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March 12, 2009

Don't Cry for Me . . . Maybe This Time . . . for the Other America: Lincoln Allison on Argentina

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison ponders on why Argentina always appears to be on the brink of success.

In 1914 Jose Luis Borges, aged 14 and later to be acknowledged as Argentina's most original writer, set off with his family on a rather badly timed visit to Europe. He later recalled that he acquired from his parents a sort of affectionate contempt for Europe - and especially for Spain - because it seemed in every way to be poorer and more backward than Argentina.

Ninety four years later, at the 2008 Argentina Open Polo Championships, which I attended, the La Dolfina player Adolfo Cambiaso was interviewed. The interviewer remarked that after 16 years of success at the game, having played on behalf of some very rich men and being now regarded by many as probably the greatest player on the planet, Cambioso must now be financially secure. He replied curtly, "I can never be financially secure - I'm an Argentinian".

Which two stories put together is another way of telling the tale of Argentina that nearly everybody tells. A century ago it was said to be the fourth richest country on earth and much of the smart money said it was going to be the richest. Italians with ambition stumped up the 100 lire to get on the boat to Buenos Aires rather than the 70 you needed for New York so that Argentina was populated (in the view of the immigrants themselves) by civilised Genoans and Piedmontese rather than the backward and unruly Sicilians and Calabrians who fetched up on Ellis Island. Their letters suggest that they thought of both places as alternative versions of "America" with the southern one outgrowing the northern demographically and economically.

Arguably, this other American dream began to go wrong in 1914; it certainly took hard blows after the 1929 depression. Perhaps it was even tenable in the early years of the Perons, after 1945 when the country exploited its war credits and commodity richness to grow rapidly and to (over) develop its social services and workers' rights.

But in the end nobody can deny that Argentina had a very bad twentieth century despite its abstention from major wars. It entered into a cycle of depressions, dictatorships, democratic collapses and vicious repressions; there were bouts of protectionism which built up domestic industry and then openings up to imports which knocked it down again. Successive governments have been hailed as the final saviours of the nation, only to be regarded as corrupt idiots within months. The current president, Senora Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner won a landslide in 2007, but was dipping towards a 25% approval rating by the time I arrived a year later. Argentina doesn't make it into the top 30 countries on the standard GDP/capita figure these days.

All of this is visible in the vast tattiness of Buenos Aires. Dotted around the city, like flowers in a bed overgrown by weeds, are the buildings created in Argentina's "Golden Age" in which it became "the Paris of the South": the mighty Congreso building, the equally vast Teatro Colon, once regarded as the greatest opera house on earth, but now closed for nearly a decade, elegant department stores which were once state-of-the-art, graceful balconied apartment blocks in the Hausmann style.

But they are overwhelmed by twentieth century modernism at its worst. Whereas, on a recent visit to Chicago I thought I saw modern architecture as it was supposed to be, in Buenos Aires I was reminded of why many of us came to loath it: thousand of buildings which are "high rise", but not high enough to impress: mediocre, scruffy and repetitive.

But not everybody knows the orthodox story. We are sitting at a restaurant table on the pavement in the city of Mendoza: there are a party of ruddy and bearded climbers to our left - French, British, Americans and local guides. Hardly surprising since the not-distant Andes are clearly visible from the park at the top of the street. At the table to our right they are also talking in English, this time about the wine trade since in the other direction are the irrigated vineyards of Argentina's principal wine region. And the Essex chap casually remarks to the local girl, "Of course, Argentina is so much more prosperous than the UK".

Out of the mouths of chaps who haven't done their homework comes forth a kind of wisdom. This has been a public holiday and we walked through the park watching people barbecuing and playing football in the sunshine. The steaks in the restaurant are the legendary plump and tender Argentinian steaks: mejor del mundo as I often remark, conventionally but truthfully. The Malbec red is cheap and smooth.

It is the end of the academic year at Mendoza University and floats of dressed-up celebrating students circulate the city, cheering and waving. They scrub up rather well, these young Argies; in fact, the country has the highest proportion of ridiculously good-looking people I have ever seen. So it is not difficult to see the place through the eyes of an Essex chap who does not know that the UK is supposed to be three or four times richer than Argentina per capita.

But he would only have to make a short journey to the outskirts of this elegant provincial capital to be given a much poorer vision of the country with unsurfaced roads and poky, improvised housing. Above all, perhaps, the class-war graffiti and the ubiquitous bars on windows, evidencing the transcendent fear of crime and instability which itself raises the facts of 40% unemployed or underemployed (most of them littering the streets with leaflets for shops and restaurants so far as I could see).

Or he could be taken a short distance in time, back to 2002 and the last great Argiewobble with its normal ceremonies of riots, looting, pot-banging demonstrations, collapsed currency, wiped-out savings etc. An obviously reflection for me, 62 years old with an index-linked pension and a couple of quid saved, is that I keep meeting workers older than myself: waiters, taxi-drivers, bus drivers and so on.

The extreme combination of first and third world conditions is reminiscent of South Africa. To report as I found: the two internal flights we went on were more or less perfect: clean, punctual and good service. Similarly, our one long bus journey, with CATA across the country east to west across the pampa, was the most efficient and luxurious bus I've ever been on, perhaps not surprisingly as some 186 bus companies operate competitively out of Retiro bus station in Buenos Aires.

But the hotel infrastructure is well below Asian or North American standards. Up in the high Andes in Uspallata (pronounced in several different ways, but normally Ushpierahta) we stayed in the Gran Hotel built by Juan Peron for his army and union supporters. It was old-fashioned in the best and worst ways: big rooms, lovely balconies, excellent sports facilities, but meal times were fixed for one hour - dinner at 9pm - and there was no heating or air conditioning, no telephones or computers and if a tourist from the USA had arrived (there were none) they might have concluded that they had come by time machine. Tour guides were uniformly excellent and tour arrangements highly efficient.

However, a broader perspective suggests that the country is massively under-used touristically. Given the possibility of beach, jungle and mountain holidays (including skiing) as well as the extraordinary spectacles of Argentinan sport and nightlife, everybody should want to go there. But getting there seems to be sewn up in some sort of corporatist way between the Argentinan government and the appalling Iberia airline. It doesn't suggest optimism that Senora Kirchner is "repatriating" (i.e. nationalising) the national airline back from Iberia. In the context of the history of the country it might look a rather sinister move, but in the context of what is going on in the rest of the planet at the moment it seems unremarkable.

So what went wrong? It is so complex a question of political economy that any attempt to answer it just looks like a restatement of the problem. The broad fact is that Argentina failed to produce new sources of wealth so that they were left squabbling increasingly bitterly over the old ones. That's the difference between Argentina and the USA - or Japan for that matter - or even New Zealand over the last quarter century. It is like the "British disease" as it was pre-Thatcher; governments dividing and regulating a "cake" which wasn't getting any bigger, partly because of the debilitating politics of division and regulation. Britain ultimately proved to be governable, but in case you forget how bad it was I actually heard members of the British political elite predicting coups and civil wars in the 1960s and 1970s, late at night with a glass in their hand.

Ultimately the Argentinian version of the disease has proved to be more acute, more chronic and more complicated. Argentina has not yet proved governable and its violent upsurges have continued. After a good nineties there was a uniquely bad start to this century, but then 40% growth in five years.

The remaining symptoms of the disease seem curiously old-fashioned to a European: a protected currency and therefore a bi-metallic system, foreign currency shops and so on; a huge black economy; an inefficient and unfair taxation system; daft regulation and form-filling everywhere. It takes at least half an hour and usually two hours to cross any of Argentina's borders, even into countries which are fellow members of Mercosur, the incipient South American common market.

The textbook free marketer in me wants them to throw all this away and say "Go for it! It's the only way you'll break the cycle". But the fear must be that so many fluctuations in policy and fortunes have created a situation in which the necessary economic solutions for the long term would cause violence and revolution in the short term. The real difference between the American dream in north and south is that the former is backed by a state and constitution in which nearly everybody believes while the latter has only a pervasive lack of confidence and trust.

There may also be a problem of culture. I say this hesitantly, aware that cultural explanations seem to me even less easy to define or demonstrate than they did forty years ago when I first delivered a lecture on "political culture". The whole macho-gaucho-tango-muerte thing, which appeals to me enormously at the gut level and which makes Argentinians so brilliant at sport, may be a problem when it comes to certain forms of economic development. This may play out primarily in education: the country has a highly literate and discursive population, but seems short of both a technical elite and an entrepreneurial class. Only about 5% of the population goes to university and many of those end up in other parts of the world. The intelligentsia is small, peripheral and critical rather than multi-purpose as in Britain and the USA.

So what will happen? Argentinans tend to veer between saying that the country is "el culo del mundo" and they can't wait to leave and predicting that in the twenty first century they will become the great and powerful nation they have long expected to be. Or that if they don't it is because of a conspiracy against them. Others tell you that everything in Argentina is great except for the politics - which in a way is my view.

But all the major tremors in the global economy over the last century have always hit Argentina hard. Already, this time, the global price of major commodities has plummeted: soy and oil, two of the biggest exports, are less than half the price they were a few months ago. It is all two easy to see this as the trigger for another severe bout of the Argentinian disease.

On the other hand, I spent periods of my professional life in Georgia, India and Thailand and when I think about what has happened in those countries in the last year it makes Argentina seem a kind of paradise - at least for the moment. And you could argue that no nation is more practised than Argentina in the business of banking collapses, economic downturns and currency crises, so they'll have better coping mechanisms than the rest of us.

Incidentally, Argentinans are generally very nice people indeed (and particularly good about understanding my Spanish, politely ignoring my habit of bunging in Italian words when under pressure). Walking on an obscure road in the high Andes we observed that most of the drivers of the occasional cars offered us a friendly wave and a substantial minority stopped and offered us a ride.

When I was robbed we fell into the hands of Subinspector Franco Casillo, possibly the nicest policeman on the planet, though the comisaria in which we were sitting was dark and dingy and looked like something that belonged in one of the less prestigious parts of the former Soviet Union. As he was handsome as well as nice even as I was regretting my folly I was already casting him in some Law and Order in BA series which would sweep the global TV market.

A beautiful land and a handsome people. A huge range of natural resources. A very strong sense of national identity. In many respects Argentina has fewer problems than any other country in the Americas. Civil society is potentially strong as there are many clubs, churches and charities. There are no serious ethnic or language problems; the official figures say the country is 90% European - which is more than can be said for a lot of European countries when you think about it. There are no religious problems and no defecting provinces. Argentina is comparatively free from the threat of natural disasters.

They can't go wrong really?

Except that they always have so far.

Appedix 1: How the Peruvians parted a Lancastrian from his wallet.
It hasn't been done since the early 1970s, but it proved easy enough in the event. We were walking in a broad street with many cars and few pedestrians. A couple in their thirties crossed the road in front of us: they were very small, native American in appearance and smartly dressed. They appeared to be tourists because they were looking at a map. Because they were walking slowly we overtook them.

Shortly afterwards they caught up with us, expressing their concern and horror that hooligans had thrown paint at us from a car. Sure enough, we appeared to be covered in spots of beige emulsion. They began frantically and sympathetically to try to brush it off. Then a taxi appeared and ten seconds later I realised that not only had they got in the taxi, but so had the wallet from my trouser pocket.

It all takes a very short time and there is no way they would have got away with it had we been even slightly suspicious. Too many years of not being robbed had made us complacent; I possessed trousers with zipped and inner pockets, but I wasn't wearing them. It was Subinspector Casillo who told me that it was a typical Peruvian scam, but it was my youngest son, a South American veteran, who told me I had made a schoolboy error. On the other hand, I did not make the error of having all my vital cards and documents in the same place.

Appendix 2: Ten Great Argentinians
I ran out of reading on the plane and composed this list. It is intended to represent general reputation rather than my own evaluation:
José de San Martin – liberator
Jorge Luis Borges – writer
Carlos Gardel – tango musician and performer
Juan Manuel Fangio – racing driver
Alfredo Di Stefano – footballer
Ernesto "Che" Guevara – revolutionary
Eva Peron – first lady, legend, ?
Daniel Barenboim – musician
Guillermo Vilas – tennis player
Diego Maradona - footballer

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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That's "Jorge Luis Borges".

Posted by: Hugo at March 15, 2009 01:02 AM

Apart from Borges none of L Allason's Argentinians are of any value whatsoever.
Eva Peron was a whore and the one Ossie Ardiles UK was a crook - the first Argentinian to go down two leagues since the General Belgrano.
Argentina fails because that is what Argentinians are - failures by nature.

Posted by: Seamus at March 15, 2009 09:50 PM

Someone tried to rob me in Buenos Aires last year in exactly the same way you described. I am also a very seasoned traveller, I was in one of the nicest streets in Recoleta and I was also complacent and made exactly the same schoolboy error you did - I let people "help" me clean myself up after I had been hit by flying paint.

However, my story had a much happier ending. Some locals saw what was going on, shouted at the people trying to rob me to make them go away, and then came up to me and gently chided me (in English, with a smile) for falling for such an obvious scam. However, thanks to them nothing was stolen.

Posted by: Michael Jennings at June 29, 2009 04:46 PM
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