28 February 2007

Super summer storm!

Yesterday there was a terrible storm over a wide area between Rosario and Buenos Aires. Summer storms are commonly the product of several days of high temperature and humidity followed by the arrival of a cold front. The heat and the humidity had been so much that it rained cats and dogs for hours.

I've told you about climate change before. Ten, twenty years ago I remember these storms once every year, or even every two or three years. They were clearly unusual events. But extreme weather has become so frequent that we might as well revise what "extreme" means. Lately it seems that almost every storm is a catastrophe.

Yesterday's rain was accompanied by wind and lightning. The state of maintenance of our sewage pipes and our electrical grid is such that within the first hour of any significant storm, thousands are left without power and/or get their homes flooded. Soon after the storm released its fury, while I was in my office (it was 7:15 AM), lightning stroke nearby and blew off something in our phone line, so we're incommunicado now. Surprisingly, nothing else happened there or at home. However, when I came back I found that a group of people living in a shanty town beside an avenue about 10 blocks from home had blocked the street and organized a picket. The avenue was like a river of mud, and these people were (I guess) demanding attention from the authorities the only way they could, as they'd probably lost all their precarious furniture. The picket was still there today.

We haven't had more hail of the kind we got in November, but the weather has become a serious issue. People, especially people who own cars and use them every day, have developed an accute obsession with forecasts. Being caught in a storm might mean getting your car trapped in a flooded street, pounded by hailstones, or damaged by a falling tree limb. After a wave of criticism caused by its lack of quick warnings, the National Meteorological Service has upgraded its weather alert system, and every day paranoid rosarinos check the news and promptly inform their family and workmates (by word of mouth, phone or text message) as soon as they spot the words ALERTA METEOROLÓGICA.

27 February 2007

Presidential largesse

Rosario has a long strip of green areas and parks by the river, from the port northward. One of these is the Parque España. In March 2005 a section of the park's pavement, which was built over old wooden foundations, collapsed. Only four people were slightly wounded, but it was evident that the area would be unsafe until the foundations were redone, so a 500-meter-long section of the park was closed to the public. The park is administered by the municipality, but it was originally made with funds of the Spanish Crown and the national government. Such joint architectural projects involving foreign governments are fairly common, as tokens of friendship between other nations and Argentina; this was simply especially big.

The collapse of the park was a disaster. It was way beyond the means of the local government (and well outside its priorities as well) to supply millions of pesos to repair it. However, President Néstor Kirchner vowed that the federal government would provide the funds; he would announce this during the celebration of Flag Day, which is traditionally held in Rosario because it was here where Manuel Belgrano created and first flew our flag. Flag Day is June 20, the anniversary of Belgrano's death, as we have the bizarre custom of commemorating deaths rather than births; the flag was first flown by the Paraná River on February 27, so the anniversary (by mere coincidence) is today, but it's not a holiday. Well, months went by, and words remained words.

Just yesterday, governor Obeid was told to announce that the national government would, at last, call for bids to repair the park, supplying the approximately 40 million pesos that will require. This was abrupt and unexpected, and I'm glad it finally happened. However, in today's dead-tree edition of La Capital I'm seeing a full-page full-colour ad, paid for by the government of Santa Fe, getting a bit of credit for itself and thanking President Kirchner. It reads exactly like this: "Thank you, our dear Peronist father and political patron, for fulfilling the promise you made and then forgot two years ago, sharing an infinitesimal part of the wealth in the government's overflowing coffers, and only coincidentally before election season!" (I'm paraphrasing a bit here and there).

Politicians have always used public works as propaganda. Sometimes it's obvious, other times it's forgivable, others it's even appropriate. In Argentina, announcements of public works don't carry a lot of weight but they're used a lot, like inaugurating partially completed projects. The Socialist administration of Rosario is well-known for naming every conceivable square of grass "Plaza (whatever)", and for staging costly and completely useless outdoor artistic performances for the public. But only Peronists are capable of such gross self-advertising and such fake-emotional displays of loyalty.

(I'm listening to the radio now. "Thanks, President Kirchner, for keeping up the help to Rosario." They paid for a radio ad too!)

I might add that the cost of the repairs was about AR$27.5 million back in 2005, while it's now around AR$40 million, so the delay was also a waste of money... but I don't want to sound ungrateful.

23 February 2007

Back as usual

I just can't help a bitter smile when I remember a recent cover of the parody news magazine Barcelona, with the large headline: REACTIVATION — THE MIDDLE CLASS REGAINS ITS HISTORICAL LEVEL OF FASCISM. "Reactivation" is how the economic recovery of Argentina since 2002 is commonly called.

Barcelona mocks the traditional "fascism" of the Argentine middle (and upper) class for a reason. Back in the 1990s, the poor and underprivileged were simply forgotten, swept under the rug. With Argentina being in the First World and all, the poor were an anomaly and anything leftist/progressive was anathema. Then the crisis hit and the middle class found itself struggling not to become "one of them", only it didn't think of "them" because we couldn't possibly become like "them", as we the good, decent, hard-working people were born with better genes. Then the crisis exploded, it was everybody run for their lives, etc. etc.

But as things got better, the middle class couldn't stop but noticing that it was getting better for "them" as well, and they want "what?". A typical dialogue: "Did you learn they're giving them a raise?" "What do you mean, a raise? More welfare? Aren't they living off the state enough already?" "Oh no, but you know, they're parasites. They steal power and running water, they don't pay taxes, and on top of that they ask for more!" "Very true. They're living for free. And they're having children all the time, you know! Like cockroaches. They breed and lie down all day and then the government gives them money." "And don't even think of asking them to work for a living." "No way! They're lazy, they're all lazy, and their kids are like that too. It's in their genes." "And thieves and drugheads." "We're the fools, you know. We pay taxes so they can get drunk and watch TV." "Somebody should burn all those shantytowns."

The above is not made up. It's what I hear on a regular basis from certain (fortunately not all, not even most) middle-class people in my everyday environment. Some of them are such nice people that one has to wonder whether they think at all before they open their mouths to utter such barbarity, or whether the isolation between us, citizens of the same country and minds of the same culture, has erased the last traces of empathy in their brains.

Barcelona does comedy and satire, but the headlines are not always innocuous made-up funny phrases. Good satire is eye-opening, in that it sometimes exposes the rotten core of its subject for the public (which may include its subject) to see and think, and (if possible) learn. The Argentine middle class buys Barcelona and rightly laughs, and it's often laughing at itself.

22 February 2007

Babel バベル בָּבֶל Βαβέλ

After a failed attempt that led me to another movie and a couple of weeks, I went to see Babel yesterday.

Babel, written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, has a multinational cast and is, of course, spoken in several languages. It's made of three interweaving stories: one in and around the border between the United States and Mexico; the other in Morocco; and the other in Japan (I think I saw the Tokyo Tower and I saw a sign that read Shinjuku, but that was the only indication). The English-speaking audience will immediately recognize Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt; the Latin American audience will probably be familiar with Gael García Bernal (the one who played Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries).

The common theme, as suggested by the title, is lack of communication within society and between different societies, but that wasn't the only detail. The U.S.–Mexico border scenes were full of music and dust; the ones in Morocco were full of dust and solitude; the ones in Japan were full of people that are physically close to each other yet unable to communicate. The common thread seems to be the desert, the desperation of people who don't know how to get out of places they don't wish to be.

There's also a clear message about xenophobia, in the literal etymological sense of fear and rejection of the Different Other, be they paranoid American tourists in an Arab town, Mexican citizens treated like criminals by the U.S. border patrol, or deaf-mute Japanese girls freaking out stupid boys in a disco.

The people in Babel, for different reasons ranging from alienation to distraction to irrational fear, make incredibly stupid mistakes, just because they don't imagine what the other might do, or because they don't see the other. In a world full of communication devices, people fail to communicate and thus solve their problems; people belonging to the same culture or to wildly different ones, face to face or by long-distance phone or through sign language, speaking as friends or relatives or representatives of whole nations, cannot reach each other, for reasons only beginning with language. Babel is not devoid of hope, though; in the middle of this nightmare, flashes of pure understanding and acceptance cast some light on the otherwise gloomy landscape of our fractured world.

Babel is not going to rock your world. Some parts of the stories could be better told; the Japanese section, though very well done in itself, is somehow disconnected from the rest; the acting skills of the cast are a bit overshadowed by the plot itself. But the high points are in the majority. The colours and the music, the whole ambience given to each scenario, is wonderful. And it's not common that a movie spoken in four languages, with subtitles, is appreciated by European critics and also nominated for the Academy Awards. We'll see how it does in a few weeks.

21 February 2007

Gimme, gimme!

This is what happens when the economy goes well in a country with people accustomed to ask for more all the time without regard for common sense.

It's not that Argentina is swimming in fresh money. There's just more currency in the streets. The money-making machines are rolling at full speed, as the Central Bank desperately attempts to buy more and more dollars to keep the exchange rate high and encourage exports. Argentinians don't like to save, and they love spending. The national state is collecting a lot in taxes and this is an electoral year — remember, also, that this is a truly, old-fashioned populist Peronist government, so it's throwing money around in projects, subsidies and plain advertising throughout the country.

As a result, we the people have money in our pockets, usually, and we don't restrain ourselves as much as we did in former times, when we had to think twice before choosing the comfort and speed of a taxi over the crowded inside of a public bus. Back then we preferred receiving guests at home, with food and drink bought at the supermarket; now we don't feel guilty going out to dinner in a fancy restaurant every now and then. And so on. We're now spending money, big time, and those who want our money have noticed it.

First it was the taxi drivers, then the bus drivers. Our urban bus fee was AR$0.75 cents, now it's AR$1.20, all because the bus drivers wanted to earn a minimum of AR$2,300 a month. Most semi-qualified full-time workers in Rosario get around AR$1,000, maybe a bit more, and there are many, many people working eight or nine solid hours per day, Monday thru Saturday, for less than that. In general, a person earning more than AR$2,000 per month in Rosario, unless they're a established professional (a doctor, a lawyer, an architect), is doing very well. The bus drivers in Rosario drive badly, and their manners are terrible; the service is erratic, unsafe, and almost inexistent at night; and it hasn't improved. But wait! Just after the last fee raise, which was entirely their fault, the drivers are now asking for a salary raise again. I guess soon medicine and law students will start leaving the universities to become bus drivers; they'll earn more without having to gain experience or look for clients.

But wait (again)! Since the bus is getting a bit expensive, people are choosing to get taxis (three people pay AR$3.60 for a bus trip; for AR$6 they can get a 15-minute taxi trip, give or take). Taxi drivers are enraged by the fact that they're having so much work, and complain that their service should be expensive not only in absolute terms (which it is) but also in comparison to the bus, so they want the taxi fees to raise, too. The fee is made up of two parts: the basic starting fee, called bajada de bandera (i.e. what they charge you just for stopping and turning off their "FREE" red light sign), and the ficha, or time/distance-based fee (i.e. what they charge for every block, plus the waiting times before traffic lights, etc.). The bajada de bandera is now AR$1.80, while the ficha is AR$0.90. The taxi owners want those figures to raise to AR$2.60 and AR$1.30 respectively. That would make the taxi what they want, a more exclusive service, in the literal sense: a service whose cost excludes most of the public from using it.

Not to be left behind, the public employee union of Santa Fe is also asking for a raise. The provincial government has been making a big deal of the fact that we (they) have a fiscal surplus, so why don't they pay us more? The leader of UPCN, the main union, is also a deputy (member of the Lower House). Incompatibility, anyone? He's also a well-known embezzler (nobody has been able to prove anything, but that's not difficult when the judges are all friends of the party). UPCN wants a minimum wage of AR$1,800. For most employees that would mean a 90% salary raise. Naturally, the provincial government is not happy about this ridiculously high request, but can't refuse it outright because it's an electoral year and UPCN is always quick to resort to strikes in sensitive places, such as public hospitals.

The teachers employed by the provincial state are asking for a raise too. They want a minimum of AR$2,200. Bear in mind these are people who work 5 hours a day, 9 months a year. For sure they've studied to get there and they work in a hostile environment (public schools, overcrowded with mostly poor children, often in bad neighbourhoods). But I can have no sympathy for them. They've always used schoolchildren as symbolic human shields in their fight for a higher pay. They always, always go on strike, causing the children to lose class days they'll never recover, and they never try to negotiate and set things straight with the government during the summer vacations. Since I was a child myself, teachers have never, ever, gone to class every day in the year. As March approaches, teachers threaten they won't start classes, thus delaying the educational schedule from the very beginning.

Most labour unions are asking for raises as well. They argue that both private companies and the state are doing financially well and that inflation was 10% last year (most believe it was actually much more). What can we say to that?

Orthodox economics says that higher salaries for everyone will increase costs and will fuel consumer spending, and in turn this will trigger more inflation. Orthodox economists, though, are notorious for favouring companies over consumers. Looking at companies' production costs, it's apparent that the private sector is in fact taking advantage of the public sensation of economic exhuberance to raise prices and reap more profits, since the workers' pay is only a small percentage of the total cost of the product in most cases. This may vary a lot, of course; harvesting corn is not the same as manufacturing cars and definitely not the same as selling vacations in a spa. The service sector in particular is collecting truckloads of money; long-distance bus fares have increased out of all reason, restaurants charge ridiculous prices for drinks (8 pesos for a beer you can get for 2 pesos in the supermarket!), and the cheesiest gyms in town fake a Pilates class and charge old ladies 80 pesos for it.

The argument that salaries cause inflation is the favourite of private companies. If modern economy were based in real life, it would be easy to dismiss it, but since the whole world economy is based in arbitrary factors (such as Ben Bernanke's mood when he wakes up, or the amount of people blown up in Iraq during a given week), it's often enough that the market or the public "feel" something to make it real. Well done!

19 February 2007

My digital camera

Fujifilm FinePix A345It's been a year since I bought my digital camera. I'd discovered the pleasure of photography before, but the equipment didn't match my expectations as to what constitutes a good picture. This camera really opened up a world of opportunities.

The first advantage of a digital camera is, of course, the ability to waste freely and for free — as you can take a thousand pictures of the same object with slightly different camera settings and ambient lighting, and from variable angles and distances, without worrying about the film running out or the future price of developing it.

The second advantage is quality. Granted my camera is not a superior one. Any modern reflex camera that is not below average quality, operated by the proper hands, can produce better pictures than my humble Fujifilm FinePix A345. Although the comparison is difficult, I get it that, on average, a picture taken by a reflex camera and printed on good paper has the equivalent of a 9 megapixel resolution; mine is only 4 Mpx. Cameras above 7 Mpx are still rare and extremely expensive in Argentina, where imported electronic equipment is burdened by high taxes and reaches us months after it's become standard in the developed world. Anyway, the quality is fine enough to me, and it's far better than many common reflex cameras in the market.

Average reflex cameras may not have a good focus control and don't automatically compensate for bad lightning, high contrast, etc. The circuitry and software of a digital camera handle those naturally, and in any case you can edit the picture as an image file later without losing time and quality by scanning a printed picture.

The ability to shoot many pictures one after another in a few minutes was the one I made most of. I'm impatient and I'm not a pro; I can't stand shooting a picture and then having to wait to see how it turned out, and I don't have the equipment to look at the film to choose one particular picture and discard the rest, not to speak of the waste of money. I'd been thinking of a camera and I made the mistake of going to Mendoza in January 2006 without buying it, as I didn't find it financially safe at the time. Fortunately my travel mate took his own camera, so we didn't miss the chance to get nice shoots, and this additionally convinced me that I should have one of these wonderful apparatuses.

I got it one month later and started going around Rosario, picturing anything remotely curious or well-built that crossed my path. I discovered places I'd never been to in my life, and things I'd never laid eyes on, even as they were there all the time I've lived here. I took interest in the history of Rosario. I got accustomed to looking up and around while walking, searching for little architectural features, clever graffiti, weird objects from weird angles.

This blog is in part a result of that search and discovery. After I took a lot of pictures, I started showing them to the world, joining the flood of content produced by common people and posted to the web that has become a trend. Yet many pictures were not worth more than a thousand words, or even close. I love pictures that are beautiful and complex in and of themselves, but I also love pictures that have a complex significance only explainable from the outside. Certain political graffiti are a good example, as are seemingly plain old buildings with a history.

I've even considered making my own photo book. Amid the thousands of trial-and-error byproducts there are a few true gems that I could conceivably collect, comment and print out. I'm not a paper person — I'm perfectly OK with watching photos in a computer screen as long as it's got a good resolution. I'd do this for myself, but I wouldn't do it unless I could pay for it by selling the book. If you, my loyal reader, have any suggestion, please write!

15 February 2007

Religion in Rosario: Ignacio Peries

Father Ignacio is one my pet peeves... one of those I spoke about in my last post. Ignacio is a middle-aged Catholic priest originally from Sri Lanka (his full name is Ignacio Peries Kurukulasuriya). He has a beard and bright eyes on a dark complexion, and he speaks Spanish with a monotone accent, all of which contributes to a "magnetic" quality of his among the gullible masses. He supposedly has healing powers, or at the very least the power to look at sick people and tell them what disease or problem afflicts them, or what they should do about it. As his fame increased, his followers mounted a bureaucratic structure around him, with secretaries giving out thousands of numbers to see the man one month in advance. The little church of the Nativity of the Lord in a poor barrio of Rosario was turned into a place of pilgrimage to see Padre Ignacio and try to get a touch, a glance, a word from him.

Ignacio has among his devotees a couple of members of the local media, and rubs elbows with the best of the best of the local aristocracy — Catholic businessmen, politicians, public opinion shapers — from whom he gets juicy donations. You won't find negative references to Ignacio Peries in the press, though you can dig up a lot anecdotical evidence if you ask around. The guy undoubtedly has a short-term positive effect on many people, but other than that, what has he done?

After gaining fame, in 1998, Ignacio was appointed to lead the Crusade of the Holy Spirit, seemingly a long-term operation aimed at building his own seminary, funded by high-priced lunch meetings with Rosario's VIP class. That year he got donations for US$500,000, which he used to buy a 30,000 m² estate and build a house for the seminarists. He did help other projects, such as schools and healthcare centers, but neither the Crusade nor the normal activities of the parish include the use of Ignacio's enormous popularity to do anything truly significant but reinforce his image.

On Crucifixion Friday every year, Ignacio leads a Via Crucis that gathers thousands (150,000 people); buses have to be re-routed, the neighbourhood is invaded by pilgrims who leave a trail of trash behind them, and local TV channels cancel other programmes to broadcast the event, as Ignacio's media and politics friends scramble to appear in the picture.

As per usual policies of the church, Ignacio should have been assigned to another parish years ago, but two archbishops have so far tolerated him, even as many local priests, off the record, abhor his sensationalist exposure. It's a common occurrence to hear people speaking of a problem and how Ignacio is surely going to help if only they manage to get a word with him or show him a photo of a loved one — which makes me cringe.

The guy has all the mannerisms of a fake guru, and the same kind of followers: people whose only trouble is how to spend their time and imagine they have all sorts of problems; people who need reassurance from a higher power; and (the saddest part) people who are truly very ill, or have relatives who are very ill. Some claim Ignacio can guess what's troubling you without so much as a quick look, or even at a distance, and that he's been able to diagnose medical conditions then confirmed by doctors. Others get vague advice: "We must wait and pray", "Have faith", "Everything's gonna be OK".

Quite naturally, and as it happens with diviners all around the world, Ignacio's foretelling works at random but only his successes are recorded and exalted. To his credit, I'm told he always tells supplicants not to abandon proper medical assistance and treatment. Some undoubtedly are beyond that possibility by the time they look for supernatural healing. It just goes against my instincts and my intellectual stance to accept that, maybe, those people might profit from abandoning reason and devoting themselves to wishful thinking while they die.

It's quite possible that Ignacio actually believes he has a God-given power and a mandate to heal and comfort. What I find uncomfortable is the mass phenomenon, not the man. The politicians' and media people's attempts to appear next to Ignacio is comprehensible (their livelihood depends on subservience to the public opinion) but disgusting nonetheless. That the Church looks the other way to avoid harming one of its few sources of popular prestige in the area is also natural, and equally disgusting.

Religion in Argentina

Given the exposure I got after the YouTube censorship issue (involving the deletion of a video and a user account because the author listed Qur'an verses about hell and the treatment of nonbelievers), I thought I might give you a view on religion in my environment. Most of my readers are American or European, so they might be confused about the state of religious faith and supernatural beliefs in Argentina.

A more formal overview can be found in the Wikipedia article about religion in Argentina. I pride myself on being objective when I say so; I may not be that objective in this case, but I won't claim that anyway. My perception is coloured by the local perspective and by my personal history — like everyone's.

Well, religion is tricky and Argentina is a mixed country. The central areas (meaning the most populated, the more economically productive and wealthy) are generally more progressive than the peripheric ones, especially the provinces of the northwest. This is repeated in the local scale as well. In our province, Rosario is markedly more progressive than Santa Fe City.

What do I mean by progressive? A few examples should illustrate. Common people accept homosexuality, freely available contraception, teenage sex, unmarried cohabitation, nudity and obscenity on TV as a matter of fact; those are not matters of moral outrage or long-standing politically charged issues. A minority of conservatives (mostly aging Catholics) occasionally protest; tiny groups of fundamentalists do their thing sometimes. At the same time, political incorrectness is rampant. The very same people who accept their gay neighbours giggle and make silly jokes about gays for everyone to hear. The black immigrant selling merchandise in the street is a curiosity and prompts similar jokes, but is not discriminated and nobody would condone that. Anti-semitism, racism and blind ethnocentrism are as common as unobtrusive (in general). Prejudice is everywhere but doesn't affect public policy and is easily surpassed by common sense; it's caused more by ignorance than by malice, since the Argentine urban dweller lacks sophistication and exposure to the variety of the real world.

The Argentine citizen believes in God, prays to a stamp of the Virgin Mary, makes vows to pagan popular saints, wears a red wristband to divert envy, reads the horoscope, waits in line to see a Catholic priest with healing powers, kisses the statues of Catholic saints for luck, goes to a doctor who recommends a chiropractor who recommends a reiki master, and believes in eternal heaven and in reencarnation at the same time. He or she goes to Mass every now and then, picks and chooses from Catholic doctrine, pays respect to priests and then calls priests liars and thieves, trusts the Church over the media but doesn't feel the Church has any authority. Couples have all the sex they want using contraceptives and then solemnly promise the priest they'll keep Catholic doctrine (i.e. they'll breed like happy rabbits in Eden) and raise their kids in chastity. Duplicity? Confusion? Just regular human behaviour, I'd say — incoherent, illogical, and just right for modern life.

The downside is that real issues, such as the constant meddling of the Catholic Church in lawmaking, go unnoticed. The Church knows it can't rally the masses, so it works on the high places. Politicians are often rich, and the rich are often conservative Catholics, well-connected and influential. The upside (there's an upside!) is that fundamentalists are not well-received in public, and they're usually called what they are: bigots and fanatics, even if they're also archbishops.

My problem is with the middle ground..., the ridiculous superstitions and popular religious characters that I have to put up with. I have a few pet peeves I'll be letting you know about soon enough.

14 February 2007

Mayor Lifschitz goes to San Francisco

Rosario's mayor Miguel Lifschitz travelled to San Francisco, California, United States. Besides the exchange of ideas and vague promises of cooperation, San Francisco's mayor promised he'll work on making Rosario and San Francisco sister cities... whatever that means... as long as both he and Lifschitz are reelected this year (we have elections in September; San Francisco has them in November).

Trolebús Línea KIt turns out, also, that San Francisco's Secretary of Transport is a rosarino! Lifschitz had mentioned that he wanted to bring back the trolleybus to Rosario; there's one (the K line), operated by the municipal state-owned transport company, going east–west all across town, but that's just the last remains of a grid of electric trams that used to cover the city. The municipality wants the trolleybus to have a place in it, by restoring the M line, going north–south.

It's been years since Rosario's bus system has had increasing problems coping with a larger urban area and a larger population. Long ago the municipality planned a new system which would replace the many unconnected bus lines with a hierarchy of district-based lines, transfer lines between nearby areas of the city, and main lines that would cross the whole city. The system was discussed, debated, studied, reformed, and presented to the private companies; it failed to gather investments, then there came an economic crisis, then another, then it failed again... The last attempt succeeded, so we're waiting, sometime during 2007, for the buses to be reorganized. The trams would be an interesting addition to the mix.

The opportunity is unique. The city of Vancouver, Canada, is liquidating its fleet of old trams, which are nevertheless working fine, and it's vowed to donate them to Córdoba, Mendoza and Rosario — we're going to get 70 of them, provided we can pay for the shipping, which is minor compared to the cost of the units. We'll then need 15 million pesos to mount the infrastructure. The K line serves a lot of people and is remarkably quiet, so I hope the M line will be OK as well. What I'd like to see is a picture of Vancouver's trams (Wikimedia Commons has a picture of a TransLink trolley bus, but I doubt that's it).

Besides the tram, it seems Lifschitz liked San Francisco's touristic cable car. There was a project, once, to set up a railway along the coast of the Paraná so that passengers could watch the view. Again, it was one of those things easier said than done. With the city now decidedly going touristic and economically improving, the mayor is pondering the idea of a cable car in Rosario. That would be a major attraction. The municipality has worked hard to make the shoreline accessible and available; from the center northward you can stroll (or jog) along pedestrian paths by parks and beaches for some 7 km with almost no interruption, admiring the river and the islands in the east, and the skyline of the city in the west. A way to do the same for those not keen on walking, or to enjoy the view comfortably in the hottest times of day in the summer, or during rainy days, would be extremely welcome, and if not touristically expensive, also quite useful in itself.
Pathetic attempts at criticizing Lifschitz's administration routinely pop up in the walls of certain parts of the city. Lifschitz is a Socialist and a former official of the Binner administration, and though he's kept his low profile and a cautious distance from the campaign for the governorship, Binner and Lifschitz are linked in the popular sentiment, and the Peronist operators of Rafael Bielsa's campaign are taking advantage of that. "Lifschitz, enough with the travels, Rosario needs solutions", I read today in a wall — this, as governor Obeid is in Cuba presenting a book of his, admiring a replica of Che Guevara's home and sucking up to the Castros. Not that that's wrong in any sense; mayors and governors often travel abroad to showcase their lands and promote trade and cultural exchange. "Lifschitz = Bus fee raise", on a poster, too, with a picture of Binner on one side, explaining that the Socialists don't have a solution for the city's problems. (The Peronist leader in the city council made a public display of disapproval when the mayor was forced to raise the fee after the bus drivers got an outrageous salary raise. They also complained when the municipality rose the real estate tax to make upper-middle-class homes pay more than a few pesos. This is all useless since they can't block anything in the council — it's just for show.)

The Peronists have been unable to win in Rosario since 1983; since 1989 we've had Socialist mayors, and Lifschitz is practically sure to win this time again. The Peronist candidates over the years have all been ridiculous... low-level party cronies with a history of living off political favours, opportunists with no idea how to run a city, a foul-mouthed mediocre yellow journalist, the leader of a pharmacy chain suspected of supplying his business with stolen medicine... anyone, absolutely anyone who could bring even a single vote to the cause, under the legal fraud of the Ley de Lemas, tailor-made for the benefit of the pragmatic Justicialist Party. All of them put together, on three consecutive elections, could not come close to Binner or Lifschitz running alone. The city has terrible problems, but people aren't that stupid. So maybe next year, if mayor Newsom of San Francisco is still there, Rosario will have a new sister.

12 February 2007

In support of Nick Ginsburne

Now that was a truly unexpected title! No, Nick Ginsburne is not some crazy guy trying to cross the North Sea on foot to raise money for a vaccine against the jock itch or something. In fact he's completely unrelated to me or to any of the usual topics of this blog.

Nick is an atheist, which makes him alike me in one respect. (He also has a beard and wears glasses, so that's two more things. And he's a human male. And he speaks English. We're a lot alike each other!) Some time ago Nick, who apparently uses YouTube a lot, uploaded a video consisting of a list of verses of the Qur'an (that is, the holy book of Islam). The video was removed. He uploaded it again, and again it was removed. Supporters of free speech got the video and tried to re-upload it on their own YouTube accounts, but they were deleted as well. Nick's YouTube account was finally suspended. Just to test the idea, Nick uploaded a similar video using verses from the Bible. The video stayed and was OK for a while, and then it was deleted. As of this moment, one copy of the video remains in someone else's account, though I don't know for how long.

Well, YouTube is owned by Google. Google, which is of course known by its search engine, is also the owner of Gmail, the first web-based email service to provide users with mammoth 1GB+ mailboxes, and of the very service that hosts this blog, Blogger. I'm now wondering whether Google will eventually have the time to scan the million of blogs hosted by Blogger and censor them as they did with Nick's video on YouTube. I can only suppose that Nick's video was found because the guys at YouTube are desperately looking for videos that violate copyright, which they used to host (and still host) by at least the hundreds of thousands, after a couple of media companies threatened to sue.

Anyway, I'm not a user of YouTube. I'm writing this to let YouTube and Google know, if possible, that here's another atheist that likes to produce content for the web, and doesn't like the feeling of being watched for political correctness. We're the ones paying your frickin' salaries and giving value to your stocks. You don't want to mess with us.

If you want to fight censorship, and censorship clearly motivated by religious bigotry at that, use whatever space you have to link to articles denouncing YouTube's policies. It would be delicious to enter "YouTube censorship" in Google and see a relevant result up there in the first page of results. Google ranks results higher if the same words are linked to the same web address in many different places. So this is my little grain of sand. Here's another one, linking "YouTube censorship" with another denunciation. And a YouTube censorship protest video!

10 February 2007

The Socialist, the independent and the two little Radicals

Hermes Binner's governor candidacy was launched last Thursday. So far the one and only Socialist in Argentina with chances to become a governor in the foreseeable future has gotten away with everything — he ignored the demands of his Radical Party allies to name his companion (the vice-governor candidate), stubbornly ignored the appointment of Carlos Fascendini, got Fascendini to submit, step aside and sing Binner's praises, and gathered the support of a whole lot of Radicals, including the mayors and communal authorities of many a small town in the heart of Santa Fe, where the battle may be thoughest (Binner has Rosario, with more than one third of Santa Fe's population, practically in his pocket already, and Santa Fe City is going that way too).

Topping it off, he got Griselda Tessio, a respectable federal prosecutor (she's just resigned) and a daughter of the last Radical Party governor of Santa Fe, to be his running mate, and he launched the campaign, with her on one side and Fascendini on the other, in a meeting in Esperanza, the prosperous city in central Santa Fe where both Fascendini and Tessio were born.

Esperanza was the first town in Argentina to be founded as an agricultural colony with immigrants from Europe, sponsored by an official colonization program. Colonies like this brought waves of Germans, French and Swiss to Entre Ríos, while Justo José de Urquiza was the local caudillo and the President of the Argentine Confederation, and then to the central area of Santa Fe, which is dotted with little towns. The name "Esperanza" even looks intentionally auspicious — it means "hope". Nowadays Esperanza is the head town of the Las Colonias Department, a rich area that produces a sizable proportion of Argentina's dairies.

A faction of the Radicals, led by a couple of political parasites who've never been elected to anything or had any political power outside the party bureaucracy, are against Binner and Tessio. They need Binner but they wanted their own candidate — first they appointed Fascendini, now they want another one elected in primaries. They may take the issue to court so that Binner and Tessio are forbidden to use the name "Progressive Front" in their ballots. Strictly speaking, Binner did violate an agreement with the Radicals; it turned out OK, the campaign is going ahead and all, but the formal Radical Party structures did not accept the fait accompli.

Santa Fe's Radicals have a tendency to split over small matters, basically following individual leaderships. Will these guys, with legal but not consensual authority, end up proclaiming a governor candidate of their own? The poor guy would be doomed to wither in solitude and lose, but he would divert some votes from the Socialist-Radical alliance. The Peronist candidates are more than a few votes behind, but not impossibly far behind.

The Peronist provincial government has started throwing money around — millions and millions to repair schools, to upgrade hospitals and healthcare centers, to pave roads, to beautify small towns — things that should've been done during the three years since this administration took office, in a consistent, regular way, not as a extraordinary pre-electoral show. It's disgusting, this spectacle of a governor and officials appearing in a virtual partisan rally to deliver a large check to a hospital so it can buy a few shiny expensive items while HIV+ patients can't get their drug cocktails in that very same hospital because the provincial bureaucrat in charge is on vacation, and while the healthcare centers that send patients to the hospital don't have computers, full-time nurses, or a regular supply of toilet paper.

I can't say for sure this is going to change if the politicians change; I can't believe it might be worse than this.

08 February 2007

Inflation inflated

Inflation, sir? No, thanks. The media are gloating over the scandal caused by the government's alleged interference in the measurement of January's inflation rate by INDEC (the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses). But first, some history.

Inflation is the historical archenemy of the Argentine economy. Back in 1989, president Raúl Alfonsín was forced to resign after food riots caused by hyperinflation. In 1991, Carlos Menem brought Domingo Cavallo to the Economy Ministry to fight inflation; Cavallo froze all bank accounts for 180 days, and thus halted the multiplication of money in circulation and stopped financial speculation and inflation, causing some prices to drop by 50% overnight. Then Cavallo came up with Convertibility, which effectively turned over the control of monetary policy to the U.S. Federal Reserve... and brought 12 years of almost zero inflation, and a few instances of deflation. Inflation exploded again when Convertibility was abolished in 2002, but it was just that — not a hyperinflationary catastrophe.

From 2003 on, the government decided that it wouldn't "cool off" the economy, which was expanding at an accelerated rate, so Argentina's inflation rate has been greater than that of most other Latin American countries and "normal" stable economies, around an annual 10–12%. Workers' salaries and companies' profits have recovered; the downside is that there's so much money flowing in the system and so little incentive to save (interest rates are ridiculously low) that everybody except the poorest of the poor is spending like crazy: cell phones, air conditioners, cars, clothing, plasma TVs, tennis shoes, home theaters, MP3 players, tourism packages...

So what's the problem now? Ten-percent inflation is rather high in international terms, but it's not that much when GDP is growing at an annual 9%. The labour unions are strong and the government is prodigal, so private and public sector wages are keeping up, more or less (in fact they recovered 8% over inflation last year). Price controls leave holes everywhere but they're effective overall.

The problem is, Doña Rosa feels that the inflation rate as measured by INDEC is not real. INDEC goes around each month, looking at the prices of a basket of 8,000 products that (ideally) make up a representative sample of citizens' consumption patterns. If a product's price doesn't increase during a given month, it'll bring down the rate in proportion to its statistical weight — and the basket includes items like tourism and canine grooming, which are not exclusive of the filthy rich but are certainly not within reach of many lower-middle class families. Naturally, the weight of such items is very small, but the media and the opposition made so much out of it that Doña Rosa is now convinced that the IPC (Price Consumer Index) is fabricated. Luxuries like canine grooming and imported LCD screens are expensive, but they've been expensive for a while, so their prices won't move, while basic needs like tomatoes, jam, chicken and T-shirts go up and down all the time (always more up than down) following seasonal effects, unjustified maneuvers of the producers, and a myriad other causes.

The last stroke was the sudden replacement of the head of INDEC by another person, just before the announcement of the January inflation index. The opposition, the media (even abroad), and the consumer organizations pounced on that — why was a long-time, respected official of one of the few government organizations with a reputation of flawless political independence replaced overnight without a clear cause by someone chosen by the national government? Could it be because private analysts were foretelling that the January rate would be over 1.5%? In 2006 it was 9.8% — was that because the government pressured INDEC to produce a number below the (psychologically important) 10% that the Economy Ministry had publicly set as a target? For how long exactly had the government tried to fool the public? And so on.

INDEC has, as I said, a reputation of independence and of methodological quality that has been acknowledged here and by international organizations. That reputation has been now tainted. After the dismissal of its top official, a number of employees denounced the government's interference and announced they'd monitor the figures closely, warning that they wouldn't let them be tampered with. The vociferous de facto speaker for the president, Minister Aníbal Fernández, spoke of "mafias" and accused the employees of having an agenda. Security personnel surrounded the seat of INDEC and the figures of inflation (the PCI and the inflation on a basket of basic products) were released later than usual.

The Kirchner administration reacts to accusations with paranoia and verbal excess; the inarticulate and generally sleazy opposition, and our lowest-common-denominator mass media, arguably deserve such a treatment... but I believe that someone should strive to stay in the high moral ground, so I can't justify that, no matter how much in agreement I may be with K in other issues. If you're right, you don't need to scream about it — reality will prove you right in the end.

The net result of this is that now nobody believes INDEC's inflation rate. This is serious not only in itself. We've emitted inflation-indexed debt bonds; those bonds fell abruptly after the scandal, as consultants recommended holders to sell. The country risk index assigned to Argentina by JP Morgan jumped more than 6% — that means Argentina will pay more interest for loans, as it's a riskier investment to lend to us.

Prices will continue to rise, as ever, independently from the fate of INDEC and the meddling of the national government. The possibility of runaway inflation seems remote now. Ultimately it's us consumers who can exercise control, by not buying obviously overpriced goods. Why don't we see that is a mystery.

07 February 2007


One of my jogging buddies dropped off for more than a week as he suffered and recovered (he's still recovering, in fact) from an intestinal infection (nasty stuff — I'd never seen such a big guy forced to dine on just two cereal bars)... and there are only two of us left now, so we changed the route to better suit our comfort. The path that went along the coast around the city center was closer to poor Mr. Quick Guts' home, which we used as a base; now that's he's not with us (temporarily) we've moved to the north.

The first time we jogged by a recently opened avenue that communicates the northwest part of Rosario (including my neighbourhood) diagonally with the center-north coast of the river, bordering the (also relatively new) Scalabrini Ortiz Park, and then we continued north along the Costanera up to the Contemporary Art Museum (MACRo), a simple structure built on former grain silos painted in several hues of blue, pink and purple. A lot of people go jogging or take a stroll for sport, or for fun, or walk the dog, in this circuit.

The next time we started directly at the coast and went past the MACRo until the area near the old Rosario Central train station and the Parque España. This was all abandoned railway and port facilities a couple of decades ago, but the station and its annexes have been refurbished, turned into exhibition rooms, museums, a children's entertainment center, and a Municipal District Center. The park has a huge parking lot, statues of famous musicians, a promenade, a private school and a culture center; it was all sponsored by the Spanish government. A couple of years ago part of the paved elevated shore broke and sank into the river, so a wide strip of the park is closed off pending full repairs (which will cost gobs of money — the national government promised it'll pay, and we're still waiting).

Finally, yesterday we went jogging again, and this time I chose the place: the coastal circuit starting at the Leandro N. Alem Park, near the Gigante de Arroyito (Rosario Central's football stadium).

Jogging course along the Costanera
This time there were really crowds — lots of younglings and a miscellanea of young couples holding hands, veteran athletes, older guys and girls trying to recatch their health, a few groups of teenagers and 20-somethings training (football semi-pros?), some running around, others stretching in the grass. Further north we entered Alberdi and passed by a couple of hip bars, a stylish gym next to a disco that I used to attend, and a few nautical clubs. The river was not crowded, maybe because the sun was already setting and the wind was considerable; in better conditions the wide Paraná is dotted by kayaks, sailboats, windsurf tables, jet-skis, and the occasional yacht, sometimes watched from above by gliders.

We stopped at the Bajada Puccio (the place where Puccio Avenue goes down to meet the Costanera, and the focal point of young summer fun in Rosario), caught our breath, stretched a bit, then went back jogging to the park, and then a bit more around the Gigante stadium. Fortunately for us, it hasn't been terribly hot lately; before the sun sets, a cool breeze blows from the river.

It's still difficult for me to keep a suitable jogging pace. I paused and walked in mid-way for about a block's distance, half because my legs were tired, half because I had no breath left. In general, for someone as un-athletic as me, I'd say that's perfectly OK. As a plus, my legs don't hurt at all, and I'm not excessively tired — it seems it's more a problem of resistance and metabolism than actual physical inability. The only "downside" is that I feel ravenously hungry all the time since I started the gym+jogging routine. That's certainly not a problem for me!

06 February 2007

Everybody hates oil?

Biofuels are suddenly all the rage. Even the Dumbest Texan has acknowledged that the United States needs to research fuels produced from crops rather than extracted from ancient fossile reservoirs. Maybe he realized already that investing in the invasion of oil-rich countries does not yield the returns everybody thought they would. The U.S. is also engaged in talks with Brazil and other countries (not Argentina) to coordinate the production and trade of ethanol made from corn..., and stop paying astronomical fuel fees to the Venezuelan state oil company and from there to Hugo. In the meantime, some are already warning that the U.S. may begin importing corn from us to make ethanol.

Back down here, it just so happens that South America may be the place everyone will look to when thinking about fuel... just as Argentina is close to becoming a net importer of oil. We do have a lot of it buried somewhere, but the oil corporations haven't bothered to explore and/or extract it for years, since exportation is taxed and restricted, and the internal prices of oil derivatives have been frozen since the economic collapse of 2002. Of course, this can't last much, but big corporations are dominated by short-term interests. On the other hand, all that untapped oil may come in handy one or two decades from now...

Anyway, with oil being so expensive worldwide and local reserves unavailable, it was only a matter of time until people here had the idea that our veritable oceans of vegetable matter could serve to purposes other than feeding our cows, us, or the Chinese. Soybean is a good source of oil that can be used as fuel, but it may not be commercially sensible to burn it, and there are environmental costs along with it. There are alternatives, though.

As a national biofuel law has been approved, Santa Fe is now about to follow the trend and exempt biofuel-related investments from taxes. The government is currently creating administrative structures to promote the development of biofuels based in rapeseed (Brassica napus), which is not strong here but is planted extensively in Buenos Aires Province, and a project of cooperation with Cuba to produce ethanol from sugarcane is in the works. The Cubans are experts in sugarcane, and the underdeveloped, underpopulated north of Santa Fe seems to be a good place to plant it, with appropriate irrigation techniques.

In Salto Grande, central Santa Fe, a rapeseed-based biofuel plant is about to open. The idea is mixing rapeseed oil with regular diesel (fuel oil) and save 30–40% in fuel costs. It has the added blessing that it will encourage the plantation of rapeseed, avoiding the monoculture of soybean.

Several companies in Santa Fe (petrochemicals, vegetable oil processors, even the former state-owned ensign oil company Repsol-YPF) are planning to build new facilities or even to open new production departments. Smaller companies are already producing biodiesel from various sources (such as sunflower oil) to supply the local markets.

You know how I like to speak badly of our disastrous provincial government (see? I just did). This commitment with biofuel production is auspicious and I hope it turns out right, because it's one of the very few good things this administration has done. Of course, it's rather late, the new biofuel-promoting bureaucracy will cost much and do next to nothing, and the actual effort will be that of the private sector, which is (fortunately) dynamic enough to catch and ride this wave, if only it receives a few tax breaks and soft loans.

You may say I sound too optimistic and overly pessimistic at the same time. That's perfectly logical. These are prospects nobody has presented in science-fiction movies and books about the near future. Instead of cold fusion, cooking oil? At least we already know it burns.

05 February 2007

El laberinto del fauno

It's movie critique time! Yesterday I went and watched a Spanish film, El laberinto del fauno (released in English as Pan's Labyrinth), directed by Guillermo del Toro (the guy who directed Blade II and Hellboy, among others).

(By the way, if you're in Rosario and you want to see a movie at the Showcase cinemas in the Alto Rosario shopping mall, consider the time and day, and be there one hour in advance. The ticket desk is slow and understaffed, and brand-new films are assigned to only one projecting room, which naturally fills up quickly. The projection times tend to be awfully distributed during the day, too. I have other complaints to nag about; be patient.)

My original intention was watching Babel, which has just been released here. I have no idea what it's about yet, so don't tell me, but the trailers seemed interesting. But the room was almost full, so me and my friends decided to wait and watch El laberinto… one hour later. Since Alto Rosario is located in the middle of nowhere and it was beginning to rain, we had no choice but to sit down in one of the bars inside the mall.

(Shopping malls are bubbles of artificial shiny wealth filled with people wandering glossy-eyed among overpriced merchandise and avidly eating junk food with their children. Did I already mention I hate them?)

El laberinto del fauno is about (don't worry, no major spoilers) a little girl's story during the Fascist-Republican struggle after the Spanish Civil War, as her pregnant mother takes her along to live with her new husband, a Francoist military, in a countryside camp. Little Ofelia loves fairy tales and believes in them. She's contacted by a faun, who serves as a messenger of the Fairy King, her real father. The faun gives her instructions so as to fulfill her destiny as a princess. In the "real" world, her cruel stepfather seeks to destroy the Communist resistance in the woods and cares for his wife only as a vessel for his unborn son, who'll carry his name. The two stories are joined by a coincidence of place and time (if there's a deeper relationship in the plot, it's so well hidden I didn't notice), but they mingle well and the result is spectacular without resorting to excessive special effects, sentimentalism, or uncalled-for dramatic dialogue (i.e. the Hollywood standard). The actors are strong, their characters well-defined, the plot firm and easy to follow.

The movie is rated PG13 (or rather its equivalent). There are more than a few graphic scenes of physical violence (beating, torture, killing) and purposefully unsubtle instances of psychological violence. Regrettably, it's nothing a 13-year-old in a "normal" environment in today's society hasn't probably witnessed before. These scenes are well-placed, mainly underscoring the inhuman character of the Francoist commander and of war in general. Some of the "fairy world" scenes are rather creepy as well.

A number of truly dumb parents took their kids (ages 8 to 12, I reckoned) to the movie. Now, it's a terrible thing that movie theaters in Argentina don't exercise any sort of control over who's allowed to see what, but ultimately it's the parents' responsibility not to expose a 10-year-old to such things as graphic depictions of the results of a torture session. Besides that, don't you morons read the movie summary or a review before you choose to watch it? How do you choose? Are you so stupid you see a funny-looking goat-faced monster in the movie poster and you automatically assume it's a kids' movie? I hope you witless parents at least had the sense to leave when the blood started.

El laberinto… finished rather late, which was good since the rain had stopped. All in all the movie was very well done and I don't regret I had to substitute it for Babel..., which I'm going to watch during the week, I guess. I'll tell about it then.

04 February 2007

Here comes the water

With all the fuss about the recognition that climate change is man-made, the Argentine media manufactured their usual lightweight news to alert the people that, indeed, we've been so careless that pollution is suddenly causing Buenos Aires (and some other less important places, such as the rest of the country) to be hot as hell. Doña Rosa* feels reassured, since this is what she's been saying all along.

* "Doña Rosa" is Bernardo Neustadt's mildly elitist personification of (the lowest common denominator of) public opinion. If you weren't in Argentina and at least in your teens during the 1980s, just forget the reference.

The good news is that the IPCC's report has been so widely publicized that nobody can ignore it anymore (we hope). Of course the denial freaks up there in the United States (mainly), who insist that global warming is a pinko/hippie myth created by the New World Order minions of the UN, will keep to their belief, but sensible governments, and even George W. Bush, will now have to respond to extra pressure on the issue.

On the local front, climate has indeed been erratic and tending to the extreme, as you can see by reading some of my posts. If you allow me to sink to the level of anecdotic evidence (Telenoche passes that for evening news all the time, so why not me?), I'd never seen such weird weather before the 1990s. Back in school, we were told that Rosario was in the Humid Pampa, a fertile plain with temperate climate and four distinct seasons. That seems to be changing now. Winters are shorter, with a few scattered occurrences of week-long cold spells, and no rain at all. In the summer, you have several days of increasing temperatures up to a point where hell breaks loose and terrible storms bring winds, rain and hail in massive amounts; then the sky clears and the cycle repeats. Spring is prone to rain and hot as well, and autumn is brief, windy, unstable, but much less rainy that it used to (ten years ago in April and May, you couldn't go out without an overcoat and/or an umbrella). The whole region seems to be shifting toward a subtropical climate with two seasons: dry and rainy.

As of now, the north of Argentina is getting a lot of precipitation. People got flooded in Salta and Tucumán, and downstream along the course of the Salado River, in Santiago del Estero, a dam broke, apparently not because it was badly built (as it always happens) but because it simply wasn't designed to contain that much water.

It's also been raining a lot in the upper course of the Argentine portion of the Paraná River (around the Iguazú Falls), and all that water is coming down. In Corrientes, the capital of the province of the same name, 1,000 families in 17 barrios of the city have been affected, 100 people have had to be relocated, and the level of the river is expected to increase even more. The experts down here estimate that that flow will reach our area in about three weeks, and the level will rise by 40 cm, enough to cause some trouble in the islands off the coast of Rosario in the flood plain of the Paraná (see? that's why they call it a flood plain). The farmers are already moving their cattle to safer places, since the islands are rather low-lying. On this side, the river will flood half the sandy beach of La Florida, but nothing more. The good thing about Rosario is that the Paraná cannot flood it because it's built on higher terrain; rain flows naturally away from the center and off an abrupt natural ravine.

In the meantime, a heat wave has been hitting us for a week, and it was supposed to end today with a heavy rainstorm, but yesterday afternoon the sky turned overcast, cool gusts of wind blew for a couple of hours, and only a few drops fell here and there — we're cloudy today, and rather hot again, though it's bearable. My parents got married around this time of year, 31 years ago; I guess nobody would set that date today — you might get a scorching sunny day just as well as a tropical storm...

02 February 2007

The 2007 campaign

The campaign for the governor election in Santa Fe is getting hotter... or should I say the pre-campaign, since there are formally no candidates yet, no parties or alliances already in the register that must be compiled months before the election.

Before you go away, I may as well explain why this is important. As anybody who's been living under a democracy for a while knows, elections almost never change anything — 99% of the times it's the same people or their clones trying to get you to vote for them with all sorts of empty promises, oblique threats, lies, lies, more lies, mud-slinging, sentimental pleas, appeals to your pocket or your ethics, etc., and once they're elected they resume their daily routine, some jobs and titles exchanged for others. Well, this might be one of the 1%.

The reasons:

  • This is the first governor election since 1991 without the Ley de Lemas. I'll spare you the details here. The Lemas electoral system allowed Peronism to steal the election twice.
  • The established Socialist candidate, Hermes Binner (twice mayor of Rosario), is leading the surveys. If he wins, he'll be the first Socialist governor in the history of Argentina.
  • The established Peronist candidates are both linked to Rosario as well; one was born here (though he was exiled in Europe and then moved to Buenos Aires) and the other has lived and made its political career in Rosario since his youth.
  • Given the two points above, the next governor of Santa Fe is practically sure to be a man of Rosario, ending (we hope) a long string of rulers that have consistently economically and politically discriminated against the largest and most important city in the province. This might lead to a better share of funds for Rosario, and to the attainment of a long sought after dream: municipal autonomy, à la Buenos Aires City.
Besides those specific points, a change from the Justicialist Party to the Socialist Party (well, to any other party) should revolutionize the whole provincial state. The Peronists have stayed in power since 1983. The governors and vice-governors up to 1991 were uniformly awful and utterly corrupt. In 1991 came Carlos Reutemann, a former F1 race driver sponsored by the dreaded Carlos Menem. Reutemann, a man with zero charisma, zero ability to rule, zero everything except a public figure, was a success with the masses, and one of the first examples of the modern tactic of recruiting popular characters (no matter how frivolous or dumb) to get votes. His merit, as acknowledged by the public, was that he didn't steal; others said he was a good administrator. He froze salaries and expenditure, sat down and waited as the stars moved above his head. In 1995 came Jorge Obeid, who stole the election from the Radical Party candidate Raúl Usandizaga by adding up the votes of the sold-out ex-Socialist Héctor Cavallero to his own using the Ley de Lemas. In 1999 Reutemann was re-elected. He oversaw a horrible crisis with a straight face, survived a couple of scandals, and in 2003 again he left the post to Obeid, who has since devoted his time to visiting Cuba, inaugurating unfinished public works, and appearing in pictures with President Kirchner.

All this time the province has been stumbling through history, guided by an automatic pilot. Its much-touted record fiscal surplus is more a product of automatic taxation on its immense wealth than a sign of good administration, and its progress in later years can be directly attributable to the overall recovery of Argentina, even moreso as it's powered by the export of agricultural commodities. The public sector is bloated and inefficient, the judicial branch is full of dark, corrupt judges protected by the political establishment, the ministries and secretaries are occupied by political operators without skills, policies and their application are irregular, episodical, never fixed, and oriented to the spectacular and to the populist.

Is that different from any other provincial administration in Argentina, or from other local and national governments in the Third World? Probably not. Can it be easily improved? Undoubtedly yes. Will it improve if the party in power changes? Probably, judging by the results that the Socialist administrations have produced in Rosario since 1989, and especially since the degradation brought about by almost a quarter of a century of Peronist rule is due mostly to stagnation and to the naturalization of bad habits.

The two main Peronist candidates are now at each other's throats, as usual; it's not that they have ideological disagreements or fight over policies (what?), but they want power and they can't both have it. Binner watches from afar and has but completely forced the hardliners of the Radical Civic Union, his allies, to choose the vice-governor candidate that he likes, the extra-party Santa Fe federal prosecutor Griselda Tessio. Isn't that nice?

01 February 2007

Curious Argentine exports

Argentina is doing extremely well in the field of international trade since the end of the fixed peso-dollar exchange era (we might as well call it "Post-Convertibility Era", or PCE, as opposed to "Convertibility Era", or CE). This is due to several factors, first of all to the high exchange rate, with an extremely devalued peso that the monetary authority (the Central Bank) struggles to keep that way (as I explained in an earlier post). The second factor is the ever-increasing demand of commodities from the monstruous Chinese economy, whose GDP is growing at an annual rate of 10% (that means about 7 years to double its size).* China demands precisely one of the things we're best prepared to produce in large amounts: soybean. Other developing countries are doing well and buying our stuff, again, especially soybean (one quarter of our foreign trade by value is made up of that!), so that's the second reason.

The third reason is that Argentine producers and exporters have made an effort to upgrade their facilities and processes, to meet international regulations, and in general to increase their quality. Of course, they're doing it now because it pays to do so, unlike before. Also it's not like quality is less important than price — it's just that, without a good price, nobody will buy your products no matter how well made.

The above is not surprising. What I found interesting is that Argentina is in fact exporting other stuff. We all know about the wine, made possible by the special climate of Mendoza. The small cities in the fertile plains of southern-central Santa Fe (places like Armstrong and Las Parejas) have succeeded in finding a foreign market for agricultural machines. When someone lives in a sea of cereal crops, you tend to pay attention to how they take advantage of that. The north-eastern provinces (especially Misiones), of course, export yerba mate not only to places where Argentinians (and Uruguayans, Paraguayans and Brazilians) may abound, but to the Far East. I heard of a small shop in Buenos Aires Province that exports frozen medialunas (not croissants, but Argentine-style medialunas) to the United States.

The weirdest things are the ones not paid for in foreign currency, the ones that are not commodities or manufactured goods, but services and ideas. Argentina was the initiator of the Cascos Blancos ("White Helmets"), a humanitarian force that works with the UN. Our country has always exported and promoted initiatives about human rights, peacekeeping, and international conflict resolution... Ironically it seems we exported so much of it that we left none of that for ourselves, but that's another matter. Recently I learned that the government of Argentina is about to send economic experts to Ecuador, to help that poor country refinance its external debt, using the experience gained by Argentina. (I refer to Ecuador as "poor country" not condescendingly but with sympathetic pity — they went through problems similar to ours, and their president was a Carlos Menem clone who actually got his way.) The idea is that Ecuador can be empowered to reject part of its debt as usurary and unpayable, like we did. With a new president that is not a Harvard-trained puppet, things may be better for them.

And there's no need to tell about Argentina's copious exports of young brains, which end up often discovering or inventing really interesting stuff, turning into honoured scientists, and even getting Nobel Prizes. Ah well...

* In case you want to know how I calculated this: GDP growth accumulates over the growth of each year, much in the way your savings grow if you add the interest you get from them to the main account. This growth is expressed by the mathematical formula of compound interest: r = (1 + i)^n, where r is the number you have to multiply the initial amount by, i is the interest rate (expressed as e.g. 0.03 = 3%), and n is the number of periods you count (if the period is in years, the rate should be an annual rate, of course). We want to find n, the number of years for a given amount to grow by a certain factor. Since it's a power exponent, we have to use logarithms and apply one of its common properties:

log(r) = log((1 + i)^n)
log(r) = n * log(1 + i)
n = log(r) / log(1 + i)

Now, since we want to find out the time it takes for the amount to double (r = 2) under a rate of 10% (i = 0.1), we can get this immediately (using a calculator for the logarithms):

n = log(2) / log(1.1) = 7.27