"It's very difficult for the provincial government to do more than what it's done", says Government Minister Roberto Rosúa when queried about the project to grant Rosario the status of autonomous city. Yeah, right.
The idea of autonomous municipalities, with more local control on what they can and cannot do, on how to manage their affairs, on how to raise taxes and elect their authorities, is not new. Lisandro de la Torre (not coincidentally born in Rosario) worked on the concept in the late 19th century. Only in 1994 it was incorporated to the National Constitution, and since then Buenos Aires, which long ago had been split from Buenos Aires Province to become the Federal Capital, was also given the status of Autonomous City, which entitled it to have a kind of constitution, to choose its form of government and to elect it (before that, the mayor was a federal official, appointed by the President).
The Constitution, in general terms, simply says that every province must insure municipal autonomy and regulate its reach. Provincial constitutions should be changed to match that.
Santa Fe Province is a special case in Argentina because it has two very large cities, and the larger one is not the capital. The administrative structure and the political institutions are on the smaller city, Santa Fe. Santa Fe cannot be favoured by Rosario's autonomy, and Santa Fe City would probably not be favoured by having autonomy for itself. Add to it the fact that the last governors have all been from Santa Fe, and what I said the other day about Rosario and Santa Fe, and you'll understand why the projects to turn Rosario into an autonomous city, either through a law or through a modification of the provincial constitution (which would be nothing but fulfilling the requirement in the National Constitution), have been systematically put to sleep by the provincial government.
Minister Rosúa is, of course, lying. He says that the project has been sent to the provincial legislature and the legislators have done nothing, so it's not the governor's fault; the Executive cannot meddle in the affairs of the Legislative. As the report above explains, this is complete bullshit, because party discipline within the Peronist-dominated legislature works fine every time the Peronist governor needs a law to be passed quickly and without debate. As with the National Congress, our legislators are only well-paid levantamanos -- they receive the order to raise their hands in approval down the partisan chain of command, and they comply immediately. So if the governor really wanted municipal autonomy for Rosario, he could have it. Provincial Deputy Raúl Lamberto (Socialist) explains that "they do a mis-en-scène every time the mayor of Rosario demands autonomy", but nothing is actually done because the relevant legislative committees are all controlled by the government's party.
And this is another reason why Rosario should secede from Santa Fe.
31 October 2006
"It's very difficult for the provincial government to do more than what it's done", says Government Minister Roberto Rosúa when queried about the project to grant Rosario the status of autonomous city. Yeah, right.
30 October 2006
Misiones has taught us a lesson. And by "us" I mean us enlightened middle-class metropolitan urban settlers, who thought money could buy out the dignity of people just because they're poor. Not exactly by a landslide, but the United Front for Dignity (FUD) led by Bishop Emeritus Joaquín Piña won the elections held in Misiones last Sunday, which were called by the provincial government to appoint members to an assembly to modify the constitution, for the sole purpose of changing the article that forbids indefinite reelection of the governor, so that governor/feudal lord Carlos Rovira could glue himself forever and ever to his seat.
In the best tradition of not-so-old times in Argentina, Rovira employed all the means to his disposal to get votes: he got pictures of himself with President Kirchner and other national officials; he inaugurated a lot of public works; he handed out a myriad of questionable "subsidies" and "loans". His government delivered boxes of food with vote ballots attached to them to the poor. In a festival last week, he even gave away bicycles. Forged DNIs (national ID cards) without photos were distributed to his followers, so they could set up a fraud. Paraguayan citizens were paid to cross the border and vote for Rovira. Long-dead people appeared in the voters' list. The whole thing looked as if it were the 1890s, and most didn't doubt that the outcome would be the same as in those times.
But the FUD got people to think. True, behind bishop Piña not everybody who lined up to oppose Rovira was there to defend democracy. Some were opportunistic politicians. But Piña succeeded in bringing together lay Catholics, evangelicals (laypeople and pastors), the small urban middle class of Misiones, and, evidently, many of the rural poor, who we thought would rather take Rovira's bribes, submit to his political machine and vote for reelection.
The FUD won with more than 56% of the vote. Blank votes were insignificant. People went to vote despite the difficulties, and even as violence was expected during or immediately after the election. There were only minor incidents, most notably when Rovira went to vote and his bodyguards started a fight. Reporters from several national media covering the event were beaten, their equipment destroyed or damaged; one even got robbed by the people surrounding Rovira.
Carlos Rovira is now a political walking corpse. President Kirchner, who supported him (he owed him political favours), has remained silent, and he'd better stay like that, because this was a display of his true colours that could do him no well. The mean, short-sighted group of politicos that pass as the opposition these days have emitted a few words of lip service to democracy, and proceeded eagerly to gloat about K's association with Misiones' ruling cadaver, though they remained insecure as to whether they could get someone like bishop Piña to fight K in the 2007 elections (they won't -- Piña is an honest man).
If anything, this should make several provincial governors think twice about their own hopes of perpetual reelection. In Misiones, 70% of the people are poor (that also means a significant portion of the population is actually starving), yet they could not be bought with food, home appliances or cash. Even if they accepted those things out of necessity, alone in the voting room they chose "with the heart and with the head, not with the stomach", as bishop Piña said, and they're an example to us all.
28 October 2006
I'm always amazed by the human ability to adapt to strange circumstances and local customs, though paradoxically it comes together with a counter-ability to resist change and cling to one's own convictions and prejudices, in hugely varying relative proportions for different people.
Upon my discovery of chopsticks as eating utensils, I eagerly adopted them for all meals tiny and/or noodly, oriental or not. I'm not a natural but I can manipulate them well enough; being genetically clumsy, this is less an accomplishment of mine than a demonstration of the easiness of their handling. Yet several people I've tried to introduce chopsticks to have been reluctant. They didn't want to even try them. They feared they would never learn, and if anything, they would "become Chinese". Ouch.
From the other side of the world came the opposite reaction, when the other day poor Watanabe-sensei decided (apparently) that she wouldn't be left behind by Argentine societal trends, and at the end of our shodō class she insisted, to our surprise, that we say goodbye to her with a kiss in the cheek, rather than with just a bow and a respectful sayōnara. Earlier in class, as one of the guys asked her to draw a particular kanji to take home, artistically-minded Watanabe-sensei sat down and produced some beautiful strokes, and then turned to the student and said jokingly in broken Spanish, "That would be 1 peso". I had to laugh. I said,
27 October 2006
First of all, I need to thank Miss Cupcake from La Otra Dimensión for her comments about my blog. La Otra Dimensión is, quite logically, written in better English than this one, and it's also much better because it has news, pointed social criticism and pictures of healthy and delicious food, accompanied by Miss C's recipes. This post however, was prompted by a terrible, terrible mistake of hers.¹
OK, it was my fault -- I did say "Santa Fe" while commenting on car accidents. I meant Santa Fe Province, which is important because Rosario ≠ Santa Fe. The problem with many Argentine provinces is that the capitals have the same name as the provinces themselves, so the confusion often arises. Santa Fe, the provincial capital of Santa Fe (see?), is a large city (metro pop. 500,000) that lives mostly thanks to the presence of an unnecessary, bloated bureaucracy. We rosarinos don't want to be associated to it. People from other provinces, when asked where they're from, always name their province first, and then their city or town. People from San Rafael, Mendoza call themselves mendocinos; people from Gualeguaychú, Entre Ríos call themselves entrerrianos. We don't do that. Referring to a rosarino as a santafesino is like referring to a porteño as a bonaerense.
Whence this rejection, this seeming resentment? Well, there's a difference in character. Rosario is and ever was progressive, cosmopolitan, part leftist, part nouveau riche, revolutionary, a newcomer, "the Phoenician City", "the Chicago of Argentina", home of gangs, entrepreneurs, prostitutes, exiled Russian Jews, labour unions and filthy-mouthed Italians. Santa Fe City is and ever was conservative, insular, elitist, aristocratic, a colonial capital born with a silver spoon in its Spanish-born fundamentalist Catholic mouth. Santa Fe was a large village in the 17th century; Rosario was a smaller village even in 1840. Santa went on to become a large town in the 19th century; Rosario went from a small town to a large city in 40 years, and was already a major metropolitan area before the Great Depression. Rosario was ruled by political appointees sent from Santa Fe City during all of this time. In the meantime, also, it was almost declared capital of Argentina, and vetoed, three times.
One illustration of the difference may be found in a book I've recently read, a collection of history essays sold as New History of Santa Fe together with La Capital. Regarding the Carnival celebrations, it was pointed out that the ruling elites of Santa Fe passed only a few laws regulating them, and the Carnivals were nevertheless calm and well-behaved. In Rosario, the ruling elites held tighter controls and imposed many regulations as to public demonstrations of the spirit of Carnival, and yet the celebrations were scandalous. At first sight it looks as if Rosario was in fact more conservative, but no: in fact, Santa Fe's lower-class population was more accustomed to being submissive and to blissfully look up to their rulers, the wealthy families with a long and illustrious lineage, as they paraded with their chariots along the avenues during public celebrations; Rosario's people were dangerously free-willed, immigrants not educated in reverence to the local elite, merchants who would reject the smell of old money, anarchists, agitators, drunkards, and generally not suited to participate in high-society parades.
You can still see how this works today, as Rosario has been ruled by the opposition since 1983 (and in particular, by the Socialist Party since 1989), while Santa Fe Province remains a bastion of Peronism. You can see it also in how Santa Fe has had a good sex education law since 1992, but the provincial government has never applied it, as the crème of a Roman Catholic clerical establishment dating back to the enlightened days of 1600-something still breathes heavily in the back of their necks; while the government of Rosario was a pioneer in handing out condoms and contraceptive pills in its poor neighbourhoods.
This and more, while Santa Fe City gets as much funds as Rosario from the provincial government, despite the fact that it's half the size. Not surprisingly, many people here would rather have the south of the province split from the center-north, with Rosario as its capital; we are only stopped from revolting by the sad thought of Santa Fe crumbling and returning to the mud of the Paraná as the source of its lifeblood is removed from it.
¹ Just kidding!
26 October 2006
The ancient Chinese curse which is not an ancient Chinese curse at all seems appropriate to describe these interesting (as in chaotic) times. I've had no time to write one post, but I need to write several.
On one hand, Governor Rovira of Misiones is setting up the largest scam that has passed for an election in this country in decades. He, you might remember, is trying to get reelected, but this election is actually the one where people will choose representatives to form a Constitutional Assembly, which will modify the provincial Constitution to allow for indefinite reelection. Rovira's government is handing out money and loans to poor people who barely know what to write in their loan application; giving away bicycles and washing machines; distributing national IDs without pictures to be used by his political minions to vote in the name of other people. You can't call it fraud; it's done obscenely in the open. An opposition front made up of every other political party in the province plus a number of independents, notably Bishop Emeritus Piña and other religious men and women. Rovira is backed by President Kirchner and has told the Catholic Church to go back to preach and pray while the politicians take care of the real stuff. I'm losing respect for Kirchner every day.
On the other hand, Juan Carlos Blumberg got what he wanted: his son Axel's murderers have been sentenced to a life term. However, he still lost his temper and claimed the court's sentence was "shit" because the rest of the gang that kidnapped Axel got shorter terms, and two policemen who were also involved were absolved. Again he voiced his unfortunate concept that innocent people (like his son) seem not to have human rights which are, however, granted to the criminals. Well, that's why they're criminals -- because they don't respect other people's human rights like freedom and life. Blumberg has never conceived the possibility that he, or someone he loves, may some day turn the wrong way and commit a crime. He needs to believe (maybe like everyone) that hell is other people.
On the other hand (I have many hands), Governor Solá of Buenos Aires is also trying to get reelected, in this case through a technicality. And they said Menem was a rat.
On the fourth hand, wherever it came from, our own Guillermo Moreno (Secretary of Interior Commerce) and Economy Minister Felisa Miceli again gathered a few businessmen, this time people of the dairy industry, to have a chat about prices, how you don't want to have higher prices (ooh, what's this gun doing on the table, pointing at you? I must have left it there by mistake, sorry), how you'd better keep the prices down and the people happy at least until the October 2007 elections, etc. You see, nobody wants inflation to come back, and the law of offer and demand working to find a fair price is bullshit, and business here is usually oligopolic and businessmen are despicably greedy, but somehow I don't like it when a government official says on the record "we are not going to allow [insert a private company] raise the price of [insert a sensitive product]" using a certain tone. Call me a self-hating leftie, I just don't.
The last hand holds a wall. It's the wall that the Dangerously Dumb Lord of the Benevolent Empire has got approval to get built between the Imperial Backyard and a couple of places stolen from Mexico a while ago. You might be one of those alarmists that claim the relationship between the Land of Jalapeño and the Realm of Oblivion will be harmed by this. Don't worry! Free trade will not be impeded by the wall -- its unique design, like a filter, is intended to leave people out while money continues to flow in... Pancho Villa, before turning into a moustached stereotype, once lamented his country's lot thus: "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States." Amen.
24 October 2006
Forget what you've heard about Argentine football (soccer). Forget the brochures that call you to visit Buenos Aires and attend a superclásico, River Plate vs. Boca Juniors, and share the passion of Argentinians for this sport, right there by the fervorous masses of hinchas.
If you're willing to "share the passion" in the form of smoking and inhaling various drugs, threatening the other team at the top of your voice with various forms of rape followed by murder, employing grossly racist epithets to qualify the other fans, drinking really bad wine from a cardboard box and then go out and pick a fight with whoever happens to cross your path, then go ahead. That's Argentine football live, by and large.
Yes, of course the majority of the attendants are not like that... But if so, why do they keep going to the matches? To mingle with the mob? To feel the rush of being in mortal danger for two hours a week? To let their inner beasts loose so they don't kill the wife when they come back home?
A Racing-Boca match scheduled for this weekend has been suspended because of this violence. Racing, the host, said it was not going to allow certain Boca Juniors' barrabravas (local, less sophisticated versions of the infamous Hooligans) into the stadium. The chieftain of this mob, Rafael Di Zeo, said it was discrimination and (since being a gangster often goes hand in hand with having well-oiled contacts with the judiciary) went to a judge. Judge Raúl Calvente said that Racing must let Di Zeo in. Given that, Buenos Aires Province Security Minister, León Arslanián, let Racing know that the Provincial Police was not going to deal with the security of the match. Judge Calvente later excused himself from the procedure and claimed that he had been "threatened" by the Security Ministry.
All of this would not have happened if:
- Di Zeo and his mob was not backed by judges and politicians, including wannabe presidential candidate and head of Boca Juniors, Mauricio Macri.
- Football matches were set up, within a legal framework, so as to stop the admittance of notoriously violent mobsters, of whom Di Zeo is merely one example.
- The common, non-violent soccer fans agreed to set aside their passion for a few weekends and boycotted these chaotic spectacles.
- Real criminals were ever punished.
22 October 2006
... the denial keeps being broadcast, on and on, like a mantra, but the fact is that our never-too-good electrical power supply is in danger. So much, that the sales of portable electrical generators have skyrocketed.
Not long ago, the article in La Capital says, only large factories, clinics and icecream parlour chains bought these generators, but as the heat starts to rise (in preparation for a summer that is bound to be hellish), power cuts are becoming common, so small businesses, office buildings and private homes are getting them as well. Manufacturers in Rosario claim they're installing 2 or 3 every day, and that they're overwhelmed by requests. Moreover, the cost of hiring a portable generator is now customarily included in the expenses of wedding parties. The other day, a downtown section of our own Icecream St. (Pellegrini Avenue) suffered a blackout that forced business to throw away hundreds of kilos of melted sweetness. The horror!
The smallest power-gen apparatuses in the market cost 2,000 pesos (US$660, €500), which is maybe twice a non-professional monthly salary. This lets you keep your lights on, plus air conditioning, a fridge, and a computer (as long as you put fuel into it, which is also expensive and in shortage).
In Santa Fe, the partly-state company EPE, which generates our low-voltage, irregular supply of over-expensive electricity, has stated that the grid will not have a crisis, but they wouldn't guarantee that there won't be blackouts this summer (unlike in 2005, 2004, 2003, and every other summer since I learned how to spell electricidad). The national government simply denies there is a crisis, and somewhat perversely, it refuses to take over-visible measures to prevent a crisis. The perverse part is that they're doing it like that because next year is election season, and the president lives by popular opinion surveys, so he doesn't want to show any weakness (including the acknowledgement that a crisis is looming), but at the same time he wouldn't tolerate public protests because of blackouts. Who understands politicians?
19 October 2006
Guatemala and Venezuela are tied in the battle of votes for a Latin American seat in the UN Security Council. How does this affect Argentina? Why am I covering this?
Well, in the first place, that's Argentina's non-permanent seat they're fighting over. So whoever gets that seat will be seen as either a continuation or a discontinuity with regards to the previous situation.
Second, and more important, the UNSC is the place where important things are decided, like punishing a country for having weapons of mass destruction (whether actual nuclear weapons or made up chemical-biological-nuclear thingies). The UNSC is also the big boys' ivory tower, from where they veto-strike (as if with lightning) anything that the UN General Assembly decide and that they don't like.
Guatemala has recently begun receiving the benefits of free trade with the U.S., and is therefore utterly dependent on the U.S. continuing consumption of its products, among which there are such sophisticated, value-added exports as bananas, coffee and sugarcane. Its president, Óscar Berger, is a wealthy landlord. Its representative to the UN, who bears the full-blooded Latino name of Gert Rosenthal and prefers to speak in English for the cameras, is a MA in Economics of UC Berkeley. On a quick survey, it looks like Guatemala is a business; the manager is Mr. Berger, the accountant is Mr. Rosenthal, and the real owner is the US Department of State. The 80% of Guatemalans who live in poverty are the workers, and the other 20% are supervisors.
Venezuela, on the other hand, is one of the vertices of the Axis of Latino Evil, home of the only president outside the Middle East to call George W. Bush a terrorist and to nickname him things like "Mr. Danger".
Surprise surprise, the U.S. doesn't want Venezuela at the UNSC. They prefer Guatemala. The other day Mr. Rosenthal said something to the effect that Guatemala is offended because everybody's treating it as if it were invisible and assuming it's a puppet of the United States. Oh, Gert, don't take offence. We only think the Guatemalan government is a puppet. Like the governments of El Salvador, Afghanistan, and so many others. Guatemala, home of the mayas, who were already measuring the length of the solar year up to milliseconds while pious Europe debated whether it was a stake-burn-deserving sin to think that the earth was not flat and still in the center of the universe, is much more than that. We don't want you, Óscar & Gert, and your ilk, at the UNSC, serving as proxy for the interests of the U.S.; we love and pity poor Guatemala for being subject to your foreign-bred colonial technocracy.
The real issue at stake here is the fact that Latin America is divided, and the cause of the division is outside it. The US and the global economic establishment have tempted all of us with promises of "free trade", "modern development", "democracy", and encouraged us to follow their initiatives calling for war, increased millitarization, and terrorist paranoia. Some have turned one way, others the other way; and those ways are incompatible. Ironically, the abhorrently Manichaean stand of G. W. Bush is true in this case: Latin American countries are perforce with the US or against them. This is a battle to decide who will speak for Latin America in a place where our words matter.
18 October 2006
Perón, Perón, qué grande sos... Unlike most other Argentine news I report here, the bizarre battle over Perón's corpse that took place yesterday was reported by top international media. Juan Domingo Perón, three times president of Argentina and founder of an infinitely malleable political subculture, was moved from La Chacarita to a museum-mausoleum in his former residence in San Vicente, where (according to his old-time friends) he wanted to be buried in the first place. The ceremony was attended by thousands, among them a number of labor union leaders and their associated mobs, bodyguards, drum players, the people you lift from the slums to populate political meetings with the help of a few pesos and maybe some free bad wine. At some point, some guys clashed with some guys, stones and bricks were hurled, guns drawn... the usual. Pathetic, surreal, infuriating, inexplicable. I'll have more on that later... this will be in the spotlight for days anyway.
16 October 2006
I usually report things myself, but this morning I saw this delicious, insightful piece of op-ed in Página/12 and thought I should share, in English. Página/12 has some very good editorialists, but their language tends to be full of political slang and shorthand, Argentine subculture in-jokes and other untranslatable concepts; this one is not, though you do have to be familiar with Argentine news to get all his points. The pseudo-informative mess that calls itself "news" in the media will surely ring a bell, though, no matter where you live in. You'll forgive the awkward translation at times. The article is La ensalada, that is "The salad", and it's by Eduardo Aliverti, found in the online edition of Página/12 of 16 October 2006.
by Eduardo Aliverti
Here we are, again, among pulp mills and bridge blockades. Barely a few days ago, we were saying we were (almost only) in the crossfire between Kirchner and the Church. A few more days before then, we were saying we were (almost only) with the commotion caused by the disappearance of Jorge López. Going back just a bit more, we were saying we were (almost only) urged by the threats or perspectives of an energy crisis. And not much before that, we were saying we were (almost only) concentrating on the consequences of the Blumberg instrument's demonstration in Plaza de Mayo.
The question is already an old one. What is it with this country, where no issue, no matter how showy it is or looks, manages to stay in the public agenda with some sort of continuity? The first answer calls to something as basic as separating the chaff from the wheat. For example (but this is the strongest example), institutionally comparing the verbal skirmishes between the Government and the Curia with López's case, which carries the chance that we are facing a grave threat from the worst remains of the dictatorship, is a disgusting offense. We are speaking (for our purposes disregarding how it turns out) of the hypothesis that they have gotten rid of a witness against one of the most significant torturers and murderers of the genocide, versus the fireworks between the head of State and some depreciated princes of the cloth. Or we are speaking of a "time of hate" because some fashionable journalists of the corporate right portray themselves as persecuted, vs. the likeliness of an energetic collapse.
And now it reappears, the luminary of the assembly members from Gualeguaychú and around. Let us tour this, in the same alternately sudden manner it happened. Uruguay intervenes in the river for the construction of the plants, being now unimportant whether it notified Argentina as it should have. Argentina does not concede any importance to the matter. The residents of this side of the shores take note of terrible warnings about pollution and start their activism. The government continues not paying attention until the bridge blockade begins. Kirchner looks at it with an eye to one side and the other a bit more to the center, and says it is barely an "environmental" problem. The Gualeguaychú neighbors feed back their anger, the blockade continues, the President focuses his look, smells popular enthusiasm, and in a magical gesture he turns the ecologic issue into a "national cause". He goes to Gualeguaychú with the whole cabinet and a parade of characters from all sectors of society, he leads a demonstration against the pulp mills, he breaks up with Tabaré, he appoints an assembly member Environment Secretary, he bets on the strategy that there will not be international funding for the pulp mills, and sends the file to The Hague. At this point, barely yesterday, what started as the demands of a little town has mutated into another presidential shock effect trick. He loses at The Hague and bears it, he loses at the Mercosur Tribunal and bears it. But he loses with the report of the Canadian consultant to the World Bank, which says that the pulp mills will not pollute at all, and he bears it no more. He retreats by several squares and asks the neighbors not to block the bridge, because it does not work, it is a tactic that will definitely turn against them. Impossible. How do you stop those people, who were told and officially encouraged to believe that, in effect, they have a terrible smell and a cancer on the other side of the river? On what kind of authority and with what conviction does one tell them to stay at home? With pluses and minuses, Uruguay's has turned into a state policy, the pulp mills will be built whatever the case (Botnia, at least), and no-one in the world agrees with Argentina whatsoever. And, as it should have been since the beginning, because it always was like that, the only way out is to speak clearly to the residents of the shore and sit down to negotiate with the Uruguayans the control of the plants. Today it is not possible because all the participants have become prisoners of their own dynamics. But it will end up being like that, at some point, sooner or later.
What should not be forgotten is the fact that this kind of episodes are lessons on how costly those hurried, demagogical attitudes can be. The need to occupy the center of the stage, on the part of Kirchner, is based on reasons of personal psychology and on the non-existance of an opposition. But it is one thing to play hit-and-run games with the priests or the establishment press media, and another thing to do so with the sensitivity of a population with regards to the sanitary consequences of industrial projects. The government is not the single responsible agent for the this weather where all political news bits seem to be of the same value. There is that opposition which does not exist, and it does not exist because it has nothing interesting to say about anything (the conflict with Uruguay, precisely, showed it). There is also a society that does not speak much, thanks to the renewed consumption expectations of the sector that sets the agenda of the media: the middle class. In amid this indifference there is the need for impact of the dominant press, from which nobody in their right mind may demand that it ceases mixing up López, the energy crisis, sex education, Blumberg, Gualeguaychú, the hydrocarbons, the rent loans and their costs, Bergoglio, the anger of media corporations, Justice overwhelmed, traffic accidents, Dirty War trials.
The concrete thing is that, if all of this can be mishandled in such an ecclectic manner, to the point that what today is presented as trascendental vanishes tomorrow, it is because the whole country lacks a central political debate. Because in no debate of those characteristics could there be, as there are here, tens of issues that come and go once in a while, with none reaching any depth. The author of this column makes no pretense of proposing which that vertebral discussion should be. Not, at least, in these lines. And on the other hand, his position is known as to which are the structural aspects which should lead to that grand debate that it not even in the horizon. He is, however, sure that this absence is guilty for this information circus.
15 October 2006
The residents of Gualeguaychú have resumed their blockade of International Road 136, which joins Argentina with Uruguay across the Uruguay River, in protest for the construction of two woodpulp and cellulose processing plants on the other side of the river.
You might remember this from one of my first posts, when I told you about the decission of the International Court of Justice. For a long time Argentina and Uruguay have had a good relationship, but this issue has been eroding it since it started, a year and a half ago.
Uruguay has always been, to Argentinians, like another province of Argentina. We both like eating lots of beef and drinking mate. Uruguayans have come to Argentina and become part of our national culture, without any sort of conflict over nationality. Many middle-class porteños have spent countless summers in Punta del Este or visiting Colonia, and of course people from Entre Ríos have always crossed the river easily into Uruguay to visit Paysandú, Salto, or Fray Bentos. If it weren't for the porteño self-chosen aristocratic government of 19th century Argentina, who didn't like the federal and progressive ideas of Artigas and delivered the Eastern Bank into the hands of the Brazilian/Portuguese Empire, Uruguay would indeed be part of Argentina today, and I'm sure we'd be getting along fine. That may be a thing of the past.
Nobody wants a smelly paper mill to be near one's own town, least of all dumping its waste into one's own river. That's even if the waste is harmless and the smell is barely noticeable (which I doubt). The road blocks in Gualeguaychú and Colón were desperate measures. They worked to tell the national government that there was a problem. Now the solution should be legal and diplomatic, but the people over here are resorting to blocks again because they fear that the whole thing might end in inaction again. The Argentine government has reacted by washing its own hands clean of any blame, essentially telling the Environmental Assembly of Gualeguaychú that the harm done is their problem.
Summer's coming fast, and many Argentinians will want to vacation in Uruguay. There are only so many ways to go there: by boat from Buenos Aires (too expensive), or over one of three bridges, of which two are blocked, and the other is too far north for most tourists who won't bother going along a 300 km back-and-forth detour. If this goes on, it will hurt Uruguay, and our relationship to Uruguay. In the meantime, the cellulose plants managed by foreign companies (one Finnish, one Spanish, none allowed by law to install such plants in their own countries) will continue being built.
I went to Gualeguaychú in April. The city (it's not a small town as Buenos Aires media have called it, but a city of 70,000, and a beatiful city at that) was calm, waiting for things to develop, but always alert. The slogan No a las papeleras was everywhere, even in a huge sign that you find immediately as you step out of the bus terminal station. The people are organized and don't want to stop the fight. I was hoping to visit Gualeguaychú and to cross over to Fray Bentos, which I haven't been to, one of these days; I fear I won't be able to. I fear that if I go to Fray Bentos and spend my money on souvenirs there, where the huge chimney of Metsä-Botnia's cellulose plant can be already up in the distance, I'll be betraying those who campaign for ecology, for the right to clean air and clean waters. Or worse, that I'll get hostile looks from people when I tell them I'm an Argentinian. Funny, because we look all quite alike; only my accent might tell them I come from "the other side". I hope we don't come to that, ever.
13 October 2006
Tough day, today! (and half of it still awaits). On the personal side, I'm getting work done -- too much work and too little sleep, but for extra $$$ for the summer vacations I'm still willing to carry on. The main victims of my bloated schedule (besides sleep) are concentration in my Japanese classes, my photo hobby, and this blog.
Outside that, things are hard as well around. First of all, the weather is wet and hot. The only telltale sign that it's spring and not summer is that you can still sleep at night with merely a fan or even without one, if your room is well insulated and you're not into pajamas. Second, the shortage: there's little gasoil (that's fuel oil, more precisely diesel) because the companies that sell it are not producing enough and are selling much of it abroad for a better price. To make matters worse, the oil station employees are on strike, complaining about low profits.
The government froze the prices of fuel in 2003, when the oil companies suggested that they wanted to charge international (U.S. dollar) prices for it after the peso depreciated (in effect, they wanted to triple the price). Gasoil feeds public transportation which most people rely on, but also agricultural machinery, and agriculture exports feed the countryside -- and the government, through export taxes. Buses, which run on diesel, are already heavily subsidized. The government has unearthed a 1974 "law of supply" that says that companies supplying essential products can be forced to provide it at reasonable prices, even it means a net loss for them. Quite logically the oil producers are not too happy. They almost didn't invest in surveying for new sources of oil in years, since the local price was too low, and now we're running out.
So the government is engaged in a juggling act: the farmers need cheap diesel to keep increasing their yields, which translates into fresh foreign currency, part of which goes to the government; the oil guys want pricey fuel to be able to get profit and invest in scouting; we the people want cheap fuel, to avoid having to ride a bicycle to work, but we also need fuel, whether expensive or not, to be enough for our buses. If the export taxes are lowered, the government will have less money and will have to raise our taxes to compensate, or else cut funding to welfare and public works, which keep some of us alive and some of us safe from being eaten alive by starving masses.
Now you could come up with a lot of reasons based on the above on how that's why state intervention in the economy is undesirable. That may be true, though of course, left to the market forces, half of 38 million Argentinians would be eating from the trash, if it all. With the government in charge, only 15% or so are eating from the trash on a regular basis. Wonderful, huh?
Third (because I was counting, remember?): the teachers in Santa Fe are also on strike. I don't know what's worse, if the unscrupulous use of our children's education as pretext for a salary raise by people who only work 9 months a year and 4 hours a day for a full-time average wage and go on strike every year when classes begin, or the awesome (as in awe-inducing) incompetence of the Education Ministry, whose head is a blabbering invertebrate who already granted the teachers a large raise this year and whose only reaction to this strike is protesting that it is "untimely and unjust".
Fourth (and last for today): dictator Reynaldo Bignone (the one who asked the young of today to finish what they --the dictatorship-- started) gets a special pension of almost 15,000 pesos per month, on the basis of being an ex-president. Never mind nobody elected him...
11 October 2006
You can't simply sweep the past under the rug; it will eventually crawl back to you. Argentina is just experiencing an apparent return of dark individuals and groups that (we were told) were mostly gone. The National Reorganization Process ended 23 years ago, but like a hydra, multiple heads have sprung from its source. We need to understand (again, we're forced to understand) that the dictatorship was not simply a few power-hungry murderous military men -- it was a doctrine of national security, it was the trigger-happy police in paradise, it was the moralistic Catholic Church taking advantage of someone else to abolish progressive thought, it was ignorant self-absorbed Argentinians enjoying the vast propaganda machine that was the 1978 Football World Cup, it was the Argentine corporations enjoying the repression of labour unions, it was politicians selling their souls and their parties' ideals for a position in power, it was anti-Semitic, fundamentalist, racist, ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, fearful, gullible Argentina riding a silent wave of blood. The dictatorship had a constituency.
The dictators are in prison. Many of their most notorious subordinates are in prison, or on their way to prison, or at the very least discredited. It's the little ones that are coming back -- in fact they were always among us. It's possible that a conspiracy is on the works, but it would be wild speculation to assume that, and it's not needed: the abusers of power, the torturers, don't need to be guided to do their thing.
A few days ago, the daughter of a former illegal detainee was threatened in the street with regards to her supposed political affiliation. Her brother-in-law was wounded. She received an email, warning her that she would not be spared "like your parents were", and noting they also had her brother-in-law "listed".
Two young people, brother and sister, activists, were threatened by the police using guns while gathering with other 200 people in a community center. They left to file an accusation, but on their way they were intercepted, taken to a police station, and beaten. They were called subversives, terrorists. They were warned that they could "disappear" like Jorge Julio López, the witness in the Etchecolatz trial (who's still missing).
Threats, mostly letters, have been received by judges, prosecutors, and activists. It's not unusual for most of them, but it's become more common and it's obvious that they're related to what's happening.
The trash has crawled back from under the rug and is reclaiming its space.
10 October 2006
Economics Nobel Prize Edmund Phelps happens to be married to a porteña, so Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú from Radio Mitre called to congratulate him and talk a bit about economics in her (Magdalena's) (horrible) English. We always like it when an Argentinian has a part on anything international, be it a marriage with a Nobel winner or a plane accident.
Phelps, unsurprisingly, said that Argentina's crisis seems to be over, but some reforms are still pending to make the economy "more dynamic". He spoke of corporativism and the power of unions, but we know what he's really talking about (for example, "dynamic employment market" means "everybody gets 3 rotating McJobs per year").
Phelps, who has studied the relationship between unemployment and inflation, has created the NAIRU hypothesis, which (for our purposes) says that government policies should not attempt to reduce unemployment beyond a certain minimum level, lest they induce inflation.
I remember some economist a few years ago (maybe it was Phelps himself?) say that Argentina's desirable level of unemployment was about 17%. You see, if unemployment is high and you know that 10 people are desperately waiting for you to be fired, then you'll behave nicely an accept your near-slavery working conditions, which will make your employer happy and your company competitive, and your country a preferred place for badly paid outsourced jobs from the U.S. and Europe. And what's good for business is good for the people, isn't it?
I don't know enough about Phelps to say anything further; I don't want to misrepresent his theory. I need to say, though, that U.S. economic theorists have historically been the source of most of the enlightened economic plans that brought Argentina to its knees and led entire generations of hard-working people to unemployment and desperation. Forgive me for my prejudice against such great minds...
09 October 2006
Nobel Peace Prize Adolfo Pérez Esquivel on our country: "Argentina is a feudal country". Wow! Although it's certainly no news, it's a good thing someone with actual moral standing (not a politician) states it out loud.
Argentina is nominally a federal republic. In practice, it works like this: the provinces are on their own for all practical purposes. The federal government gets money from the provinces, uses it for its own workings, and then re-distributes the rest (this process is called coparticipación -- I don't get exactly who is co-participating in what, and with whom, but that's the name). Not surprisingly, the federal government often favours the provincial governments that are of the same political party, or tries to co-opt them/buy them with the promise of more money, more nationally-financed public works, etc. Quebracho-Head Guy, who was governor of La Rioja before he taking office as president, redirected a disproportionate amount of federal funds to his home province, and famously built a first-class airport near Anillaco, his birthtown (pop. 2,000) using them.
Other than that, each province has its own constitution, elects its authorities the way it sees fit, and raises its own internal taxes. Couple this with the fact that a large part of the population in some places is either poor and dependent on provincial welfare, or not-so-poor but employed by an overblown provincial state, and you have a recipe for a country largely made up of fiefdoms -- with the caudillo/governor being reelected ad aeternum, or his relatives and political minions taking turns to fill the job, with a vast captive clientele continuing to vote for them. Political adversaries are few and often suffer persecution. This is most of Argentina except the larger and wealthier provinces (Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Entre Ríos, Santa Fe). These large provinces concentrate most of the population, most of the productive land, most of the GDP, most of the industries, and all the good ports. The rest live on primary products, are underpopulated, and basically slip under the radar of everyone except tourists looking for quiet places where to see actual live Indians in Argentina and buy knicknacks from them. Welfare, personal security, basic amenities, all depend on the local governments, and they make people pay a high price for them -- loyalty, submission, votes. When they don't, well, the police are always better paid than the rest of the public employees...
07 October 2006
Just came back from San Lorenzo, where I indulged in my photographic vice... San Lorenzo is some 25 km north of Rosario, at the northern end of the metropolitan area, and is a lovely city (pop. 43,000+). As it often happens, it's so close to home that I hadn't visited it since I was a child.
Back in 1813 Argentina was starting to fight for its independence from Spain, and it was there in San Lorenzo that General (then only Colonel) José de San Martín first engaged Spanish royalist forces. The "armies" were minuscule and the battle was short, but it was an important battle. The battlesite is now called Campo de la Gloria (Glory Field) and there's this monument there:
(The ugly fence is there to cut vandalism. Otherwise the monument would be covered in graffiti. Argentinians will spray-paint anything.) At the time of the battle San Lorenzo was a small town but Rosario wasn't much better -- it only had 3,000 inhabitants. Moreover, in San Lorenzo there was a Franciscan monastery, which dated back from the mid-18th century:
The friars at the San Carlos Convent received San Martín's forces and then, after the battle, let them treat the wounded. The friars are still there, but most of the monastery is now a museum, including the small plot in an inner yard where some of them are buried. You just pay 2 pesos and a Grenadier in uniform guides you through the old monastic cells, including the one where San Martín stayed. I took like 50 pictures inside, but this, like most museums, suffers from a lighting problem -- it's very difficult to get your pictures right, with everything shielded behing glasses which kill pictures taken with a flash, and unless you have some supernatural means to stay ab-so-lute-ly still for a 2-second exposure time.
06 October 2006
Just to let you know that Argentina seems to be again in the mid-1980s, and that certain things don't go away just because one would want them to. Yesterday there was a demonstration and an homage for people killed by the guerrilla insurgency in Argentina during the Dirty War. There was a parallel, much smaller demonstration of the left, to demand the re-appearance of Jorge Luis López, the witness of the Etchecolatz trial who disappeared two weeks ago.
I'd say that both had other main goals, rather than those advertised. Both were against the government; the left doesn't like the fact that President Kirchner is leftist enough (here and there) to be popular and get votes, and basically hate him because he's popular and they're pathetic -- most of the Argentine left is composed of people who are proud of being few but loudly ignorant.
The homage organized by the "Association of Victims of Terrorism in Argentina" is against the government because K has a human rights policy, and trials to military and police that kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands during the Dirty War have been resumed -- under K, Congress repealed the amnesty laws and the Supreme Court is voiding the pardons given to those criminals. Officially, though, they're only against K because he is "divisive", because his policy seeks revenge rather than justice. They make it seem as if K is creating a rift between two equivalent groups of Argentinians, when in fact what he's done is clear the way for those who have the duty of dividing us -- separating the common innocent citizens from the ones who conducted and supported the state terrorism of 1976-1983.
The Association of Victims of Terrorism is, as far as one can tell, overwhelmingly composed of relatives of members of the security forces who were killed by guerrillas. It's quite possible that most of them are not criminals, though by virtue of their job they all worked for criminals (no matter how far removed in the command chain) at some point, and many did surely know that they were doing illegal things. Leading the Association, however, are relatives of proven criminals and/or vocal apologists of the dictatorship, who claim (surprise!) that the past is best left behind. We all make mistakes, some things were a bit excessive, but hey, it was for the good of the country. Let's live in peace together as if nothing had happened, let's not be divisive, and yeah, while we're at it, we want a full amnesty. What? Yes.
The Catholic Church (not the fringe -- the so-called moderate wing of the Church, led by Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio) supports the aforementioned rhetoric of "national reconciliation" and criticizes the president for being loud-mouthed (which he is) in his denunciation of these ghastly crimes. K is also having a quarrel with the Church because a bishop in Misiones Province is running for a place in a constitutional assembly that will decide if Misiones will allow the re-election of governors -- K supports Governor Rovira, who is ostensibly a quasi-feudal lord in Misiones and now wants to be re-elected forever, which is easy when the poor are the majority and depend on state welfare. Bishop Piña said some things, Kirchner replied some things -- the usual. K is absolutely tactless and the Church loves it. Piña has a point -- Rovira must be stopped. If only the issue looked a little less dirty (as in political)!
05 October 2006
Yesterday the Argentine Senate passed a law that dictates compulsory sex education to be taught in all schools, public and private, from the initial level (5-year-olds and up). It seems ridiculous that this was not implemented yet and that it had to be debated at all, and it is ridiculous, if you forget the constant meddling of the Catholic Church in public affairs in Argentina.
The main point of contention was, always, that the parents should have a say in what their children are taught, lest the state imposes some sort of twisted sex ideology (like, I don't know, "sex is bad if not for reproduction") on those poor, highly malleable minds. The real function of this criticism is that, once you get the parents some room to get to decide on contents, those parents (who aren't teachers or experts in sex education, and who have been fed Catholic misinformation and prejudice about sex since birth) will conduct the lobbying themselves, while the hierarchs of the Church look at the battle from above without exposing themselves as the bunch of narrow-minded sex-obsessed anti-erotic bigots they are.
It must be noted, of course, that the Church did not support the parents back when Catholic doctrine was taught in public schools regardless of the parents' religious persuassion, and children of Jews and other religious minorities were (at most) given the option to leave during religion class. The Church also resented the lawmakers (most of whom were incidentally Catholic and/or parents) who took away from it the privilege of indoctrinating children, when Law 1420 of General Common Education was passed in 1884, and didn't mind the right of parents to decide on the education of their children when religious education was allowed back into the classroom on several occasions (e.g. during the last dictatorship).
Sex education laws have been passed already in provincial jurisdictions. In Santa Fe there's been one since the first administration of Governor Inarticulate Mummy 14 years ago, but as many other things in this province, it basically lies there without being applied because public officials are busy inventing longer, more appropriately bureaucratic names for their offices.
The current national law is both broad and shallow in scope. It says that the national government has to provide basic content, but the implementation will be gradual and subject to the communities' "socio-cultural reality" and "respecting the convictions of their members". That bit half-guts it from the beginning..., but let's hope.
04 October 2006
In the rarefied context of trials against Dirty War criminals, the disappearance of Jorge Julio López and the intimidation of other witnesses, activists, judges and prosecutors, this was probably to be expected. Former dictator (some prefer the euphemism "de facto president") Reynaldo Bignone wrote a letter to the young Argentine readers of the ghastly pro-dictatorship website Memoria Completa, whose name shows its pretense that it's not meant to be supportive of the horrendous criminals who ruled Argentina, but only in favour of "complete memory", as understood by modern pro-dictatorship misinformators -- that is, remembering that there were also people blown up or kidnapped, tortured and killed by the left-wing guerillas. Bignone employed the classic fight of Don Quixote against the windmills as a metaphor for the struggle of idealistic youth in search for "truth" -- that is, that the military and police did torture and kill thousands of people without due process and in many cases without any cause at all, but it was ultimately for our own good -- which the current government has tried to hide and distort, by taking the disgraceful step of repealing old amnesty laws sanctioned almost at gunpoint and presidential pardons granted without justification by the King of Toupees.
What Bignone wrote to the young was summarized in his last sentence: "Finish what we could not finish."
The letter was swiftly removed from the website, but not before it was copied and reported by mainline newspapers. At this, Bignone, again showing the cowardice of one who had no qualms stealing babies from illegally detained mothers but passed a self-amnesty law just before leaving the government to democratic rule, denied that he had meant what he obviously meant -- he says he only wanted to encourage the young at Memoria Completa. Bignone is free because of a technicality, but apology of crime is a serious offence.
03 October 2006
Let's look at it now, because we won't be seeing it for a long time. The government of Santa Fe has forbidden the fishing of sábalo in the northern coastal departments of the province, because it's being depleted at an alarming rate, especially since its export price in pesos has tripled. Prochilodus lineatus, which inhabits the basins of the Paraná River and the Uruguay River, is one of the bases of the food chain of the Paraná. In protest, fishermen have come south and blocked the access to the Rosario-Victoria Bridge. About 10,000 people make a living out of fish in the coast of Santa Fe.
02 October 2006
Taxi drivers are on strike in Rosario since Saturday. Today they blocked a couple of streets downtown, adding their little contribution to the usual chaos, protesting for the latest attack suffered by one of them and demanding more security. In a country where unemployment and poverty are still horrific, a taxi with a day's worth of money is unfortunately the best target available, cost-benefit-wise.
Those taxis always give me mixed feelings. On one hand, they do suffer a lot of robberies, often violent. They work long hours, carrying around people the rest of us would never get close to for long. In weekend nights they're assaulted by hordes of drunk teenagers with functioning neurones barely enough to indicate their destination and understand a fee.
Yet taxis are not cheap. A few months ago they protested because they were suffering so many robberies and earning so little -- they got authorized a steep fee increase on the promise of installing radio call systems in every unit, so it would be both safer for them, and more handy for us to call them. They raised the fee, but refused to install the radios. They were (they are) very few. They are not enough for a city of 1 million with a large middle class who can still afford taxis, and whose young (especially) like to party at night, when buses are scarce and the streets are dark. The taxis are few because you need a license to drive one, and the owners of licenses won't allow any more licenses, on the excuse that that would hurt their business. The municipality could grant more licenses, but it would face a riot; and it's no secret that some legislators of Rosario's Deliberative Council manage taxi licenses. Some people own fleets of taxis but won't have them in the streets as much as they could. The result: you may be waiting on an important avenue for 10, 15, 30 minutes without getting a taxi.
The taxi drivers are also picky. They won't stop for someone who looks poor, whose skin is darker than average, whose clothes seem shabby. At times they won't stop for lonely men or near large groups. They won't enter dangerous neighborhoods, or places they deem unworthy. They enjoy a classic scenario of low offer and high demand. One taxi owner, before the last fee increase, argued that taxis are not supposed to be cheap and accessible. He said that, now that Argentina is recovering from the economic crisis, more and more people are becoming able to afford a taxi ride, and that was a problem. Instead of hiring more drivers to get the units rolling 24/7, the taxi owners chose to maintain a lousy service with a higher fee, which automatically cuts the demand. These days you practically have to beg for a taxi: the telephones of the radio-call taxi companies are always busy; the taxis in the street sometimes pick you up and then make you get off when they find out the destination is "inconvenient" for some reason.
The security issue is real. The taxi drivers were offered alternatives, like installing a GPS system with a "panic button" which would alert nearby units and the police the moment they're being robbed; putting an unbreakable glass between the driver and the passengers in the back; getting people to pay with debit or pre-paid cards instead of cash. They wanted none of it. They're not very sure what they want, really -- they ask for "security", as if you could have that for yourself in a city where teenagers routinely kill for drug money. Someone suggested that a police officer could go on each taxi unit. Today, vice-governor María Eugenia Bielsa announced that the provincial police will be implementing "safe corridors" with increased patrols along certain streets -- which shows that a) right now the police is not doing its work on those streets; b) starting soon, there will more police in certain areas, for high-priced taxis with middle-class passengers to be safer, while "darker" peripherical areas will be still less safe than they're now. And of course, the taxi drivers will continue refusing to enter those areas.
If only buses worked as they should... but that's material for another rant.