30 April 2007

Alberto Olmedo, in the bronze

The city's got a new monument. Since yesterday, a life-sized bronze statue of the master comedian Alberto "El Negro" Olmedo sits on a bronze bench at the corner of Pueyrredón St. and Rivadavia Ave., in his neighbourhood of birth, Pichincha.

Alberto Olmedo

Pichincha is located just north and a bit west of the city center, starting by the old railway and port facilities near the Rosario Norte train station. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was a den of prostitution, mafia gangs, police corruption and disease, at a time when Rosario was called "the Argentine Chicago"; a natural consequence of the unchecked growth of a port city overflowing with poor immigrants and uneducated workers moving in from the countryside. Then the port traffic diminished, the country's economy was repeatedly sunk in the successive crises we all know about, and finally the train system was mostly shut down and practically abandoned.

Pichincha has been embellished with nostalgic touches lately; the government of the city and its residents have reclaimed it as a historical district, and life has returned to its streets. This monument to the first and foremost Argentine comedian, quite possibly the most famous Rosarino after Che Guevara, is just the latest touch.

For those who didn't know Alberto Olmedo (which I assume would be most of the foreign readers), he did children's shows first, and then adult-oriented comedy on TV, and he was the pioneer of Argentine sexploitation films. I never really liked the films, and at times I was too little and ingenuous to get Olmedo's adult humour. The man was a master at double entendre and innuendo; he improvised, looked at the camera, told made-up anecdotes about his childhood in Rosario, confused his co-actors and made them laugh at inappropriate times.

I especially remember three of his characters: the Manosanta (lit. "Holy Hand"), the dictator of Costa Pobre, and Perkins the butler.

The Manosanta was a lascivious "miracle healer" with a headband and spectacles à la John Lennon and a tunic fashioned out of a bathrobe, whose main expertise was fondling his main disciple, a young voluptuous blonde, on the pretext of "imposing hands" on her to "discharge" her negative energies, and then sending her to his room while he dodged the suspicions of her wrathful father.

The dictator of Costa Pobre was the de facto ruler of a banana republic with a name that could be literally translated as "Poor Coast" (the opposite of "Costa Rica"); he wore a ridiculous, pink military uniform and a presidential band with a dedication, "TUS AMIGOS" ("Your Friends") in big block letters.

Perkins was a butler working for a wealthy household, where the husband and the wife would be ceremoniously served dinner at the opposite ends of a long table, speaking to each other in formal terms through Perkins. After the master of the house told the butler to send some innocuous message to his wife, Perkins would go to the other end of the table and communicate whatever he pleased to her; by the end of the segment, he had invariably arranged a nighttime visit, supposedly for the husband, to the lady's room — "as always, lights off and no speaking".

El Negro Olmedo is an icon of Rosario, commanding a much more emotional following that the somewhat distantly legendary Che or the largely whitewashed (and sold out) Fito Páez. Some of his old-time friends and early fans still live here. He's also a sort of national hero — not nice, not handsome, not courteous, but a man of his friends, a party animal, a spontaneous laugher, a true Argentinian in the best and worst sense of the word. Ask anyone over 20 and they'll tell you. I just have to have myself pictured sitting next to Olmedo, and I'm sure I won't be the only one.

27 April 2007

Traffic in Rosario: rant two

Continuing with the previous post, on to my (current) pet peeve. People here don't seem to understand that a car takes up physical space, and that that's the reason parking is allowed only in certain spots and following certain regulations. From a visual survey I'd say that at least 50% of cars are parked wrongly; even discounting those within the forbidden parts of the block, most people just can't park — they leave the car 40 or 50 cm from the curb, usually not parallel to it, too close to the next car, and blocking important exits.

Drivers also assume that, for things that can be dealt quickly, the car may just be left wherever it suits them, so they park in the middle of the street in a double row in front of a bus stop to go get cigarettes. And worse. I worked with a doctor who left her car in a spot that she knew was illegal for three hours; she checked it every now and then and occasionally moved it, but she wouldn't take it to a car park because it was expensive. My mother tells me people park (illegally) near the bookshop where she works, then get in, demand to be served quickly explaining that the car is on an illegal spot (!), get angry when told that's not a valid reason, and then feel genuinely surprise when they come out and see the municipal patrol taking the car away.

Parking space is a problem in Rosario. With the economic recovery, people drive more and thousands of new cars are coming out as well. There are no municipal regulations about the minimum amount of parking lots, and having one in your building increases your expenses; hiring a space also costs a lot. If you leave it on the street, you run the risk of it being robbed. There are many cuidacoches (car watchers) around — typically poor young men. Years ago they asked the drivers for a coin or two; now they unsubtly demand to be paid up 5 pesos or more to watch for the car, and if you don't give them what they want, your vehicle is practically guaranteed to have a scratch or a broken glass when you come back.

Anyway, while the cuidacoches are a mafia, they're a fruit of these times. It always surprises me when people spend loads of money to buy and maintain a car, yet are so cheap as to leave the car in the street instead of paying for a safer place, and then complain about insecurity and how "it's a shame" to have those lumpen blackmailing drivers.

26 April 2007

Traffic in Rosario: rant one

I've previously spoken of traffic in Rosario. This topic is also one of the favourite of newcomers in Argentina as a whole. Despite the horrific rate of accidents, nobody understands how the death toll is not higher, or how the system works at all instead of grinding to a complete halt in a kind of perpetual traffic jam. Don't worry — I don't get it either.

What follows is my personal experience as a carless person who uses the bus daily (and often more than once), rides a bicycle twice a week at least, and walks a lot around many places. First, the bus...

For those not accustomed, riding the bus is an adventure. You signal at it, and the driver may or may not see you. By law, cars cannot park 15 meters from any corner, and in the case of bus stops, 30 meters; in reality, people park their cars within mere centimeters of other cars and up to the very corner. The bus should ideally slow down, place itself parallel to the sidewalk and close enough that the person is not forced to come down to the street before getting on the bus; in reality, the bus usually winds its way among misparked cars and stops in the middle of the street. When two buses do this at once, the driver might choose to overcome the other bus on the far side, leaving behind the would-be passengers desperately waving at it from the sidewalk.

There are no queues for the bus here in Rosario, as I understand there are in Buenos Aires. People just gather as the bus stops, and then it's sauve qui peut. School kids and teenagers consistently lack the minimum of education and civility to let pregnant women and handicapped people go first. I used to be corteous — I let women and senior people get on the bus first; then I noticed several things: 1) nobody ever said thank you for it; 2) feminists fought long for gender equality; 3) seniors, especially women, are the least polite of people — they always elbow their way into the bus regardless of anything. Therefore I only let pregnant mothers, people carrying babies (real babies, not just older kids that refuse to walk), senior citizens with obvious difficulties to walk or stand, blind people, other people with canes or prosthetic limbs, and the like. Screw "ladies first". Screw schoolkids too — they're young and they do nothing all day, so they can wait. And it'd be nice if they gave a seat to their not-so-elders.

Once you're in the bus, the driver will try to take you to your destination, even if that takes running over cyclists and bark insults at car drivers to make room. Remember this is a public transport "professional" behind the wheel of a large vehicle, and he makes AR$4,000 a month — more than twice what a medical chief of residents in a hospital makes, more then three times what an elementary school teacher makes.

Now, so you don't think I'm just an ever-nagging old man, I do think Rosario's bus system is a wonderful thing to have. I've been to other large cities where buses are old and worn out, their routes are extremely limited, and the frequency is irregular and very spaced, so you have to rely on an also defective, and expensive, taxi fleet.

My current pet peeve, however, is car parking. If you thought my capacity to rant was limited, that'll prove you wrong.

24 April 2007

Expats in Rosario

This is in response to a question posted by Sergio yesterday about American expats in Rosario. I'm not going to attempt a list of expat bloggers à la Bloggers in Argentina, or a list of foreign residents (there are specific forums for that). However, if you're an expat, American or otherwise, living in Rosario (or at least a tourist on an extended visit), it'd be nice to know. This will help those who want to meet someone who speaks their own native language, or just talk about the oddities of Argentine culture with someone from the outside.

Myself, I'd personally like to know how many people from abroad have chosen Rosario to live, and why. Most expats land in Buenos Aires and settle there, for understandable reasons. Why do some venture into the wild interior?

Please comment on this post to make yourself known. State your name, where you come from, how long you've been staying in Rosario, and whatever else you think may be of interest. If you're at all interested in meeting other people, say so, and provide an email address (do it as "username AT domain DOT com" or some other obfuscated way to avoid being targetted for spamming by address harvesters).

23 April 2007

Heavenly real estate offers

The Catholic Church has always (or at least since the 4th century) excelled at realpolitik. John Paul II was a master at this; even as he expressed the most exclusionary statements and signed documents re-affirming the most reactionary and absurd dogmas, he received and prayed with leaders of many countries and was popular with followers of every faith — people who, according to anything but the most liberal interpretation of Catholic doctrine, were (are) most certainly doomed to burn in hell forever (most world leaders should be there anyway, but that's not what I'm getting at).

John Paul's death brought Joseph Ratzinger aka Benedict XVI to the throne of the last remaining theocratic state on Earth (except possibly Iran). There were some uninformed ones who thought the Church would do a U-turn in many respects, as Benedict was pictured as extremely conservative and completely devoid of charisma, an ivory-tower theologian. Well, he is indeed all of those things, but in his time directing the Holy Office, he was also "John Paul's bulldog".

Those who bought the public image of JP as a worldly man, close to the common man, open and ecumenical, do not know or fail to recall that Ratzinger was the actual author of many of the things that John Paul signed and released; conversely, when Ratzinger caused an outrage with the publication of a document that said that all religions except Catholicism were "gravely deficient", many seemed surprised at this blow against JP's ecumenical efforts, forgetting that anything published by Ratzinger must be approved by the Pope. It's apparent that at certain times Wojtyla and Ratzinger were playing "good cop, bad cop" with the faithful; Wojtyla used Ratzinger as a channel for unadulterated medieval Catholic thought while he himself kept a more amicable public profile, distributing hugs and kisses to all those damn heathens and heretics and making the masses roar in approval at a profusion of new saints.

After an initial timidity and some stuttering public appearances where
Ratzinger's uncharismaticness and a humourously sinister profile were thoroughly exposed, the Pope took shelter again in his tower and started to produce. If he's good at something, he's definitely good as a theologian, or so the experts say.

The latest output of the pontifical mind were the definitive shutdown of limbo, where newborn children who died without baptism were previously destined to stay (they'll be redirected to heaven from now), and the complementary re-opening of hell, which John Paul II had previously closed down.

This is all so deliciously bizarre and so exquisitely irrelevant that I had to mention it. It doesn't have to do with Rosario, Argentina, or any of my usual topics... indeed, it has nothing to do with anything on the face of the Earth except the fears of a handful of fanatics and possibly the future history of mythology. For 99% of the Catholic Church (the lay people and most of the priests and nuns) these metaphysical moves will be meaningless, as they don't relate at all with the actual human condition that they have to deal with every day.

In places as fucked up as Argentina, in particular, the Church can't afford wasting time on the details. When Benedict XVI said it'd be nice to sing mass in Latin, the local hierarchy stayed silent, while those in the know laughed sotto voce, thinking of how a Latin mass with the priest facing away from the attendants would throw the few remaining practising Catholics into the arms of the evangelicals. The priests overseeing private Catholic schools are too busy charging huge fees to educate the children of the rich to remind them that they, too, can go to Benedict's real hell place. The ones in charge of soup kitchens, who feed poor kids every day, would mostly feel it rather useless to tell their neighbourhood's undernourished teenage mothers that their children will go directly to heaven when they die of starvation or of some easily avoided disease.

Surprisingly... or not, the media have reflected profusely on Herr Ratzinger's supernatural real estate announcements. Listening to the radio today, there was a brief, light discussion about this, and dozens of people called to give the half-baked inarticulations that make up 90% of mediatic content. Half-baked, yet these comments showed at least a passing interest. Must be true that there are ultimate questions that all human beings feel drawn to, no matter their place of birth, culture, age or education; and that must be why the Church doesn't pay too much attention.

Oh no, the local Church is working in the real world. Some are doing more or less what Scripture says they should do, most just going through the motions, and the rest... are doing politics.

20 April 2007

A home of my own

I've just begun walking the way towards having my own home! This is something I've been thinking about for years. I used to be a little ashamed to live with my parents at 30, but there really was no way out of it, not with an average salary in these times of abusive rents.

It must be only in Argentina that a huge real estate boom, with apartment towers popping up everywhere in the big cities, is coupled with extreme price raises in rents. I mean, everything has become much more expensive lately; in Rosario the average price of 1 square meter in a 1-bedroom appartment is close to US$1,000. It makes sense (in a twisted, very Argentine sort of way) that construction companies and real estate sellers are trying to return to the profit levels (in dollars) they had before the collapse of 2001. Real estate is a long-term investment, and people with enough money or credit to buy a new house or a flat already have savings in hard currency anyway.

However, rents are paid every month in local currency and may be re-negotiated within reasonable time periods. People who rent often have no other alternative; they tend to be the average guy or girl or young couple or family who live on fixed income and cannot save much, if at all. It makes sense to raise their rents following the inflation rate and/or the average wage, or a bit more — nobody says the owner has to be compassionate. But it's plainly stupid to raise the rents so much that you effectively evict your tenants, and it seems to me idiotic beyond belief to spend millions building a huge tower in the poshest neighbourhood and then charge so much for the apartments that almost nobody can rent them.

Of course I never intended to approach the owner of one of those luxurious apartments being built downtown with a view of the river. I initially thought of a small flat somewhere in the macrocentro (just outside the downtown area, maybe 10 minutes' walk from work). That would've meant a rent of at least 500 pesos, not including administrative expenses and taxes (I'm not going to tell you how much I make, but that's more than 1/3 of my salary). I'd discarded the idea of buying beforehand and was more-or-less resigned to a frugal lifestyle. Then one day my mother insisted, "Why don't you at least try asking for a loan so you can buy your own place? Paying a rent is like throwing money into the garbage, and once you begin renting you'll be renting forever."

Well, I went to the Banco Hipotecario, the venerable bank that has helped fulfill the dream of owning a home for generations of Argentinians (even my parents built their [our] house with a loan from the Hipotecario!). Big mistake. I don't know how things were before, but the Hipotecario nowadays is like regular banks (the quote is not mine): they lend you money only if you can prove that you don't need it. My salary is not high but, being single and childless and with a stable job, you'd think the bank could've trusted me. After getting out of there, I made some calculations based on the maximum amount of the loan based on your salary and the maximum paying time, and it turns out that with the minimum required salary, what you can buy amounts to little more than a concrete cubicle. And that's if you have at least 6 or 7 thousand dollars to pay up front before the first installment.

Then I heard about something called Cooperativa de Vivienda Rosario. This is a cooperative that builds apartment buildings and family homes for sale (not rent). You pay them and they build, but you don't know when you'll get your appartment. Every two months they have a "lottery"; if you paid your installment that month, you're in, and you can be awarded with an apartment. If you don't pay for a while, nothing happens (you only miss the change of being in the lottery). Once you move, the installment doubles and becomes obligatory. You won't truly own the apartment until you finish paying, and the remainder of the value will be adjusted by the cost of the construction index published each month by INDEC; the installments themselves are also indexed (by the salary index). So there's the certain risk that the cost of your future appartment will skyrocket out of control during one of those economic hysterias typical of this country; but that seems to be the only way.

I learned of this word-of-mouth, from my boss, who told me her maid had actually bought a very nice house this way. So I called, got an interview (the guy from the cooperative came to see me at home) and a comprehensive explanation. I thought about it and told them I'm in. I paid my first installment (which is very accessible), and I'm signing the definitive contract next week.

Now, the building is not yet done; indeed, the idea is they'll have all apartments assigned to their owners when the building is finished, about one year and a half from now. If by then I haven't had any luck, I'll have to wait one more year to get an apartment in the next building, which will be built around the corner from the other one. The area isn't close to the downtown; it's about 20 minutes from it by bus, near the bus terminal station. It's close to the geographical center of the city, though, within walking distance of my Japanese school, 20 minutes from my current house, and well supplied with bus lines. Looks like a peaceful neighbourhood, too.

They say time flies when you're getting old, so maybe an 18-month wait won't feel like so much.

19 April 2007

Autonomous City of Rosario: starting the campaign

I'm opening a new blog to organize a citizens' campaign for the autonomy of the city of Rosario; it's called Ciudad Autónoma de Rosario. Below is a loose translation of the introduction.

Rosario is the most populated city in Santa Fe and the third most populated in Argentina. It is a major port and the center of a prosperous agricultural and industrial region. Despite being almost three times as populated as the provincial capital and home to one third of the whole provincial population, it is treated like any other city. Its importance is politically diminished by the fact that the central administration resides in the city of Santa Fe. Rosario has also been systematically discriminated against regarding the part of the provincial budget that is granted to the municipalities.

According to the Argentine National Constitution of 1994, the provinces must guarantee the autonomy of their municipalities. The Constitution of Santa Fe does not include such a provision. Law experts are divided as to whether a constitutional reform is needed to explicitly allow municipal autonomy, or whether a law passed by the legislative branch in the regular fashion should suffice. Regardless, the implementation of municipal autonomy (not only for Rosario but also for the city of Santa Fe) is a debt that the political forces that rule the province have failed to honour for more than a decade.

Municipal autonomy does not imply a secession of the province. "Autonomy" can be implemented on different fields, as appropriate. For Rosario, it should include the ability to choose its own authorities (that is, to define its administrative structure) and its own way of electing or changing them; it should include also the legal ability to levy taxes, and to dictate laws that address local issues. Abstractly, the autonomous status must put forth the idea that the city is an entity in its own right and not simply a subdivision, a mere district of a larger territory which has been granted the mercy of governing itself within a structure dictated from above.

Autonomy is not a recipe for success. It is only a framework for larger things, a necessary step for certain developments, and it should be a top strategic priority. Now, politics is too important to be left in the hands of the politicians, so we the citizens must do something — at the very least we should let it be known that we want our representatives to think and act on this need.

18 April 2007

Men at work

The Municipality is already re-paving the streets, including some that look like they've been in need of re-paving since the time of horse-pulled carriages (cobblestones and all). Fast as it goes, it may be ready just in time for the next freak rainstorm... which was announced for today, hail included, but was cancelled later. Buenos Aires caught the tail of it and, if we were to believe the media, it was barely short of a humanitarian catastrophe.

In the meantime, this must be the hottest April in years. Everything and everyone is sticky. Yesterday it was over 31° C and it looks like the same for today. (Just checked the newspaper: yesterday it was 31.5; the historical record was 33.7.) The provincial power company EPE (a curse unto its board of directors) announced that yesterday also marked the record of electrical consumption — as hundreds of thousands of nearly-suffocating santafesinos turned on their ACs all at once. We also learned that EPE lost between 9 and 11 million pesos in infrastructure and equipment during the Great Rains, which will have to be replaced, and, according to its head (the governor's cousin Luis El Halli Obeid) "the only way to face such expenditure would be to raise the power fees". And maybe your salary as well, Luis, wouldn't you like that as well, you useless parasite?

So the municipality is working already with the money promised by the province; machines are clearing dumpsters, spreading fresh asphalt on our battered streets here and there, and planning how to sanitize or relocate irregular settlements... This year is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the National Flag Memorial, and there are multiple celebrations planned for the whole year, centered around Flag Day (20 June), so the local authorities want the city (or the visible part of the city) to be as beautiful as possible.

Most of this should've been done ages ago, but this is a provincial state that takes and doesn't give (except as grants of good will or in emergencies such as this one — and remember this is an electoral year). Then the same repeats on the federal level, especially since the retenciones (export taxes) are in place. Other taxes are partly redistributed to the provinces, but the retenciones are not. If Rosario were an autonomous city, it could collect its own taxes, instead of sending its wealth north to support the useless bureaucracy of Santa Fe. (I'm thinking of starting a campaign about that.)

Besides the renewal of the city (which should've included the refurbishment of Peatonal Córdoba, now delayed until 2008), we're having our Feria del Humor (Fair of Humour). This is one of those light cultural things that I mentioned in an earlier post; the Socialist administrations of Rosario have always loved to have them. This one is a bit special because it will last more than a week and it's not just a couple of comedians in a culture center downtown, but many humour-related activities for children and grownups in every district of the city, even the poor neighbourhoods of the northwest that got flooded only weeks ago. Decentralization started more than a decade ago and it's been slow, but it's wonderful when you see it at work.

Last Saturday, for example, I went to see an exposition of the magazine Barcelona (remember the cover about Argentine middle-class fascism?). Magnified covers were pasted on the walls. Two guys and a girl from the editorial team presented a dictionary of insults called Puto el que lee. Now that's the kind of thing you wouldn't take your child to hear... Though I'm fortunately way past the time when mere bad taste or obscenity sufficed to make me laugh (therefore rendering immune to the temptation of watching Bailando por un sueño, Gran Hermano, or most of Argentine prime-time TV for that matter), you can't but giggle a bit at the spectacle of three 30-somethings reading out loud perfectly serious definitions of such useful terms as tragasable, careta and comegatos.

16 April 2007

Economic divination for Argentina

I promised I'd make a guess about Argentina's economy in the near future. So here it is...

The Argentine government is making considerable effort to maintain the peso-dollar exchange rate high. It does this by restricting short-term incoming flows of dollars (typically speculative investments), by appropriating part of the dollars brought in by exports using retenciones (export taxes), and by increasing demand for the dollar in the local currency markets. The latter is the most significant part of the strategy, and it involves the Central Bank and the Treasury.

The Central Bank buys dollars in the free market using pesos it emits (yes, there's a little machine that spits out Argentine peso bills). In order to prevent all these pesos from reaching the public, increasing liquidity and "heating" the economy (which involves inflation), the Central Bank subsequently sterilizes these emissions by emitting debt letters. These are like bonds or stocks; they represent an obligation for the Central Bank to regularly pay interest to the holder. The public, seduced by the advantageous rates offered by the Central Bank, buys those letters, and the Central Bank gets back the pesos it just emitted.

The Treasury cannot emit pesos, so it uses its own funds, gathered through taxes. The Treasury cannot buy dollars if it doesn't have pesos to spend, so keeping a sizable fiscal surplus is a must.

Now the guessing begins. First, suppose the fiscal surplus decreases. This would leave the Central Bank in charge of buying dollars without help from the Treasury. This is indeed happening now. What about the Central Bank? The present strategy looks nice, but the bank is actually indebting itself to buy dollars. As it tries to get investors to buy more and more of its debt, it needs to offer them higher and higher interest rates. This influences all rates — including the rate that banks charge you when you go asking for a loan. In short, this makes (borrowed) money more expensive, and discourages private investment (you need credit to start a new business or to get those shiny, new, efficient machines to upgrade your industry).

Now, lack of investment is cited as one of the causes of inflation. If industries don't invest, they don't produce enough; offer lags behind demand, and prices rise. Industries recovered fast after the collapse because they'd been using only a fraction of their productive capacity since the 1990s. They simply got the engines started; but now they need more and bigger engines, and it may be too expensive to get them, especially when you have to get them from abroad (remember a key part of the economic policy of this administration is keeping imports expensive!).

At some point, the Central Bank will have to stop emitting pesos and buying dollars. What will happen then? As millions of dollars enter the country (through exports, tourism and investment), the exchange rate will fall. This will make it easier for everybody to import goods, and may bring down the prices of many products which have an imported component, but it will also make our exports less competitive, and will expose our local industries to competition from foreign producers. The export taxes, which comprise a large portion of the fiscal surplus, will yield less and less, so the state will have less money to spend.

As the dollar locally decreases in value, business will have to make some choices. Those who sell only to the local market will face competition from abroad. If the government doesn't block imports using tariffs, you'll lose, unless you become more productive. You can get your employees to work more hours for equal or less pay, or you can fire employees and use more efficient machines. If you're like many, many Argentine businessmen, you'll do this for a while, then sell everything overnight for a bunch of cheap dollars, file a fake bankruptcy, pack your gear and head for Miami.

Those who depend on exporting their production or who won't flee the country will try to ask for subsidies from the government "to preserve the national industry", but remember, the government doesn't have money to spend on you. It will, maybe, if you have contacts in the high spheres — there's always money to cut from welfare, education and public health, in order to help the local industry barons.

Unless something really amazing happens, the surplus of the trade balance will decrease and the fiscal surplus will follow, as the export taxes gather less and less. This will cool down the economy, since the state will be forced to cut spending and the big exporter conglomerates will see their profits reduced. This should bring down prices of certain products that currently have inflated local prices (but don't bet on it!).

The crux of the matter is what the state will do to finance itself. It's already apparent that the national government is interested in fueling consumption, but doesn't intend to do it through a progressive tax scheme. The IVA (i.e. VAT) is 21% for most types of goods, ridiculously high and regressive. A truly progressive government would increase the taxes that apply only to the rich, and decrease the IVA, which applies to everything from bread, beef and lettuce to plasma TVs and luxury cars. Tax evasion is rampant in Argentina, but it should be easier to cash in a tax that applies to only a tiny fraction of the population — the couple of thousands of individuals and companies that make tens of millions each month. As it is now, IVA is automatically added to all goods and services sold legally, which means everything you buy in the supermarket is one-fifth more expensive than it should, and many goods and services are exchanged outside the legal channels, thus depriving the state of funds.

The state is highly indebted in both pesos and dollars. If I were in charge, I'd start paying right now. There's no need to have more reserves. One of the reasons why it's difficult for the Central Bank to keep the exchange rate high is because it has $37 thousand million in stock and everybody knows, so nobody buys dollars (except importers and tourists). The Central Bank and the government should coordinate efforts to pay off dollar-denominated debt. With reserves going down, the dollar will become attractive and demand will increase, thus pushing the exchange rate up without the need for state intervention. It's a bit stupid, IMHO, to have a massive external debt and yet keep it unpaid while you hoard surplus money with no end in sight.

So this is how I see it, in short: a cheaper dollar, a good deal of inflation due to lack of offer, a state with funding problems, spending cuts, lower investment, less liquidity. Stagflation? I might be off the mark by a large degree (you never know in today's world, or ever, in Argentina). Only time will tell...

13 April 2007

Media is the plural of mediocre

I've often spoken, in passage, about the appalling quality of the media in Argentina, especially TV news coverage. The floods in Santa Fe were only one glaring example; ironically, you didn't get much from me regarding the media coverage because dealing with it would've been as frivolous as the way the topic itself was dealt with on TV.

All the big media are based in Buenos Aires, which can be considered a self-sufficient city-state for all practical purposes except for the generation of primary products, which anyway is usually invisible to the residents of large urban centers (porteño kids probably think eggs are manufactured right there in the back of the supermarket). As such, the media are myopic and extremely parochial. A multiple suicide bombing in Baghdad, an earthquake in Chile, a devastating flood in Córdoba, a minor traffic accident in Palermo and a stray cat in Villa Lugano are treated more or less equally (and the cat will most likely get more air time).

Not that our local Rosario media are better. Worse, they practically don't have a local content production; one of the channels is basically a branch of Telefé (Gran Hermano, cheesy and barely differentiable Colombian/Venezuelan/Mexican telenovelas). They both have news shows, which draw heavily from Buenos Aires channels (Canal 3 gets content from TN's Telenoche; Canal 5 gets Telefé's news). We also get TN, Crónica TV, Canal 9 and América TV by cable.

I usually have breakfast around 6 AM, watching the only moderately ridiculous early morning news on TN. There's just an anchor speaking at that time, who varies from day to day, though none of them seems to have received proper training regarding modulation and pronunciation. They repeat what they're told and do not editorialize. It gets worse after that, as a round table of wannabe journalists gathers to greet those just waking up for their 9-to-5 jobs with all sorts of supposedly funny skits, jokes and puns, before going on to the actual news.

I don't watch Telefé, ever, for my health. I mean, this is the source of such horrors as Susana Giménez, Marcelo Tinelli, Gran Hermano, and some of the worst soap operas ever to defile the small screen. I don't usually watch Canal 9 (too fascist for my taste) and I tend to skip América TV (makes you dumb just by watching). Crónica TV I do sometimes, as it's not only sensationalistically yellow but does also, surprisingly, have a much better coverage of national and international news than multi-awarded TN.

The news today (carried over from the weekend) is that the icebreaker ARA Almirante Irízar (the only icebreaker we, proud, if contested, rulers of a huge chunk of Antarctica, have in stock) is still on fire, its captain still on board waiting for his ship to be towed back to port, some 120 nautical miles south of Puerto Madryn; and that Diego Maradona was again hospitalized due to severe abdominal pains — he had hepatitis some time ago, was released, and now they suspect a pancreatitis. The smoke rising from the Irízar, the rescue of its crew and their safe arrival to port, with the ensuing family reunions, were played and replayed again and again until the whole episode turned into a foul, mushy mass of sentimentaloid infodramatic crap. Maradona, of whom one doctor said he's in trouble because "he thinks he's God", is being worshipped non-stop by followers and media alike, as if it wasn't his fault at all that he's an overweight drug-addicted alcoholic with an ego the size of La Bombonera and the Maracanã put together.

Some of us are tired of this... but hey, whatcha gonna do? Tomorrow another cat will climb a tree it can't get down from, or a cute baby elephant will be born somewhere, or an abandoned storehouse will burn in a suburbs of a suburb of Buenos Aires, and they'll grab the full attention of the cameras again. Let's hope.

12 April 2007

Macondo's inflation INDEKS

If you haven't heard of magic realism, you might be tempted to (and should probably) read some of the works of Gabriel García Márquez, or query Wikipedia, or ask an acquaintance with a PhD. Or you could read Argentine news!! Case in point: INDEC.

INDEC (sometimes spelled Indec, or lately, IndeK), is the official organization that performs all manners of statistical surveys, from the national census every ten years to the monthly inflation measurements.

Earlier this year I spoke about government intervention in the workings of INDEC. The Kirchner administration is extremely concerned with inflation, and has tackled it with aggressively heterodox policies, including price controls (they call them price-keeping agreements), negotiated/forced by Secretary of Interior Commerce Guillermo Moreno.

After an initial success, the price controls started to show problems. Many people don't know this, but the controls were only valid in the Greater Buenos Aires area — that's where most major producers, distributors and sellers are, that's where one third of the population of Argentina lives, and most importantly, that's where INDEC has always measured inflation. The inflation rate in "the interior" has been measured for some time now, though only in the largest metropolitan areas (like Córdoba, Rosario and Mendoza); it's published later, without fanfare, and doesn't interest anyone. The national government, sadly, lives for the headlines — the price controls were, since the very beginning, focused exclusively on the goal of showing smaller inflation figures in the headlines of the lead Buenos Aires newspapers.

When prices escape controls, inflation rises. At first the controls were widened and hardened. Kirchner accused big business of restricting offer to raise prices and collect extraordinary profits. Moreno sent teams of inspectors ("hounds") to check that those that had agreed with keeping prices stable were indeed doing so, and pressure those who weren't. It didn't work. For whatever reason (I'm not going to discuss that here) prices continued rising. Enraged, the government removed top officials of INDEC. New employees were appointed in key areas. Administrative workers and professionals in INDEC protested, told the press the government was manipulating the surveys and faking the numbers.

All this time it was obvious for all of us that this was all a farce. Circumstancially wrong statistical samples were not enough to explain the inflation rate. When tourism in February this year turned out to be cheaper (according to INDEC) than tourism in the same month of 2006, I commented on it humorously.

Now this was beginning to look like a bizarre confusion of make-believe and reality, or a reality where natural laws, logic and common sense are suspended — magic realism. But this month was the last stroke. First, INDEC announced the March inflation rate (0.7%) before the usual day, to avoid doing it on the same day as a protest organized by its employees. Then, INDEC's employees leaked the figure of inflation for the "basic food basket", i.e. the sample of food items used by INDEC: it was 3.6%, the largest since 2002. They warned that this was the "real" figure. Days later (yesterday), INDEC officially announced... hold your breath... deflation!

Deflation! INDEC wants us to believe that prices of the basic food basket have decreased by 0.2%!

I think I'll metaphorically slam the door on the way out of my mind.

11 April 2007

What the governor giveth

John asks how the approximately US$10 million assigned to Rosario by the provincial government for the emergency will be spent. Coincidentally, La Capital publishes an article today about that (and so does Rosario/12 as well).

It's calculated that 65% of the city's streets are in bad shape and need total or partial repaving — this wasn't caused by the storm exclusively, but the days and days of rain finished off many streets that were damaged by years of lack of maintenance. This work will take 15 to 20 million pesos.

The ravine of the Paraná River was eroded and collapsed in several spots, notably in the north end of the coast (the place called Costa Alta, where there's an open-air elevator) and in the parks located in the center-north coast (Parque Sunchales and Parque de las Colectividades). The ravine must be reinforced and walls must be built. That will take 2 to 3 million pesos.

There are many neighbourhoods were water is drained by open ditches. These can be more or less sanitary, but not in cases where the street and the sidewalk are not paved as they should. About 3 million pesos will be spent on fixing those ditches, so they don't clog or overflow.

The shanty towns (villas miseria) scattered in the periphery of the city get flooded very quick because they're built along irregularly traced unpaved streets and passages. Whenever it rains, those passages turn into muddy trenches. The city has been working for years building proper streets, with curbs, signs, lighting, etc., so as to "open up" the villas, as a quality of life issue and for security. The municipality will now intervene in 30 irregular settlements, using 4 million pesos.

Another 3 million pesos will be employed to repair the power grid and street lights and to handle waste. And finally, a yet-undetermined amount will be used to aid poor residents whose homes were damaged by the storm.

This is a good opportunity for the city to renew itself and for the government to implement and complete certain projects in a short time, instead of putting them off indefinitely as ideas for the coming generations. It's inconceivable, even in our country, that a prosperous city with a progressive government still leaves thousands of people without basic infrastructure and protection against weather phenomena that are (unfortunately) becoming more frequent in our region. And in a province that is swimming in cash!

I really have to credit governor Obeid — even if I've criticized his government countless times, the man knows how to deal with a crisis personally. The problem with him is the corrupt, inefficient, anti-meritocratic, nepotist structure imposed on his administration by a quarter of a century of Peronist rule, which he willingly defers to 99% of the times (the only exception I can remember was the repeal of the Ley de Lemas, which will almost certainly cause the defeat of the Peronist party next September). Outside of the restrictions of party politics, the man has collaborated with Rosario — as he did in his previous term (1995–1999) when Hermes Binner was the mayor, and until Binner started campaigning for the governor's office... This immense grant of funds will undoubtedly be beneficial to the Peronist campaign, but only tangentially, as Obeid has more or less tried to remain above it, and he's not running for reelection (he can't).

Will all the promises become reality?

10 April 2007

Money, money, money

I'm not one to hide my mistakes. A few days ago, when the powers that be discussed over the money needed to repair the damage caused by the deluge in Rosario, I wrote "Hmm" (and I thought "We're doomed"). However, after initially giving AR$5 million to the municipality of Rosario, the provincial government set aside a total of AR$620 million for the whole affected territory, of which AR$30 million are for us. The province has an anticyclical fund, where surplus money is saved for bad economic times (i.e. to compensate for the cyclical crises characteristic of capitalist economies, especially Argentina's). Part of the money will be drawn from there; another part will come from restructuring the budget, and the rest will be borrowed from the national government.

So Rosario will get about the equivalent of 10 million dollars. That should be enough, according to mayor Miguel Lifschitz, to get the city back in shape in 60 to 90 days. Lifschitz said another thing too — that this is the beginning of a new relationship between the city and the province. Vice governor María Eugenia Bielsa, in a radio interview, replied that the mayor's words were not appropriate, as it should hardly be notable that the province is (as always) giving Rosario what Rosario is entitled to. I love the subtleties of politics. (What Lifschitz said was uncalled for and a provocation; what Bielsa said was a lie.)

09 April 2007

Neuquén and the country, for Carlos Fuentealba

Last Tuesday the teachers' union in Neuquén organized a demonstration to demand higher and better salaries. They marched peacefully along a road. The provincial police was sent to disband them so that they couldn't block the road. A policeman shot a tear gas canister into a car that was accompanying the march, hitting a teacher called Carlos Fuentealba in the back of the neck. Fuentealba was taken to hospital and stayed there in a coma; he died on the night of Thursday.

The policeman who shot Fuentealba, Sgt. Daniel Poblete, had been convicted of two crimes. He never spent time in jail, and his last sentence (two years for abuses of prisoners, passed last November) is until waiting for a court decission to become effective.

The governor of Neuquén, Jorge Sobisch, deplored the death of Fuentealba but justified the order to suffocate the protest. Neuquén is a common stage for social protests and violent repression. Sobisch belongs to a local party that opposes the Kirchner administration and was allied to Mauricio Macri's PRO, until Macri withdrew his support. Sobisch is one of the candidates of the right for the presidency; the surveys never gave him the slightest chance to win, but now his national career seems to have been buried for good.

There's a constant, if not very articulate, debate about what to do with protests that resort to road blockades and similar devices to make their point. The left calls them "social demand protests" and claims they should never be repressed, as the basic needs of those who protest (the unemployed, the poor, the badly paid, the abused) are above the more "middle-class rights" of the rest, namely the freedom to use your car to get to work (or back from work, or on vacations) without delays or discomfort. The right calls the protests "road blockades" and contend that, while causing some trouble to motorists here and there is justifiable, it shouldn't be allowed by the authorities, especially since freedom of circulation is a constitutional right.

What the non-moderates of both left and right do, in any case, is equating all types of protest. Being a moderate myself, I find that simplistic and deceitful.

Consider a demonstration here in Rosario protesting the raise of the bus fee. A tiny but well-organized group of leftist activists gathered their ranks, formed by a majority of poor young women and men, and including violent lumpen masked with kerchiefs and toting sticks and rocks, and they stormed the Deliberative Council, breaking windows, setting fire to a door, and keeping the councilors and the employees locked up inside. In the meantime, of course, they also blocked a couple of streets. The police did nothing, thank you.

Consider another protest, this time organized by the taxi drivers demanding a fee raise. They blocked the street before the Municipality, made some noise (they were few) and attacked other taxis, whose drivers or owners didn't support the protest. The police did nothing.

In Santa Fe City and in Rosario, during the terrible deluge in March, pickets were organized in several key avenues. They were poor citizens affected by the flood, demanding aid. In Santa Fe, the road blocks actually slowed the transport of food and clothing to the evacuation centers. The government complained that these pickets were politically motivated, staged to complicate the matter and make the ones in charge look bad... which is entirely plausible... but the police did nothing.

Of course, if you've lived in Buenos Aires, you know that road-blocking demonstrations of all sorts are an everyday treat, and violent, destructive protests are common as well.

The right thinks that the poor do not get organized by themselves; they're always gathered by political operators. Indeed, a common denominator of conservative people everywhere is that the people (especially the poor) mustn't do politics — political action, the shaping of societies, is for intellectuals, technocrats, leaders, not for the unwashed masses. The left thinks that the poor masses have the right and the duty to reclaim the public space from the hands of the elite, whose laws are void because they're made to favour the powerful, and who must be opposed automatically.

To many Argentinians, sending riot police to disperse a demonstration is quite correct, even if the police employ a bit of brutality. Some wounded are to be expected. To quite a few, specifically giving orders to a brutal police force to use force against peaceful demonstrators may be OK as well, if the demonstrators are breaking the law in the strict sense (blocking a road is technically against the constitutional right of free circulation of people and goods). A small subset of those wouldn't have had too much of a problem with the murder of Carlos Fuentealba if it had taken place twenty or even ten years ago.

We seem to have progressed a bit, though. Fuentealba was not an activist, a leader, a "political" man; he was a poor teacher, appreciated for his professional and personal qualities by his pupils and his community. No politician sponsored him, no politician spoke in favour of him, but after a couple of days, the whole country is mobilized. In Rosario, in Buenos Aires, and of course in Neuquén, thousands are striking and demonstrating. Governor Sobisch, who still hasn't demanded the resignation of his police chief or anyone in his cabinet, and who still justifies his orders to repress peaceful teachers by force, is facing impeachment and being asked to resign himself. The two workers' union confederation, CGT and CTA, have set their differences aside to support the cause of justice for Carlos Fuentealba.

As I said, the right would rather not have the masses speaking freely in the streets, and the left would rather co-opt those voices, but so far none of both have gotten their way. The response has been swift and authentic. We're changing.

PS: Ken from Un año sin Primavera is a teacher and went to the protest march in Buenos Aires. Read the inside story there. The BBC also featured a story about the protests, as did Reuters, and articles in English have also appeared in Infoshop, libcom.org, the Buenos Aires Herald, and UK Indymedia (the latter about the destruction of Jorge Sobisch's campaign offices in Buenos Aires by the far-left group Quebracho).

07 April 2007

In the midst of oblivion

OK, the title is pretentious... but I'm enjoying a four-day extra-long weekend, courtesy of Argentina's Catholic heritage, and I haven't felt like writing, really. Things haven't changed much.

It rained again, and a few dozens of people are still waiting to get back to their flooded homes. It also rained north of here, where the situation is much worse. April tends to be rainy, unfortunately, so this emergency will probably carry on for some time.

Back here, I started jogging again. My right leg is definitely feeling funny, but not in a painful way. I'm doing my usual circuit along the north-central coast of the city (6 km total, with a pause in the middle) and I hope I'll regain by breath soon... The heat is much less than it was only a month ago, and the mosquitoes are slowly disappearing. We do have bugs — in fact, we're being visited by a species I'd never seen before:

This guy is a member of the same genus (Diptera) as the common mosquito, though it's technically not a mosquito but a fly. Its actual color (in daylight) is grey-greenish. The darker stripes are clearly visible, but only in the picture it's possible to see some faint plumes along the antennae. It doesn't bite. These things were so strange for us here that even the newspaper devoted a short article to them. They are Chironomidae or chironomids, aka non-biting midges.

On an unrelated note, there was some horrible police repression of a demonstration in Neuquén; a teacher participating in a peaceful protest demanding for a salary raise was shot with a tear gas capsule practically at point blank and died within hours. Neuquén is ruled by a rightist proponent of trigger-happiness who is (was?) also running for president. As significant as this is, it's all in the media, and it's not finished yet, so I'll wait a bit to comment on it.

04 April 2007

What the waters are leaving behind

The rains are over for now, but the consequences are still visible. There are still a few hundred evacuees in Rosario, as the water has not drained from certain places. More than 60 towns and cities were affected by the floods, as well as three million hectares (30,000 km²) of crops. Important roads throughout the province are unusable, either because they're blocked by the water, or damaged, or because bridges have been damaged or destroyed. In the city of Santa Fe there were almost 20,000 people displaced from their homes, pickets demanding emergency aid are popping out, and there have been several episodes of looting, mainly supply trucks assaulted by groups of people as they headed for affected areas. Several pickets are also blocking important peripheric streets in Rosario.

The political maneuvering and eye gouging is starting as well. The province is asking the national government for a 20-million-peso aid package (and one has to wonder, where's the province's fiscal surplus they've been advertising ad nauseam?). A full estimate is not yet done, but in Rosario alone the cost of the emergency and the repairs that need to be done on the infrastructure climbs to more than AR$30 million (US$10 million). That's only to pay for the evacuees' food, mattresses, and all manners of logistics, plus the damage done by the storm to the streets. The figure is completely out of reach of the municipal budget, so the mayor is demanding that it be provided by the province and the nation, half and half, using special Treasury funds and a monetary stipend that the national government provides for metropolitan areas. As with all funds distributed through the provincial government, these are usually not distributed evenly: for political reasons, Rosario is discriminated in favour of the municipalities ruled by the Justicialist Party, and in particular, the capital city of Santa Fe. A few hours ago the Coordinator Minister of Santa Fe told mayor Lifschitz that they won't send all of the money towards Rosario because there are others in need as well, but the province "will be there with the rosarinos, as always". Hmm.

The mayor of Santa Fe, Martín Balbarrey, is facing serious opposition. Governor Obeid himself removed him from the command of the emergency operations, and 400 people who flooded in 2003 demonstrated demanding his resignation. Balbarrey is running for reelection; he's the same who was in charge during the 2003 flood, and it seems neither he or the provincial government have done anything to prevent another one during these four years. Santa Fe City is built in the worst possible place, on low-lying terrain in the junction of two large rivers, so it's vulnerable to both rain coming down from higher lands and to rises in the level of the rivers. When these hazards combine, as they did, the result is that the barriers that keep the water out on one side also keep it in on the other side. Santa Fe had to wait several days for pumps to reach the city and begin working at full capacity — while common sense indicates that those pumps should've been available and ready in a matter of hours, as soon as the water started coming.

Rosario is not vulnerable to river flooding, as it sits on top of a ravine — most of the city is at least 5 or 6 meters above the maximum historical level of the Paraná. The western periphery of the city is vulnerable to flooding because there are two streams and two canals there that may overflow. In the case of the Ibarlucea Canal, which caused most of the trouble this time, it should've been widened years ago, but there were bureaucratic delays, as with the Salvat Canal. One major problem is the relocation of the poor people that are occupying the lands. It's practically impossible for them to settle elsewhere; the cost of land and construction is exhorbitant and many of these people make barely enough money to eat. They'll be offered new homes, paid by the state, but they know very well that, once removed from their miserable huts in the worst possible part of town, they'll be at the mercy of the politicians that decide when to grant the funds. Many have already returned to their homes, even as the water hasn't gone away completely, because it's all they have and they know their possessions will be looted by their own neighbours if nobody's watching.

The anti-flooding works already in place worked remarkably well, mainly because they were planned with extremes, rather than averages, in mind. And this rain (almost 500 m in a week, half the average precipitation expected for a whole year) was truly extreme. Or so we think. We'd like to blame this bizarre weather on bad luck, and hope that this is (like the experts say) a one-in-a-hundred-years occurrence, but climate change is a reality and it's very likely that these things will be more and more common in the future.

03 April 2007

Comment moderation off

This is a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.

I know very well that I pay too much attention to what other people say. A few weeks ago I began moderating comments to this blog after I was bothered by the false statements of a certain contributor. Though I do receive certain anonymous comments that nobody would publish, plus spam, plus well-meaning queries that don't belong in my blog (which I reply by mail when possible), I set up moderation specifically because I didn't appreciate having lies about me published in my own space. Once published, I can only either delete the comment (which is easy to misinterpret, and which I find distasteful) or reply to it. The problem with certain lies is that it takes much longer to refute them that it does to tell them.

This blog is open to questions and, to some point, to discussion and debate, but it's not a forum. That I'm exposing myself by publishing it doesn't mean I'm putting myself up for discussion. This is a "content" blog, not a "me" blog (uhm... except for this post). In general, I even try to make personal posts useful by including at least some information that may be useful for the public.

Since you, the readers, don't really know me personally, you can't know for sure that I'm not filtering out a lot of negative comments. Maybe, you might think, my opinions are being refuted and my facts are being denounced as false by commenters that never get published because I censor them. I'm aware of that, and I only resorted to moderation because I have a long experience of being exposed to criticism by people whose opinions I don't care for at all. Long ago I tried to justify myself to idiots all the time. I'm a bit slow, but I've learned.

The truth is, my friends, I don't feel I need to acknowledge negative comments that have no backing or that are plainly false. If you come and say "You're a flip-flopper, your opinions contradict themselves", well that's a pretty serious accusation, and I won't publish it unless you show me how it's true. If you write "Your blog shouldn't be taken seriously at all", I consider that an insult — because I'm serious about it most of the time, and you can easily tell when I'm joking or exaggerating for effect. Yes, I'm not patient, and I'm oversensitive — mea maxima culpa. So what? You have the right to leave your comments and I have the right to throw them away if I feel you're making me waste my precious time. I'm sure most of my readers feel the same about their own time.

As I said, I tend to take other people's opinions into account too much, and this post is a result of that. The lady who writes miraquetemiroyo (which I regularly read) posted some thoughts about comment moderation where she concludes that comments are not useful at all for some kinds of blogs, such as hers, so she's turning them off (you can reach her through e-mail). However, she starts by complaining about people who moderate, in general... though it only takes a paragraph to see that she's speaking about me. She claims that moderation is fascist, and concludes that I have some terrible character flaw, so therefore she won't read my blog anymore. I don't get it. I get it even less since she herself said (two months ago) that D for Disorientation was "interesantísimo" and there should be more blogs like it. Maybe comment moderation was a mistake, but I doubt it was such a big mistake.

Anyway, since it was meant as a temporal measure, I'm setting moderation off. As a test, I'll let anyone publish anything for a few days (though of course I reserve the right to delete anything as well). If you want to communicate with me directly or off topic, leave a comment with your e-mail address (mask it in some way to avoid spam), and I'll get back to you if appropriate.