31 December 2006

Old Year's balance

I can gratefully say that, of all the important things that happened to me during 2006, most are good things. In roughly chronological order:

  1. I spent 10 days in Mendoza (you have to know the place to understand how much this means) and I made a true friend of one who had so far been only a funny acquaintance.
  2. I got changed from one office to another — farther from my boss, and closer to good workmates, who remember your birthday and spoil you with medialunas.
  3. I got myself a broadband connection!
  4. I turned into a manic amateur photographer right after getting my digital camera, and I loved it.
  5. I travelled to Córdoba City for Easter's long weekend with friends and noticed a few nasty things about myself (yeah, learning hurts but it's good).
  6. I went to lovely little Colón, Entre Ríos, and though I arrived alone, I didn't feel alone at any time while I was there, thanks my host and several wandering folks like myself.
  7. I started this blog, and several interesting people actually read it!
  8. I went to a wedding party in Concordia, Entre Ríos, and because of someone else's bad planning I ended up having a whole day to walk around the city.
  9. I got a salary raise and was finally taken out of a bizarre "temporal employee" category where I'd been for 3 years.
  10. I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, Level 3, in Buenos Aires, and it felt quite easy, plus the bus trip was funny.
In general, I went to new places, and I did the social circle dance — made friends, said good riddance to some. In comparison, the bad things were few and scattered and mostly they didn't happen to me, but around me. The really bad things had to do with ideas that have been rotting inside my brain for years, and I'm taking care of them (I think). Bad things that did not happen to me were:
  1. I didn't get mobbed because I don't care for football.
  2. I didn't get ripped off because I refused to.
  3. I didn't get forbidden from smoking because I don't smoke.
  4. I didn't get blacked out much.
  5. I didn't get blockaded though I may have.
  6. I didn't get preached.
  7. I didn't get hailed on out of sheer luck.
  8. I didn't get pesoificated because I've never had dollars in the bank.
The bad thing right now is the heat, almost 34 C and it's only ten minutes to 8:00 PM. That will be solved in time... Everybody, have a nice New Year.

28 December 2006


As promised yesterday, I'm going to explain why I think that the decission of the Supreme Court about the pesoification of dollar-denominated frozen bank accounts was the right thing to do. But first, a note...

We Argentinians are like those insecure types that mask their distress by posing as overconfident. To the outsiders, Argentina is the greatest country in the world, our women are the most beautiful, our football team is invincible, Maradona is God, our beef is the very tastiest, the Pampas are the Granary of the World, and we're the friendliest, warmest bunch of folks on the face of the Earth. We don't take outsiders' criticism very well. Yet when discussing our country among ourselves, all conversations eventually conclude that Argentina is and will ever be un país de mierda.

On the same line, we like to ramble about our nationalism, our love for own land, the need for all citizens to truly support Argentina and be passionate about it, as in the top countries. Then we turn and continue screwing up the country by voting for notoriously corrupt politicians, by selling our national resources to foreign corporate predators, or by taking all our savings, exchanging them for a foreign currency, and sending them abroad to live off interest, instead of investing it here.

Regarding the last point, most Argentinians will tell you that amassing dollars has historically been a good idea because our shitty economy keeps crashing every decade, and it's a bad idea to trust that Argentina will reward your work and your investment in any way.

Such point of view is self-defeating, and such previous assumptions of doom are obviously self-fulfilling; how can an economy be stable when everybody's hoping it'll explode any time? Even as most Argentinians danced at the tune of Convertibility Era, where one peso equaled one peso by law, they continued keeping their savings in dollars, and many had offshore accounts.

When you have to give US$1 to anyone who approaches you with AR$1, you'd better have a lot of US$. You'd better make sure that you export more than you import, and that you have enough extra bucks to pay your foreign debt installments. And you should have some way to control what happens when outside influences rock the dollar.

Argentine foreign trade, 1992–2004
(in millions of USD)
Argentina tended to import more than it exported, borrowed a lot of dollars, and privatized utilities that were actually profitable. Its monetary policy was basically controlled by the U.S. Federal Reserve. When the Fed raised interest rates, speculative money flowed into the U.S. and out of the developing world. When the dollar revalued internationally, Argentine exports became even less competitive. When Brazil devalued its currency, it became worse, and multinational business moved there because it was cheaper. When East Asia, Mexico or Russia had a financial crisis, investors fled developing countries. Argentina could not do anything but try to amass dollars to act as a shield. In the rigid context of the Convertibility Law, money simply could not be generated internally; if you needed more pesos in circulation, you needed to have more dollars in the Central Bank's reserves. There were two ways to get dollars: the good one, by exporting more; the bad one, by borrowing. So that we could export more, the government of Carlos Menem opened up international trade so companies could buy shiny foreign machines without tariffs, and crushed the spirit of labour laws so companies became more competitive. Of course, this killed whole sectors of the economy that couldn't cope with an invasion of cheap imports, and sent millions of people to permanent unemployment or precarious jobs. Companies doubled their exports, but imports grew as well, and tourism sent more dollars abroad too — for all our talk of the beauty of our country, Argentinians chose to grace the beaches of Punta del Este and Cancún, to celebrate their daughters' 15th birthdays with a trip to Miami, and to tour the fashionable places of Europe, where they felt more at home than in poor dirty Latin America. It was cheaper to go to a Caribbean resort than to visit the Iguazú Falls, and it was also cheaper to buy Greek peaches and German recordable CDs than to grow our own peaches or manufacture our own CDs.

When a series of crises hit the world economy, we were utterly unprepared. We could've saved ourselves; the solution was to set up strong controls on the movements of foreign currency and speculative investment across the border, start a process of import substitution, and devalue the peso gradually. Our politicians decided they'd let us live our dellusion for as long as possible, though, since devaluation meant inflation and it was political suicide even to suggest it. Moreover, why do it, if the IMF kept telling us it was OK and showing off Argentina to the world as the best example of a modernized neoliberal economy?

When it became obvious that we wouldn't be able to pay our foreign debt, cautious people started taking dollars out of the country. Those who could bought dollars to have a reserve of strong currency in case of a devaluation. This only put more pressure on the Central Bank. Domingo Cavallo, our hyperactive Economy Minister, froze all bank accounts, so that nobody could withdraw but 250 pesos a week. That was much more money then that it is now; I earned about 400 pesos a month. Then came the food riots, the popular revolt, the president's resignation, and the new president Eduardo Duhalde. Duhalde knew he had to devalue the peso. He decreed that dollar-denominated accounts would be pesoified — nobody would get actual dollars anymore; if you wanted your money, you would get pesos at the rate of 1.4 per dollar, the new official exchange rate. Soon the dollar was floated freely, and the rate climbed to two, three, almost four pesos to the dollar in a matter of months, as inflation surged. Suddenly those Greek peaches were not so cheap, and those German CDs were costing 4 times as much as before. Gloomy forecasts were made: the rate would climb to 10 pesos per dollar, Argentina would default and be isolated from the rest of the world in shameful humiliation.

Why did this not happen? Because people's money was trapped in the banks, and because the currency speculation game didn't work. Under the usual scenario, people would wait for the exchange rate to be high enough, then take their dollars out and sell them for pesos, getting 3 times as much as they had put in the bank minus inflation, and royally screwing the rest of us — since all those pesos would fuel a huge inflation. People would also buy more dollars, knowing that the rate would climb even higher, and take them to a safer place.

What happened was that angry savings holders forgot their middle-class manners and assaulted the banks, breaking their windows, spraying their facade with paint, and setting fire to tires before their doors, as well as deploying armies of lawyers against the banks themselves and the government. I can't blame them for being furious; we're talking about the savings of their whole lives, sometimes savings they needed to pay for a house or a car they'd just bought, for a self-imposed exile in Spain or Italy, or even for an expensive heart surgery. What I remember resenting, and resent even now, is how they seemingly forgot that they'd brought it upon themselves, and that (for most) their plight was nothing compared to the ever-worsening hell of their poorer compatriots. Maybe 500,000 people had significant dollar savings in Argentina — they were privileged, the top 1% of the population. Yesterday I heard on TV a savings holder that complained about the lack of support of the rest of society — it sounded exactly like "How come you pity and subsidize the poor and the unemployed and you don't help us getting back our billions in strong currency?". My dear compatriots, forgive me if I can't muster any pity for you.

This is undoubtedly (and unashamedly) my own biased opinion, formed through years of suffering, and seeing my family suffer, under an economic model that worked only for the rich. Abstractly I know they didn't deserve to have their savings confiscated and plundered. Maybe it would've been the same if they'd decided to invest their money in their own country or keep it in their own currency, to demand their government to get things straight, and to think carefully that maybe they were supporting a policy that would lead us all to disaster..., or maybe it would've been different. We'll never know.

Do we ever learn from our mistakes? Let's hope that at least.

27 December 2006

What a day

First this...
Dying sun
And then this:

And that was only the weather...

Today's news in Rosario is that the provincial government will raise all public workers' salaries to a minimum of 1,000 pesos (~330 U.S. dollars), presumably with the corresponding increase for higher salaries as well, and the proportion of our salaries that do not contribute to our pension funds and the like will be reduced. This was ostensibly to calm down the teachers, some of whom were getting less than AR$1,000, and get them not to go on strike at the beginning of school period 2007; I find it difficult since Santa Fe's teachers have always gone on strike asking for higher salaries every year since I learn to write mamá (it was my mom who taught me), no matter what their real salary is, and no matter that they've returned from long vacations in Mar del Plata.

Today's news in Argentina also has to do with money, but with money lost instead of gained. The Supreme Court, after exactly 1,850 days, has decreed that the corralito and the subsequent "peso-ification" of U.S.-denominated bank accounts at a fixed rate of AR$1.40 to US$1, two desperate measures taken in 2001 and 2002 to avoid a massive loss of foreign currency reserves and a huge inflation spike, were not unconstitutional. People's savings in dollars were trapped back then so they couldn't withdraw them and send them abroad and/or hastily convert them to pesos producing a catastrophic hyperdepreciation and a hyperinflation. You could get your savings only in pesos, only in small amounts, and the exchange rate was fixed by the government at 1.4 to 1, even as the dollar was already much above that (it reached AR$3.8 per unit) . Much later, the banks were given orders to allow the free withdrawal of pesos, valued at 1.4 per 1 dollar, plus an additional amount given by a coefficient called CER, which includes inflation. The Court has now decreed that the savings holders must be paid AR$1.4 per US$1 + CER + an additional 4% of interest, which nicely rounds up to AR$3 and small change, coincidentally the current exchange rate to the dollar in the free market. Thus, the Justices said speculating on whether the peso-ification was legal or not is abstract and useless -- problem solved.

To many people who said that these measures were horrible violations of the property right and of basic legal principles, the Court replied that it was OK because it was an emergency... I'll tell why I think this is basically correct another day.

26 December 2006

Night out with the boys

I don't usually do advertising for free, but I thought this would merit some. Last Saturday night I went with some friends to a bar that one of them had visited once long ago. Nenina is on a corner of the northern Costanera (the avenue that follows the Paraná River starting just north of the city center), close to the impressive arc of the Rosario-Victoria Bridge, maybe 300 m south of Circunvalación Avenue and the municipal limit. Not many people go there on purpose, since the "good" parts of Costanera are on the middle section, full of open-air bars, discos, and the beach. Once you get to Nenina, you either stop there or have to turn back, or at most make in a wide detour to go up to Circunvalación, on the bridge, and across the maze of islands and river arms, eastward, to Entre Ríos.

I tell you, this bar should be in tourist guidebooks. Rosario's been working on that field lately, initially much to the surprise of us locals, but I still have to see a guide with a list of those small places that make a city special — those curious spots that most people don't know about and that you get news of only by word of mouth.

Nenina can be a bar like any other, where you can order a pizza or a carlitos (a hot sandwich with cheese, ham, and ketchup, optionally plus tomato slices, hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise, etc., not a tostado as in Buenos Aires) and down it with a beer... but that would be an awful waste. The place specializes in cocktails, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic; its menu is about 70% drinks. It's not cheap, but it's not expensive either; and the service is so good that it makes the money seem unimportant. These guys prepare a drink like a chef prepares a favourite dish.

My friends and I sampled a few cocktails and were pleased about the quality and variety. It's not that simple to have a place in a small establishment (that already needs to cook and serve regular bar/restaurant food and drink) to store a sufficient amount of several icecream flavours, several types of fresh fruit (lemon, orange, pineapple, watermelon, strawberry...), a lot of alcoholic beverages, and slightly more exotic ingredients (Tabasco sauce for Bloody Maries, fresh leaves of hierba buena for mojitos). The drinks do take a while to come, since the place seems to be packed all the time. We arrived a bit late and couldn't get a table outside — the outside is another bar! — so we went inside, which was a bit hot. That (lack of a) choice proved the best, since one hour later it started raining... and raining... and then there was something like a hurricane. Indeed, with the icecream cocktails and the margaritas to the tune of Gloria Stefan, I felt like I was in the Caribbean during the hurricane season. Naturally, at this point the people drinking outside had to get in or leave, so the place became slightly more packed; but the wind cooled the inside of the place.

The storm went on and on... You could see the trees buckling and hear the curtains of rain hitting the roof and the windows. Mind you, we had no wheels to go back. None of us owns a car, and anyway nobody in Rosario goes out by car anymore if they plan to drink alcohol. We got to the place by bus and had to get out like that; a taxi from such a distant place to anyone's house would've been too expensive (not in an emergency, but this wasn't one, and we'd forked more than a few pesos already). We waited (Bloody Mary) and waited (more Bloody Mary) and as the storm subsided a bit we decided to brave the drizzle and go up six or seven blocks to Roundeau Boulevard, where we'd be able to catch plenty of buses. That was a mistake. Two blocks after that the drizzle turned into a deluge, as the huge low-pressure center above us sucked in more clouds. The storm reassembled and we had to seek shelter in a porch. Forty-five minutes later the rain stopped (mostly). Off we went to get our bus.

Long story short, I arrived home much later, wet and shivering. Good news is that my immune system seems to have toughened; after a string of colds in last autumn and winter, I didn't catch anything...

25 December 2006

(Mostly) Silent Night

Ah, the holiday season! Would it be correct to say that I hate it? Probably not, but I'd rather be elsewhere when it happens. In these days of globalization and intrusive media coverage of everything you can't really escape Christmas, though.

Aside from my own issues, Christmas Eve was fairly uneventful. The streets were full of people desperately shopping for that last gift, or looking for that last bottle of cider, champagne, or whatever bubbly beverage they happened to prefer. As it grew dark (after 8 PM), some fireworks and noisy pyrotechnic bombs started flying, against a background of thick black clouds. The fireworks used to be a real show a few years ago, and a nightmare for dogs (loud noises up in the air scare dogs witless!), but this time they were almost absent, and when as it began raining, they almost vanished, until near midnight. (By the way, I'd never seen so much rain and for so much time in my whole life.) In the previous days, the Urban Guard had set up controls to search for illegal fireworks in private vehicles as they entered the city; there are no fireworks factories in Rosario, but there are a few in the neighbouring towns, where regulations are non-existant or easier to circumvent.

Fortunately, I have a small family (sometimes I wish it were even smaller, but at least the undesirable branches of my genealogical tree were having dinner elsewhere), so we gathered around a table and ate and drank peacefully, and after exchanging gifts and eating some more, we went to bed quite early. I've been going out for years on Christmas, after the final toast, but I made no plans this year, and with the horrible weather it was not a good idea anyway; plus it's usually an odyssey to get a bus or a taxi on Christmas night until 2 AM. (The municipality says they were monitoring the frequency of the public transport and that they'll fine those who did not supply the service appropriately; I'll believe it when I see it.)

It was peaceful in the city as well: the authorities report that in Rosario there were less than 20 traffic accidents (all minor), a few people wounded by blade weapons, and others (less than 10) burned or injured by pyrotechnic devices. And, probably because of the increased controls, only one case of drunken driving. All in all, it was nothing compared to previous Christmas nights, and closer to regular weekends. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, seems to have had a painful night; for some reason people continue to like hands-on explosive handling and getting corks projected at high speeds into their eyeballs.

Except for the injuries and burns, I do hope New Year's night is more fun than this.

23 December 2006

Urban safari: into the West

What a title, huh? I had the day off work yesterday, thanks to governor Obeid's demagoginsistence that public employees should be happy and free of stress in the days before Christmas, even if that means paralyzing half the public healthcare system (and following Kirchner's similar measure on the national level), so I woke up late (that would be around 9 AM for me), had a very lazy, drawn-out breakfast, and decided that I'd go on a photo safari to one of the places in Rosario that I hadn't visited yet: the northwest of the city, which is west from my home, and particularly Barrio Fisherton. I was especially interested in getting to Estación Antártida Argentina, one of the several old train stations scattered throughout Rosario, often in places that are not so very populated today. I won't go into details about the history of the Argentine railways, which is like a summary of Argentine history in general -- enthusiasm, rapid development, faltering, abandon, and timid recovery. Our Amigos del Riel have written a lot about that.

The logistics of the safari was troublesome, since I don't have a car, my bicycle is awaiting repairs, and no single bus was good for the trip, even as Fisherton is no more than 10 minutes away from my barrio. I don't know all the lines, anyway, so making a combination was risky -- I could end up anywhere. Walking was viable, but tiresome, and I didn't want to be caught walking under the sun after 11 AM if possible. Eventually I took my little map (a clipped version of the one available at www.rosario.gov.ar), got a bus to take me to Provincias Unidas & Córdoba, and then headed west, admiring the... hmm... well, there's nothing to admire over there. As you cross Circunvalación Avenue (see above), you enter Fisherton and things start getting fancier. Along Córdoba Ave. (which is called Eva Perón Ave. in this part of town) nice bars and restaurants start to appear, along with businesses selling typically tasteless upper middle-class home decoration and quality furniture, brand clothing, and the like.

But the real Fisherton is farther west and far from the avenues: nice small houses and more than a few larger estates, silent streets lined with tall trees, sidewalks with well-groomed, intensely green grass, squeaky clean brand-new cars here and there, and nobody in sight except maybe someone walking their dog and the occasional door-to-door salesman of cheap items (those things that la señora can't be bothered to go to the super for). In Fisherton, as in the even wealthier Barrio Alberdi, common courtesy is extended only once you're ushered inside your host's home, since while you're outside walking beside those mansions you're invariably greeted by the mad howling of packs and packs of seemingly starving guard dogs (and nobody bothers with a CAVE CANEM). An adult knows enough not to approach gates and fences patrolled by such monsters, but a kid who doesn't fear the doggies appropriately will end up with one hand less should s/he try to pet them.

So I walked and walked and got to the train station. The place was abandoned for ages, but it was then restored and preserved (our Municipality likes to do that), and now there's something going on in there. From the outside, though, it looks like a British-style station transplanted into the American Wild West; the dusty solitude and the almost vertical sunlight at the time I got there reinforced that feeling.

I've grown to love old train stations; in Argentina, they encapsulate many aspects of our history in a unique way. The railways were built for the port of Buenos Aires to receive the meat, cow hides and grain coming from the Pampas and beyond, so they could be exported; that model of development defined the country and continues mostly unchanged. British companies brought the trains, inaugurating a period of dependency on foreign investment for our infrastructure, which again, remains like that today. The trains took the immigrants disembarking in Buenos Aires City to the interior of the country. In many cases, towns sprang up spontaneously around train stations and received their name; how the stations were laid out thus defined the distribution of large populations. The south of Santa Fe was (except for Rosario of course) almost completely rural up to the 1880s, and then there was an explosion of dozens of new towns around train stations, as the lines reached farther and farther west. After that there were a few decades of good economy... and then Argentina did its usual thing... and of course, when the 1990s came, what little useful infrastructure remained was swept away by the "modernization" conducted by the Predator-in-Chief and his evil bald minion. That trend can be reversed, maybe, but in the meantime the charm of the old stations remains, even as they lie dark and silent.

21 December 2006

End-of-year potpourri

Lots of news today... The end-of-the-year balance is coming for the whole country. Things look better, certainly unimaginably better than they looked five years ago... Exports are up, GDP increase looks like it will be around 9% again, and Argentina is officially out of hell according to K. This exhuberant growth has its downside, like more energy consumption (let's not go there again) and too many fish being fished. With regards to the latter, the government has just banned exports of fish of the Paraná River starting on the first day of 2007 and for eight months. Maybe we can still save those sábalos after all.

Not so far from here, and notwithstanding the outrageous statements of the power company president, the folks at the commune of Armstrong have come up with the idea of generating hydroelectricity on the Carcarañá River. Armstrong is a small city (est. pop. 12,000) with a lot of industries, and the projected hydroplant would supply 40% of its power needs.

On the local front, the Municipality of Rosario got its 2007 budget approved, with a AR$17 million deficit... In the meantime, the legislators voted to study the issue of the urban bus fee, which is AR$0.95 now and could increase to AR$1.20 before March. That's really not good news, but with bus drivers that earn more than lawyers and doctors, there's no simple alternative. The national government subsidizes the fuel for urban buses, but due to a clever manipulation of the formula used to calculate the proportions, most of those subsidies go to Buenos Aires, where bus fees are already ridiculously low. Some nice folks with their faces covered and toting sticks came to the Deliberative Council, defaced it, broke windows and created their usual mess, while the police watched.

This is becoming serious; yesterday a group of protestors hijacked a bus, claiming they had an "agreement" not to pay their tickets, and then blocked the road for hours. Another group planted a picket on the railways and stopped a train (coming from Tucumán and Córdoba, headed for Buenos Aires) for 40 minutes, demanding to be given "Christmas packages".

The people commemorating the 5-year anniversary of the Argentinazo (see my previous post) in Rosario painted all over the local seat of the provincial government, mixing their demands for justice with accusations against former governor Carlos Reutemann (calling him "murderer" for his responsibility in the murder of social worker Pocho Lepratti by the police, and "flooder" for doing nothing to prevent the 2003 flood of Santa Fe). Reutemann was the political child, protégé and faithful disciple of Carlos Menem; a former F1 racecar driver, he was inexplicably popular with the masses but had the charisma and the innovative spirit of an Egyptian mummy; he deserves every epithet -- only there's no need to deface a building to note that.

Back to the protestors -- many of these are piqueteros in general, but that term has become rather vague. The original piqueteros were unemployed people desperately protesting their predicament; these "modern" ones are 95% chronically unemployed bums, welfare mothers with their children, people from the slums who have nothing better to do and are tempted by the possibility of getting free food, and a lot of violent resentful young men with nothing to lose encouraged by the government policy of letting them do whatever they want (short of physically attacking other people, and sometimes even that). They're led by a few talking heads armed with basic Marxist or anarchist rhetoric, and what I'd call low-level politicians -- they can't organize a party, but they can gather a gang under a banner.

The personal front
I'm trying to put this chaotic end of the year into perspective. Somehow news have been piling up on me lately. I'd vowed not to let interesting/important things pass without mentioning them here, so that's why I wrote this post. Maybe I'm forgetting other important things, only because I'm not sure how personal stuff would sit with my readers. What can I say? Apart from the bad taxi service, the blackouts, the politicians, the piqueteros, the heat, and the hail, this has been a good year overall, if anything because I'm learning to cope with the frustration produced by things like the aforementioned, and others which I prefer to stay silent about. That, and I had a superb icecream cone today, at the very hottest time of day. What more can I ask?

20 December 2006

The day before summer

The Neverending RainToday's the day before the traditionally acknowledged beginning of summer in Argentina. Although nobody pays much attention to seasons here (except Spring, which has its own day), everyone "knows" that they start on the 21st day of March, June, September and December. Very few people know that this is because that's a good approximation of the date of the solstices and equinoxes; those who do know believe that the 21st is the exact date (of what, they can't really explain). Back in September, I remember my shodō teacher being perplexed that spring had a fixed starting date; in Japan, naturally, spring begins when it begins (i.e. when the weather becomes springy enough). As is to be expected in these times of global warming and climate chaos, we've had summery weather for months, mixed with colder spells, and lately, storms and copious rain that would really look better at the beginning of autumn. Needless to say, after the hail (which will live in legend), people get really edgy as soon as the sky turns dark. I don't have a car, and I don't use umbrellas, so I just get soaked when I can't avoid it.

Today's also the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the unraveling of Argentina... or the end of its unraveling in other way... or both. On 20 December 2001, after riots and lootings in Buenos Aires, Rosario and other large cities, a lot of people gathered at Plaza de Mayo in BA, defying president De la Rúa's state of emergency, and were met with harsh repression by the police, who killed 5 people. De la Rúa resigned and fled the Casa Rosada in a helicopter. In the following days, Argentina had 3 interim presidents appointed, who resigned one after another; on 1 January 2002, the fourth, Eduardo Duhalde, accepted his appointment. He stayed, more-or-less got things in order, called for elections, and on 25 May 2003 he relinquished power to Néstor Kirchner. You can read about that in the Wikipedia article linked above and the one about the economic crisis. I'm not interested in giving this explanation all over again, since this was in all the papers here and many abroad; reviews and analyses of the crisis have been written ad nauseam.

I was home at the time... Rosario was affected by the riots and everybody who could had stayed home (I seem to remember I was let off work those days). I watched the clash between demonstrators and police, and De la Rúa's flight. It seemed unreal. In 1989 we'd seen another president, Raúl Alfonsín, declare a state of emergency suspending constitutional guarantees in Rosario, and then resign amid the chaos, but I was only 13 back then and I have no clear recollection of that time, except being afraid of going up the roof to watch, as rubber bullets flew blocks away, and being told not to stay outside past 6 PM because of the police curfew. This time I was actually aware that this was an inflection point in history, but I didn't get how this could actually be happening, and didn't want De la Rúa to resign -- I wanted him to understand, and the other politicians to help. Silly me, De la Rúa was too much up to his neck in the mess he had inherited from Menem and then helped grow; and the others were like sharks smelling the blood of a fresh victim.

The day was called the Argentinazo, and the media and the popular lore now speak of the time before as "the 1990s", "the time of Convertibility", "the 1-to-1" -- the Law of Convertibility, which fixed the exchange rate at 1 Argentine peso for 1 US dollar, defined the whole decade, a time of reckless consumption, travels abroad for the rich, imported electronics for everyone, lack of political debate, artificial "stability", the mindless support of most of the citizenry for a president that had promised a "salary boom" and a "productive revolution" and gave us only the dismantlement of local industry, massive poverty, a vulgar display of corruption, frivolity and waste, and the exile of many tired families and of promising young minds. De la Rúa's flight marked the end of all that for those who hadn't seen it coming; and Duhalde's decission to end the Convertibility ushered in a new era and the painful return to reality: the reality that Argentina was broke and that it was a Third World Latin American country with delusions of grandeur, not a First World newcomer.

Those things took years to digest. But 20 December remains a special day... one that should be never forgotten. There have been commemorative demonstrations in Rosario and Buenos Aires (see La Nación and Clarín). Página/12 has a lot of editorials in a special section today. It's a shame that these are just demonstrations asking for justice for the victims and often claiming they were heroes, militants, fighters, as if that was the important thing -- the important thing is that people took the streets and some got killed and a constitutional government was allowed to get to such a point of disconnection with the people that they had to force it out; the important thing to have in mind is the marvelous, horrific power of the people. The demonstrations were led by groups of people: a sample of extreme-left micro-parties here, some radicalized members of student councils over there, a number of piqueteros... everyone with banners and badges, factionalized, divided, with their own baggage of ideological resentment (against the government, the IMF, the police, the United States) that has nothing to do with the victims of 20 December or its true significance. And the rest of us happily strolling past and around them. La Capital hit the nail right on its head with an unusually bitter editorial statement in the coverage of Rosario's demonstration:
The more than 500 people who participated in the march did so under the banners of some of the "more than 50 organizations" that make up the Multisectorial Rosario. The middle class, who went outside in December 2001, pot in hand, asking for De la Rúa and Domingo Cavallo's resignation after they found themselves unable to withdraw more than 150 pesos per day from the ATMs, was [now] busy doing the Christmas shopping, and more than a few asked what the demonstration was about.
I was there in 2001, miraculously with a job, working in a public hospital where we were paid months after schedule, and where the poor came to get attention and often we were unable to provide them with X-ray film or analgesics. And I'm here today, just back from Christmas shopping and getting myself ready for vacations in the Andes. I don't feel exactly guilty, though maybe I should. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

19 December 2006

Livin' la buena vida

Avenida CorrientesI forgot to post this little thing the other day, but I thought I'd share. I love this city and I know it has many problems and shortcomings. However, a study conducted by a group of organizations based in Córdoba affirms that Rosario is the metropolitan area with the best quality of life in Argentina.

I found this coverage in La Capital and was surprised to find the same in Clarín. Even the Córdoba-based La Voz del Interior covered it. We really have no quarrel whatsoever with Córdoba (even though people love to compare), which is a very fine city, with a tradition and an overall style completely different from those of Rosario. Córdoba is larger, more populated (about 30% more so), and generally "wider". It has older historical buildings, it's a cultural capital and a provincial capital, and it's not a port city. In the 1990s, Córdoba was undoubtedly Argentina's second city, but even Córdoba's mayor has acknowledged that Rosario has retaken that position (I'll tell you about Rosario in the 1990s some other time -- read it during the day).

The study rated the quality of life of the largest metropolitan areas of Argentina in a scale of 1 to 7. The Greater Rosario area rated 5.96; Buenos Aires City, 4.32; Greater Córdoba, 3.26; Greater Mendoza, 3.16; and Greater Buenos Aires, 2.89. This number is based on several factors. One of them is healthcare centers: Rosario has 75 per 100,000 people, while Córdoba has 36. Rosario also fares better than Córdoba regarding income distribution, poverty and job creation. Finally, the study pointed out that Rosario produces 45% of the urban wealth in Santa Fe Province.

Nobody in the municipality made a big deal about this, except by smiling and (expectably) showing some pride in public, but a resentful pawn of governor Obeid was so angry that he actually claimed that Rosario's quality of life is supported ninety percent by the provincial government. It'd be mildly funny, if only this supposed representative of the people didn't earn a huge salary paid by moi and other 3 million santafesinos, apparently only to advertise his political patron and to raise his hand on command.

18 December 2006

Schizo politics

Inspired by the curious characterization of Buenos Aires as a blue province in Good Airs, motivated in turn by Mike's push for an Argentine branch of Democrats Abroad, my mind turned to politics (again) and I decided to write about politics (again). Bear with me. I'll leave you Argento-Democrats alone. Just keep a low profile and try not to get Kirchnerized.

A visual image can be helpful understanding current Argentine politics. Imagine a political party is like an icecream flavour. You visit the United States, check the fridge, and there you have a chunk of icecream, half strawberry and half chocolate. The chocolate is strong, bitter, and has a lot of nuts in it. The strawberry is creamy, with a diversity of suspicious sparkles on it, and (until very recently) rather soft. Go to the Vatican, and you have a splendid white cupful of a single flavour, which might or might not be lemon-based; somewhere at the bottom of the cup there's a chunk of strawberry but the flavour is mostly lost. Go to Israel, and you have a huge cup mostly filled by two types of chocolate (these can be found also in Palestine, although of course both will deny they are the same brands of chocolate). Take Bolivia, and your icecream consists of a portion of mixed flavours topped by (and buried under) a gigantic serving of something that looks like chocolate but smells of old money; it's melting, but the bulk of it remains firm.

Argentina as an icecream is like one of those oversized frozen desserts you get for a child one he's being naughty and demands to have the largest icecream on Earth or else..., one of those supercups he'll attack with enthusiasm as first, then play with, and then abandon once his tummy is half-full and his lust for sugar is quenched or diverted to less sedentary pursuits. Picture one of those super-desserts, half-eaten, mixed and turned over, and then left to melt for several minutes in the summer. That's Argentine politics icecream-style.

You may think that this humorous portrait focuses on the chaotic nature of politics and ignores important factors such as ideology, pragmatism, and opportunism. I think it simplifies the issue. It's crucial to understand that no two political parties or factions in Argentina are guaranteed to stay apart forever. Moreover, most individual parties are like ever-active amoebas, their contours malleable and shifting all the time, and their selves always ready to divide, usually with some mutations.

Note, though, that unicellular organisms divide when they've grown enough, while many political parties in Argentina seem to do exactly the opposite. In particular (since we're doing the similes now) the Argentine left can be equated to a box filled only with electrons: everyone in there has a negative charge and seems unable to stay close to the rest. Some leftist parties seem content to exist in the highly scattered state that results (popularly known as ser cuatro gatos), while others do the evaporating black hole act: they emit increasingly louder complaints as they become smaller, and finally explode.

A few right-curious leftists are attracted by the other political forces and end up there, usually serving as decoration (cf Chacho Álvarez) or doing the dirty work (cf Luis D'Elía). As they speak up or prove uncontrollable, they either get fired or leave in a righteous spasm of honesty.

So why am I writing about the left after all? It's a very special day when two leftists meet, stick together and don't attack one another over minor interpretations of abstract concepts nobody cares about in real life. This is the case, for example, of Hermes Binner and Elisa Carrió. One understands that Binner, the Socialist former mayor of Rosario, national deputy and candidate for governor of Santa Fe, has nothing to lose and maybe a few votes to win by getting the support of Carrió's ARI, which she founded as (basically) a way to tell all other politicians in Argentina that they're immoral, corrupt and UNCLEAN!!; Carrió is moderately strong only in Buenos Aires City, where people actually have the time to listen to her ramblings, so it is a bit ridiculous of her to come with open arms to Binner saying that she'll support him "in exchange for nothing". Binner, who hasn't yet chosen a vice-governor candidate or formally started the campaign, leads the surveys and seems ready (without outside help) to become the first Socialist governor in the history of Argentina, and the first non-Peronist in Santa Fe after 23 years of a series of truly horrific administrations, with rulers whose best achievements have been to escape justice, to do nothing, to appoint relatives as judges, and to cut the ribbons of unfinished public works.

This was supposed to be a short post... But I'm not done! I'LL BE BACK!!

17 December 2006

The perfect storm

Memoir of the stormIf you're really into this blog, which I doubt, you may have noticed that your intrepid host has not posted anything in the last three days. In part that was due to Real Life™ concerns and, thankfully, fun things to do elsewhere, but the terrible heat was a major factor. The lack of air conditioning in my computer room (which won't be remedied during this summer, unless Santa brings me something I didn't ask for, or the reader helps with a donation) made it impossible to survive in there, and my PC wasn't happy either. Yesterday the temperature in Rosario reached 36 degrees Celsius and the heat index was 43 °C.

Our very own Ayami sensei, which gave me classes during half of 2005, leaves for Japan after two years of serving as a volunteer in Argentina, so she was having her 送別会 (soubetsukai, farewell party). I took a much-needed shower with room temperature (i.e. warm) water, put on as little clothing as decently possible, and headed off for the Japanese Association party room, which has no A/C but does stay cooler than the rest of the building. Food was eaten, drinks were drunk, speeches were given, and just when I was leaving, Valeria sensei, my first teacher, who was trying (fruitlessly) to take in some fresh air just outside the room, noted that a storm was gathering; a few rain drops had already fallen.

By the time I got to the bus stop, just across an intersection from the Bus Terminal, the wind was rather strong. Dirt and leaves were flying; you could feel tiny things hitting your legs and arms. I patiently waited for a bus or a taxi, a bit jealous of the hordes of teenagers who filled the area as they prepared to go to bars and discos (it was about 1:30 AM). A group of people was sitting with a couple of beers in an outdoor table in the bar at the corner of Cafferata & Santa Fe St. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew off the large parasol on their table. The thing took the plastic table, the bottles, the glasses and one chair with it, and ended up in front of a car, which had fortunately stopped at the traffic lights. At this point I started seriously fearing that I could be hit by things more dangerous than dirt and leaves, so I retreated to a safer spot.

To cut a long story short, after a stop in the way via another bus and several failed attempts at getting a taxi, I got home more than one hour later, as the dirt storm had turned into a deluge. Based on my limited knowledge of meteorology, this was the feared pampero, a wind storm that is produced when a mass of cold air from the south meets a front of hot humid air from the north. It blows SW–NE and can be "clean" (wind only), "dirty", or "wet" (or, as in last night's case, first dirty and then wet...). Quite naturally, there are broken tree branches, interrupted power and telephone lines, and obstructed sewer pipes here and there. The storm hit the whole area around the Plata-Paraná river basin, so Buenos Aires got some too.

13 December 2006

Let's be nice and everything will be OK

The topics of the day in Rosario were the heat and the daily occurrence of power cuts (which, for the nth time, don't mean there is a crisis). The "official" date of the beginning of summer is 21 December (it has to do with the traditionally fixed date of the summer solstice) but nobody feels this is spring since a month ago. When the temperature goes over 27 or 28 degrees C, everyone who has access to air conditioning turns it on and cranks it up all the way. The latter can be rather unhealthy, especially during your night sleep. Personally, I haven't been granted by nature with a generous, or even appropriate, coating of insulating hypodermic fat, so I dread temperature extremes; in some places the A/C is cranked up so much that you need to put on extra clothes to avoid catching a cold.

Well, that will be no more. Luis El Halli Obeid, the head of EPE (Empresa Provincial de la Energía, the Santa Fe state power company), has resolved that, if we play nice and collaborate by not setting the A/C below 25 C, the power grid will be relieved and we won't have so many power cuts. However, Obeid went on, the heat we're experiencing now is obviously just the first taste of a hellish summer, so the worst is yet to come (yes, he literally said that), and the crisis small problems we've been suffering will only be solved by investing about 70 million pesos.

In the meantime, of course, the employees of EPE do not pay electric bills (you read right: they get electric power for free), earn fabulous salaries, and some (not many, but everybody knows there are more than a few) routinely work as private electricians "fixing" domestic power consumption meters for a nice bribe. And Luis El Halli Obeid, cousin of the provincial governor Jorge Obeid, tells us that we must be nice and sweat while they update the grid. The situation is reminiscent of Bill Gates telling us that, yes, Windows is full of security holes, and yes, we'll be catching a virus or a trojan and losing our files and our credit card numbers every now and then, and yes, it'll be worse before it gets better, so we should probably not use the computer more than one or two hours a day. The main difference in this case is that there's a Linux, but there's no alternative for EPE. If you get a portable power generator, after a few months of lowered bills EPE will send inspectors to your house to see why. The company has never apologized for the thousands of man-hours lost because of power cuts; sometimes, when a power spike destroys appliances, you can get compensation money after months of complaints, but you will never recover the money your icecream shop lost because of a three-hour blackout in the middle of January, or the data in the hard disk you lost to repeated power failures, or the hours of sleep you didn't get in a torrid summer night because you didn't have a fan, or the carefully crafted blog post that disappeared when your PC resetted itself out of the blue because some transformer blew up here or there.

The day I see Luis El Halli Obeid paying his own electric bill and sweating in his own living room, I will believe he's not just one more despicable fruit of nepotism.

12 December 2006

As I said before about Pinochet...

... good grief, old man!

Everybody's writing about the death of Augusto Pinochet, so I can only add a few things of my own, nothing especially original. Pinochet, in short, was the following (in rough order):

  • a submissive soldier and a mediocre but obedient officer (that's how he earned the trust of his superiors and climbed up the hierarchy)
  • a traitor of his lawful commander, president Salvador Allende, who appointed him Commander in Chief of the Army
  • a traitor of his country, which he promised freedom and gave political terror and enduring economic inequality, by allying with the CIA and delivering Chile to the neoliberal fundamentalism of the Chicago Boys
  • a traitor of his superior, general Carlos Prats, who recommended him to Allende, and whom Pinochet had killed in Buenos Aires
  • a murderer, directly and by proxy, of thousands of his compatriots
  • a torturer of tens of thousands
  • a pioneer in the road that would lead to Argentina's Dirty War and other dictatorships in our poor Latin America
  • a thief, to the point that even today what he stole is resurfacing by bits
  • a scheming old son of a bitch, who gave himself political immunity after the end of his rule, and feigned illness and senility when it was removed, every time he was about to be investigated by justice
  • a dreadful shadow looming over Chile, even as he's about to become ashes, who'll probably divide his country for generations
As appropriate to such a monster, the government of Chile didn't give him a state funeral; but president Michelle Bachelet, who was herself tortured and had her father killed by the dictatorship, consented to a military funeral with honours, as if a commander that rebels against his legitimate ruler and turns the military into a despicable band of murderers deserves any honour. Bachelet has also said that Chile must look for reconciliation and unity. Reconciliation with violent fascists? With supporters of ideological persecution, state terrorism, illegal detentions, suppression of liberties? With people who were for submission, censorship, forced exile? Politics is politics, but how can it be? The military funeral of Pinochet was marked by a defense of the coup d'état given by her own daughter, with the applause of several thousand attendants including military personnel, and even three young supporters of Pinochet giving his coffin the Nazi salutation.

President Bachelet's lack of commitment showed that she is (like the Scripture says) neither hot nor cold, and if God existed, It would certainly spit her out of Its mouth. You can't have your cake and eat it. For all the hysterical and confrontational attitude of the Argentine government on every issue, with regards to our last dictatorship we've at least been shown a morally and politically clear position: if you were there with the murderers, and if you're here now still with them, you don't have an excuse, you don't deserve any honours, and you won't receive any sort of forgiveness. Chile might come to this in a few years, maybe, but today's opportunity is already lost.

09 December 2006

Friends will be friends

SanCor is a leading dairy producer in Argentina. It has a long history in this country and has long become a part of our culture. Moreover, SanCor is not some dark corporation owned by a million stockholders, but a cooperative, born in 1938 from the association of many smaller cooperatives in the central area of the provinces of Santa Fe and Córdoba (whence San + Cor), the "milk basin" of Argentina. Like so many other companies, it fell into the trap of getting terribly indebted during the 1990s. It was so easy to get shiny imported machines back then, at low rates propped up by the artificial "stability" caused by a low fixed exchange rate! In 1998, recession hit, and during the nightmarish years that followed, Argentina's internal market went bust and exports suffered. After the depreciation of the Argentine peso by two thirds, SanCor regained some competitivity, but it was burdened by its dollar-denominated debt. It started looking for saviours, and George Soros came into the picture.

Soros has been buying up parts of Argentina here and there for some time. It's not that we don't like him. At least he doesn't seem directly intent on screwing us up, like most of the vultures foreign investors landing here lately. But his group proposed bailing out SanCor in exchange of its majority control, turning it into one of those dark stockholder-owned corporations. Remember this is our milk, our cheese and our dulce de leche we're talking about. Our government didn't appreciate that a flagship Argentine company, made up of smaller local producers, was to be sold to some foreign guy with a strange accent, even one who hates George Bush's guts. This was perceived abroad, and voilà, along came our colourful friend Hugo Chávez.

Chávez's Venezuela is sitting on top a sea of oil, and with Chávez being all nationalist and stuff, its government is getting rich big time. Chávez is overtly conducting a peaceful Socialist revolution in his country and trying to consolidate a Latin American unity along its lines by helping other countries, especially those with left-leaning governments (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and soon, we hear, Ecuador). Venezuela is the latest addition to Mercosur and already has a strong relationship with Argentina; it bought billions of dollars worth of Argentine debt bonds to ease our national debt's restructuring process, sends a lot of fuel oil at discount prices our way to contain our energy crisis (the one that doesn't exist), and has struck a lot of agreements by which Venezuela gets, for example, state-of-the-art Argentine agricultural machinery and good Argentine beef.

Last week, during a visit, Chávez spoke of a loan to bail out SanCor for 80 million USD, in exchange for a ten-year supply of milk powder and some technical how-know on dairies, which Venezuela seems to be missing. As is often the case when there's a degree of trust, things progressed fast, so Chávez and SanCor will be signing the agreement next Monday. Soros withdrew his offer to avoid further exposure.

Now of course, more than a few people have problems with Chávez. Venezuela doesn't have a very free press, the forced nationalization of some Venezuelan key private companies was not nice, and Chávez is, to say the least, a picturesque leader, resembling more a García Márquez character (or a cartoon) than the president of one of the larger countries in South America and an oil power; at the worst, he looks like a big-mouthed dictator, "Fidel Castro's pup" as some have called him. But in any case, Chávez hasn't asked for control of the company, and SanCor already exports one sixth of its total production of milk powder to Venezuela.

So yes, Chávez is not a friend, so why did I title this post like that? Countries are not friends of each other (only people are), and politicians don't have true friends among politicians. But Venezuela and Argentina, despite their differences and mainly because of this kind of gestures from Chávez, have become true allies... and I say cheers to that.

05 December 2006

Countryside on strike

The agricultural producers of Argentina are on strike since last Sunday, and boy, the spits of venom are flying all over us. Minister Miceli gave a press conference calling the strike "ideological and political", and dismissed the claims of the producers regarding their contribution to the wellbeing of the country. The government has been intervening in (some would say interfering with) the beef market and, to a lesser extent, with the wheat-flour-bread markets, in order to keep prices from rising; and of course there are the retenciones, or export taxes, in place since the economic crisis exploded.

The economic juggling act is as follows:

  1. Exporters take advantage of the high exchange rate (over 3 pesos/dollar) to sell at internationally competitive prices and gather a good profit. The ones most benefitted by this exchange rate are the agricultural producers.
  2. The Central Bank sucks up the incoming dollars, keeping the exchange rate artificially high (over 3 pesos/dollar), so as to maintain the competitiveness of the exporters.
  3. The government taxes exports, differently according to what exactly is being exported (some things are not taxed, others are taxed 20%). This is how it gets a sizable part of the total tax revenue.
  4. The very success of the above strategy places it in danger, since the more competitive exports are, the more dollars enter the local market, thus pushing down the exchange rate.
  5. Not only that, but the Central Bank has to emit pesos in order to buy dollars. This effectively devalues the peso and expands the monetary base, indirectly fueling inflation.
The problem arises from the fact that the producers would like to charge the same price internally than externally. Absent that possibility (since most Argentinians cannot afford dollar-priced goods while getting salaries in pesos), most producers prefer to export rather than selling within Argentina. The export tax is also an attempt to "convince" them, by making exporting less profitable, but in general, Argentine producers can still get almost 3 times more by leaving the internal market undersupplied and shipping their goods abroad.

The agricultural sector in Argentina, as a whole, has no reason to complain about profits. During the 1990s, when the exchange rate was fixed at 1:1, many invested in imported machines and increased their productivity, but then they went broke as their exports were uncompetitive. Now they have a government that keeps the exchange rate high for them, making it prohibitively expensive for most of us to get certain imported goods, but they still complain.

One of the points of contention is the government doesn't have a plan for the agricultural sector and doesn't help the smaller producers, who are being bought up by their larger fellows. Indeed, the soybean boom has created a depressing landscape in which a few hundred landowners with huge plantations employ sophisticated machinery and very few people to plant any available patch of dirt over millions of hectares with a transgenic monoculture, then to harvest it and sell it to China (mostly), while producers of less-favoured crops (including many regional specialties in the poorer parts of the country) are struggling to keep up, and falling back.

For some reason, the conservative wealthy elite of the countryside have managed to present this strike as a just cause, as the fight of the economic saviours of the country for a free, undistorted market. The truth, of course, is that if they had their way, the national budget would run a huge deficit and we'd be having milk, bread and beef at three times the current price -- those of us who could afford them, and even then, only as much as the producers did not manage to sell abroad (the EU, for example, buys quality Argentine beef at a very good price, but only a small fixed quota; and both the EU and the US burden their imports with tariffs and regulations to protect their own producers). The controversial Secretary of Internal Commerce, Guillermo Moreno (the price control czar, so to speak, of the Argentine government) put it bluntly: "We can't have food at international prices."

The last cause of anger for the countryside folks was the announced decission of the government to employ force should the roads be blocked by the strikers to prevent the traffic of grain and cattle from their sources to the markets (a threat the strikers have already made -- and they already blocked the Rosario-Buenos Aires Highway for a while). The opposition pounced on it, calling it a double standard (which it is), since the government refuses to clear the road blocks set up by the piqueteros in Buenos Aires and by the pulp mill protestors on the roads before the international bridges linking Argentina and Uruguay, which are arguably causing as much trouble, though of a different kind.

This certainly looks like it will be a rough year's end.

04 December 2006

Japanese weekend

Yesterday I finally took the Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken (Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or JLPT). In Argentina, the JLPT is taken at Belgrano University in Buenos Aires, on the same day as in the rest of the world, i.e. the first Sunday of December. Waves of Japanese students come from many places in the capital on foot, by subte (metro), by bus or taxi or whatever; many nikkei join in from La Plata, where many are settled (they even have a Japanese-language newspaper called La Plata Hochi); and of course, many others travel for hours during the previous night. Rosario Nihongo Gakkou dispatched a busload -- 23 students, including yours truly, two teachers, and one grandma.

I got up at 3 AM so I could gain some degree of composure, ate a half-breakfast (bad idea), and waited for a taxi. We left Gakkou at about 5 AM in our hired bus. I find it extremely difficult to sleep in any place other than a proper bed, preferably mine, so despite the convenience of having proper rest before an exam, I didn't even try. Fortunately there were other similarly afflicted or nervous students; while most dozed off into oblivion, four of us practised with kanji cards, discussed some grammar doubts, and after the sun came out and study was over, we played truco and a couple of other games, and drank some truly horrible ersatz coffee from the machine in the bus while lamenting the lack of a hot water thermos and a mate.

The driver was incredibly slow and didn't quite know how to get into Belgrano. I'm completely clueless when it comes to navigating the oversized metropolis that is Argentina's capital, but then I'm not for hire to do that. We got off the bus with just enough time to run for a gas station bar and get some coffee. Then we went back to Belgrano University, where a Japanese guy with a megaphone was herding the students into their appointed exam rooms, divided in groups according to their exam level and so they could fit into the elevators (Belgrano Uni has several space-age elevators that fit 36 people each, and within which Newton's laws seem to be nullified -- you almost don't feel any acceleration).

In we went, and into our room, where a teacher started to explain the procedures in quick Japanese, then paused, and asked if it was OK or we preferred Spanish (needless to say nobody dared ask for that). First part of the exam -- writing and vocabulary, 35 minutes. Break for lunch, and then back to the second part, which strikes fear into all students -- listening comprehension, 35 minutes. Short break, then the last part -- grammar and text comprehension, 70 minutes. A one-page-long text in Japanese can be a horrific sight, even if you're a step from mid-level proficiency and you've studied for it; as it happens, every language has its quirks, and Japanese is full of elliptical and illogical constructions (as in "It's OK" sometimes meaning "No"). Add to that your nervousness and the writing -- since this was to test your comprehension, it was written mostly in the phonetic syllabary (kana) rather than in kanji, which paradoxically makes it difficult to read quickly, since kanji are much more immediately recognizable, provided you are familiar with one or two hundred common ones. The usual mixed kanji-kana text also makes it easier to spot word breaks.

All in all, except for the audio part, I can't complain; I'm sure I did well. Now I have to wait until March to get the score. This was sankyuu (level 3); it wasn't much more difficult than the yonkyuu I took in 2005. Nikyuu (level 2) is not nearly as light, and might take me two or three years to prepare for it; one incentive is that the 5 top scores get a free trip to Japan. Only a handful of people take ikkyuu (level 1), and by then you're, according to one my classmates, "a Super Saiyajin of Japanese" (even native speakers sometimes fail ikkyuu, I'm told).

We headed back but, at some point, a group of students complained they hadn't been able to get lunch because they were too nervous... so we absolutely needed to stop (and make everybody late). The driver took 15 minutes to get off the highway into Campana, some 75 km from Buenos Aires City, a lovely place with a landscape full of petrochemical factories, and then left us before a McDonalds', which is the closest to "food" you can get when you're on the road on a Sunday afternoon. For a fast food place, it took ages for the girls to be served, and they in turn took almost one hour to eat a hamburger. Back in the road, me very pissed off, and my seat neighbour and I embarked in a heated discussion about Aldous Huxley's use of entheogens, the cultural assumptions of Native Americans, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, planified economies, the practical application of Marxism, and a project I'd heard about to replace arbitrary currency units with valuables backed up by actual energy production. I don't usually get into that sort of arguments before the first bottle of beer, so I guess I was very bored.

I got back home by 10 PM and into bed by 11 PM; I got up today at 5:30 AM and I'm trying to stay awake right now. But it was fun.

02 December 2006

Overreactions: Argentina vs. Uruguay

Everybody seems to be on edge these days, haven't you noticed? And moderation seems to have gone out the window together with restraint and sense of proportion. Some examples:

  • Months ago, a double-decker interurban bus had an accident. Many passengers, mostly children, died. They said it may be due to bad balance and wind (driving a tall narrow bus with strong side winds may be dangerous, understandably). Almost instantly there were people demanding that double-decker buses be forbidden. What?
  • The hail caused property damage and losses. Some said it was the government's fault for not releasing a proper alert. The government agency in charge of weather prediction should have had something like alarm sirens set up in all the cities and towns and should have been able to broadcast an alert within minutes of discovering that hail was likely, the kind of alert that no-one can ignore (the TV, the radio and the Internet are not enough). It didn't, so it should pay for the repairs to my car. What?
Enter the Gualeguaychú-Fray Bentos cellulose/pulp mill issue, which is really a paragon of ridiculous lack of restraint. The latest development is that, after some of the guys in Gualeguaychú made mild terrorist threats (e.g. "we could cut that cable over there and shut off Uruguay's Internet in a minute"), and considered (but rejected for the moment) the possibility of going over to protest directly in Fray Bentos, the president of Uruguay signed an order to provide military custody to Botnia's cellulose plant. What!? Mr. K said it was an offence that hurt his heart. How moving.

But wait, it gets worse. The possibility of withdrawing Uruguay's ambassador was mentioned. It was rejected, but unfortunately the explanation given by Uruguay was "if we were to solve everything by withdrawing the ambassador, we wouldn't have had [the ambassador in Argentina] since one year and a half". This was the Uruguayan Chancellor, i.e. the head of the foreign relations office. Diplomacy, anyone?

As one of the readers of this rather low-level thread in Yahoo! Answers says, seeing Argentina and Uruguay against each other is like watching a fight of two chihuahuas. The issue is not only international but intranational; the mayor of Colón, north of Gualeguaychú, called their actions "exacerbated extremism", and the Gualeguaychú folks got mad at that. As of now, the international roads passing near both cities are being blocked again. These guys are actually mounting permanent tents by the road, setting up chemical baths, and a "kitchen bus". "If they come to repress us with the police", they said, "we might be forced to move, but in two hours they'll have 30,000 of us protesting in another spot".

The time has come to drop this ridiculous pretense that we're defending ecology as a national cause, and to accept the obvious facts:
  1. The Botnia plant will be built, on time, and in the designated spot, and it will work.
  2. Uruguay cannot make its way out of this. It has a special treaty with Finland that forbids messing up with certain agreed-on investments.
  3. The president of Uruguay cannot and will not lose the rest of its already diminishing popular support. His balls are in the hands of a corporation that's bringing the largest investment in the history of Uruguay. He simply has no room to move.
  4. The Assembly of Gualeguaychú is formed, like most of these movements, by 95% of people who don't have clear justifications for the protest, and 5% of misguided leaders. The withdrawal of official support has only radicalized them.
  5. When-and-if the Assembly commits an actual crime, the Argentine government will have to react but it will be too late.
  6. When-and-if the Argentine government reacts, there will be (as predicted by the Assembly) a horrible mess. This is entirely the government's fault. The clock is ticking.
The solution will not be nice. The authorities (the Gendarmerie or the police) will have to disband them and prevent them from blocking the international pass again. The damage (the sense of betrayal and resentment) will be done, but maybe a normal state of affairs might return in a couple of months. And all throughout the country, we the people will be telling our government "I told you so", as we always have.

30 November 2006

Chile and Argentina

This is my reaction to a post by miss cupcake in her blog, about Chile's cleanliness (in every sense) compared to Argentina. Two caveats apply for the rest of this post: one, I've never been to Chile; and two, this is not intended as criticism but as a complement to what miss cupcake said.

Chile is indeed more orderly, more efficient, less corrupt, and more modern (in some important specific aspects) than Argentina, or most of Latin America for that matter. When Roberto Lavagna, the former Argentine Minister of Economy, saw the return of foreign financial investment to Argentina as an unstabilizing force (due to short-term speculative operations that unbalanced the markets), he looked to Chile for well-tested regulations to deal with that. Chile is also an example of governability and of stable state policies.

Chile is also one of the countries with the most pronounced income inequality on Earth. People who've been there also tell me that social/class inequality is also marked. The same is true in Argentina, of course, but the Chilean disadvantaged classes have never been very organized or combative. Chile was a dictatorship between 1973 and 1990; I guess that the revolutionaries and radicals were either killed or forced to exile, so the Chileans lost their popular leaders and ideologues that could've fought for change. This is also true of Argentina, but then our dictatorship was a series of committees made up of inefficient murderers, it lasted only 6 years, and the dictators ended up discredited and in jail soon enough. In Chile, it was only Pinochet, and he remained in charge of the Army after permitting a democratic government to be elected.

The lower classes in Chile don't seem accustomed to fight for their rights. If you think you saw that in the news, it was students asking for free entrance exams to university; they are part of the minority of the Chilean population who have access to quality education. More education means higher income everywhere, but this is especially true of Chile; and in Chile, you pay to get into school, and you pay to stay there. If you're poor, you can't go to school. This is a direct consequence of the "modernization" policies started by Pinochet, presented as the "Miracle of Chile" (Milton Friedman dixit), and continued up to this day.

Argentina, for all its faults, recognized as early as 1884 that a united country requires free education. The upheavals of economic and political history have never changed that, even as some governments (often, and not coincidentally, the military ones) have tried to make education a privilege for the rich. Despite the lack of funding, the teachers' strikes and the multiple half-thought education programmes sponsored by different rulers, and despite the "modernization" carried out by Carlos Menem, Argentine professionals continue to excel in their fields.

This all goes to say that I prefer to live in Argentina... I've been through rough times and I know for sure I wouldn't be even a struggling middle-class citizen by now if I'd had to pay for my education.

This also goes to say that Chile and Argentina can learn from each other. There's no necessary causal link between free education and corruption, or between clean streets and a military dictatorship in power.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Since there is no energy crisis, today's blackout must have been caused by other factors... Maybe a rat chewed on a powerline or something. That has happened. Whatever the reason, 43,000 people were left without power today when part of a power plant in the downtown exploded around 10 PM. Destiny had such a fine aim at me that this came more or less around the time when I was just about to conduct some business on floor #15 of a certain building. News: sedentary work is bad for your physical fitness. If you haven't been jogging or otherwise exercising your legs and your aerobic capacity, climb the stairs slowly or you might die amid painful panting.

Again, this is not part of any hypothetical "energy crisis". It's just a coincidence that blackouts are becoming more and more frequent lately, and even worse as summer approaches and people start turning on their air conditioning. Really.

Seriously: At most, we must concede that the power company guys' denial is not groundless. Part of this is not caused by a higher demand of electric power, but by sheer neglect and incompetence.

28 November 2006


This is actually weird, and we're talking about a place where presidents comparing themselves to pharaohs are not considered weird. Yerba mate has had many properties attributed to it, mostly related to its stimulant effects and the ritualistic nature of its drinking as mate, Argentina's national drink (sharing a place with Fernet con Coca), but never in the field of medical imaging.

Well, believe it or not, yerba mate has been shown to be useful as a negative contrast material for the imaging of the bile ducts. Such imaging is normally done by sedating the patient and injecting radiologically opaque (iodine-based) contrast material into the duodenum (this is called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography or ERCP). As someone who used to work in the imaging department of a hospital, I know that this process is long and messy. With yerba mate, you only need to drink mate and get a much faster, more precise and non-invasive RMI scan. The radiologists discovered this as they were looking to achieve the effect with pineapple juice (!) -- some of the test subjects had drunk mate before. It was introduced to the medical community during the recently held 52th Argentine Congress of Radiology.

Will yerba displace iodine-based contrast materials from other niches? You know, a bunch of companies make huge profits out of those horrible substances. And they feed the companies that manufacture anti-allergic medicines and corticosteroids, as intravenous iodine tends to anger the immunological system of a significant number of people. Will the Big Corporations kidnap the yerba mate radiologists or buy their silence? Will they lobby against yerba mate for medicinal use?? Will they maybe set fire to yerba mate plantations and make it look like accidents??? They made the water engine disappear after all...