. Ironically the editor of the paper, Jacobo Timerman, a Jew, initially wrote in support of the generals. Barely a year later, they imprisoned and tortured him for two years. He wrote about his experience in Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.

General Videla took charge along with other members of the armed forces, and implemented El Proceso. It later became known as The Dirty War, in which upwards of 30,000 people, depending on whose figures you use, were tortured and disappeared. Many of these people had nothing to do with radical left wing politics, but no matter. The generals used the excuse of national security, (sound familiar) and fighting communism, to wipe out students and professors, social workers and psychologists, labor union organizers, and virtually anyone who might be friends with them. Jews were overly represented in the disappeared. Most of the country looked the other way. They wanted a return to STABILITY and ORDER. I won't say law and order because that was clearly not the case.

The US congress gave money to the generals " to fight communism," and some members of the Argentine military were trained in torture in the SOA, School of the Americas in Fort Benning Georgia, as were other prominent Latin American dictators. They were also initially advised by the French military, according to Feitlowitz. Although Jimmy Carter, the US president in the late 70's, cut off financial aide, it was quickly re instituted by Reagan, who openly supported the regime in 1980.

Finally, in 1983 after the disastrous Falklands War with Britain, the military was disgraced, and allowed general elections to be held. Alfonsin was elected, and although there were a few prominent trials, he was afraid to prosecute too many from the unrepentant and still powerful military. Menem, supposedly a Peronist, though he instituted a neo-liberal economic policy supported by the IMF, later pardoned all of them. He linked the Argentine peso to the US dollar and initially brought the rampant hyperinflation under control. After being re elected he declined to run again, perhaps knowing what was come, leaving the way clear for Kirschner to become president. In 2001 the country defaulted on its IMF loans, the currency was devalued, and as much as 50% of the population was thrust into poverty. Menem eventually fled to Chile to avoid being convicted of fraud and embezzlement.

Economically things have improved somewhat under Kirchners 1, and now 2, Christina. However Transparency International ranks Argentina 109 out of 180 countries on its corruption index. This is worse than its score of 92 in 2003, when it ranked the same as Ethiopia, Pakistan and Zambia. As Maclachlan points out (Argentina:What Went Wrong, page 198) "even those that do not engage in corruption are assumed to do so. Laws are perceived to be obstacles that can be suspended by the powerful when approached properly... Individuals feel that they are victimized by those with better contacts or manipulative skills and thus feel exploited by their fellows."

This certainly fits with what I heard from Samantha, our Spanish teacher in Bariloche. It was no surprise to her that the judge released a thief because they knew each other from high school. She would have been surprised if he hadn't done that.

On a lighter note, Paul Samuelson, the economist, has been quoted as saying that there are four economic systems, capitalism, communism, Japan without resources but everything works, and Argentina with resources but nothing works.

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We continued our tour with Celeste and Mariano to LaBoca, the working class and somewhat seedy, port section of town. It proved to be a very interesting place, full of street art.




We later made dinner at our apartment for our tour guides.


You guessed it, pasta. They brought us a huge bag of Dulce de Leche, a popular candy in Argentina, but a bit too sweet for us. We got to practice our Spanish all day long. Celeste made us promise to call her when we got back from Iguazu Cataratas, so that we could visit her and her family and have parilla with them. We did call, but couldn't arrange a time to get down there. Almost everyone we met has been like this. They all want to hear that you love them and their country, but I guess most Norteamericanos want to hear the same things.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:11 Archived in Argentina Tagged living_abroad

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Great post! It is nice to see all the pictures. They create a great image of what the city is like.

If you don't mind, how much was that flat you rented?


by John Bardos -JetSetCitizen


Another good essay! I especially like the political discussion. I'm learning all about this in Leiva's class. It's neoliberalism vs socialism. The story is the same, but substantially different in Bolivia and Venezuela and Chile. Maybe we'll talk again when you get back.

by Dave McMullan

The article is good but the spelling is not so good. Sorry, but let me say this. I wish you guys had checked this before posting. When you wrote "desaparacedos", it should read "desaparecidos" and it's not "parilla" but "parrilla", with double R. I understand the first word can be difficult but the word parrilla is written all over Buenos Aires...! :)

by sabrina

Love your post .. keep up the good work :)

by ralph

Excellent...what a trip...enjoyed reading about it's snowing here right now 6 "....went to Plattekill yesterday and it was real good. I'll have to make a run for you this weekend....have a great current trip....

by mike babala

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