29 June 2007

Wrapping up the campaign

We're in veda electoral, that is, the common pre-election ban on political advertising, since this morning. Though next Sunday's is just a primary election, it works like a main one and it's equally a bother: it's compulsory and you can't sell (therefore can't buy) booze the night before and during the whole day (you can buy booze beforehand and save it for Sunday, though).

In Rosario, almost exactly 700,000 people have the right and the obligation to vote; in Santa Fe as a whole, about 2.3 million. We're selecting the candidates who will run for their respective parties in the main election in September. Until 2005 we had Ley de Lemas, a perverse system by which a candidate could win with fewer votes than most of their opponents (follow the link). In fact, with Ley de Lemas you could win with 2 votes against someone who had gotten 1 million votes, provided you had 999,999 other candidates of your own party running beside you and they each got 1 vote (which would make a total of 1,000,001 votes for your party as a whole).

The system was repealed and replaced by simultaneous compulsory primary elections — compulsory for the parties, even if a party has internally decided to run with only one candidate. That's the case of the Socialist Hermes Binner, the favorite to win the governorship according to all surveys. The Justicialists (Peronists) have a more complicated task ahead, since they're presenting two candidates (Agustín Rossi and Rafael Bielsa) under the name Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory), the faction of President Kirchner, plus one more, Roxana Latorre, who rebelliously decided to run by herself, and (naturally) claims to represent the true interests of Peronism. Latorre is (or was) a pawn of Carlos Reutemann, the Formula 1 race driver turned governor by the magic of Menemist popstar politics in the 1990s, and she doesn't like how the dominant faction has taken up her space.

Now common sense tells everybody that Latorre's proclamation of independence means less votes for the "official" Peronists; it doesn't matter now in the primaries, but it will matter in September, since Latorre will draw votes (very few, but some) from either Rossi or Bielsa. Binner, who runs solo and only appears as candidate in the primaries to keep the letter of the law, doesn't have this kind of problem. Socialism is allied with the Radical Civic Union, which managed to preserve a degree of local power (smaller towns scattered throughout the province) after they blew it once and again and descended into obscurity on the larger context thanks to President Alfonsín selling out to Menem (1994) and President de la Rúa selling out to Domingo Cavallo and fleeing the Casa Rosada on a helicopter (2001), not to mention other stupid blunders and many gestures of misplaced moral authority in the meantime and up to now who would've made Alem and Yrigoyen spin in their respective graves.

In Santa Fe, most of the Radicals saw the convenience of selling out once again, this time to Binner's Frente Progresista (Progressive Front), and are therefore telling their people to vote for Binner, who has placed a number of Radicals in his associated list of provincial legislators; a sensible move that will allow them to keep a foot on the parliamentary door and maybe, in a few years' time, run their own candidate for governor. Reelection is not allowed, so if Binner wins he'll be out again in merely four years.

In Rosario the mayoral candidates will be competing as well. We have two heavyweights on the side of Justicialism, Héctor Cavallero (former mayor, former Socialist and Binner's mentor, very good in his time, sold out to Menem — a pity) and Juan Héctor Sylvestre Begnis (former Radical, migrated to Peronism, son of Santa Fe's best governor of all time, served as a very fine Minister of Health of Santa Fe, also a pity since the one we have today is a living shame). There's the usual assortment of unknowns crawling around, too. On Binner's side, the current mayor Miguel Lifschitz looking for reelection — an almost sure bet, and Carlos Comi, a concejal (city council member) who belongs to the local branch of ARI. ARI, you'll remember, is the party founded by Elisa Carrió, the party that won its first governorship last Sunday in the person of Fabiana Ríos, the rosarina that moved to Tierra del Fuego. Funny!

Comi and ARI in general are not too happy with Binner, since the Socialist ballot we'll find in the voting room next Sunday carries Binner and Lifschitz on the same piece of paper, while ARI will not have such a big name attached to its candidate. If you want to vote for Binner and Comi, you'll have to cortar boleta — cut the ballot manually (or with a scissor), while if you want Binner and Lifschitz, you just need to tuck the ballot in the envelope as it is. Lifschitz thus benefits from Binner's preference..., you know, like placing the brand of potato chips you want to sell next to the beer aisle on the supermarket. So Fabiana Ríos and Elisa Carrió came to Rosario this week to support Comi's campaign, and they mounted a kiosk with a gigantic pair of scissors. Subtle.

The official Peronist candidates have been much kinder to one another, to the point of boring us all and the media. According to both of them, everything in the province is so darn well done already they only need to continue doing what the party has been doing since 1983...

26 June 2007

Strange days in politics

Strange days! I blogged on Saturday and Sunday, and that must be a first. And didn't blog yesterday and I almost didn't blog today, but I thought, everybody's talking about politics... well, at least everybody on TV, and a lot of people in the capital of our proudly macrocephalic country, plus a few thousands near the End of the World.

What to make of Macri? Well, for one he has a terrific image counselor — at times he can almost pretend he's a kind human being. Then, of course, he speaks outside his extremely limited script and we can all see his shadow turn into an old man with a mischievous smile joining the tips of his hands and muttering "Excellent!".

Macri has been praised by the right and derided by the left, and yet he's new to politics and to public life, so there's no way to know what he'll do once he's in power. He might be just what the average, fascist middle-class porteño wanted, or he might not have what it takes. Because "getting Buenos Aires in order" is not a task that you can accomplish without turning the streets into a battlefield, killing (by accident or design) a few protesters, and causing a fair amount of distress to those citizens who naïvely believe "order" can be achieved with a simple recipe (à la "Zero Tolerance"). Página/12 speculates a lot about this today (What kind of ruler will he want to be?).

If I were a porteño, I'd be more concerned about vice-Chief Gabriela Michetti. Mark my words: Macri might have the money and a lot of simplistic and dangerous upper-class ideas stemming from his upbringing as a spoiled brat, but Michetti is educated, conservative, devout, firm as a rock, relentless — the kind of person who can have tea with you and then send you to the firing squad with an unchanging smile on her face. (OK, maybe that was too much.) Just my impression.

Then there's Tierra del Fuego. In case you didn't hear (almost impossible, since it was repeated ad nauseam last Sunday on TV), Fabiana Ríos, a 43-year-old pharmacist born in Rosario who lives in Río Grande since she's 23, won the runoff election by a small but significant margin over the Kirchnerist governor Hugo Cóccaro, and is the first female governor to be elected to rule a
province. She looks younger than her age and seems a nice little lady, until you hear she intends to meet the president and tell him, basically, that she doesn't want the national government to mess with her province now that it's changed hands. Bear in mind this is a province that lives mostly on tourism and has a smaller population than some barrios of Buenos Aires... in fact, only half of Kirchner's Santa Cruz.

Ríos is also the first governor belonging to ARI, the continuously mutating party that Elisa Carrió founded and still leads on the national level... sort of. Carrió wants to be St. George to Kirchner's dragon — or, in less poetical terms, they hate each other's guts. Ríos cautiously (and truthfully) noted that this is a victory for her and her constituency and against an entrenched corrupt political class, not a triumph of Carrió against the president. But to Mr. K, this and Macri on the same day must have hurt really bad. Well, pain teaches you to keep away from some things, so let's hope K is beginning to learn that lesson.

24 June 2007

Tolerance and respect

Daniel, from San Luis, tells me he's not going to read this blog anymore because as a Catholic he feels I'm intolerant and disrespectful, based on my earlier post entitled "Monsignor my ass". I'm taking the opportunity to expand on that issue. (By the way, Daniel, I do publish comments like yours, which articulately disagree with what I think. What I don't allow is gratuitious insults and xenophobic rubbish, like she did.)

First, what is intolerance? Intolerance is saying, "I don't like what you think/say/do, so I'm going to discriminate you, or punish you, in some way." I can't do that with the archbishop. I believe he represents an evil organization, and I think many of the beliefs he holds are detrimental to human wellbeing. All I can do about it is criticize him, using the means at my disposal, one of which is ridicule. Any sensible member of any religion knows there are billions of people in the world who consider his or her religious beliefs false, ridiculous, absurd, or even supernaturally harmful. This doesn't mean those people are intolerant. I would have coffee or dinner with the archbishop any time and I'm sure we could get along fine, just as I get along with people of the most diverse beliefs in my daily life, as long as the archbishop refrains from telling me I'm going to hell because I'm a filthy unrepentant atheist.

Then, what is respect? More importantly, why do religious beliefs and to what extent do they deserve respect? (H. L. Mencken famously said, " We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.") My idea of this is that respect is for people, not for ideas. You respect a person when you talk to them using the proper words and not insults, acknowledging their opinions, and accepting that they have different ideas even if you don't like them. Ideas are not people! They can't feel pain when attacked! If you bring to a table the idea that it's OK to burn people alive to punish them for heresy, or that Jews are an inferior race, or that women should be locked up in their homes and be content with being loyal sexual objects for their husbands, your idea will be called horrible things, torn to pieces and exposed as discriminatory, barbaric, medieval, and utterly damnable. But if you're dealing with tolerant subjects, they'll attack your idea, not you. You will be attacked or forcefully restrained or expelled only if you actually try to enforce your idea.

I respect archbishop José Luis Mollaghan. I don't respect his religion, and I shouldn't, because it's been the source of a lot of suffering and continues to be, in my opinion, a force against positive change and even for death in many parts of the world. Above that, it's a religion whose leaders treat me and many of my compatriots as second-class people, and if they were in power, they'd most surely also make me a second-class citizen. I don't like the fact that the Vatican has a spokesman telling me and my compatriots that being a good Argentinian and a patriot is somehow linked to being a faithful Catholic. I don't like how assumes he speaks for all of us and in behalf of all of us. I find the whole Christian theology thing a huge lump of incoherent nonsense.

So that's my personal opinion, and you can disagree or not, but you can't take away my right to say it in this public, but explicitly personal, account of my life. If archbishop Mollaghan has a blog, a personal webpage, a diary, or a self-edited paper, he's also free to voice his beliefs there — but I say he shouldn't be allowed to do it in a public patriotic holiday, as if he were an authority that represents us, the people. We didn't elect him, it was some old guy in the Vatican who did. He's not monsignor, "my lord", to me. He has enough influence to be quoted in independent media, and he has his own place as well — let him speak in church.

23 June 2007

Comedy night

Just a quick post, weekend style... Last night I went to see a troupe of comedy actors, The Jumping Frijoles. They do an improvisation show on the line of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, only they're not televised, of course... and they have no props, not even a chair, or any music whatsoever. According to their website, they've been doing this for five years. It really shows. They're very good most of the time. Some individual performances were not terribly good at times, but the whole was hilarious.

The setup for this is a stage at the bottom of a bar called Berlín, a place I knew from earlier nights as an underground den of vice and/or hellhole, which has turned into something much cleaner and professionally run lately. There live shows every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and you can eat cold and hot snacks and sandwiches or drink good beer and fairly nice wine too; as the night progresses you can go downstairs (in this case literally underground) to the dance floor.

So we arrived, were brought to a table, and munched on a couple of hot sandwiches. Someone left pieces of paper and a pen on the table for us to suggest titles for the skits. We filled them in and returned them, and we received pompons on plastic sticks, two per person, one green and one red, for the vote — since the Frijoles assemble two teams for each skit. The show was, as I said, very good most of the time, especially considering a team only has 15 seconds to deliberate on what to do after they get the title.

I don't think the Frijoles do shows elsewhere (their site says "Rosario and some nearby towns" only). So if you're passing by the city and you want something funny to do before going to a disco, check if they're on schedule!

22 June 2007

Monsignor my ass

The guy you see on the picture is called José Luis Mollaghan. Now ask yourself (and reply to yourself, of course), what makes it different from you, me or anyone else on this planet? I mean, besides the fact that he's wearing a weird purple hat and speaking on a microphone very close to the top authorities of Argentina.

Well, this guy Mollaghan is called an archbishop, a word which etymology tells us means "chief overseer", or maybe "top-grade supervisor". He's in charge of checking on the local community of Catholics, an arduous job for which he was appointed by the Pope himself. The Pope is in charge of checking on us all, and I mean all the world, since he's the vicar of Christ, and he must not let us sin — since Christ was nailed to a cross 2000 years ago precisely to save us from sin, and apparently we didn't pay attention.

The Pope was found to be OK for this demanding job by an assembly of other notable Catholics called cardinals, in turn appointed by a previous Pope, under the inspiration of someone or something called the Holy Spirit, an invisible, inaudible, inodorous... thing which is one part of the three that make up the entity known as the Holy Trinity, aka the Roman Catholic God, or just "God". Who created the universe and loves us all, forever and ever, and will not let us be tortured in a lake of fire as long as we go to Mass every Sunday, et cetera.

Now it makes sense that the archbishop sits next to the president and tells us what to do, right?

If you, like me, think all of the above is farfetched, absurd and outrageously ridiculous, you'll answer "no". But then you'll be in the minority.

You're also supposed to address Mr. Mollaghan as "Monsignor", that is, "my lord" (or "milord"). Sorry, I thought all titles of nobility in Argentina had been abolished in 1813. This seems unfair to secular nobles.

Mollaghan gave a speech to the troops amassed on the celebration of Flag Day, before anyone else, even the governor or the Commander-in-Chief (that would be the President). The speech had little to do with the occasion; Flag Day was only an easy plug for a religious rant about how Argentina is a Catholic country, how the Virgin Mary wants us all to worship her 24/7, and how it should always be illegal to prefer a poor woman's life over a handful of barely differentiated cells. The authorities (a Socialist mayor, a left-leaning Peronist governor who professes to be a great friend of Fidel Castro, and other officials of a country supposedly governed by a secular Constitution) listened attently and (I guess) tried to ignore a group of women with a green banner set up before the stand who demanded free access to their reproductive rights. I was exposed to religious indoctrination and to this kind of oblivious, matter-of-factly intolerance for such a long time, this shouldn't bother me by now, but it did.

So Monsignor got to advertise his beliefs from a privileged spot during a public secular holiday, and nobody said a thing. But wait: the princes of the Church have other advantages over their secular counterparts: they get paid by the state (a bishop gets 70% of the salary of a federal judge) and their titles and other entitlements are not subject to the legal framework of Argentina — they're in fact representatives of another country, the Vatican, the only modern theocracy in the Western hemisphere, by virtue of a Concordat... signed between the Holy See and the dictatorial (i.e. illegal) government of Juan Carlos Onganía, in 1966.

20 June 2007

Flag Day

Phew! It's been mad since Sunday, when I started Flag Week by going to the former Rural Society (now a Municipal Fair Site) and then on Monday when I went with the Rosarigasinos photographers' group to check on what was happening prior to the celebrations. The whole city's been like crazy, and the photographers (press, private professionals, amateurs, me!) were buzzing around, grabbing picture after picture of the new Flag Memorial lighting, the crowds, the tenor José Cura (a Rosarino living abroad, who sang for everybody last night), the flags, Alta en el Cielo...

So today was Flag Day proper. I was truly wrecked yesterday when I came back from the wet cold night after listening to Cura and signing the Flag March along, but I woke up today at 8 AM, and together with my brother got a quick breakfast and headed for the Monumento. There weren't many people still.

There were, to be sure, many flag peddlers, and others; by noon the smell of chorizo and praliné mixed with the sight of white-and-blue flags and hats and the voice of people selling Coke and coffee in plastic glasses.

Contrary to my earlier post (my sources were wrong), President Kirchner did come. He came late, to be sure, though given his legendary tardiness at every meeting, it was almost OK. The civic-military parade started before he arrived, as scheduled. There were the usual speeches by the mayor and the governor, and then K came and spoke — again, it was a pleasant surprise not to hear him speak of magnificent macroeconomic numbers and denouncing dark conspiracies against the country we all want, etc. etc.

The only letdown, politically speaking, was the presence of professional bootlickers. It was these bootlickers, on behalf of governor candidate Agustín Rossi, who defiled a corner of Plaza 25 de Mayo by installing a crude campaign ad in the form of an inflatable penguin before the Cathedral. Others preferred to go with the traditional stuff and brought Argentine and Santa Fe flags superimposed with the faces of Juan and Eva Perón. These and others, with standards and banners proclaiming their loyalty to (whoever runs) Peronism, set themselves at the strategic spot right before the mast of the Memorial, in front of the authorities' stand, and brought uncalled-for drums (commonplace in Argentina's political demonstrations and protests) to "complement" the military bands.

I couldn't grab a good picture of the prez, since I couldn't get close to the stand, of course, and my puny camera only has 4 megapixels and a 3x optical zoom. Considering my shaking pulse and the fact I was lifting the camera in the air over rows and rows of other people, though, I got a nice result. You can see the Emperor Penguin clearly; to the picture's right (sitting) are vice president Daniel Scioli, and governor Jorge Obeid. The lady in pink/purple to the far right (!) is Senator and First Lady Cristina Fernández (quite possibly the first woman to be elected to the presidency in the history of Argentina), and if you know the guy, you'll recognize the dreaded Alberto Fernández by his moustache, to the left.

There were a lot of people, but not so many as last year. Maybe they were all exhausted, like me. Right at the end of the parade, when traditional associations were parading in horses and carriages, it started to rain, and many left. Yours truly took shelter under a tree, and then I noticed a crowd had climbed on the stand, that the powers that be had deserted. So I got to be right where K had given his speech.

There's a lot more to say. I'm going to post pictures during the following days, here and in Vista Rosario. Check my Flickr pictures and the Rosarigasinos group pool as well. I've taken over 700 pictures since Sunday and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Just one more, taken a bit later than the first:

19 June 2007

Flag Day is tomorrow!

These have been atypical days. First of all, it was a long weekend; and then also, in Rosario it's a very short working week. You see, most public holidays are moveable in Argentina. In order to produce long weekends, which are good for tourism, holidays that fall are moved back to the prior or next Monday. The exceptions are the fixed religious festivities (such as Christmas), the New Year, and the two main patriotic holidays: May 25 and July 9. No matter where in the week they fall, they're never moved. One would expect public displays of outrage if the government decided to play around with those two sacrosanct dates just to please tourists and raise the profits of the tourism industry.

Banderas argentinas desplegadasYet, one would also expect Flag Day to be a very patriotic date, but Flag Day (June 20, the anniversary of the death of Manuel Belgrano, creator of the Argentine Flag) is moveable. May it be because it's a celebration linked specifically to Rosario and not to Buenos Aires? Belgrano, after all, crafted his flag and hoisted it for the first time in two artillery batteries located on both sides of the Paraná River, one in Rosario and one in an island directly opposite the village. And he did it in violation of direct orders of the central government of Buenos Aires (the same government which, a few years later, ordered General José de San Martín to attack the province of Santa Fe, that was beginning to oppose the centralism of the capital — an order which San Martín, too, disobeyed).

But that mustn't be it. After all, the Declaration of Independence was written and proclaimed in Tucumán, and Independence Day (July 9) is not moveable, and the President usually celebrates it there.

Must be that national governments, one after another, have never found Flag Day very important. We rosarinos, supported by the provincial government, have asked the federal government to fix Flag Day at June 20, but to no avail, for years. June 20 continues to be a public holiday for the public administration and for all the schools in Rosario, but for no-one else and nowhere else, so many people in the city and from other places cannot attend the celebrations.

This makes it, in principle, easier for the President to bring a parade of applauders for hire, as especially Peronists like to do, but historically that hasn't been a good idea. When Carlos Menem did that, he was left with his minions and a minuscule group of followers in what amounted to a badly organized party meeting. It was so pathetic and sleazy that he didn't want to come to Rosario anymore. He always had excuses: his plane was broken, it was too foggy, it was too windy... Besides, Rosario was hit very hard by anti-industrial Cavallonomics, so Menem stayed away. President De la Rúa never came in his two years. He wasn't a Peronist but I bet he was a Menemist... Duhalde didn't come either. Kirchner came in 2003, and then in 2005; he had appropriate excuses.

Kirchner is not going to come for the main celebration this year; he announced he'll be here "late" (that's 3 hours after the beginning) and just do a speech. Now I understand a president's agenda is always full, but didn't anyone notice June 20 was in there? If a president skipped the celebration of any other major patriotic date, he would be burned at the stake by the media, the opposition, and many common folks. I don't like the guy; I was even guessing he was going to turn his speech into a campaign rant like he always does; but leaving the person aside, there's the symbol, the authority. This is the commemoration of the death of one of the very few true patriots this country has seen in its history, and the celebration of its flag.

Well, I'll tell you tomorrow (or Thursday) how it was like, with or without K. Vice governor Bielsa is not happy the president isn't coming (maybe because her brother, the candidate, won't be able to grab a campaign picture next to K? — though she says it's because people were looking forward to parade in front of the president, which is true). Governor Obeid excused Kirchner, though... I'm sure there won't be much of a difference.

It's the 50th anniversary of the Flag Memorial, and the Municipality is, as we say over here, throwing the house out the window (or "throwing butter to the ceiling"). There have been concerts, a professional reenactment of General Belgrano's entrance into Rosario in 1812, rodeo-like traditional events, and a national artisans' fair; the Memorial has a new and revolutionary lighting system installed (which will be inaugurated tonight), and in general, the city is bustling with flaggy activity. Before the mast of the Memorial, a group of volunteers is sewing up the parts of Alta en el Cielo, the longest flag in the world (and longer each year!), so as to march with it tomorrow. I saw them yesterday when I passed by with the Rosarigasinos to take pictures. There were still people at the Memorial, listening to a guide narrating the life of Manuel Belgrano, at 8 PM, just as I returned there after a tour of Rosario's historical cupolas. I was tired and freezing, but the old ladies in scarves listening to the guide were just warming up.

17 June 2007

Out of gas

One of the days we hoped would never come has arrived. This country may be full of problems, but it's always been prodigal, and we've always been accustomed to waste. Oh, not waste of money, necessarily, especially when half the population is still officially poor or very close to it, but our abundant natural resources have always been enough to throw around. We've never had (that I remember) a long drought or a widespread animal plague threatening our supply of food; we haven't been involved in any war that demanded us to carefully mind what we consume; we've always had plenty of fuel to heat ourselves, power our cars, and propel our industries.

Well, if this isn't the first toll of the bell signaling the Day of Reckoning for Argentina's Age of Waste, I don't know what it is.

Industries have been suffering scheduled cuts of their natural gas supply for several years in the months of peak consumption. These are industries working "interruptible contracts", which means they're supplied gas but have agreed with the supplier that the flow can be stopped at certain times. A few weeks ago, natural gas was cut to some other industries as well. Days ago, fuel stations in Buenos Aires received the order to stop selling Compressed Natural Gas. Almost the same order came to Rosario's fuel stations this weekend: do not sell CNG except in cases of emergency, or sell only through one pipe.

This is not so dramatic, you might say. It's been very cold, we don't have reserves, we don't have appropriate infrastructure, we're accustomed not to care about fuel. But it's not been so cold — just over or just below zero degrees in the main urban centers; we have some reserves, and we could build the infrastructure in no time; we only need to be more aware of what we spend. Yet, the cold cannot be remedied, our reserves are not high, and nobody seems to be building infrastructure for gas extraction and delivery. Some say we have natural gas reserves to last until 2012 or 2016, but it's a well-known fact that the last remains of reserves are not as easy or cheap to extract. With an industrial energy matrix designed to use more natural gas than anything else, with more than 1.4 million vehicles running on cheap CNG (more than any other country in the world both in relative and in absolute numbers), and a culture of irresponsible waste that cannot be changed by merely pointing at alarming figures, what are we going to do?

I was going to go out yesterday night. I didn't, in part because it was very cold and I was tired and the gang had no firm plans ("Let's go somewhere and get some booze"), but then also I knew I would have trouble getting back home. Catching a bus after 1 AM is like hitting the jackpot, and taxis, which never abound, were fewer than usual. Why? Because most taxis run on CNG, and at night they can't just park in a busy stop and wait for passengers to come by; they need to get out and drive around the city and load CNG every now and then, and if possible, keep the heat running. Most would rather stay at home. I've endured the experience of fruitlessly waiting for either a taxi or a bus to come, at night, in less-than-safe corners, with sub-zero temperatures, for an hour or more. I'm too old for that; these days it's either a quick and comfortable ride home, or nothing.

Fortunately nobody's speaking of rationing gas supply to homes, except in the negative. We all know what rationing would mean, mere months before the elections. That's reason to be truly frightened — if this is now, what will they do after our vote is safely again in the far future?

15 June 2007

National pride

Is it an inferiority complex? Is it a need to justify ourselves? Why do we Argentinians need to look for approval from abroad? Do we secretly consider ourselves less than the rest of the world? Good questions, I'd say, even if they're mine. They're not all mine — I've spoken to many people who wonder like this. The latest cause, for me at least: the fuss about the San Antonio Spurs winning its fourth NBA title.

I've never understood why people get passionate about sports. I must lack a gene or something. I can get passionate about a lot of things, I can even get some thrill from a good sports match, but drooling over teams' and individual athletes' performance is for me akin to the adoration of dogs for their masters. (You can tell I'm a cat person from that, too.) So back to San Antonio, why the fuss? Why, because it's an Argentine team!

The San Antonio Spurs have two Argentinians playing for them, Emanuel Ginóbili and Fabricio Oberto. Nice people, no doubt, and very good at what they do. They deserve praise for their athletic prowess. But they don't play in Argentina. They don't live in Argentina, or pay taxes in Argentina, or lend their talents to an Argentine team. They're expats. They've chosen to go for the best play, for the good money and for the fame abroad. They don't contribute at all with Argentina's wellbeing... Well, they do donate 1/1000 of their multimillion-dollar earnings to Argentine charities and foundations and things like that — but then so does Bill Gates, and he's like the devil to everyone. Do we need to throw a party when the Spurs win? Ginóbili and Oberto play well because they trained for it, not because they're Argentinians. Their glory isn't shared with us. What on Earth are cheering about?

We're always unduly happy when one of our compatriots is at least partly responsible for doing something spectacular before the whole world. That should be a clear measure of our self-esteem. Ask any Argentinian what we've done for the world. "We invented the ballpoint pen" will be among the first answers, if it's not the first. Well, a Hungarian named László Bíró invented it; he moved to Argentina and (after many efforts caused by the Argentine bureaucracy) he got a patent and sold a lot of them — to the British Royal Air Force. What else? "We got some Nobel Prizes." The last one, in Medicine/Physiology, was César Milstein — who was Argentinian, unlike Bíró. He was a typical outstanding product of an Argentine university: studied hard, learned a lot, and after graduating, he moved to Cambridge, where he could research in peace and get paid properly, and stayed there until he died.

Examples abound. It's not that Argentina hasn't contributed to the world at all; it's world-famous glamorous people we lack, with the exception of Che Guevara (a bit stale by now) and possibly Diego Maradona (but overweight addicts are not glamorous anymore after Elvis). We make do with inventors and hard-working scholars, but we want more. We want to show the world we're fabulous, and we want to believe it ourselves. The latter is more difficult; we battle against reality every day, and our media are glad to help, cheering us up whenever something remotely connected to us gives us a chance to borrow a spark of glory. If you've heard the Argentine ego is so high you can commit suicide by jumping from the top of it, think twice.

13 June 2007


Public works galore! I hope this isn't just pre-electoral advertising cum wishful thinking. Not only is a national route to be built between Santo Tomé (near Santa Fe City) and San Francisco, in the border of Córdoba Province, but also the national government is going to pay 300 million pesos to widen our own Avenida Circunvalación by one lane.

Circunvalación means "going around", more as in "doing a detour around". Its a mostly raised two-lane avenue that starts in the south of the city (bordering Villa Gobernador Gálvez) and does a less-than-semicircular sector around most of the urbanized area of Rosario (first west, then north, then east). It ends up there joining the roads that go to the northern metropolitan area and also sends an arm over the river, in the form of the Rosario-Victoria Bridge. It was planned to be (and used to be) like Avenida General Paz in Buenos Aires, but it was inside the municipal jurisdiction. Some neighbourhoods (like Fisherton) were outside from the outset; others spilled out.

Circunvalación must also be a textbook example of a jurisdictional conflict. It's 29 km of road that nobody likes to maintain, with 40,000 vehicles per day. Since it's peripheric and most of it inside poor, dangerous neighbourhoods, there's no popular pressure (from "important" people) to keep it safe. Being formally part of a national road, it should get maintenance (at least filling the potholes) from the national state, or more specifically, the Dirección Nacional de Vialidad (don't ask what vialidad means; it has to do with vías — a fancy way of saying "roads"). The lights and lampposts are vandalized or stolen all the time, but in this case (and by the same regulations) it's the municipal government that has to replace them. The municipality doesn't pay attention to it, in part because it has no money or human resources to change dozens of high-yield lamps a month, least of all guard them so they're not broken or stolen again. And finally, guess who's really in charge of keeping the vandals away? The Santa Fe provincial police. Yes — the ones whence the "fat cop" stereotype came from.

Trying to get these three states to work together and in coordination is like having a cat asking a wolf to cooperate with an elephant to hunt an eagle. They're all very busy and they don't like each other. We the people, in case you were wondering, are the fleas... We mean a lot to the cat, less so to the wolf, and almost nothing to the elephant. Let us hope we can still get the elephant a bit itchy.

12 June 2007

When the carrot doesn't work

I've always maintained that draconian measures, when it comes to saving lives, should be the norm in a country like Argentina, where breaking the law is a national sport and a source of pride. In this case, traffic laws.

You will remember I took the time to post about this several times. Well, I still think a person who blocks half the street with a vehicle just because s/he couldn't be bothered to park correctly deserves to be flogged in public (figuratively? I guess). But that's hardly dangerous. Skipping a red light is. The good news is that punishment is working. Thanks to a system of several automatic cameras that can take a shot of your car when you pass by a traffic light, and send you a fine afterwards, the number of red light violations has decreased greatly.

In 2001, after the first cameras were installed by the Municipality in mid-2000, an average of 40 violations were detected per day by each camera. In 2006, the number went down to 19. As of today, there are six (or seven, according to the newspaper that covers the news) cameras, in black-and-white and in colour, located in strategic places in Rosario's main streets.

Some people complain that the cameras take pictures even when the car is not in violation. The authorities explain that this is part of the normal software procedure for speed checks. Obviously, if you're passing a green light, you won't get a fine. Doubting the system is OK, of course, but this reminds me of those other people who complained that there were automatic speed radars in some interurban roads — they said they were like a trap, designed to get money from the drivers. Duh, if you aren't overspeeding, the radar won't catch you!

The head of Spain's traffic authority, Pere Navarro Olivella, visited Rosario recently, and basically said what I've been saying: "Traffic security is [both] awareness and repression." Spain, like Argentina, had a horrific record of deaths by traffic accidents, but unlike Argentina as a whole, it did what had to be done, implementing harsher punishments as well as awareness campaigns.

Traffic accidents have decreased in Rosario because people now know they will be punished (they already knew traffic violations were dangerous — they just didn't care). I don't own a car, so I haven't experienced it myself, but everybody I know who has a car is genuinely (and appropriately) terrified of taking it out if they're planning to drink (or have already drunk) so much as a glass of beer. Municipal inspectors with breath analyzers guard all the major streets, and the least a drunken driver can expect, if caught, is being forced to pay a costly bribe (yes, this is Argentina after all). There's a good chance your car will be confiscated on the spot. I understand that, if you're not drunk but only slightly over the blood alcohol limit, the inspectors will just tell you to stop and stay where you are until you've sobered up, before doing another test.

Seatbelts are also checked — I remember not ten years ago nobody used them, and now all my car-endowed friends wear it casually, and make me wear it.

Now we only have to wait for the next generation of drivers to be raised like that...

11 June 2007

Boat tour

I went on a tour boat last Saturday! The venerable Barco Ciudad de Rosario I looks like new and it's very well kept. It does a couple of tours a day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, departing from the former Fluvial Station (in front of the Flag Memorial). I remember going on the boat when I was a child once or twice, and then about six or seven years ago when an Argentine expat friend came from Germany to visit the old hometown. Back then I don't remember having so much fun. Saturday was different for at least three reasons: one, I had a beautiful companion (if not very talkative); two, the weather was nice as well; three, I had my camera with me, so I could indulge in my photographic vice.

The boat is medium-sized, with an open air terrace and a smaller open space on the prow, plus another open deck beneath that, and a closed space at the bottom. The guide is informative, highlighting different parts of the tour, and the music changes accordingly.

So me and Miss Enigmatic Orient paid ten pesos, climbed on the boat and waited for a while, until it was departure time (2:30 PM). It was hot under the sun, only mitigated a bit by this incredible fog we've been having at all times for like a week (not so much as in Buenos Aires, but noticeable). The boat finally left, headed for the islands, and then an old lady somewhere decided to get sick and the boat had to turn back and leave her and her worried folks on dry land. Off again we went, and once we reached the islands, the boat entered an arm of the river and then another. We saw many people in kayaks, canoes, sailboats, and motorboats; houses on wooden pillars, cows pleasantly grazing on the wild grass in tiny islets, and many, many tree tops coming out of the water, since the river hasn't gone down to the pre-flood levels. The islanders waved at us, and other boats passed by.

We exited the last arm of the river right in front of the Rosario-Victoria Bridge and went near it, passing under its shadow. I'd never been there myself. There were a few tourists, I guess, that had actually never seen any part of the bridge up close, so there were ohs and ahs all around. It's a great piece of architecture.

The boat then turned round and took us to the main course of the Paraná, along the northern coast of Rosario, and then the downtown. There are many things you can't see from land: old piers, rusty cranes, crumbling storehouses.

Well, all in all I took 120 pictures (including some nice skylines) and I spent the whole afternoon thinking in Japanese, so it was all amusing and educational at the same time. I'm still wondering what she got from it. After we disembarked we climbed along Córdoba St. and ended up in front of the Cathedral... right when the Archbishop was celebrating the open-air Corpus Christi mass. Really scary — lots of fervorous Catholics with banners and standards, chanting and clapping, and many of them young, too. Felt as if I could be burned at the stake at any moment.

So that was my day, and a very good one it was. If you come to Rosario, be sure to do this tour, or you'll be missing a lot.

07 June 2007

Politics against the people

It's been a couple of days... I'm doing some programming-for-hire during the afternoon, so I don't have the amount of spare time I'd like to have to craft long detailed posts. And the office has been busy too. So that's why. I promise (more to myself than to anyone else, because I know I'm a procrastinator) that I'll try to stick to one post a day during weekdays.

I was thinking of commenting on the ridiculous, half-childish, half-brutish behaviour of president Kirchner and his minions regarding Mauricio Macri's triumph last weekend, but there's no need — you can watch K's tirades in all their inarticulate muck-racking glory anytime you want, as he's on it all day. As much as I dislike Macri from the bottom of my guts (and the deceptively nice Iron Lady on a wheelchair that accompanies him), I'm beginning to think he's not that a terrible thing to happen. Buenos Aires can surely bear four years of plutocracy, and after that eventually porteños will either learn or repeat history, or maybe (just maybe) Macri in power will turn out not to be a horrible mistake. In the context of a local election in a district that is not really troubled, Filmus's apocalyptic warnings about a clash of ideologies is exaggerated to say the least.

But that's not what I was going to comment on. Although I did. As I said, I've been busy at the office. Yesterday, for a change, I did some fieldwork; office's Number Two and I went to Granadero Baigorria to check on a healthcare center. Now the usual idea of what a public healthcare center is like is a shabby building with workers either willing and desperately trying to do their work without basic resources, or (more commonly) undermotivated, accustomed to doing nothing, and exempt from control and punishment by their powerful union. (This description works for most of the public administration, of course.)

What we found was a group, a team, of people doing their work earnestly and diligently with modest resources, in a decent, clean building, and willing to get help to make it all better. They had everything in order, though most in dead-tree form; the computer was old but OK. The director was a nurse. The administrative staff (two women) were volunteers — members of the community who work there for free, or as we say, ad honorem, though they didn't receive any formal honours. One of them, a lady in her sixties, kept about 4,700 patient records on an Excel file; she didn't know how to do counts and filters, so I taught her. Prior to that, when the authorities needed a count of (for example) how many female patients under 15 are served by the health center, she needed to manually count them.

The authorities don't know or don't want to know that these women work hard, for free, or that they need a computer course the state should pay for, or that they would glady do a much better job if they had the tools, or that most of the structure of the state that feeds their incompetent asses is supported by hard-working people who don't get what they deserve.

Right at the entrance of the health center, a bit dusty because the street is not paved, a large painted banner read "Welcome, Rafael Bielsa". The Peronist party, which paid for this banner promoting Buenos Aires Province deputy Bielsa's campaign for governor of Santa Fe (!), is also the one in power, the one that should have paid for those two women's salaries, the one that campaigns to stay in power by noting the province has a surplus and hasn't raised taxes, the one that doesn't spend that surplus on, let's say, public works to keep the province from flooding whenever it rains more than usual. Politics is not nice, we all know that, right?

04 June 2007

The hard numbers of abortion

No less than 460,000 pregnancies are terminated each year in Argentina, most of them illegally, many under unsanitary conditions. One every eight women who abort ends up going to a hospital to deal with complications. Around 100 women a year die from abortion complications — mostly poor women, since getting a safe abortion in secret is easy but expensive.

Seventy-eight percent of women from the three largest cities in Argentina support the decriminalization of abortion up to some degree. Ninety-one percent believe that abortion should be accessible free of charge.

Rosario was the first city in the country to implement a responsible parenthood and reproductive health programme (in 1996). Santa Fe Province passed a law for that in 2001, which started working in 2002. The national state only had one in 2002, that was enforced for the first time more than a year afterwards. In 2003, Minister of Health Ginés González García said he'd support the decriminalization of abortion, and a Catholic bishop called for him to be given the biblical "millstone around the neck" treatment. A week ago, a group of pro-choice NGOs presented Congress with a project of law to legalize all abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

Abortion and its legal issues have never, ever, been discussed in any form in the National Congress.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and many are rising to voice it. It seems, however, that nobody in the high places is willing to debate those opinions, to speak their minds freely and openly present their facts and arguments. I think that silent indifference is the worst that can happen.

02 June 2007

Fueling the crisis

The producers and distributors blame it on the weather being so cold; the government says it's lack of investment and speculation and repeat that, again, there's no energy crisis. But this is not enough. People are having power cuts, sometimes lasting days, because there's not enough natural gas and diesel to power the generators and because the generators are overwhelmed by the demand. Natural gas is being denied to drivers, or sold by small quotas, and now even the compressed natural gas (CNG) cylinders that many people use to heat their homes and cook are difficult to get, and fuel oil in the south of Santa Fe is rationed.

I don't have a car, I don't have to put fuel into any machine to harvest anything, and luckily I haven't had blackouts at home. I have natural gas delivered normally through the pipes, and I've used it almost continuously since last week to get some warmth. Yet I'm hearing complaints on the radio, from several parts of the city, and I'm wondering how much this luck (because this is plainly luck and nothing more) will last.

Everybody passes the blame on to someone else, yet everybody's right in a sense: each of the accused is guilty of part of the problem...

01 June 2007


(This was supposed to be posted yesterday, but ADSL was down all day at home, thanks to Telecom's noisy telephone lines.)

Rosario has a new hospital! Last Wednesday the city unveiled a new emergency hospital (Hospital de Emergencias Clemente Álvarez, HECA) that is, they say, the most modern in Latin America. (Coverage: La Capital, Rosario3, Rosario/12, El Ciudadano, Télam, La Nación, Municipality of Rosario).

There's actually an original HECA in a different place, but the building is old and has so many problems that most of it is going to be demolished once the new HECA is working, 90 days from now. Right now, the staff is getting familiar with the new layout and testing the equipment.

Getting a replacement for the old emergency hospital was a long-awaited dream for the municipal government. The works started in 1997... and then, like everything else, they stopped, as everybody's plans went down the drain. Argentina effectively lost four years or more to the recession and the economic crash, so it is only now, ten years afterwards, that HECA is ready.

The building is truly impressive, but the special touch is the light. The idea was making it more like a resting place, where patients can see the progression of day and night directly, and less like a closed box where sick people are stored. So the façade is all made of transparent glass. Besides the aesthetics, though, this is a modern hospital with top-notch equipment and much bigger than the old one: 155 beds (23 more than the old hospital), a covered area of 22,000 m² (more than double the original building), and RMI and CT scanners — and, following public health policy, accessible to everybody, no matter the cost. The hospital plus the equipment cost 45 million pesos (about US$15 million).

The location is also important: it's right on one of the city's main arterial streets (Pellegrini Avenue), a couple of blocks from its intersection with another major road (Francia Avenue). Since the HECA serves emergencies, quick access from the city and the metropolitan area is needed (most of the graver traffic accidents in Greater Rosario will end up there).

I'll leave the political gossip for another time... Suffice it to say that, while the Socialist municipal government proudly showed the new hospital to the media and the people, the Peronist provincial government was trying to explain away why pharmaceutic companies have cut provincial hospitals' credit and now demand instant payment in cash.

Also, no photos on this one for now. Check the links; some have nice pictures and even videos. Yesterday it was overcast and unpleasantly cold, so I chickened out of my original plan to go there after work and grab some shots of the hospital's façade. I suspect it takes a sunny day to look pretty, too.