I meet Maria Horgan, an Irish woman living in Buenos Aires, for lunch at café Todo Mundo in Plaza Dorrego.
Maria and I haven’t met before but we have a mutual friend. (Thank you Sarah.)
Maria ended up in Buenos Aires after she married an Argentine man. She met her husband in a bar in Paris, during the Rugby World Cup, on the same night Argentina beat Ireland. One of Maria’s brothers is the Ireland rugby International Shane Horgan, who played in Parc de France that night.
Maria is a very clued-in film producer. So I ask her about Argentina. She tells me about the roller-coaster economy; the huge natural wealth, the gap between rich and poor; and the divisions in local and national politics. The country’s leader is President Christina Kirchner. Chirstina is the widow of former-president Nestor Kirchner, who died in office from a heart attack.
I am especially interested in the curent battle between C. Kirchner and her bitter rival, Mauricio Macri, the Mayor of Buenos Aires. The newspapers here are full of their war of words, particularly as regards responsibility for the Buenos Aires transport system. There is a strike this week, among the Subte underground railway workers.
Christina and her cabient, have also been criticised in the press for trying to shift blame, and for gross insensitivity, following the train crash at Once station two weeks back, which killed 51 and injured hundreds more. One cabinet minister seemed to say it was time families of victims “move on”.
Another said the body of the little dead boy, which took several agonising days to find, was only so hard to locate “because he was standing in the space between carriages, where he “was not meant to be”
Yet another said the death toll was so high because Buenos Aires commuters insist on crowding the front carriages of the train.
This is true, people traveling to work do crowd forward sections of mainline trains. But only so they can exit the crowded trains quickly o arrival in the city centre and catch their subte connections onwards to work. To avoid being late. And, presumably, to aviod being fired.
I only read the ministers comments in translation, so I miss the nuances. But the perception, or interpretation, here is of ministers suggesting the dead victims are partly responsible for their own deaths.
Reaction, understandably, is of outrage and disbelief.
The president’s and cabinent’s blundering response to the Once tragedy is baffling because most victims hail from their own political constiuency: the poorer working people of Buenos Aires. These have been the natural Peronist supporters, since the days of Juan and Evita.
Poorer Argentines can not afford the ever-increasing prices for apartments or the ever-higher rents within the city. (Inflation is a problem here – people are already predictiong the next crash) These people have to rise at 6 am or earlier to catch the long mainline commuter trains into work.
One taxi driver I meet suggests there may be up 20 or more million people in the city during a working day. (The offical, resident, urban population is around 13 million)
As Maria Horgan explains, inefficiencies and corruption are deep rooted here. (It sounds a bit like home, I silently muse. )
I am slowly beginning to accept that my entire rosy picture of Argentina is laughably inaccurate. This, presumably, is a occupational hazzard of spending one’s time sipping cold lattés around Palermo Soho and Palermo “Hollywood”.
Some Argentines seem to think their country is “Third World” a term I’ve previously dismissed out of hand. There is such a huge and prosperous middle class here; so much wealth and resources (the country is essentially self-sufficient) the 3rd world label seems ludicrous.
True; there are the odd clues- the dodgy phone networks, the lack of change in shops, the lack of trust in credit cards, banks and normal finance generally, the scams and petty crime. More graphically, the shanty towns I haven’t seen yet, and the widespread homelessness I have, the endless black market and grey market activity. Policemen who smoke on duty, and who are mostly, reputedly, on the take themselves.
But “Third World”? No way. Not with this architecture; the boutique cafés and design outlet stores, or the outrageous prices.
Argentina, its eems is in truth is neither 1st or “3rd World”. It is its’s own, unique kind of Second World nation
Nonethless, Palermo Soho or Palermo Hollywood, and the Argentina they symbolise, are a tiny fraction of a fraction of the true story. There is real and deep poverty here, an extraordinarily unfair division of wealth; resources; education; of career and economic opportunity.
The Kitchner/Peron group seem unwilling to confront the root causes of inequality. In one conversation, Nadia characterised their response as “bread and circuses”.
What she means, to give an example is how one of the main planks of Chirstina’s recent (and sucessful) election campaign was “free TV football for all”. Indeed, although I never verified this I later heard Christina Kirchners was even giving away for free the TVs themselves, something that reminds me of the depressing “big-man” stunts of some African politicians.
Other times, when the Goverment wishes to distract from the increasingly worrying economic issues, they play the old patriot card (last refuge of every scoundrel) and return to the Falkland/Malvinas question. It is something Kirchner has been banging a drum about during my entire visit here. It plays very well with some sections of the electorate. I even meet a street hood one night with a map of the Malvinas tattooed onto his lower leg. “Malvinas Argentina siempre.” – he tells me. He also leaves me on no doubt about his general feeling towards the British; feelings which I would have to characterize as verging on the homicidal. There are definitely times when it pays to be Irish, especially in Africa and latin America, where local people associate the Irish with, in general, heroic and selfless missionary activity in healthcare, community activism and education. (and the British, I’m afraid, with colonialism, arrogance, double-dealing and hypocrisy) Instead of carving me up with his stiletto, the hood insists on me sharing his litre of beer. (I find it both judicious and politic to accept. )
Incidentally, both the “Soho” and the “Hollywood” versions of districts of Palermo are made-up, recently coined names. Made up by cany Argentines, never slow to borrow, improvise or invent.
Maria and I spend a couple of hours over lunch. She has taken the last year or so off documentaries to raise her daughter, but is now looking forward to getting back to work. She plans to make her next project on the state of Argentina.
I, for one, can’t wait to see it.