07 November 2008

No more trams for Rosario

I was going to write about Obama's victory (and I will eventually), but I just spotted a bit of bad news over here on Rosario3.com. On February 2007 I was happy to report that the mayor's trip to San Francisco had resulted in a conversation with that city's Rosario-born Secretary of Transport and an agreement to mediate in the donation of a fleet of old trolleybuses from Vancouver, Canada (negotiations for which had started before).

Unfortunately, although the trams were almost free (a symbolic amount, as I understand), we had to pay for the shipping. Bringing 80 buses from the opposite end of the planet costs a lot. The national government promised to help us with 2.5 million pesos, but the money never arrived, and the municipality of Rosario is really strapped for cash. So the trams are going to the city of Mendoza, which could afford them (being a provincial capital has its advantages, I guess). They left Vancouver by boat on November 4 and are now headed for the port of Valparaíso, Chile.

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but I must say this: it's a shame how local governments are always poor, how provincial administrations have lost control of their own financial resources, and how the national government takes more and more money from us without our representatives doing anything about it. I'm not advocating for the kind of independence from the federal administration seen in the United States; that would be impossible because some provinces, left alone, would simply be inviable. And some things (such as large public works) might be better left to the federal state. But for a city of 1 million to be unable to disburse some US$7 million to take advantage of such a fantastic opportunity is terrible.

I suppose I must be happy for Mendoza, a beautiful city and one I love... but I'm just very frustrated.


  1. Below is a comment I received by e-mail. With the author's permission, I'll paste it here and then add my reply.

    Dear Pablo,

    A friend who is living in Argentina sent me the link to your site. When I read your article "Our illegitimate debt", I was delighted to see your sensible outlook on the IMF debt that is being created world wide. Yes, much of it is criminal. But, when I read your blog "No more trams for Rosario", I was disheartened by your statement, "I'm not advocating for the kind of independence from the federal administration seen in the United States....." What bothers me most is that you think we have some form of independence from the federal government. In short, we used to have sovereign power over our own states, but that has been, over time, lost. We used to be a great nation, we are now a crumbling "has been". It was, in fact, the power to control our own local government that made us great. It is the loss of that control that has brought us to our knees. I live in Idaho. It is a state where you can literally drive all day and never stop seeing large forests of evergreen trees. These trees are important to the housing industry as almost all homes are built from them. The forest is logged off and within 50 to 60 years, a new forest has taken its place. But, those of us who live here and understand this healthy cycle of logging/new growth, are no longer in charge of our own lives. The federal government controls most of our forests from three thousand miles away. They control it in a way that makes the huge-city people kihappy, (who also live 3000 miles away). The problem is, the city people know nothing of real life in Idaho, only a slanted story told on TV about how logging is killing off all the forests in Idaho. Today, much of the Idaho forests can not be logged. Men who have fed their families for generations by logging, are out of work. The price of lumber is expensive, thus making the price of homes expensive. People can't make the payments on their homes because they are out of work. And, the economy IS collapsing. All because ten million people in New York city dictate to us in Idaho, how to manage our natural resources, through an unstoppably powerfull federal government.

    I've said my piece. I hope you consider it. Thank you very much for your time.
    Harley Shelley

  2. Below is the reply to the previous comment:

    Dear Harley,

    Sorry if you felt I was mischaracterizing the situation of the states v. the federal government in the US. I'm aware that the political/legal independence of the states has diminished over time.

    What I meant in the case of Argentina was more in the economic sense, from which many other kinds of independence stem. In Argentina, critical natural resources are under the purview of the federal administration, but in most cases the provinces are de facto free to exploit them, because oversight is so little. In this sense, Argentina might be like the US a long time ago, with local governments working in relative isolation just because the national government has no means to force anything on them.

    But Argentine provinces don't have economic independence, and thus they don't have freedom to do what's best for their citizens. Everything of moderate importance has to be begged for at the federal level. This has become worse and worse over the years after the 2001 crash. Provinces can impose new taxes, but the federal government takes too much already. Exports are taxed at the federal level, and that revenue stays there, mostly. Even the wealthier provinces are chronically strapped for cash; the poorer ones have their governors basically licking the President's boots full time to get basic public works done.

    In Argentina, unlike the US, provinces have no legal attributions to decide on, say, civil rights, or issues like abortion or whether members of same-sex couples can inherit from their spouses. Federal laws cover a lot of ground and the provinces can't stray away from them. Major stuff is always discussed and decided in Buenos Aires. When I said I wouldn't advocate more independence in that sense, I said it because many Argentine provinces are ruled by corrupt governors that get reelected over and over again, or political dynasties, caudillos, etc., and more legal freedom from federal regulations would turn them basically into fiefdoms.

    If from the above you conclude I don't trust people to decide what's best for them on the local level, you're concluding right, mostly - as long as you consider what kind of people I'm talking about. Good judgment goes out the window when you're poor and desperate and lack basic services and you're offered magic solutions.

    So you and I are speaking mainly of different kinds of independence, though of course these overlap. I think both legal and economic independence of local governments are important, but (in this we won't agree, I'm afraid) a weak federal government is not a guarantee of prosperity for the local governments. In a country that's not "mature", such as Argentina, a strong central government might be essential.

    In a country like the US, with a long unbroken line of democratic rulers and a population more-or-less familiar with the idea of checks and balances, a weak central government might work. In Argentina, where democracy has been on and off since the beginning and where some provinces are simply economically inviable without assistance, the situation is different.

    I urge you to read my posts about Argentine history and current developments so you get an idea where I'm coming from. And of course, feel free to reply and question!


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