31 December 2008

Exit 2008...

'Tis the last day of 2008. One can't easily escape the temptation of the traditional year's end balance, so here it goes...

Overall, this has been a very good year. First of all, of course, love. I met Marisa in the last days of 2007, and a month later, when I went away on vacation with a couple of friends, I discovered I'd already grown used to her, and even as I had lots of fun and traveled through wonderful landscapes I couldn't help missing her. Nearly one year after that, I still feel her absense when we stay apart even for a few days. And so my quest for a place to live on my own also turned into a better kind of expectation — rather than getting away, getting together with the one I love.

It was also a good year on the work side. I didn't get a raise or a higher post or anything like that — if everything, I'm doing extra work for the same pay. But the new administration does things quite differently. Back then I was doing boring repetitive work, and almost completely pointless as well (the signing of tireless forms for the archives of dust, as Borges would say), while now I'm doing more of what I like, meeting new people, and being consulted on what I know. I was quite prepared to leave my safely stable, futile job last year; now I'm willing to wait until I get the monetary recognition I need.

This was a year for travel, too. I spent two-and-a-half weeks touring what I consider the most beautiful part of Argentina (so far), the desertic part of Mendoza and the forests and lake of southern Neuquén. Then I had my first try with Marisa (a week together, visiting Córdoba), in late March. In September we went to La Rioja for another week. And then, despite our conflicting schedules, we somehow managed to squeeze in an escapade to Victoria and another to Tigre. Now we're planning a trip to Uruguay on the first half of February. Always tight on cash, but ready to take any opportunity.

What else? So much! I was stranded in Villa María and survived. My office was moved and I actually got my own little space as "the computer guy". I had some of my photos of Rosario chosen for an exhibition. I sold a piece of software for good money. I resumed jogging and then stopped again. I sold a few pictures. I got scared shitless because of my liver's misbehaving and got well. I started a personal blog and a blog on religion and actually got some people to read them. I left Japanese class and regretted it a bit. From Marisa I learned not to set the alarm clock when I have no reason to wake up at a fixed time. I picked up some cooking from Marisa and her mother. I read a lot of books in English. I joined an atheist group and got my picture on a newspaper. I got some of my long-neglected teeth fixed. I bought gifts for a lot of people, and got many gifts myself. I acquired a few more white hairs. I kept my beard and my 5-year-old cell phone. I learned to let go of some cherished personal myths and hobbies.

Not much will change tonight at midnight, but even as we're all "work in progress", it's a special night. So everybody, have a nice year's end and a happy beginning for 2009!

24 December 2008

Christmas at home

It's been a while since I last wrote, and I feel bad about that, given how often I used to post in earlier times. But such is the way of things.

The last year or so has been busy for me, mostly in the good sense (new girlfriend, new job routine, new places traveled to), but not spectacularly good for news (about the city, or the country or the world as a whole, for that matter). I seem to remember apologizing for a seemingly endless string of depressing political posts. I don't want to do that again.

Christmas season is about to end, thank Jeebus, and truth be told it doesn't seem like "the crisis" has hit that hard. Judging from the sheer volume of the throngs that squeezed along every inch of the downtown commercial streets last Monday (that's when I went gift-shopping myself), there's still lots of spare change in people's pockets for one last spending binge. The soft credits promised by the government have still failed to materialize (and seriously, nobody thinks they will, or at least it's highly doubtful they get past the nicest parts of Greater Buenos Aires) but retired people have got their extra 200 pesos, there'll be a similar supplement for minimum-wage workers and welfare benefits, and it seems the tendency to pay the aguinaldo before the holidays, instead of in January, has caught on.

As for me, I spent an unexpected amount buying little gifts for everyone in the family, which now includes Marisa's parents and her brother's family of three. Back in 2000, when I first got a stable job, and for more than a couple of years after that, I didn't earn enough for such luxuries as gifts, so now I love having the chance, although the act of going around and choosing the actual gifts is still stressful, being such a detail freak.

Since Marisa and I will each have dinner with our own families, and both driving yourself or getting a cab are virtually impossible on Christmas, we exchanged gifts days ago. I promised not to peep, so as to keep the surprise until tonight. There's no-one left at home that believes in Papá Noel (Santa Claus), and of course I don't believe anybody of divine origin was born on December 25, but one comes to appreciate the symbolic importance of waiting until midnight, as is the custom in Argentina, to open the shiny, bow-topped packages and peer inside to see what our loved ones thought we'd find nice or useful.

These days are exhausting, what with the summer heat and the crowded shopping malls and the explosion of red-and-green kitsch everywhere, and it's true that more people than usual feel depressed or lonely at this time of the year. In this sense I loathe Christmas. But maybe we should have more of it. It wouldn't be so special, but maybe one week as each season turns into the next, with less of a focus in overdoing (overspending, overeating, overdrinking) and more of simple expectation and celebration of our continued friendship. Our ancestors (no matter who they were exactly) had a developed awareness of seasonal change; why couldn't we? Imagine four short holiday seasons instead of a protracted one — better for the economy, for our digestive system, and for our inner peace.

Here's to a happy and peaceful Christmas, to all my readers. I'll see you again sooner than expected, I hope.

16 December 2008

Big Tobacco strikes back

The tobacco company Nobleza Piccardo (part of British American Tobacco) is suing Santa Fe Province before the Supreme Court because of the provincial anti-tobacco law, they claim, has made them lose a lot of money. Specifically, they feel the articles that ban cigarette advertising go beyond the provincial state's attributions to care for public health and infringe on free expression.

The fight against smoking has a been a frequent subject in this blog. I think we're all pretty surprised at our own reception of anti-tobacco regulations in this country; besides a minority of doomsday sayers, soon reduced to nothingness, most Argentinians have accepted that it's just rude to smoke indoors in a public place, and got on with our lives. I guess that's as far as product loyalty goes — the tobacco companies must have been very disappointed to witness none of the addicts they created mobilized against the rules that forbid them from pushing their poison on teenagers and children.

The suit (a claim of unconstitutionality) was brought to the Supreme Court two months ago but we know about it now because the state attorney Jorge Barraguirre appears on the press denying the charges. Nobleza Piccardo tried to get in an amparo (sort of an injunction, to stop the law from being applied while the matter is decided) but the Court rejected it, so we must wait and see what comes out of it.

03 December 2008

Expensive, those principles (by Martín Caparrós)

What follows is a translation of an article by Martín Caparrós on today's Crítica Digital (Caros, los principios) about the sweeping tax and capital smuggling amnesty proposed by Kirchner's government and currently being discussed in Congress. In dire need of fresh funds, Cristina is basically offering criminals a free pass to launder their money in Argentina, and inviting all those Argentinians who illegally sent their undeclared foreign currency abroad to take them back without paying taxes, dropping any legal investigations under way. [For some more background, see the American Task Force coverage.] Caparrós, once a leftist militant, again voices his disappointment with this supposedly progressive government, whose true leader (Néstor Kirchner) famously said he would never agree to check his principles at the door of the Casa Rosada.

The good thing is that we now at least know how much they're worth. Or rather how much they believe they're worth. (It may be, if anything, as in the classical sudaca joke about the best business deal: buy an Argentinian for what he's worth, sell him for what he thinks he's worth.) We now know, I was saying, the price. They're not cheap: they must believe their principles are better than they look — and they're charging a lot for them. The savings repatriation and tax moratorium proposal, which Congress began discussing yesterday, is that: a price label. They were supposed to have some principles: equality before the law, opposition to financial capitalism, a "new tax culture", a push towards some [wealth] redistribution by the State, an insistence on justice being made despite [purposeful] oversights. All of which crumbles when the government tells those who took away the money, those who evaded taxes, that there's no problem, that everything's forgotten. For a handful of dollars: various economists reckon that, on the best scenario, five percent of the Argentine capital that escaped might come back — that is, some six billion. That, if anyone believes them and brings in the bucks, which isn't a safe bet at all. With luck, the State could recover 10% of that 5%, some 600 million, and at the same time, of course, take advantage of the modicum of reactivation that money could bring to our economy.

That's what their principles are worth. Or rather the price of shitting on them: if you laundered money, if you evaded taxes, if you forged your bills to take home your "10% commission", don't worry, we'll fix it; and if you were in jail, you can now go home. If you stole 10 kilos of beef from the butcher's on the corner, or 80 pesos from some boy on a dark street, then no, this deal doesn't include you. Evading taxes is not stealing from one person — it's stealing from all of them, from the State which should spend that money on schools and hospitals for everyone, or at least for those who don't have them. Tax evasion is robbery worse than any other robbery: it's robbing those who have the least. These are the crooks this law wants to spare: the big crooks, the shirt-and-tie ones, the friends.

That's why this law is a full stop: a point of no return. If they pass it as it is, they won't ever again be able to speak of their principles: they will have sold them, under the excuse of a crisis that didn't exist days ago. A bit expensive, it's true: as in that bad joke.
The translation is free; the links are mine. Caparrós employs a few local references that may not be obvious unless you live in Argentina: the use of sudaca as a self-effacing slur; the soundbite por una nueva cultura tributaria ("for a new tax culture") which the Federal Tax Administration uses to advertise its fight for citizens' fiscal responsibility (which this moratorium turns into a mockery); the diego or "10% commission" — an euphemism for bribery; the expression punto final, which compares this obscene pardon for the wealthy to the law that halted investigations of the dictatorship's crimes. It just came out and I felt I had to share.