31 March 2008

Vacations in Córdoba: Day 2

Our second day in Córdoba was spent fully in the city. We had a handy tourist map, with the must-see spots, so we started as early as we could to try to visit all of them. Córdoba's most famous touristic show is the Jesuit Block, an old section of town where all the major historical buildings are preserved (although they're not all strictly built during the period of Jesuit dominance). So we headed there.

While walking we spotted a couple of majestic church spires some blocks away, so we diverted our course and ended up before the stunning beauty of the Church of the Sacred Heart of the Capuchin Fathers.

Columnas, columnas (by pablodf) Confusión arquitectónica (by pablodf)

(I'm only showing a few pictures here because Córdoba-based photographers with more time and/or better equipment have had plenty of opportunities to collect photos of it that surpass my humble attempts. See La otra catedral de Córdoba: Iglesia de los Capuchinos at SkyscraperCity, which BTW has a large community of Argentine architecture, history and urbanism buffs.)

Being Holy Friday, there were no celebrations in progress (quick note for those without a Catholic education: God doesn't appreciate that you celebrate while His Son is nailed to a cross), so we could get inside and take pictures freely.

Before that, however, we got diverted from our diversion by the musical water fountain of the Paseo del Buen Pastor, which I'm told is a new venture: a preserved church, a former women's prison turned into a modern art gallery with semi-transparent façade, and a little shopping mall, all together in the same triangular half-block wedged between a street and a diagonal avenue, plus an animated "dancing waters" show [click on the link for video].

Paseo del Buen Pastor (by pablodf)

I'm rather convinced that this was an attempt on the part of Córdoba's municipality to copy the dancing waters of Parque Independencia in Rosario. Whatever the case, they got it OK.

It was noon, so good pictures were hard to get. We were hot and thirsty, so after visiting the Paseo and the Capuchins' church we walked around and found a shady spot to prepare mate and eat something. We were struck by the troublesomeness of this simple enterprise.

Córdoba City is big. It's an old city which has grown and turned into a metropolis over long centuries, growing into this size (while Rosario went from an insignificant village to a major city in less than 50 years). It's got wide multi-lane one-way avenues, two- and three- and four-way crossings with a complex traffic coordination, wide sidewalks. Parts of it are simply ill-suited for people on foot — rather designed for fast vehicles.

Avenidas de Córdoba

We missed the tree-lined narrow streets of Rosario and its many small green spaces. It took us forever to find a place where the sun didn't scorch our backs, and it was sitting on an old bench in a square with too little of anything in the way of vegetation, amid the roar of nearby traffic.

We wandered a bit more and found the Colegio Nacional de Monserrat, a school founded in 1687 that has had some notable characters among its pupils. Parts of the building are a museum (showcasing old documents and scientific instruments), but in fact the whole college is a historical building which you can visit outside of class hours. It was around two in the afternoon, and the streets were white hot; by contrast the interior of this ancient place was cool and peaceful. We took ages exploring all of its hidden corners.

El patio del Monserrat

We came back to the hostel and took a nap. At night we were supposed to meet Adolfo, our photographer contact, and some guys from the Córdoba-based Viernes Foto Club group. We agreed to meet at the Paseo del Buen Pastor, where a Via Crucis was being staged.

Sure enough, we met Adolfo and VFC's people, and after some pictures and a visit to a historical house cum museum, we went to a bar called Johnny-B-Good, where they usually gather for a beer or two. I'd been feeling a bit down and sleepy, and had had a headache since before getting to Córdoba, so I skipped the beer and restrained my hunger. By the time I was feeling a little more upbeat, we had to leave. It was getting very late and we had a trip to the Quebrada del Condorito scheduled for the next morning.

28 March 2008

Vacations in Córdoba: Day 1

(As of this time, I'm neither ready nor willing to write a definitive statement about the situation in the countryside. So I'll begin with the story of my vacations.)

We arrived in Córdoba City after a six-hour trip from Rosario. It was a very good thing that we'd booked a room in a hostel located only two blocks from the bus station, although it was partly uphill (Córdoba is like that). We settled there and went to Parque Sarmiento, a large stretch of urban park zone nearby.

It wasn't a pretty sight. Compared to the exuberant foliage one can find in Rosario's parks, this one was rather sparse. There were many stretches of dirt, rather than grass. We took a winding stone path and found it stank of urine and was blocked by garbage. There was no signage for the visitors. In general it seemed like a picture of lack of care. We finally came to a less depressing view, an artificial lake with nice white bridges and balconies. On the shore were a group of bullyish, hungry ducks, and some biguás (Neotropic Cormorants) on the stones in the middle of the lake.

Patitos del horror (by pablodf) Biguás al sol (by pablodf)

The birds were the only highlights of this visit to the park, which, I admit, is much larger than that and must have better views... somewhere else.

That was the morning. Later, and after a nap, we walked down (actually it was up) to the historical core of the city. Córdoba was founded in the 16th century and has some stunning colonial buildings left, mostly religious, mostly built by the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were everywhere at the time (it isn't difficult to see why they were ultimately expelled by the Spanish Crown — they had too much power).

Iglesia de Santa Teresa de Jesús (by pablodf)

They built for eternity back then — one-meter-thick walls, no mortar.

It was Maundy Thursday, so special masses were being held in some of the churches. We couldn't enter the Cathedral, but we stole into the ceremony at the pink-and-yellow church of St. Therese [pictured above] and stood there, a drop of godlessness in a pool of... well, mostly incense. Now seriously — it was truly mesmerizing, and I mean it in more than the anthropologically detached way, to watch the ceremony. Incense, candles, slow chanting, the subdued atmosphere inside the temple was effective; I could feel it, so I imagine for someone that considers this betrayal-death-resurrection stuff more than a myth it must have been powerful, overwhelming.

At the other side of the same block, along a narrow street/passage, people were beginning to prepare for the commemoration of a much less mythic, much more painful story: the 32nd anniversary of the last coup d'état, which brought to power the bloodiest dictatorship in our history, the perfidly self-styled National Reorganization Process. There was a large board with copies of newspaper clippings leading up to the coup — news bits that for the most part must have been considered mere incidents back then, rather than the ominous preparation for a dark era.

Recortes de historia (by pablodf)

There were also tens of pictures hanging among the old-fashioned lamps in the passage, showing the faces and personal data of local desaparecidos. Against the background of the imposing towers of the Cathedral, I couldn't help feeling the contradiction. The Catholic Church for the most part either stayed silent, and often supported and even encouraged, the military's criminal plans; the archbishop of Córdoba, Raúl Primatesta, played an instrumental role in suppressing ecclesiastical criticism of the government. To this day, human rights organizations don't forget this, as attested by several graffiti.

Tiempo de hacer memoria (by pablodf)

And that was our first day in Córdoba.

26 March 2008

I'm with the farmers, or, see what happens while I'm away

Marisa and I came back from our Easter weekend vacations today. It all went terrific, except the countryside was burning (figuratively) while we were away, and reality eventually caught up with us when we headed back for Rosario. As you must know, agricultural producers are on strike because of the latest increase of the export taxes.

What's happening now is more important than the story of my vacations, so I'll put that off for today and begin by the end. We left Córdoba City on schedule, at 01:30 PM, with only a bit of concern for what we heard on TV about the road blockades put up by the farmers on strike. We headed southeast along the highway and National Route 9, and around 03:00 PM we were stopped near a town called Oliva. Farmers had blocked the way with harvesters and only a trickle of vehicles was allowed through.

Piquete del campo (by pablodf)

We were cleared a few minutes later, and thought it was going to alright from then on. One hour later we arrived in Villa María, our first major stop. The driver got off and announced "We're stopping here for fifteen minutes!" so everybody could get off the bus, stretch their legs, go to the toilet, or whatever. We stayed beside the bus and waited. Twenty-five minutes later the driver came back and told us, "We're not moving from here until further notice." There was a road block that wouldn't allow anybody through, and several buses were held on the road already. Moreover, there seemed to be some tension developing between the farmers and the drivers of the cargo trucks detained by the block. It seemed safer to stay in the bus terminal, where we had basic facilities, rather than in the middle of nowhere outside town.

Varados en Villa María (by pablodf)

Some time afterward, someone said the president was going to give a speech on national TV, hopefully to untangle the mess, put forward some promise, some ideas for compromise, some hint of appeasement that could bring the farmers to dialogue. We waited.

Esperando el discurso (by pablodf)

Sure enough, at about 06:20 PM Presidenta Cristina K appeared. What followed was both the finest piece of oratory and the crappiest piece of diplomacy I'd ever seen. After angering the farmers, then going away on vacation as if nothing happened, she re-appeared and dumped this load of senseless vitriol on them. No sense of humility, no intention to fix the trouble, appease or compromise, no change at all from the standard Kirchnerist babble — self-exaltation of their achievements, denial of their faults, offensive defense, confrontation. What you could expect from an activist, an ideologue, or a legislator defending her party line — certainly not from a president of a country where major roads of the most populated and most productive provinces are being blocked by protesters.

Cristina was surrounded by the usual host of cronies and opportunists, including the governors of two provinces. The ones most involved, however, were not present: Schiaretti of Córdoba and Binner of Santa Fe. Schiaretti, a fervorous Kirchnerist, was being pressed by the local authorities of all the municipalities in the province, some of then openly in favour of the strike. And Binner, a Socialist, had already, if cautiously, established Santa Fe's official stance beside the farmers.

The question is not whether the farmers earn enough, not enough, or too much (whatever that means) . The question is: we produce a lot, the federal government takes a big chunk of it, and none of that money returns. It's used to finance federal spending, a lot of which goes to pay for pseudo-welfare: piquetero organizations affiliated with the government, who serve as shock troops and political meeting filler as appropriate.

Back to Villa María... After Cristina's speech people were extremely upset. I'd let my parents know I was going to be late; now I text-messaged them again, and also my co-workers, since I was supposed to be back at the office at 7 AM the next day. The General Urquiza bus company was a model of bad PR — the drivers didn't notify us properly on their intended course of action, and nobody offered to buy us all a meal, which was the least they could do. So we had something to eat on our own, and got on the bus again.

Other passengers came telling there was a demonstration and cacerolazo in Buenos Aires, and soon we learned the protest had spread. Thousands of people were banging pots and pans and honking their horns in Rosario near the Flag Memorial, and people other than farmers were joining the strike and the protests in Entre Ríos, La Rioja, Mendoza, and even Santa Cruz. The north of Córdoba was practically isolated by multiple road blocks. A group of demonstrators had come close to clashing with Gendarmería at the Hernandarias Tunnel below the Paraná River (between Santa Fe City and Paraná, Entre Ríos).

At the same time we heard of the Kirchnerist piqueteros in Buenos Aires, led by Luis D'Elía, violently assaulting and driving back the peaceful demonstrators at Plaza de Mayo, and a similar incident in Rosario involving a Kirchnerist movement called Libres del Sur. Although they claimed they went there on their own, it's obvious they were sent by the government, which now says they'll use force to remove the pickets if necessary.

In the 1950s, President Juan Domingo Perón co-opted the large unions, organized a corporatist model with control of the heavy industries, attacked the dissident press and the "oligarchy" of the old countryside landowners, and allowed the extreme factions of his multi-faced Justicialist movement to turn into militias, which could be put to use as needed. To this day historians hesitate whether to call this fascism, but we know Perón brought those ideas in after a visit to Mussolini's Italy. The Kirchners have been revisiting that sad story all this time. They haven't managed to silence the press or lead intellectuals into exile, like 20th century Peronism did. But we now know for sure that plain citizens won't be allowed to demonstrate peacefully against government policies in the large cities — not as long as busloads of indoctrinated lumpen and paid-for thugs can be brought in to dissuade them. The Kirchners don't tolerate dissent — you must like them and love them no matter what, or you become automatically the Enemy.

I stayed in the bus listening to the radio, feeling rather gloomy about the general state of the country, and fell asleep late. I woke up a couple of times to false alarms. We left at 7:15 AM, as the first light of dawn appeared.

We had an uneventful trip. I slept on and off, and took pictures of the passing countryside landscape. It all seemed so peaceful! There were no pickets anywhere else, though occasionally you could see traffic stations full of trucks, and other trucks along the sides of the road. As we entered the last part of the highway, somebody volunteered music for the drivers to put on the bus speakers. Some people cheered as we arrived at the bus terminal, at 11:30, almost 22 hours after leaving Córdoba.

19 March 2008

What, vacations again?

Folks, I'm going to Córdoba for the long weekend, so you won't be hearing from me until next Wednesday (at least). I leave this evening at 2 AM, and should be arriving in Córdoba at 8:30.

On principle, I oppose the commemoration of the Easter weekend, a religious holiday, as a public national holiday. But this is a minor issue, really, and I don't mind taking advantage of it for a short trip. What else am I going to do, stay home and medidate on my sins while I watch the two hours of torture of The Passion of the Christ? I'd rather relax somewhere else.

Monday, March 24, is the Day of Memory: the 32nd anniversary of the last coup d'état. This is a serious holiday. Right after Easter, no less!

Córdoba City was founded by Jesuits, and the shadow of the Church are everywhere. Two years ago I went to this same city on Easter weekend, and saw the swarms of priests, monks and nuns in old-style garb, and the flocks of the faithful, going about the imposing building of the Cathedral at the time of mass. This is the seat of the oldest diocese in the country, the same Cathedral where people heard the sermons of Cardinal Raúl Primatesta, Primate of Argentina at the time of the coup, who blessed the military, made a list of domiciles of Catholic teachers and workers available to military intelligence, and delivered "Marxist" priests (who worked with the poor) into the hands of the terrorist state. So it will be interesting to see what events are planned in Córdoba, and whether the two celebrations — the myth of death and resurrection, the true story of hopelessness and ruin of a whole country — interact and influence each other.

Besides Córdoba City, where Marisa and I are going to be greeted by a group of local photographers, I'll be visiting Alta Gracia, the childhood home of Ernesto Che Guevara, and Quebrada del Condorito National Park, where we're told you can have condors fly within reach of your hand.

I'm off now. See you next week!

18 March 2008

Vaccination or "nature"

Did you know there are people who oppose vaccination (especially compulsory vaccination of children, dictated by the state) on ideological grounds? Yes, it sounds like an American thing — a typical result of the reaction between those traditional values of religious fanaticism, redneck anti-government mistrust, and the more recent libertarian "I have a right to do anything" stance. Or something out of the Amish or Jehovah's Witnesses. In fact it's common in Europe, in their case due to a misguided idea that you must "follow the natural ways". So they don't vaccinate their children and don't use antibiotics.

This was all completely exotic to me at first, and to most of my fellow citizens it must be a shock to learn that there are parents who refuse to vaccinate their children in Rosario. These are the European variety, "naturists", people who recognize the existence of disease but prefer to deal with it through "alternative medicine" (there's a reason for the quotes around that — "alternative medicine" is not real medicine).

The bad part is that you don't know of these children until they end up in hospital in advanced stages of common diseases (such as the whooping cough) that have been eradicated from the general population decades ago. The worse part is that they might spread these diseases around them.

Fortunately for the children, judges tend to disagree with the parents.

17 March 2008

Shopping for languages

In case you read Spanish: did you hear about my newest blog, Alerta Religión? It's about the evils of religion and blind faith — seen as causes of intolerance, discrimination, and absurd suffering. Do pay a visit.

I feel like this year is really starting now. Summer's over — there are still hot afternoons but no more of those unbearably hot evenings, and almost always a breeze. Classes are starting, and soon I'll start mine as well.

This year (for the first time since 2004!) it won't be Japanese. I took the plunge and signed for Arabic classes last Friday. The Rosario Arabic School is a little house with an old-fashioned courtyard on Dorrego St., a comparatively quiet part of downtown, two blocks away from my old highschool. The head teacher is the one who founded the school back in 1945 — a respected member of her community, a talented translator, and probably a veritable fountain of history, though a bit hard of hearing.

To tell you the truth I'm not that enthusiastic about Arabic, but only a bit curious. When I started learning Japanese I didn't think about it, I only did it because it was a strange language and I liked how it sounded. As I progressed, I felt I could really learn Japanese, all of it, in time. Then I came to realize I couldn't. That wasn't a problem — I was satisfied with keeping myself at a level I could manage and continue practising and learning bit by bit. But the study schedule wouldn't let me do that, so I quit. Arabic I'm going to start with a different outlook, just checking to see if it goes well with me and perfectly aware that I will drop it the very moment it becomes a chore. It's not like I'm doing it to fill my CV.

I need to call my Japanese school to see when calligraphy classes begin, since they're independent of the rest and I intend to keep practising it, at least until Watanabe-sensei returns to Japan in July (and speaking to sensei and her daughter in class will be language practice, too — something to keep me from forgetting spoken Japanese for a while). And I'll have to check if the Arabic school also offers calligraphy courses. I once read somewhere that Muslims believe calligraphy is an art that God Himself gave us. I don't believe in any gods, but that's got to mean something.

And those are my plans for the end of March. In the meantime, Easter weekend is coming. I'll be leaving on Wednesday night for Córdoba, and back home by Tuesday night the next week. After that it's going to be work and study, no vacations or escapades, for a long time...

14 March 2008

Freedom except where void

From the official website of Reporters sans frontières, English version:

Reporters Without Borders learned last night that UNESCO has withdrawn its patronage for today’s [March 12] Online Free Expression Day. We were notified of the decision by the director of its Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace Division. Defending the move, UNESCO said it gave its patronage for the “principle of this day” but could not support the various demonstrations organised to mark it.
The demonstrations were by and large protests against censorship. There are a number of countries where you can't speak or write against the government or the dominant religion (sometimes those two are one and the same), or else you run the risk of being harassed and having your website or blog or radio station or newsletter shut down, of losing your job, or worse — being punished by legal or illegal means, with jail or a beating or death. The list includes Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

I seriously doubt UNESCO is concerned by the possible reactions of Cuba, Zimbabwe, Tunisia or Burma to RWB's efforts to denounce their record of press freedom violations. This is just a cowardly surrender into self-censorship. This is why so many people think the UN and its agencies are useless bureaucracies.

It's understandable, maybe: China is a communist dictatorship, the most populated country in the world, and it has nuclear weapons; Saudi Arabia is a theocratic dictatorship with the world's largest reserves of oil, and is always working at producing fanatic terrorists in case they're needed anywhere. Iran, about the same, only it's ruled by an anti-American Holocaust denier of a president instead of a pro-American decadent monarchy. And Egypt you can't bother because they keep the other Arab countries in check. But all that aside, what's UNESCO's "Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace Division" for, exactly? What are they doing about those nice abstractions?

13 March 2008

For the photographers: Robert Capa

Last night I got to see a 2003 documentary about the famous photographer Robert Capa, titled Robert Capa: In Love and War. It's a very good exploration of the life of this formidable man, that I knew next to nothing about prior to this. Maybe a bit partial, but then you can't cover a whole life in 90 minutes, least of all such a complex life as Capa's.

The documentary was shown at the Peña Fotográfica Rosarina, and I learned of it through a friend of Marisa's who's a photographer. It was free of charge and anybody could attend, but I felt a bit out of place as I entered the building on Urquiza St. The folks at the Peña are mostly pros or trying to be, and generally they're on the traditional film or the newer digital reflex camp, so they don't commonly mix with us lowly non-reflex users. (I have a bridge camera now, and a couple of my own fellow Rosarigasinos have DSLRs, but still there's an invisible line between us and the Peña's guys.)

Anyway, the environment was friendly enough, and the movie was very nicely done. If you can get it somehow, do yourself a favour and watch it.

12 March 2008

Traffic incidents

One always assumes that, barring the very few intentionally planned homicides and "crimes of passion", people who run over other people with their vehicles are not doing it on purpose in any sense, and traffic accidents are exactly that — bad things which just happen. All too human mistakes. Bad luck. Randomness. Things going bad at the wrong time.

In Argentina, things seem to "go bad" all the time, so our traffic accident record is appalling. Each Monday, on TV, we get the tally of the weekend's road casualties alongside the football match scores. The tally is never zero, or even close to it; often it's in the double digits. Sometimes it's so bad it makes the international news.

In our law there are these two main alternative views of death (I guess this must be the case in other places as well, though the names and details are sure to vary) that apply to traffic accidents. If you killed the other person on purpose — e.g. you drove as carelessly as to make certain that you'd eventually hit someone, or else (as in most cases) you killed the other person truly by accident. You're still guilty in the latter case (unless the victim jumped in front of the car or something like that), but the legal consequences aren't as great as in the other scenario.

Most drivers don't want to run over people and kill them in the streets; yet most drivers in Argentina often drive as if they didn't mind killing themselves and as many other human beings in the process. At the very least they bypass traffic laws that they deem unimportant, put too much trust in their driving skills, and justify themselves with the lamest excuse in the book: "everyone else does it". Think about it, and you'll find it very difficult to continue referring to those dead and maimed human beings as victims of "traffic accidents".

At last the law is doing something about this. A prosecutor is asking the court to change the accusation against a driver who hit a motorbiker and killed him, last November, in Casilda (45 km west of Rosario). The driver was being investigated under the charge of homicidio culposo (that's more-or-less involuntary manslaughter), but the prosecutor wants him to be charged with homicidio doloso (which implies a degree of willfulness, and stops short of plain murder). This is a new one — and it might establish a precedent. Jurisprudence is not as important in our system (which is one of civil law, rather than the common law system of Britain and former British colonies), but a precedent like this cannot be dismissed.

And just what did the driver do? He drove his pickup truck, at about 9 AM on Sunday, down an avenue, at over 70 km/h. He hit a motorbike he couldn't not have seen, and dragged it (and its driver) more than 20 meters. He didn't try to dodge, and he didn't brake. He was in a hurry because he had a punctured tire and wanted to get it fixed before it was completely flat. And he was reported to have been under the influence of alcohol at around 7 AM. We don't know if the report was accurate, because he didn't allow the police to test him — which made his troubles worse.

We simply can't allow ourselves to keep this "shit happens" stance regarding traffic. Motor vehicles are potentially lethal weapons; and as with weapons, it holds true that "cars don't kill people; people do". Maybe this guy gets the sentence he deserves. What I really hope, though, is that this serves a purpose. Let careless drivers think twice about what they do, and the rest of us should stop thinking of traffic accidents as something akin to the weather. They're not random, and neither (as many seem to believe) is a tendency to recklessness embedded in our genes. "We Argentinians are like that, plain and simple", "there's nothing to do about it", "this country will never change" is bullshit.

10 March 2008

A wedding (and no funeral)

Beso frente a las columnasSusana and Facundo, two of the members of my photographers' group (the Rosarigasinos), got married last Saturday. They've basically lived together for ages, but they surely felt this was a major (even if symbolical) step. Wanting only a small ceremonial gathering where all their relatives and friends could attend, they got married in a small church in their neighbourhood, with a minimum of fancy arrangements.

From what I could gather, both would've rather skipped the church altogether, but unfortunately there's not any other comparable single place where you can get together all the people you love. So we all had to sit down and listen to the priest babble about Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Christian duties of husband and wife, and the absolute requirement for them to bring forth as much Catholic offspring as possible.

I went around the temple taking pictures (the newlyweds, of course, didn't even think of hiring a photographer — they had about a dozen of them doing that work eagerly for free), so I avoided listening to most of the priest's patter. Marisa, who's no more a believer than I am, cried a little (this she had announced before the ceremony as being very likely to happen) and chose to grab a few pictures from her pew, since her camera is not that good to get indoor shots without the insidious flash, and the altar was already crowded. After that we hugged and kissed the newlyweds, and some threw rice at them as tradition demands. (The lady who swept the entrance of the church wasn't happy — Marisa got scolded for her fervorous rice-showering.)

After church we proceeded to Parque Independencia, which has some nice landscaping — a typical place for photo sessions of newlywed couples and quinceañeras, with an artificial lake, a white bridge, colourful trees, a row of columns, and a flower calendar (updated every day by the park's gardeners). The day was gray, with raindrops falling here and there as if ashamed of their solitariness.

Photo advice: a cloudy sky is good for this kind of event photography, because you usually have diffuse lighting coming from all angles, instead of the warmer but harsh light that comes from an unmitigated sun. Strong point-like light sources (e.g. the sun, but also a flash in the darkness) give faces a sharper look, with darker shadows and possibly blown-out highlights. You usually don't want that when you're doing portraits or weddings. The only thing you have to mind in cloudy days is the light coming from the background. You can (and probably should) use fill-in flash to compensate. That is, force your camera to use the flash even it says the amount of light is enough, so that the flash "fills in" the parts of the subject that lie in the shadow. Combine this with a "cloudy day" white balance, and you're set — better than sunlight.

Feliz pareja III - En el parque

07 March 2008

1 in 200

0.5%One in two hundred. That's my (admittedly rough) estimate of how many people believe INDEC is reporting the true inflation rate for February — which turns out to be, according to them, exactly 1 in 200, or as those math snobs say, 0.5%.

The good news is that, according to one economist consulted by La Nación, last month's Consumer Price Index "doesn't seem as fudged as in other cases". Let's rejoice.

Food and drink did rise a bit more — 1.1%. That's just 11 more pesos. It's not much, and now that tomatoes are cheap (in real life, not in Kirchnerland) you might actually be eating and drinking a lot more for that modest extra amount.

No more potatoes for youNot only that, but with the soon-to-be-implemented seasonal substitution sampling method, inflation will be magically reduced further! The method works by ignoring large price variations — replacing the varying items with others of the same category, whatever that means. Take, for example, potatoes. Suppose they're suddenly up by 15%. That's a lot. That has to be anomalous. It must be because it rained a lot — or not enough — or maybe the Chinese suddenly developed a taste for fries. So you take potatoes out of your statistical sample for this month's inflation rate. You can do without potatoes for a month, can't you?

The true experts note that, once you begin tampering with the inflation rate, the whole statistical edifice has to crumble. Those GDP growth figures, for example, say nothing if you don't factor in inflation to get the real growth. Gloating over the nominal GDP figures, like the Kirchners love to do on every conceivable occasion, is like coming from the gym and congratulating oneself on gaining weight when most of it is fat rather than muscle.

And then the fudging of the inflation rate is not only obvious if you go to the supermarket, but can be easily inferred by looking at the (presumably untouched) figures of tax revenue. If the VAT brings in 38% more than last year, and people are buying more or less the same amount of things and there aren't a lot more people buying and you haven't caught a massive amount of tax evaders and forced them to pay the tax, then it's obvious that most of that increase is due to rising prices.

Since INDEC is irrelevant, most people who care are now working with private estimates, which produce rates on the order or two to three times the official figures. By now it's clear that INDEC is not doing statistics but propaganda, so I think we should rename it to something more meaningful. The acronym is so math-geekily cool I wouldn't want to change it, but I have an idea to preserve the initials... Let's call it Instituto Nacional de Distorsión de Estadísticas a medida de Cristina.

06 March 2008

A bullet train through our pockets

Remember when I told you about the cost of the "bullet train" proposed for the Buenos Aires–Rosario route? Many people already felt it was a lot. Enough to rebuild a good part of the national railway grid, remember?

Surprise, surprise: the actual amount of money involved has shot up to four times what I reported! Not only do we have to pay $1.3 billion for this white elephant, we also have to issue Treasury bonds for about $4 billion as a guarantee for the loan that Alstom, the winner of the bid, will have to get from the Société Générale bank. No-one, and I mean no-one, told us about these extra billions up until now — when it's too late to back out. Congress must authorize the spending. (All who believe Congress will have a serious, informed, non-partisan debate about this, raise your hands. How many hands do I count? I thought so.)

And note I say "we" because that's us getting indebted through our government, and that's our money being spent. Indebting a country with much more pressing needs to pay for a railway where a trip will cost twice as much as going by plane, a train that cannot possibly be profitable, a train that will be given for exploitation to the government's Big Business friends and kept running through subsidies — again our money.

04 March 2008

People we should be free of by now

Ah. Just when we Latin Americans thought we had shaken off these kinds of governments for good, up pops Mad Hugo, and not content with subjecting us all to his rambling anti-imperialist speeches, he's now threatening to bring war back to our subcontinent.

It just doesn't get more magic-realist than this. A big faraway country run by a religious lunatic under the command of a huge military-industrial complex orders a small country, half-owned by drug-trafficking terrorists and the other half devoted to coffee and banana plantations, to serve as proxy on its War on Drugs and Terror and Marxism, and said small country sends people into another country to kill the terrorist negotiator while he's at work, possibly about to agree on the release of long-held prisoners, at which a fourth, neighbouring country, full of oil reserves and run by a populist quasi-dictator with a fetish for red shirts, feels threatened, cuts diplomatic ties, and sends ten battalions to the border.

And our intrepid Presidenta, who is very well-spoken and tries to project an image of herself as a true stateswoman and always has something to say, says nothing about the madman in the red shirt.

Mind you, this is not a matter of right or left. Latin America has had its internal struggles, even full-blown wars, but mostly we've been free of that for a long time. Since Chile, belatedly, rid itself of its murderer-in-chief in the 1990s, no major country in this part of the world has fallen under a dictatorship. Strong-fisted governments, governments where Congress and the judiciary are a joke, governments with almost no accountability, yes — but not dictatorships. It's usually only plain dictators who can plunge a whole country into armed conflict these days.

And more importantly, a consensus has slowly emerged — an agreement among all the larger countries that, whenever continental stability is threatened, everybody will step in to defuse the conflict. Like a family where the big brothers don't let the little ones hurt themselves. But then Hugo came along, a big brother on his own right, and started behaving half like a spoiled brat, half like a grown-up on drugs. An intervention is in order, perhaps?

Chavez Kirc Lula141598.jpg

02 March 2008

Alerta Religión

I've just opened a new blog in Spanish, Alerta Religión, to deal with religion-related news of the kind I mentioned last Friday on my first post of Religion Watch.

The format is unlikely to stay the same, mainly because my online news sources for this are in Spanish, so I can just direct Alerta's Spanish-speaking readership there, while here I must at least translate and explain a bit more.

Some search engine bait... Alerta Religión: Recolectando entre las noticias diarias los resultados de la intolerancia y de la fe sin razón. Para los que no entienden cómo personas normales, sanas, se vuelven idiotas insensatos cuando algo se cruza con su religión.