31 March 2007

End of the wait?

I don't usually write on Saturdays, but this will be brief anyway. Yesterday after I came home, I learned that the Ludueña Stream was on the brink of overflowing. It was drizzling all afternoon. At about 5:30 PM my mother, my aunt and I went to check the stream by ourselves. We walked about 10–12 blocks from home and saw this:

As you surely noticed, there were other watching as well (in fact, a crowd). The stream comes from the west of the city in a canal, and at this point it is piped underground. The pipes were built in the 1990s. I don't remember the exact date, but I do remember myself as a teen watching a huge hole with several excavators working down there to make room for the pipes.

After this we walked another 10 or so blocks east, towards the river. A few hundred meters before the mouth of the stream, the pipes end and the stream enters a new canalized section. This was the view there:

(The massive building in the second picture is the Portal shopping mall, which opened in 2004. I don't think they imagined the stream could rise so much.) Again, there were a lot of people exchanging rumours, speculating and doing folk math about the level of the stream. The experts (the real ones) were warning that a rise wave was coming from the west and would reach our area around 8 PM. I heard the White Helmets had been sent to Rosario and were assisting the people; they were giving out thousands of sandbags, candles and other supplies.

We went back home in a taxi. The driver was a Malvinas veteran; he said he was going to end his shift and head for an evacuation center, where he and the other vets have been working for the refugees. My mother went to a meeting in the community center, to get some updated info and advice. The head of the municipal Hydraulics Department was there. She came back with passably good news: the stream was fairly stable as of the latest measurement, and as long as there was no more rain and it remained like that during the night, everything would go well. Moreover, the Hydraulics guy told the neighbours that the river would have to rise to a ridiculous level to stop the outflow of the stream, and that we shouldn't judge the behaviour of the stream by the water level near its mouth, since that was highly variable, and the last section was in fact like 5 meters below our neighbourhood's elevation.

Anyway, we got candles and food, and I let a couple of friends know about our plight just in case. We sat down to eat dinner. At 9 PM my father went to the community center to learn the updated measurement of the stream. It was stable. The sky was clearing a bit and there was a chilly wind; we saw the moon for the first time in a week. We went to sleep.

It's all gray, chilly, very humid and slighly drizzly today. The stream is lower than yesterday and heavy rain seems very unlikely. There are about 4,000 evacuees in Rosario in 7 emergency sites, but they'll be able to go back home soon, or so they say. The situation in Santa Fe City has worsened; they have 20,000 evacuees, they don't have enough large facilities for them, and the rain continues up there.

The wait has been terrible, but it seems to have ended for us. The public works that so many people fought for have done their job. In 1986 there were 160 mm of rain in a few days, and my part of the neighbourhood was flooded by 70 cm of water. Since last Monday it rained 487 mm. That's two or three times the average for the entire month of March, something that will not repeat itself (we hope) in decades. And we didn't get flooded.

I've been reporting the situation to NowPublic.com (where I can upload large pictures and videos freely, unlike Flickr!). Other people have been uploading videos on YouTube. Check those out.

30 March 2007

The deluge continues but so does life

This should've been out yesterday, but the news about the flood were more important, so I'm posting it now and updating it.

Wednesday was a long day. I woke up early as I normally do, had a shower, got dressed, and had breakfast, all of it oblivious to the rain — I thought it would be raining lightly and I could run for the bus with minor wetting. Then my father came and asked, "Did you take a look outside already? I think you can't get out." There was enough water in the street to row a small boat. I waited to see if the rain stopped but it got worse, so I phoned work to let them know. They said no problem. I checked to see if I had Internet access and wrote for this blog... In the process I read all the papers, while I listened to Radio 2 online (there's no local news on TV before 7 PM, and then it's not great-quality news, and you can't watch it online). Then the long wait started.

By mid-morning the water had started to subside, but there was still too much of it. I sat down and watched Roman Polański's The Pianist on DVD, interrupted by lunch (it's a long movie). I liked it, but it really wasn't good for my mood. I took a nap... then read some more news... answered my emails... and somehow managed to waste my time until 5 PM.

Now, what I hadn't had the chance to tell you... I got the electromyography on my leg as scheduled on Tuesday afternoon. It wasn't a pleasing experience. The doctor, a woman in her early 40s, saw me in an excessively large room, accompanied by the operator of the machine that measures your nerve impulses, and told me to take off my pants (and socks). Now I'm not prudish at all, but being in a spacious room with no screens and undressing in the middle of it before these women felt a bit awkward. So I lie down in my boxers, and this woman begins sticking needles into my leg. At first everything was OK... Stick a needle, contract or extend a muscle to see the response (I heard my nerve impulses as static in the machine). Then I got a needle into my calf and it started to get painful when I pushed as instructed. Apparently there was no good response to the electrode, so she thrusted the needle inward. I didn't exactly cry, but close. After a couple of minutes, the technologist murmured "He's in pain!" and the sadistic doctor relented. She measured nervous speed by making me wiggle my toes, and then sent me off.

She told me she'd report the results to my traumatologist over the phone, so the next day I went to the community center to see him. He came 35 minutes late and then got me waiting for another 50 minutes while he took care of other patients (he's in charge of physical therapy as well). Just when I was about to pound him with a loose tile, he called me in.

The EMG was normal (and it only cost me 50 pesos and 10 minutes of torture to know, woohoo!). The reduced space between my vertebrae is not compressing my nerves. The sensation in my leg is due entirely to muscular problems. The solution is more exercise — more time, and more varied. I've been sitting before a computer 6 hours a day for years, so it's not surprising that suddenly beginning a serious exercise program brought such pains. So the answer lies in ignoring the pain, getting my body accustomed, stretching with care, and taking a seriously hot shower immediately after it. In an extreme case, the doctor told me, I could try therapy (heat, ultrasound), but it's not necessary, nor are analgesics or muscle relaxants. "Go with the natural thing", he said, more-or-less.

So if-and-when the rain stops, I'm going out jogging again. It may hurt a bit but now I know I'm not slowly breaking anything.

(That ends the post I was supposed to release yesterday.) Well, it's now Friday, and the above might take a while. The rain has not stopped; it's actually getting worse. The two major streams in Rosario (the Ludueña in the north and the Saladillo in the south) decreased their flow yesterday, as the rain stopped for several hours, but they're rising again. It rained cats and dogs this morning and the Ludueña actually poured into the street near its mouth. The Paraná River reached its evacuation level of 5.30 m, and the ravine in the coast of Rosario collapsed in two places, taking precarious homes with it and killing two people.

My mother called me to the office to tell me about the stream, and that my street was flooded again. It felt like a punch on my stomach. I couldn't do anything else at work. I waited half an hour and thought of going to a friend's house and wait. Then I remembered that my brother was alone with my grandfather at home. What the heck, I thought; I can take my shoes off and get my feet wet. In the bus the people were exchanging news and gossip. Fortunately the water had gone away, mostly, when I arrived. A group of guys in yellow where checking the sewers.

The rain stopped again, but there will be more evacuees. When it rains, it indeed pours: the emergency center inside the Newell's Old Boys stadium got partly flooded. A new evacuation center (with room for 300) has been prepped at the Aeronautical Lyceum of Funes. Besides this, the situation in Rosario seems to have stabilized; the 3,200-something evacuees will have to wait, and multiple inconveniences will pop out everywhere (streets blocked, sewers overflowed, etc.), but it doesn't seem like it'll get terribly worse.

In Santa Fe City, however, the situation has quickly deteriorated in the last 24 hours. There are 16,000 people evacuated in Santa Fe and the neighbouring towns of Santo Tomé and Recreo; one third of the capital city is flooded, and public services (transportation, electric power) are failing. Moreover, the only hope for many parts of the city is the arrival of high-powered pumps to get the water out, since it has no natural draining paths. To make things worse, the city is practically isolated, as the flood has covered its access roads, particularly the Rosario–Santa Fe Highway; the only way out is through the Hernandarias Subfluvial Tunnel, across the river, to Paraná, the capital of Entre Ríos. The governor finally came back from Caracas (on a standby flight, without luggage) and is organizing a crisis committee. The national Health Minister Ginés González García came to assess the situation and brought medicines and vaccines for the evacuees.

I haven't heard anything about Paraná except it had a few dozen evacuees, but Entre Ríos is also getting its share; they had a record rainfall of 340 mm in 24 hours, and 3,000 people were evacuated so far. The Gualeguay River, the most important in the province, overflowed and is threatening the homonymous city. The huge storm system that is causing the floods here is slowly moving east.

The radio is serving as an emergency coordinator of sorts, calling the various authorities and experts to let the public know what to do (or not do). The reports come all the time and they're uniformly gloomy; it's by no means safe to say anything at all about the end of the storm, which may be tonight, tomorrow, or even next Monday.

29 March 2007

The Deluge III

I'm wondering whether these days will be known as "The Great Rains" in the future...

It's the fourth day of rain here in Rosario. Yesterday afternoon the precipitation stopped for some hours and the clouds became less dense, but the sun didn't appear. Today it rained during the morning, then stopped, then drizzled, da capo.

Yesterday's alert in my barrio was just a scare, but it was justified by the menacing appearance of the rising water in the streets. When the rain stopped, many people went to do an eye check of the Ludueña Stream, where it emerges from four large underground pipes into its mouth, a few hundred meters before merging with the Paraná. Based on the pictures I saw in today's paper, the pipes were barely sufficient, but the water didn't go over the brim. The water in my street was the result of a sewage system that is relatively new but hasn't been maintained and was overwhelmed by the amount of water and trash; a few hours after the rain stopped, it had drained completely as expected.

(The above is an old scanned picture of the part of the Ludueña Stream I was talking about. The water was much lower, stagnated and polluted. Currently the water covers the pipe exits and reaches up to the inner brim.)

There's a delay dam in the upper course of the Ludueña, and derivation channels, built in the 1990s, after decades of fighting against the politicians' indifference. Populous areas of the city, including my neighbourhood, suffered episodic flooding every time exceptional rainfall caused the Ludueña Stream to overflow its banks. The last one, in 1986, was truly catastrophic, and everyone from my age up remembers it, so we were on edge. At 6 PM there was a meeting in the community center (I was there waiting for my doctor!) and it was explained that the Ludueña's works had proven our salvation. Back then we would've been up to our necks in water after only half of the precipitations we've had since Monday.

(You might want to get a map of Santa Fe now.)

Anyway, many others didn't have such luck. The rain soaked up the soil in the countryside and overflowed canals and streams all around the city and in several other parts of the province. Consider that our region is almost completely flat and it's traversed by so many shallow watercourses that until the 19th century it was known as Pago de los Arroyos, i.e. "Land of the Streams". The Carcarañá River, a tributary of the Paraná north of Rosario, also overflowed its banks yesterday. The Saladillo Stream, which forms part of the southern limit of Rosario, is close to overflowing too. The level of the Paraná River reached 5.29 m, only one centimeter below the official evacuation level — i.e. the level at which the river itself (not its tributaries, not the rain) may overflow and force the evacuation of low-lying areas.

As the rain subsided around Rosario, the situation worsened near the provincial capital, Santa Fe. There are now about 20,000 people evacuated in Santa Fe Province: 12,000 in Santa Fe City, 3,200 in Rosario (where they're being sent to a third evacuation center), and at least 600 in Carcarañá. Santa Fe City is finding it hard to drain all that water; it's maybe historically significant that in colonial times it had to be moved a few years after its foundation because the terrain was too floodable, and the choice of a new site was not very good. Santa Fe is much more vulnerable to river flooding than Rosario, and now the coastal defenses built to contain the river's rising water are keeping the rain water inside.

The picture is not brighter elsewhere. The city of Rafaela (pop. 84,000) is under 1 meter of water in parts. Many small towns have been completely flooded or stand literally isolated, their access roads covered by the waters. National Routes 7, 9, 33 and 34 were partly submerged and blocked in several segments, as was the Rosario–Santa Fe Highway and smaller Provincial Routes; NR 9 and 33 are working again now.

The vice governor of Santa Fe, María Eugenia Bielsa, declared a state of "hydrical emergency", while governor Jorge Obeid, who is on an official trip in Venezuela, is trying to get back as soon as possible (I was expecting that, only two days ago!). The Santa Fe Ministry of Interior got AFA to suspend the local football tournament schedule for this weekend, in part because the authorities and the police are too busy, and in part because there are roads, towns and stadiums under water. (By the way, and again showing the porteño view, La Nación has a space for this horrible catastrophe only to note that the River–Colón football match has been suspended. Clarín has a better coverage, focused on the also worrying problems of Entre Ríos, with videos and all.)

The executive branch of the Municipality of Rosario asked the City Council for a 2-million-peso (US$660,000) emergency aid package, which was approved this afternoon; this is to cover the cost of mattresses, bed sheets, food, medicine, and the logistics of handling thousands of evacuees. Right now, as I told you, there are three emergency centers ready: the Communications Battalion No. 121 and the gyms of the Newell's Old Boys stadium and the Náutico Avellaneda club. These are already full, so one more site is being readied at the Military Lyceum in nearby Funes.

The National Meteorological Service has renewed its weather alert (rain, localized storms, possibly hail) for the nth time, and says the bad weather might continue until Friday.

28 March 2007

The Deluge II

Folks, this is starting to worry me.

It's 6:45 AM and I should be headed for work, but I can't get out of my house. There's water all over my sidewalk, it must be a foot deep in the street, and it's still raining. It has never really stopped. Last night the sky cleared up a bit but then the clouds gathered again and rain's been pouring down all night.

About 240 mm of rain have fallen over Rosario and its area since the start of the deluge. Just to give you an idea, the average annual precipitation here is less than 1,100 mm. I guess they'll have to update that. As of the latest news, there are 2,200 people evacuated. The first batch were taken to the place usually reserved for such emergencies, the Communications Battalion No. 121, a large military facility in the south of the city, but it filled up yesterday and there are now 910 people sleeping inside the Newell's Old Boys stadium. The evacuees are being taken there by buses belonging to the municipal transport company. They're given time to clean themselves up and provided with mattresses, bedsheets and clothing. Following their custom, veterans of the Falklands/Malvinas War have installed a kitchen and are cooking for the evacuees. Most of them are poor, often mothers with four, five or more children; in many cases, where the water level is not deep, the men have chosen to stay and guard their scarce possessions.

The Paraná River is not going to rise more, but rain continues to fall on the basin of the Ludueña Stream. The Ibarlucea Canal, a derivation that enters Rosario from the northwest, overflowed yesterday and flooded several neighbourhoods, some of them with water levels of 1.5 m. The public works needed to prevent this kind of flooding won't be in place until 2 years from now.

TN's Mr. Bazán was sent to Rosario (see video) to cover the situation. Even for a typical porteño this guy was completely oblivious to... well, everything. He seems to think Rosario and Santa Fe City are near each other, or suburbs of each other. He didn't research anything about the floods of the Ludueña Stream. He spoke of the 2003 flood and how our relationship to the river has changed — it was Santa Fe City and it was the Salado River in 2003, you idiot!

At least eight schools will be closed in the metropolitan area, because they're flooded or because the facilities were otherwise damaged by the rain. National Route 9, which goes west towards Córdoba, is unusable in at least one segment, and so is National Route 22.

The National Meteorological Service says the bad weather will continue until at least Friday, with rain, storms, and maybe hail. The last hasn't happened here this time, but in Esperanza, west of the provincial capital, orange-sized hail fell yesterday.

PS: As of 9 AM there are 2,500 evacuees; they're reading the facilities of the Hipódromo (horserace track) to receive them. In the radio they're mentioning two other possible sites (private sports clubs). In my neighbourhood we have an informal "yellow alert", since water is entering through the streets; many sewer pipes are badly maintained and blocked by garbage. Only 6 blocks from here, as reported, the water is already inside the homes. Only last year we were commemorating the 20th anniversary of the last flood. The situation has improved since then, as the Ludueña Stream has been mostly piped or channelized, but this is really too much rain.

The Paraná continues to rise: it was at 5.06 m yesterday and is now at 5.18 m, which is 18 cm above the alert level and just 12 cm below the evacuation level. People are being evacuated also in Granadero Baigorria, just north of Rosario, and the San Lorenzo Stream (near San Lorenzo) is overflowing.

27 March 2007

The Deluge

Yesterday, home, about 3:15 PM. The rain started early in the morning but the deluge came in the early afternoon. All in all 101 mm of rain between 7 AM and 4 PM. I hadn't seen my street flooded like that in years. Others had it much worse. In Funes and Roldán there was hail.

People are being evacuated from several places in the city, especially in the northwest — not coincidentally the part of the city where I live. Some say it's 800 people, others update the figure to 1,150. It's been raining all night and all morning and it's still raining right now: 160 mm up to 9 AM, since yesterday at the same time. Thousands are without power.

The Paraná River rose to 5.06 meters; the alert level is at 5 m, so there's reason to fear, but anyway the problem is in the basin of the Ludueña Stream. I called home from my office today to check on the family, since I was hearing alarming reports in the radio. We all know nothing terrible will happen, not unless a truly catastrophic deluge comes, but when I was 10 (in 1986) the Ludueña overflowed and our downstairs floor got 70 cm of water in it.

And it seems it'll be raining until Friday...

26 March 2007

Kirchner vs. the judges

Prompted by an anonymous comment in my post about the 31st anniversary of the last coup d'état, I'll do my best to expound what I know and think about the manner in which things are developing.

During the 1980s, after the end of the military government, it was not at all clear that Argentina had left behind any possibility of falling under their boots. The last junta left the Casa Rosada with a promise that they wouldn't be called to answer for their crimes in the trials to be held soon after. The Trial of the Juntas in 1984 was a major achievement for the new democratic government and they should be considered a source of national pride; Argentina is the only country in the world to have tried and jailed its own dictators almost immediately after they left power, when there could still be a backlash from the military. Then came the embarrassment, the humiliating laws called Punto Final (Full Stop) and Obediencia Debida (Due Obedience), which forced the ongoing investigations to stop.

These laws (some call them the Pardon Laws, others the Impunity Laws) were a terrible blow to the human rights cause. President Alfonsín, who propelled them, was and is still criticized for them. My opinion is mixed. Alfonsín himself has stated that he regrets bowing to the pressure of the military, and acknowledges that the laws were passed basically at gunpoint, He could've been braver. And he could've been overthrown. The former dictators and their minions were invited to conservative TV programmes and defended their hideous acts in magazine interviews. It was still rather acceptable for anyone to ponder on the military as an alternative to a democratic government which was, admittedly, failing. Alfonsín resigned in July 1989; inflation reached a monthly 200% and in Rosario people were rioting and looting for food.

Carlos Menem campaigned on a populist discourse and promised a new beginning, and boy did he deliver. After two years, Domingo Cavallo took up the Ministry of Economy, and Menem started implementing the policies that would change Argentina into a "modern" country. National companies became more productive, exports grew, and everybody was possessed by a consumerist fever. Unemployment started going up, as local industries were brought down by unchecked, and often disloyal, foreign competition. The middle class got indebted in dollars. Economic stagnation and political conformism were celebrated as part of a magical "stability". Nobody wanted to hear about the horrors of the past. When in 1990 Menem pardoned the military leaders of the dictatorship, only a few organizations complained. There were no massive demonstrations protesting the pardon, and nobody in the judiciary coming out forcefully to question the legality of the measure or the ethics of the presidential faculty of pardon itself.

When the illusion of stability vanished in December 2001, something broke. Argentina saw itself as a divided country. The government against the people, the poor against the rich, the politicians and the police against the public. The government ended up led by a strong Peronist leader, Eduardo Duhalde, a man of questionable practices but with a pragmatic vision. Like Alfonsín, he might have done better, and he might have failed disastrously. As it was, he left Argentina in the hands of another president in a better condition that he had found it. He managed the social unrest with appeasement, losing a lot of political capital in the eyes of many who wanted old-style repression. The claim for respect of dissidence and human rights was out in the street.

It was Néstor Kirchner who finally brought a revolutionary change. From the very beginning, he set himself at the fore of the public fight for the punishment of the crimes of the dictatorship. Even his own party companions was surprised. Kirchner was impolite, messy, unashamedly populist, excessively candid regarding certain sacred cows, disrespectful of basic principles of realpolitik.

Note I said "public". Many people have been quietly working for human rights for a longer time, people with much more to lose and much less influence, often trying fruitlessly to be heard. And here we come to the crux of the matter. Many in the human rights camp were delighted to count on the support of no less than the president, who dragged along a lot of legislators and other influential figures who'd never done anything for human rights but had enough cunning to smell the political profit of embracing a popular cause. A few, especially in the far left of the human rights movement, reacted as if human rights were their exclusive property and paradoxically reacted by demanding more and more of the president. The president, of course, cannot and will not cleanse Congress, the judiciary, his own party, and the local institutions of the whole country of all people suspected of not being extra-pure left-wing nutjobs. (The practise of making continuous demands for more extreme ideologically-motivated measures is known as "correr por izquierda" or "correr por derecha", depending on the direction.)

A third camp, represented typically by mildly conformist right-wing people and by critics of Kirchner, like the one that writes that article in La Nación, pretends to be horrified about Kirchner's abuse of power. It's a scandal to hear the president complain that the judges are being slow — the executive asking more of the judiciary is against the constitutionally mandated republican separation of powers. Clarín quotes several other reactions — from the (unfortunately pathetic) opposition and from well-known conservative law experts. Of course, the real reason is they dislike Kirchner and disagree with his ideology.

Not that Kirchner doesn't have a lot of things to dislike. Half the time he's speaking, he should be shutting up. He doesn't tolerate dissent near him, and seems to thrive on adulation. Some of his closest allies should be in jail. Yet if it weren't for him, the investigation of the crimes of the dictatorship may still be paralyzed. One has to have priorities.

Under Kirchner the laws that protected the military from legal persecution were repealed, and the trials began again. Menem's pardons were struck down as well. The Supreme Court, with a majority of new justices appointed by the president, has stated that the heinous deeds of the military, the police forces and their collaborators during the dictatorship are crimes against humanity and do not, therefore, prescribe — that is, they will not be extinguished by the passing of time and can continue to be investigated indefinitely. It's true that the general social and political climate brought these amazing changes to the human rights landscape; but it's also true that much of it has to do with having a strong, vociferous, ill-mannered, meddling president in command. It shouldn't be like that.

The article in La Nación complains about Kirchner's criticism of certain judges that are, it seems, purposefully delaying the processes of investigation and trial of human rights abuses. Four of these judges are now facing the possibility of impeachment. They have well-known personal and ideological connections to members and defenders of the dictatorship. It's terrible to see the president being disrespectful of the Constitution, but I submit that the sight of judges protecting horrible criminals is disgusting and much more a violation of republican principles than a presidential speech. As I said to the anonymous poster that started me thinking on this, never let perfect stand in the way of very good.

By the way, dear Anonymous, if you want to contribute, use a name (any name, as long as it's always the same name) and do it on topic. I'm trying to do serious work and you're dumping Noticias here.

PS: More about Kirchner's speech and the reaction: La Nación, La Nación, Página/12, La Capital, La Capital.

24 March 2007

Remembering the coup: 31 years

Today is the 31st anniversary of the coup d'état that brought to power the bloodiest dictatorship Argentina has lived in its history. It lasted from 1976 to 1983, four military juntas succeeding each other, taking advantage of the fear, the conformism, and the shallow patriotism of many Argentinians.

I don't remember much about those times. I was born 6 months after the coup. My early childhood was spent under the repressive rule of these monsters, but I was too little to understand anything. This was not a topic you spoke about during the family dinner. Even after it formally ended, it was not taught in schools, and it was not critically analyzed in the news. In 1990, Carlos Menem pardoned the leaders of the juntas, as if all wounds were healed, for the benefit of "national reconciliation". Yet once the "forgive and forget" camp had to face the atrocities unearthed by deeper and deeper investigation, change began. In 2002, Congress declared March 24 a date of commemoration for the victims of the dictatorship. In 2005, the laws protecting the military from being judged were overturned — "I was following orders" was no longer an excuse. In 2006, March 24 was declared a national public holiday.

The picture that begins this article is just one of the many official acknowledgements of the brutal repression of the juntas. The poster's central title reads Oíd el ruido de las cadenas, "Hear the sound of the chains", based on the third verse of the Argentine national anthem, Oíd el ruido de rotas cadenas ("Hear the sound of broken chains"). On the left, in smaller print, there's the list of the dictatorship's crimes: "they kidnapped, tortured, raped, murdered, stole babies, humiliated mothers and grandmothers, mortgaged the country, took us to war".

23 March 2007

Media Watch

Folks, I'm starting a new blog to complement this one: Rosario Argentina Media Watch. It's exactly what it seems, a news aggregator. It's intended for quick review of news. Read the intro post to learn more.

My leg goes to the doctor

This is an update on my leg, and a response to some questions posted by a reader about the medical system in Argentina.

First things first: the cause of the problem seems to be not my leg, but my spine. A couple of X-rays of my lower back shows that one tip of my last lumbar vertebra (L5) is too close to the top of the sacrum (S1), "pinching" the L5–S1 space (I don't know what this is called in English; it's a pinzamiento in Spanish). The numbness in my right leg and my other symptoms seem to correspond to a sciatica, possibly caused by compression of the nerve that comes down from the spine and goes into the leg. In order to confirm that, the doctor told me to get an electromyography. That'll be next Tuesday.

Besides this, and quite possibly because of it, I've developed a slight functional scoliosis, which means my spine is curved a bit laterally, with a convexity to the right. That may be the cause of a small but persistent pain I'd been feeling in the right side of my middle back. In addition, the vertebrae of my lower back are aligned horizontally, while above them, the upper lumbar and dorsal vertebrae are going up in a straight line. That is, when you see my spine from one side, instead of the proper elongated, smoothly curved S-shape, what you see in the bottom half is a horizontally-flipped "Z". Neither of these abnormalities are permanent. The scoliosis will be corrected once the leg is fine again; the other problem is most likely the fruit of a sedentary life and can be fixed by strengthening my lower back and abdominal muscles.

Regarding local medicine, here are the questions:

  1. "How was your visit to your local medical center?" — I actually went three times: first to see the doctor (it's a first come, first served system), next day to have the X-rays, and next day to see the doctor again. The doctor should've arrived at 5 PM but both times he came at around 5:20... The first time I was the second patient; the other time I was #5 and had to wait for more than an hour. My mistake for not being there before. The X-ray was very quick. The X-ray machine was made in Britain and must have been 25 years old, but it worked fine. The radiographer kept the films, and the radiologist had the report ready the next day when I fetched them before seeing the traumatologist. Apart from the waiting, everything went OK. The waiting room and the doctor's room were a bit cramped, but clean and comfortable. The doctor was nice and the clinical exam was thorough enough.
  2. The question you didn't ask: how much? Well, I had to pay a fee (AR$8) each time I saw the doctor, and I had to pay AR$26 for the X-rays. In a public hospital or another common healthcare center I'd probably get both things cheaper. This is at the neighbourhood's medical center, so it's like an association or club and you have to pay to stay in — only AR$13/month, per family. Not all neighbourhoods have such association, and most don't have such facilities, but mine is an old-time poor-but-hard-working-class barrio of 80,000 residents, give or take.
  3. "When you go to a public facility, are the doctors you see all internists? What happens if you need to see a specialist?" — It depends. At the most basic, a public primary healthcare center has an internist and maybe an emergency doctor all the time. The specialists don't work full time in a single place; they come at certain times and certain days of the week, see the patients and leave (for example, the doctor I'm seeing comes Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5 PM, and leaves at 7 PM). In a public hospital you typically have an office where you can schedule an appointment with the specialist, as in private facilities.
  4. "How readily available are diagnostic tools such as MRIs and ultrasounds in public healthcare?" — Ultrasound is widely available, even in primary care centers, since public health serves predominantly poor patients, and those include many pregnant women. CT and MRI are available as well, in hospitals, at least in the developed areas (such as Rosario). I'm not sure about the municipal hospitals here, but of the 3 large provincial ones in the metro area, two have CT, one of those has MRI, and the third has a gamma camera. The cost varies according to the economic possibilities of the patient — the full price is significantly less than the one you must pay in a private hospital, and if you can't pay it, you can state your problem and the hospital's auditing office will decide what to do.
  5. "If you need extensive treatment in a public facility, does the government (city, provincal etc.) pay for everything? How would you imagine that the cost may influence how good the treatment is in such a situation." — In certain cases (patients that clearly cannot pay) the government will pay for everything, though it might take long, humiliating days or weeks for the patient to go past the bureaucratic barriers. Based on my inside experience, however, the quality of the treatment doesn't suffer. The bureaucracy separates the physicians from the monetary issues. The medical staff may come and do their job without even knowing whether the patient has paid for the treatment. At least in Santa Fe, you can get dialysis, cancer drugs and chemo, HIV drugs, insuline and diabetes medication for free and forever, though there are occasional delays in the provision of drugs.
  6. "If you have an medical emergency, can you go to the ER of any hospital and get treatment?" — Yes. This is common even for patients with private health insurance or with union-based healthcare systems. In theory, when you go to a public hospital the administrative staff takes care of checking whether you have insurance, so as to send them the bill later. In practice, many small emergencies are taken care of and the patient goes without anybody paying for anything.
I hope this answers your questions!

22 March 2007


I forgot to note down that I started my Japanese classes a week ago! This is the fourth year for me. The first three years were 初級 shokyuu, elementary level; this is 中級 chuukyuu ichi, the first year of the middle level. (Yes, it takes you three years, nine months a year, 3 hours a week, plus additional courses, to achieve a basic mastery of Japanese — 1,500 words only. You can't compose a children's dictionary with that.)

We're going to use a new book from now. Vale-sensei, who was my teacher during my first year in the Japanese Association, is again with us. She showed us the book, noting with barely disguised glee that it has almost no furigana, i.e. the small syllabic characters (kana) used for phonetic spelling that appear next to ideograms (漢字 kanji). Our old book always had furigana. By now we should know at least 300 kanji, from the simplest ones like 山 "mountain", 人 "person" and 中 "inside" to the ones representing concepts like "sick" (病) and "electricity" (電). It's actually simpler to read a mixture of kanji and kana, but only if you're absolutely familiar with the kanji.

I also received the results of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test I took in December. I passed this sankyuu (third level) with a very good score, though not as easily as I'd passed yonkyuu (fourth level) the previous year. The next step, nikyuu, is still a faraway dream; the requirements are much higher. I'll need the three years of intermediate level to prepare for it. That includes learning another 300 kanji. I'm going to need a study method for that; quick visual recognition is only OK for characters with eight or nine strokes at most.

The original Chinese characters (hànzì) usually have one and only one reading, but Japanese kanji typically have two or three, depending on what is attached to them. When the same character was borrowed from different dialects of Chinese (separated geographically or chronologically) the result is several completely arbitrary readings. On occasion the only way to guess a reading is by the semantic context; the kanji 一日 ("one" and "day") put together can be read as ichinichi "all day" or as tsuitachi "first day of the month". The Japanese simplified the kanji several times (the Chinese did the same independently), and even invented a few characters (like 込 "to crowd, congestion, full"). The characters also drifted from their original meanings. The extremely simple ancient Japanese phonology tried to accomodate the Chinese pronunciation, but despite several interesting developments, it failed miserably. (Chinese has changed a lot since then, so anyway you can't guess one based on the other.)

Vale-sensei treated us to a preview — or better, a pre-hearing — of the book's aural comprehension exercises: a girl speaking at just the average Japanese machine-gun rhythm for about two minutes. I got about half of what she said. Boy this will be hard.

21 March 2007

By bicycle in Rosario

A reader asks about bikes and traffic in Rosario. I replied in brief in a comment yesterday, but I thought it'd be more useful and visible to expand on that now.

You've surely all heard that driving in Argentina is complete madness. That's partly true... It's not that drivers are mad; they just feel free to ignore or bend the rules, re-interpreting them according to the occasion. Some of them are truly mad, in the sense that they don't seem to perceive reality in the same way as pedestrians and other drivers; for example, they see an empty parking space where in fact there is a bus stop, or they fail to see other vehicles except those larger than their own.

Bikers are a special case. There are some who drive reasonably well, but most (including me) ignore the traffic lights and zebra crossings whenever possible. A bicycle can't get fined for crossing a red light. Truth be told, these minor violations often make up for the physical disadvantage of bicycles faced with motor vehicles much faster and sturdier, but in turn they work against the next weaker ones in the scale — pedestrians. Bicycles appear from nowhere at lightning speeds, trying to stay ahead of the mass of cars, and often miss overconfident pedestrians by mere inches. Bikers make U-turns seconds before the light turns to red in their lane in a two-way avenue, turn left where they shouldn't, zigzag between buses and trucks, and in general they (we) barely use the brakes.

I love my bike and the sense of freedom it gives me, but at times I get a bit afraid of it as well. I like the fact that it's free (as in beer), comparatively small (don't need a special place to park it!), and much faster than going on foot, even if not all that flexible for urban exploration (you can get almost anywhere on foot). Anyone who's ever grown accustomed to a vehicle knows about "the zone", that trance-like state when you feel completely in tune, one with the machine. You must be in "the zone" when you're driving a bike in Rosario, even as it's awfully dangerous, because otherwise you'll get crushed the first time you get distracted.

Bicycles have traditionally been the poor's vehicle in Argentina. This, of course, made it popular by necessity in the 1990s. In 2002, right after the Big Crunch, you'd get out to catch the bus at dawn and see swarms and swarms of construction and factory workers in their overalls, pedalling like crazy, all in synch so as to remain grouped — for a lone biker was (is) an easy prey for thieves. According to a study, there were 340,000 bicycles in Rosario in 2002, about one per three inhabitants.

There are still many people going to work every day by bike. Others use it to transport their partners or their whole family. Three people (two adults, one child) in a single bicycle is a terrible thing — unstable and very dangerous — but some have no alternative. Consider that a round bus trip for three costs AR$7.20 — less than 3 dollars, yet enough to buy a kilo of acceptable-quality beef. Needless to say, most bikers don't bother to wear helmets or any other protective devices (motorbikers, who are obliged by law, usually don't wear them either).

I don't go to work by bike, because it'd take me an hour to get there and I'd arrive hecho sopa (soaked), and because I can (still) afford the bus. The Japanese Association, however, is only 20 minutes away, and its informality makes it a bit more acceptable for me to be a bit sweaty when I arrive, so I'm considering going to Japanese class on two wheels. Better for my health, better for my budget, and better for the environment.

Rosario has many places acceptable for bicycle riding, but comparatively very few bike paths. For reasons of space, the whole downtown area can't have paths at all, since there's barely room for cars and buses as it is. There are no wide avenues across Rosario's compact center, but a grid of very narrow streets that may have been fine for carriages and horses in 1900, but get congested easily with 21st century traffic. Driving a bike there is tantamount to suicide.

The municipal policies encouraging the use of bicycles often collide with other local policies or turn out to be just declarations of good will, soon forgotten. Lately, though, newly-opened sections of major avenues do usually come with good bicycle paths.

You may have heard of Argentina's horrific traffic accident record. The media have been focusing on this for some time now, with spectacular, dramatic pleas for better traffic laws and monitoring technology, when every now and then a handful of people die on the road. Argentinians generally drive very badly, but always place the blame elsewhere. I intended to write about this today, but I'll leave that for tomorrow or next week, as this post has gotten too long.

20 March 2007

News flashes

PS, yet important: As of today, I'm moderating comments. This will surely detract from the dynamic nature of this blog, as your comments will be visible hours after you posted them, but then I don't like being made fun of. This is not a matter of free speech — this is my blog, so there's no such thing as free speech here. This may last for a week or two, or forever. Thanks.

This is just a quick glimpse at the news today, since I haven't had the time to compose a post... Going from international to national to local to personal:

  1. Theologian Jon Sobrino, who was recently notified by the Pope about certain mistakes in his works (such as making Jesus look too human, or not spiritually removed from the world enough), said he won't acknowledge the note and won't correct his books, because the correction is just part of a persecution against Liberation Theology that has been going on for 30 years.
  2. Just as Argentina was about to pick up another fight with Uruguay, the Uruguayan minister of Health denied that she'd said Argentina is withholding information about the dengue fever within our territory. She was apparently surprised that we had so few... It seems that the littoral of the Uruguay River is full of Aedes aegypti larvae. There are now over 200 cases of dengue in Argentina, 7 of them autochthonous (locally infected, not brought from Paraguay or Brazil).
  3. The public teachers of Santa Fe Province are back to negotiating with the government for a raise. They made the children lose a week of classes already, and they were told those days will be discounted from their salaries this month, so they won't go on strike again for now.
  4. The taxi fee in Rosario is going to rise, if everything goes well, this Thursday, when the Deliberative Council approves a bill. It will be closer to the cost of a taxi in Buenos Aires, only of course most of our taxi drivers don't work nights, Sundays, or holidays. The Council is going to require taxis to implement some sort of security measure (yes, they have to make it a requirement — taxi drivers complain they're being mugged and robbed all the time but you have to force them by law to adopt a simple security measure such as a bulletproof glass or a "panic signal") and the owners of the taxis will be required to have properly registered employees as drivers.
  5. As a result of the above, I'm taking even fewer taxis. My leg problem is apparently not caused by my knee, but by something else, according to the doctor, so once fixed I'll get back to my bike, I guess.
And that's it for today.

19 March 2007

Elections afoot

Provincial elections are already on the run. Since every province is an autonomous state regarding authorities, each has its own rules and schedule. Most often the provincial elections are held on the same day as the national ones (presidential and legislative), but this depends mainly on two factors: whether the province was intervened or had its government otherwise removed prior to the end of the usual term, and whether its government chooses to manipulate the schedule (within a limited timeframe dictated by its own electoral laws). When people vote for a party's candidate (say, for president), a significant part tend to vote also for the other candidates (e.g. for governor and legislators).

This "dragging effect" can be advantageous or disadvantageous for the people in charge to call for elections. A governor is typically obligated to name a day for the election of his successor based on the day of the end of his term — e.g. between 90 and 120 days before. That leaves him some room to play.

President Kirchner is nowadays extremely popular, so he's viewed as a touchstone for electoral success by many a politician. The Radical Civic Union, the long-time rival of the Justicialist/Peronist Party, has de facto broken into many local factions; the rest of the opposition is also mostly localized (for example, the Socialist Party is strong in Rosario, less so in Santa Fe as a whole, and definitely not anywhere else; Mauricio Macri's right-wing PRO is strong in Buenos Aires City and to a much lesser extent in the metropolitan area; fronts made up of provincial parties dominate in several jurisdictions but have no national projection at all). Local political groups with even the slightest ideological affinity with the Kirchner administration seek approval and support from the president, and the president happily gives it if it looks like it might be a net gain.

With most of the provinces burdened by poverty, lack of infrastructure and growing budget deficits, the national government has the tools to co-opt provincial governments. This leaves provinces in the hands of fleeting minions (fleeting, because they're always ready to change masters) and makes Argentina's federalism a joke. Unfortunately, it's in the politicians' best interest to keep the people poor and continue plundering their budgets, as long as the national government comes to the rescue with political and economic support before the elections.

The electoral calendar has already begun. In Catamarca a Peronist governor won the election against another Peronist — the word "Peronist" is really not used anymore, being replaced by "Kirchnerist" or "non-Kirchnerist". Granted the loser is a veritable mob leader... Luis Beder Herrera, the new governor of La Rioja after ousting his own fellow Peronist companion (who was formerly a fanatic supporter of the right-wing neoliberal Carlos Menem, then swiftly turned into a fanatic supporter of left-wing populist Néstor Kirchner) is calling for elections 180 days from now, or so he says. Of course he will run for governor; that was his goal all the time. How low can you go? Yesterday two Kirchnerist candidates came in first and second in the governor's race in Entre Ríos; the winner is a minister of the current administration. Governor Jorge Busti, in a rather vulgar (and uncalled-for) confrontational style, saluted the victory of his faction as a victory of his own and of President Kirchner, by calling his opponents "losers", and by telling politicians of other parties to go home to their own territories.

In Santa Fe we'll have primaries in July, provincial and municipal elections in September, and the national presidential election in October. Santa Fe, unlike most of the provinces, is awash with money, and the likely winner, Hermes Binner, is a Socialist who carefully doesn't... officially... dislike... a priori... with Kirchner... all the time... in general. Kirchner looks the other way and has left the campaign in the hands of the local Peronism, whose leaders are understandably worried, if not a little pissed off by the lack of presidential support. So unlike the situation in other provinces, the outcome (besides the sheer numbers) is a mystery.

16 March 2007

Healthcare this way

My right leg has been behaving strangely as of late, which I blame on my new jogging habit, though I knew there was something wrong with it before. My knee feels a bit hurt all the time, and a kind of weakness propagates upward from there. I let it pass for a while since it looked like a simple adjustment from sedentarism to a regime of consistent exercise, although weirdly it didn't bother me at all while jogging. But now it's bothering me even as I stand or walk. I can give up jogging, but I go everywhere on foot.

Given that, I need to go to a doctor, and I thought it'd be interesting to speak of medicine in Argentina. I've read a lot of reports of foreign visitors and expats marvelling about the quality and price of health care here, and especially the existence of universal socialized medicine. The latter is not something you usually hear much about, since people with $$$ don't really need to go there. The most expensive quality medical treatment you can find in Argentina is still a bargain compared to the costs of medicine in the United States or Europe.

If you have a good salary, you can pay for a private health insurance plan. They're not cheap, and they've become extremely restricted — you can get away with emergency service and basic treatment, but not surgery or other complicated procedures, for which you have to pay additional money. Alternatively, if you're working en blanco (formally registered), you may have a health plan associated with your union. It won't get you everything you need for free, but you can get away with simple medical matters for a few pesos.

However, if you don't have money or a job, or you don't have a unionized healthcare plan, or your plan is insufficient, you'll have to brace yourself and go look for attention in the public health system. There's a provincial system, with hospitals in large towns and cities, smaller health centers in small towns, and little primary care centers everywhere, covering the entire area of Santa Fe. Overlaid with it there are local (municipal) health centers, which are usually coordinated with the provincial system. Rosario, being much larger than any other city, is a special case, and even more so because of the constant competition and bickering between the provincial and the municipal governments. The municipality manages several major hospitals on its own, including one for emergencies and one for children, and a multitude of primary centers.

The provincial health system is divided for administration into several Health Zones, each divided in turn into Programmatic Areas, each one having one base hospital and several primary care centers. The main difference regarding patient attention is that the provincial centers accept people from anywhere in Santa Fe (and even outside), while Rosario's municipal centers tend to send non-rosarinos elsewhere. I worked in one of the three largest provincial hospitals in Argentina and I can tell you that the quality of medical attention can range from very good to atrocious, depending on luck and on the good will of the doctors and employees; I don't know about the municipal hospitals. There's an unspoken assumption (acknowledged by the provincial officials) that Rosario's public health is better managed, though I couldn't tell for sure; conversely, the handling of internal jurisdictions, finance and large amounts of patients in the provincial system's hospitals is completely chaotic, in part because the hospitals were left to their own devices during the Reutemann administration.

Picture this: a large organization, self-ruled, with huge expenses, led by an unelected political official appointed by a faraway authority and with lesser authorities partly elected by votes of its employees (usually bought or pressured by a politically-connected union, if not entirely forged), which receives money from its higher authority but must not answer for it, and needs to gather extra money to work but cannot formally ask the patients for that money since in theory the public health system is free and the government is proud of that. This mess could be maybe corrected by re-centralization and enforced by tight controls, but that would make the central Health Ministry accountable for each little fault. With formally autonomous, self-managed hospitals, that responsibility is diluted.

Anyway, tens of thousands of people seek public health care in Rosario every day, and they get it, maybe after long waits or in less-than-optimal conditions, but usually from decently good professionals. If you want to become a doctor, you need to do your residence in a public hospital, and everybody knows that those young, eager residents are the ones that really do the grunt work in hospitals. Moreover, it's still a source of status for a doctor to serve in a public hospital, if only for short periods, even while he or she has a private practice; and hospitals are also schools, so residents always receive advice from qualified specialists. It's possible to give birth to a child, to have a serious fracture mended, or to get years of treatment for cancer in a public hospital for nothing, or at the very least for a fraction of the cost of private medicine, in any major public hospital in Santa Fe.

This is sadly not true of all of Argentina. Many patients in the interior of the country don't have a half-decent coverage, and need to travel long distances to their provincial capitals or even to other provinces. Some end up here in Rosario, others go to Buenos Aires. (I remember once a patient from Paraguay got a mammography in my hospital. She travelled once a year to Argentina to visit her extended family, and it was cheaper for her to pay a few pesos and get a decent study while she was staying here.) Some complex and expensive treatments, such as the ones surrounding pediatric bone marrow transplants, are only available in Buenos Aires. All in all, this makes it more attractive to live in a big city... and it's one of the reasons why poor small-town and countryside residents migrate here. The only way to fix that is simply to take good health care closer to them.

In the meantime, I'm going to take care of myself... My leg's going to see a doctor in the neighbourhood's community center, four blocks away — the 'hood is poor but the community center has at least a few specialists and, importantly, an X-ray machine!

15 March 2007

Fun with the mayor

Just two pictures to show the pathetic status of Rosario's political debate regarding the administration of mayor Miguel Lifschitz.

The first one shows Lifschitz next to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a "Terminator of Cities". Lifschitz visited San Francisco and other places in California, U.S., last month, along with local officials and businessmen. He was received by the mayor of SF and the lieutenant governor of California, but he didn't actually meet Arnold. The distinctly cartoonish quality of California's chief elected official is easy to make fun of, and prompted great hilarity this side of the border, though it's really not that fun. However, this unsubtle, childish poster was paid for by a university faction of the local Peronist party.

The second picture is merely one example of the similarly-themed graffiti that have popped up in the whole city as of late. It blames Lifschitz for the two last raises in the urban bus fee, which went from AR$0.75 to 1.20 in a year. The blame is to be placed in the outrageous demands of the bus drivers (backed by a powerful union), who now have initial monthly wages equal to two or three times what a policeman or a teacher gets. In truth, Rosario had a very cheap fee compared to most cities in the country, and the bus fee has been raised in most of them as well, except Buenos Aires, after the national subsidies to diesel for public transport were redistributed.

Lifschitz has kept a low profile and a good public image for more than three years. He's running for reelection in September, and it looks like he'll win by a landslide. The Peronist party has resorted to picking on every little fault and inventing problems — for example, that Rosario is driving out manufacturing industries due to its lack of industrial policies and its preference for sissy Socialist quality-of-life-inducing green spaces and its promotion of culture and tourism. I for one would rather see more green and less industry. Anyway industrial facilities are being set up in the neighbouring towns, and they produce wealth for everyone around.

The only mature choice the Peronists have made regarding the political contest is the decission of governor pre-candidate Ángel Rossi to enroll the "K Radical" Juan Héctor Sylvestre Begnis as candidate for mayor of Rosario. Sylvestre Begnis was a fine Minister of Health of Santa Fe in the past, a supporter of proactive policies regarding sex education and contraception that are much needed here, and one who worked very well with the national Health Minister. His father was governor of Santa Fe in the 1960s, and a very good one. S. B. is surely the best mayor candidate that his party has put forward since... well, ever. For a change, he began by acknowledging that Lifschitz is doing a good job overall, which suggests he'll campaign on doing more things and doing better, rather than focusing on the negatives.

Of course I prefer Lifschitz to win. With his former mentor Hermes Binner as the governor, as the election is likely to turn out, there should be less friction between the province and the city, and Rosario might finally gain its long requested autonomic status. That might mean reforming the provincial constitution, which Binner has vowed to do, and which must be done anyway to keep it in line with the national constitution in several matters (including, precisely, the issue of autonomous municipalities).

14 March 2007

Lament for La Rioja

Argentina is a federal country. Most of the power resides (in theory) in the provincial states, which delegate some functions in the national federal government. The opposite would be a unitarian country. Since its independence in 1816, and until its final unification around 1860, Argentina was torn by civil war led by proponents of these two opposing systems.

In truth, many of the federalists were caudillos, powerful provincial chieftains, and they couldn't care less for the concept of decentralized government as an ideology. They just wanted to be left alone by the central power, residing in Buenos Aires, to continue ruling their lands like feudal lords.

This is still true for most of Argentina outside the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fe and Córdoba, not coincidentally the ones most populated and the most productive. The north of Argentina is, in practice, ruled by hereditary successions of heirs linked by blood ties or lifelong political association; these dynasties are only broken every now and then, when the political establishment is shaken by strange coincidences or major crises.

These days the whole country witnessed, without so much as a mild outrage soon forgotten, the pathetic, dreadful spectacle of such a crisis in La Rioja. Twelve years ago, governor Ángel Maza succeeded his political patron, Carlos Menem, who had stayed in power for several terms before becoming President of Argentina. Maza himself got re-elected three times. In the meantime, the once all-powerful Menem became politically meaningless and Néstor Kirchner's rising star gathered a large following of opportunists. Maza realigned with Kirchner, as expected. In 2005 he ran for Senator of La Rioja against Menem, without resigning as governor. He won and, having beaten Menem as intended, resigned from his senatorial bench and continued ruling as governor. This is absolutely unethical but not illegal.

Now vice governor Luis Beder Herrera had an agreement with Maza: when the time came, Maza forfeit re-election so that Beder Herrera (who's been vice governor of three different governors, totalling 15 years) could run for governor. Something went wrong, however, as Maza ignored the agreement and prepared to run for a fourth term. Beder Herrera turned against him, and the Legislature he presides reformed the provincial constitution and got it to forbid indefinite re-election (which had been introduced years ago to favour Carlos Menem's own appetite for power). Maza protested. Beder Herrar accused Maza of a series of misdeeds, and got the Legislature to vote a suspension for Maza, pending the formal investigation known as juicio político that is reserved for elected officials. This took some time, which Maza employed to cry foul and denounce an "institutional coup". Furthermore, the national government hinted at the idea of federal intervention to La Rioja. Upon hearing of the legislature's decission, Maza formally asked for the intervention.

Last night, Maza, some of his officials and supporters locked themselves up inside the government house. The judicial branch of La Rioja ordered the police to drive them out. Outside, a demonstration gathered to support Maza. The lumpen-for-hire that are usually the majority in these demonstrations started lighting fires and breaking windows. They set a car on fire, destroyed public lights, and attacked the riot police (loyal to Beder Herrera) with sticks and stones. The police finally came into the government house and forced everybody out except ex-governor Maza and some of his companions.

Now the national government is faced with a tough choice. Federal intervention is not a minor thing. It is used in cases where a provincial state's power has been overtaken or dispersed. It means the federal state coming over, ending the local executive's terms and dissolving the local legislature. To fill this political blank slate the president must then appoint an interventor, who will have a certain time (typically 180 days) to re-organize the province and call for elections again. An intervened province is like an open wound in a federal country, and failure to choose a good interventor means a huge political cost for the president.

Worst of all, this is not a mission to repair injustice. When the government intervened Santiago del Estero in 2004, the province was a nightmare: it had been the fiefdom of the Juárez family for 50 years, a half-senile governor and his wife ruling a mass of poor peasants, held by welfare and public jobs granted in exchange for votes, with a police force that had carte blanche to harass and suppress dissidence, and a judicial branch completely subservient to the executive. Santiago was completely rotten, and yet the national government hesitated to intervene a Peronist-ruled province. The intervention at least brought the corruption into the light.

La Rioja is not like Santiago del Estero. The province has a lot of problems, to be sure, but it's not in the hands of a dark evil leader with a secret police. The mess was caused entirely by two ambitious men fighting for power. It's a catch-22 situation: if there's not an intervention, the national government will be validating Beder Herrera's "coup", which was legal but embarrassing and hardly legitimate; if the intervention takes place, it will be seen as the president using an extremely unsubtle approach to come to the rescue, not of a province in chaos, but of one of his protegés.

By the time you read this, the decission may have been made already. It needs to be ratified by Congress. We know how that works, but in any case, legislative debate will only make this look even more disgusting.

13 March 2007

If you can't beat 'em... just close your eyes

The problem with a planned economy is that you can't keep holding all the threads in your hand. Some you will forget, some will tangle, some will stretch and stretch and finally snap and lash against you.

As inflation started creeping into public opinion as a growing concern, the Argentine government started talks with a few economic agents (producers, distributors and sellers). The talks soon turned into "agreements", then negotiations under pressure, and finally de facto price controls. Even then, the loopholes were so many and so big that the price of most products continued rising.

The government restricted exports of beef and other sensitive products. Many cattle farmers, unsatisfied by their profits, turned their pasture land into soybean and corn crops. The slaughter and export fell. The government started monitoring the Liniers Cattle Market, which has long been the largest in Argentina. The livestock producers turned to private one-on-one transactions and to the black market, as the prices in Liniers were much lower.

The controls finally started leaking massively because of those little things that lie outside our abilities (and even President K's abilities). The price of corn rose internationally after Wargame Boy decided that the U.S. should move from dependency on foreign oil to dependency on foreign ethanol, which is produced (among other methods) by fermenting corn. Feedlot cattle in Argentina therefore became more expensive (the government is subsidizing feedlot corn). The weather in the north-center of Argentina turned rainy at the worst possible time, so the Paraná River started to rise, flooding a lot of low-lying islands in its delta, mostly in Entre Ríos, which were used as pasture for hundreds of thousands of cows; those cows are being moved at great cost to higher regions, and many are drowning or getting sick. Up goes the price again — no less than 10%, according to worried butcher shop owners, and this while the meat arrives with a noticeably lower quality.

At some point during the last year, also, the Argentine government concluded that, if you can't control the economy, you can invent it and get away with it. 2006 finished with an inflation rate suspiciously just beneath the highly symbolic mark of 10%. Fine enough. We went on vacation and everything was much more expensive than that, but hey, vacations are a luxury item, like a car. Surely beef, chicken, fruit and vegetables were more-or-less the same? Wrong. The result of meddling with the census bureau are evident. INDEC (I've already seen the spelling IndeK in the papers!) has hastily changed the methods used to calculate inflation, and nobody would be surprised to see similar changes for unemployment, GDP growth, and other figures. The scandal has given way to practical, typically Argentine skepticism — INDEC has become political and thus irrelevant. Nobody believes politicians will keep their promises; we know their job is trying to deceive us.

When the scandal first broke out, I guessed it was largely an invention of the media, because I thought things would be made clear soon; it was in the best interest of the citizenry and the government. I must correct myself now. Another high-ranking official of INDEC has just resigned, the third since December. IndeK is fast turning into a new Ministry of Plenty. Everybody, get a firm hold on your beef rations and pretend to be happy!

12 March 2007

George and Hugo, sitting on a tree... NOT!

Picture by Beatrice Murch
Everybody surely knows now that George "Lame Duck" Bush was touring South America and that Hugo "Red Danger" Chávez scheduled a tour for himself just to bother the intrepid Leader of the Free World (did you realize already how pathetically obsolete that sounds?). Chávez gathered a picturesque following here in Argentina: a couple of folk singers, the former human rights fighter Hebe de Bonafini, thousands of lumpen after the banners of some radical leftist groups, and possibly a few hundreds of genuinely interested, truly anti-American folks. The Kirchner administration, which is friendly to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, distanced itself as much as possible from this crude display. Everybody likes a little chanting against imperialism or a little American flag burning, but this was a bit ridiculous.

Bush, in the meantime, was being received in Uruguay, across the Río de la Plata, with angry demonstrations. Same as in Brazil and in Colombia. Uruguay is courting disaster, I think, by welcoming G. W. Bush to discuss a free trade agreement. The U.S. is clearly trying to use Uruguay as a wedge to break the Mercosur; the (by now only nominally) leftist presidential administration of Tabaré Vázquez, opposed by part of its own party and its own constituency, must be trying to use the U.S. to ring some alarm bells in Brazil and Argentina.

Uruguay is understandably enraged by the Argentine government's lack of action regarding the outrageous blockade of the international passes over the Uruguay River due to the conflict of the cellulose plants. Signing a FTA with the U.S., however, would violate the Mercosur's statutes, and send Uruguay into the voracious maw of the world's largest economy, with little hope of surviving (as an independent country, that is, as opposed to a cheap-labour agricultural colony).

Brazil's Lula can be all cozy with Bush because Brazil is a huge country with many resources, including a lot of land where sugarcane and corn can be grown, later to be transformed into ethanol for fuel-hungry U.S. motorists, if only the U.S. would lower its import tariffs and drop internal agricultural subsidies. That won't happen — a Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress won't stop subsidizing the American corn farmers.

Uruguay, on the other hand, doesn't have anything the U.S. cannot get elsewhere, which is why most analysts say that Bush's visit was either useless or a provocation. Going to Colombia was simply a political gesture of support to his puppet Álvaro Uribe (when George says that the U.S. send a lot of aid to Latin America, remember most of it comes in the form of weapons for anti-drug squads in Colombia).

Both Hugo and George are gone now. George didn't even say "Argentina" during his tour, and of course didn't set foot here. In the supposedly friendlier countries he visited, he had to send a small army before him, and his presence caused massive disruption. He hadn't come so close to Argentina since the disastrous Mar del Plata Summit of the Americas, in November 2005, and it's quite likely that he won't waste any more of his time this side of the Equator until he finishes his term (unless he visits Australia, maybe, to check whether water flushed in a toilet rotates the other way — though he doesn't seem to have such scientific need for empirical tests of anything).