Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Corruption in Argentina

The culprits of ten years of bribery on a grand scale in Argentina have finally been charged by prosecutors in the USA.

The accused, all former executives of Siemens AG who reside in Germany, Switzerland and Argentina, are reported to have paid over $US100 million in bribes to Argentine officials between 1996 and 2007 in an effort to win a one billion dollar contract to produce national identity cards in Argentina.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Argentina and Spain

After losing to Spain in the final of the 2008 Davis Cup in Mar del Plata, Argentina repeated the loss this last week when they were beaten by the Spaniards in Seville, an event which saw the home side win its fifth Davis Cup since 2000.

Rafa Nadal saw off Argentina’s Juan Martín Del Potro 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 to give his country’s tennis fans something to sing and dance about in true Andalucian style.

Juan Martín del Potro and his team however, had not been without support during the competition and the Olympic stadium in Seville had its fair share of Argentines waving their blue and white flags and banging their drums.

Whenever Argentina participates in a sporting event in Spain, it can always count on a large presence of supporters, owing to the fact that Spain has a rather large Argentine population.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Post election

So Cristina Fernández de Kirchner walked off with rather a decisive victory in last month’s presidential election, obtaining 53.96% of all votes and avoiding a second round of voting (in Argentine presidential elections if one candidate achieves more that 45% of votes or more than 40% with a 10% advantage over their closest rival then there is no second round of voting). Cristina, and her Vice-president elect and Economy Minister Amado Boudou took 23 of the 24 provinces of the country, losing out only in San Luis to Rodriquez Saá, and turning their victory for the FPV into the biggest since the return of democracy in 1983.

There were, of course, the customary celebrations with thousands partying in the streets and plazas throughout the country and Cristina delivering an emotional speech to the thousands of Peronistas in Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires after her victory was official.

But a week or so later the time to party is over and CFK and Boudou are, some might say finally, considering the real issues which the country faces.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Los Pumas and Argentine rugby

A valiant effort from Argentina was not enough to prevent the All Blacks from progressing to the Semi-Finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

After Los Pumas’ mesmerizing performance at the 2007 World Cup in France, it is fair to say that expectations for this year’s competition were not as high as might have been anticipated.

The national side has not made a great deal of progress during the last four years but after a closely fought opening 9-12 defeat to England, Argentina went on to win its next three group stage games against Romania, Scotland and Georgia to qualify for a quarter final match-up with the hosts, New Zealand.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Schoklender and The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo

Former financial manager Sergio Schoklender
The scandal that has rocked the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Foundation continues with Magistrate Norberto Oyarbide announcing last week that raids by Argentine Police have successfully uncovered several “financial caves” which the foundation’s former financial manager Sergio Schoklender used for money laundering.

Schoklender and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have been a major feature in the Argentine press during the recent months since accusations were made at the end of May about irregularities in the foundation’s finances.

Schoklender, imprisoned in the 1980s with his brother for the massacre of their parents, is accused of mismanaging millions of dollars from the Kirchner government funded ‘Shared Dreams’ programme, whose mission was to build homes for the poor. He is alleged to have built himself a luxury lifestyle complete with a collection of sports cars, yachts and villas.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Google doodle Borges

Google has celebrated what would have been the112th birthday of Jorge Luis Borges with a homepage doodle to celebrate the famous Argentine writer’s achievements; in particular his surreal approach to literature.

The doodle is a montage which shows an elderly man staring at a colourful labyrinth of staircases, forking paths and a library, which when clicked on returns search results for the Argentine maestro of the written word.

It makes particular reference to the Borges’ story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ published in 1941 which the author described as a hypertext novel. Hypertext is the computer text which links readers immediately to other texts and so many consider the work as one that captures the spirit of what would eventually become the internet.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BA Cast - Mandatory vs. Voluntary Vote

I was recently invited by Daniel Karlin and Fernando Farías from BA Cast - The Buenos Aires Podcast to participate in a chamullo on whether voting ought to be Mandatory or Voluntary.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Primaries

So Cristina Fernández de Kirchner came out well on top in the primary elections that took place on 14 August and looks to have set herself up for somewhat of a comfortable victory come the actual Presidential elections this October.

CFK obtained 50.07% of the votes, way ahead of her closest rival, Ricardo Alfonsín, the UCR candidate and son of the first democratically elected president post military dictatorship Raúl Alfonsín, who got 12.17%.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It's a tad cold

How cold does it get in Buenos Aires?

Well some of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent anywhere were during the three weeks I stayed in provincía just two hours outside of the capital city in Zona Oeste, where a poorly insulated house in open countryside made escaping the freeze impossible. The damp, eat at your bones, bitter cold was worse inside the home than it was outside; and that's enough to make battles with the weather more than tough wherever you are.

In small villages and rural neighbourhoods all over the province, that is the cold reality of winter during July and August for many of the seven million inhabitants of Gran Buenos Aires. In the centre of the city however, it of course does not get so chilly and you can generally guarantee temperatures of three to four degrees higher than in the countryside.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Volcanic ash and Bariloche

Ash from Chile’s Puyehue volcano continues to cause disruption in Argentina over a month since the initial eruption on June 4.

Flights at Buenos Aires airports Ezeiza and Aeroparque were again cancelled last week while provinces in the south of the country remain in a state of emergency.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Election time - Mauricio Macri seeks four more years

Lefty filmmaker Pino Solanas
It’s mayoral voting time in the city and the walls and billboards are splattered with the candidates’ posters for Buenos Aires Chief of Government (Jefe de Gobierno).

In its present format the position is a fairly recent one. It was created in 1996 following a reform to the Argentine constitution when the city of Buenos Aires was given autonomous status; thus the city’s official name Cuidad Autónoma de Buenos Aires.  

The Nation’s House of Congress is responsible for setting the limits of the city’s autonomy but there are often political and judicial conflicts where the line between nation and city gets blurry.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

River Plate and the Copa America

A tough week for Argentine football was concluded Friday last with a lacklustre performance from the national team against Bolivia in the opening game of the Copa America, hosted this year by Argentina.

The game at El Estadio Unico de La Plata, which took place on a freezing night, followed the opening ceremony and saw Argentina luckily claw back from 1-0 down to draw the match.

But at least it was on the field problems which dominated the weekend headlines.

That was not the case when River Plate lost a decisive match on Sunday 26 June to be relegated to the second division for the first time in its 110 year history and off the field antics helped the event become international news as hard-core fans rioted to cause absolute mayhem.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


As the evening arrives to Buenos Aires, they begin to appear. They trawl the streets of virtually every neighbourhood of the capital. They get in the rubbish and tear up all those black sacks and plastic bags of refuge emptied from the city’s apartment buildings onto the pavements; and they cause what is let’s face it, a rather ugly mess. 

They are however a hard working lot and like it or lump it, they’re providing a service.

The tens of thousands of cartoneros, perhaps best translated as cardboard people, make their living by extracting recyclable materials from the city’s rubbish.

Generally working in teams, whose members will commonly include children as young as seven or eight, they roam the streets from the early evening until the early morning, pushing carts from one corner to the next and ransacking the rubbish bags that are left for the binmen, in search of paper, plastics, metals and anything else they can flog.

Friday, June 3, 2011

You can't light up here che

Argentina has become the eighth country in Latin America to ban smoking in public places. The legislation, which was passed in the Senate last August, was approved by Congress this week by 182 votes to one.

The law means that all enclosed spaces including bars, restaurants and offices will be 100% smoke-free and will therefore limit smokers to lighting up outdoors or in their homes.

It will also ban tobacco advertising and will force cigarette manufactures to place warnings on their packs, prohibiting the use of words such as ‘light’ and ‘mild’ which give smokers a mixed message. From its second year the law will even stipulate that a cigarette cannot contain more than one milligram of nicotine and 10 milligrams of carbon monoxide.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Give us back the Malvinas and you can have my vote

FIFA vice-president Julio Grondona - My hands are clean

“I think there is corruption everywhere,” said Argentine Julio Grondona, the head of AFA (Argentine Football Association) and vice-president of FIFA. 

But in an interview with the German press on 31 May he denied personally having taken a bribe during the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids and confirmed “I have never asked for anything.”

Except that one little time of course when,

“I told the English, look let's be brief, you can have my vote if you return the Malvinas Islands which belong to Argentina.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May Revolution

The Cabildo at Plaza de Mayo
The May 25 national holiday in Argentina commemorates the events that culminated in the country’s May Revolution, which in 1810 was the prelude to Argentina’s eventual independence from Spain.

Towards the end of the 18th century revolution was doing the international rounds. Independence for what became the US demonstrated that the colonies in the Americas could go it alone, and the French Revolution in 1789 encouraged many to question the concept of the divine rights of kings.

The Spanish monarchy of course was not so convinced by the liberal and anti-nobility ideas coming out of France, and despite actually aiding the thirteen North American colonies who won freedom from British rule in 1776, was not disposed to relinquishing control over its own colonies in the Americas.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Beef for everyone

The headline of last Thursday’s Clarín was accompanied by a less than flattering snap of a baseball capped Cristina Kirchner at the launch of her plan to provide cheap beef for everyone in what was once the beef epicentre of the planet.

Only one problem – her Carne para Todos (Beef for Everyone) plan will only cover about 0.15% of daily consumption. More like beef for a few said Clarín, the national newspaper with a long standing anti Kirchner reputation.

Cristina’s grand scheme will see a massive total of five refrigerated vans driving round the city selling 13 different cuts of beef at prices fixed by the controversial Secretary of Commerce Guillermo Moreno. The vans will distribute a total of 10,000 kilos of beef, which as Clarín highlighted, is a miniscule amount when one considers 6.6 million kilos of beef are sold each day in Argentina.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Confusion and suspicion

CCTV catches the incident in Tigre
The confusion and possibility for misfortune that can come from living in a distrusting, mistrusting and genuinely suspicious of ‘just about anybody you don’t know’ society were demonstrated with perfect clarity yesterday in Tigre, a somewhat more affluent town to the north of the capital.

High crime, general insecurity and the constant fear evoking media coverage that accompanies it all in Argentina, makes partaking in a private transaction of any sort something to be chary about. So when a Buenos Aires resident of the Dock Sur neighbourhood made his way to Tigre to buy a second-hand car, he was very much on guard and on the lookout for any fishy behaviour which could see him heading home by public transport, without the desired vehicle or the cash he was going to use to buy it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

El Truco

A weekend game of truco

'Son buenas.'
'Quiero re truco.'
'Quiero vale cuatro.'
'Hijo de puta.'

Truco, Argentina’s card game of choice. Just watching can be exhausting; actually playing, an on your toes, get stuck in fully blown, loud, deceitful, slap you on your back Argentine experience.

Truco (Trick) is just that. A game filled with trickery, lies, gamesmanship, tactics, skill and like with any other card game, a little bit of old lady luck.

It is played with what are known in Argentina as Cartas Españolas (Spanish cards). The deck is made up of fifty cards numbered one to twelve. There a four suits, called palos. Basto (clubs), Oro (gold), Espadas (swords) and Copas (cups). For truco the eights and nines are removed from the deck.

The game can be played one on one but generally the real version is played in pairs, two on two; or in extreme situations with six players. 

Spanish Cards used for Truco
The object: to be the first to get thirty points. The first fifteen points are known as malas (bad) and the second half buenas (good). Points are obtained by winning during the two parts of each round, the envido and the truco.

The round starts with three cards dealt to each player. If you’re playing with a partner then some face signals will be made to let him know what cards you have. Bravado, lies and perhaps some truths are shouted around the table as the round gets underway.

Reading this without ever having encountered the game will no doubt be a tad confusing but the basic idea for the envido is to have the highest total, or to make your opponents think you do.

If you have two cards of the same suit, then you have something to play. You take the total of your two cards and add that to twenty. For example, if you have the seven of Gold and the six of Gold then you have thirty-three (the highest possible as 10s, 11s and 12s count as zero). If you’re left with nothing, then your only chance of winning is to out lie your opponents in a macho effort to convince them you have more than they do.

La mano (the hand) is the person to the right of the dealer and he has first chance to bet. If he chooses to he will shout envido (as soon as that word is mentioned at any moment then the bet is made). During the betting, players will crack jokes and employ other means of distraction to try to put their opponent off; be it to dissuade his betting or to to lull him into a false sense of security.

The betting responses to a call of envido are:
Quiero (I want) - the round is worth two points. 
Real envido - ups the stakes to three points.
Envido - means there are four points up for grabs.
Falta envido - you win whatever your opponent needs to complete his malas (first fifteen) or his buenas. 
No quiero - You bow out and automatically lose points.

After concluding who has the highest (without showing your cards for now), the second part of the round commences; the truco.

In the truco it is a fight to see who has the best cards. The cards are ranked in order of value. 

The One of Swords
The One of Clubs
The Seven of Swords
The Seven of Gold
The 3s
The 2s
The One of Cups & the One of Gold
Then from the 12s down to the 4s

Each player in turn throws down a card face up and the highest card kills the other cards and wins. The idea is to win two out of the three throws to take the points for truco. Throughout this part of the game more betting is going on in a similar way to that of the envido. Calling truco sets up the betting, and you can up it all by shouting re truco and then quiero vale cuatro (I want it’s worth four). 

If envido was played for, then knowing the total of your opponent gives you some idea what cards he has; but throughout the betting more lies and gamesmanship go on as you communicate with your partner as to the order in which you want to throw your cards or you use one of the many sneaky little tricks available to win. And remember, if at the end of the round no one has seen your cards and you won the envido, then be sure to show your total, or all the points you should have got will go to the other side the moment your cards are back in the pack.

A truco scorecard
If it all makes absolutely no sense whatsoever here, then rest assured it makes even less sense the first time you see a game played.

But when in Argentina, if you learn the value of the cards, the lip-licking and eyebrow raising face signals, then you can sit down around an empty crate of beer with a plank of wood on the top in a neighbourhood anywhere in the country, with one, three or five compañeros; and with some hard practice to get used to the pace, the jargon and the loud and jocular atmosphere of it all, you'll start to get the hang of it. And though you'll probably lose a few pesos as you get going, somewhere down the line with an afternoon's game of truco you might just end up winning a few bottles of Quilmes as you relish in the enjoyment of a truly great card game.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The South Atlantic

The islands out there in the South Atlantic have been in the headlines rather more frequently as of late. Of course the subject is one that never really goes away in Argentina but political cynicism suggests that the government’s choosing to harp on about it right now might have something to do with the up-coming national elections in October.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner definitely portrays herself as a president who is capable of ‘getting back what is rightfully Argentine’ and her publicly solid stance will no doubt secure her some extra votes come Election day. And it is clear that the more time she spends rallying the people with patriotic promises, the less time she spends addressing the real problems her government ought to be facing up to; potential vote losing topics like increasing inflation and troubling insecurity.

This 2 April, a national holiday in Argentina to commemorate the War Fallen and Veterans of the 1982 military conflict, not only saw the standard protests outside the British Embassy in Buenos Aires and parades throughout the country, but also various political announcements.

After screaming to a crowd in Rio Gallegos that the South Atlantic Islands “will be forever Argentine and this government will never yield our claim,” President Kirchner went on to say that “Argentina will continue to seek to resolve the issue in abidance with the UN,” stating that her country “only participates in peace missions,” while the UK sorts out its conflicts by “dropping bombs on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.”

Argentine map of the Islands
Of course the arguments about who is abiding by the UN and whether the Islands should remain British or become Argentine have been going on for years with both sides delving into the history books to defend their claims, while accusing one another of improper or counter-productive behaviour.

A recent exchange of articles has taken place between London authors Peter Pepper and Graham Pascoe, and Andrés Cisneros, Argentina’s Deputy Foreign Minister during the 1990s Menem government.

In their first article ‘Unilateral Facts’ Pepper and Pascoe discuss Argentina’s recent accusations that the UK is acting ‘unilaterally’ and is ‘in breach of UN Resolution 31/49.’

The UN Resolution, which was agreed in December 1976, states that ‘each side should refrain from taking decisions that would imply introducing unilateral modifications.’ Pepper and Pascoe write that any talk about the Resolution post the 1982 War is absurd and suggest that the Argentine government is acting ludicrously and hypocritically in doing so now.

Cisneros responds in The Buenos Aires Herald with his article, ‘Unilateral Facts Indeed’ by emphasizing that the debate should go back a lot further than the UN Resolution and 1982 War and take into consideration the 19th Century ‘when London abused force by invading the islands and threatening with a display of weaponry all the Argentine inhabitants,’ - a response which prompted Pepper to argue about what is the ‘real history’ of the islands in ‘Unilateral Facts II’. All articles are very much worth the read.

The fact is most Argentines are firm in their belief that the UK is illegally occupying Argentine territory – and this popular viewpoint is as open to exploitation today as it was during the 1982 invasion. (NB ‘invasion’ is not a word Argentines will employ with respect to the incident citing the example that if someone was squatting in your property, you wouldn’t be labelled an invader if you went there to kick them out). 

And with the recent successful offshore oil explorations in South Atlantic waters, coupled with the October elections, the subject of the Islands' sovereignty is again being raised by the Argentine government.

This week the Argentine ambassador to the UN, Jorge Argüello has given a conference with the launch of 'It takes two to Tango.' Its idea is the promotion of a world-wide discussion on the whole issue.

The cenotaph at Plaza San Martín
And the announcement was made that the country is set to change its protocol for visiting officials by obligating them to pay homage at the cenotaph in Buenos Aires which lists the names of the 1982 War’s fallen soldiers.

Cristina Kirchner also announced that at as of 2012 a letter sent from the Islands by volunteer soldier Julio Cao will be read to all children in every school in Argentina. Shortly after joining the Military Junta’s campaign, Cao, a primary school teacher, sent the letter to his pupils to express his feelings about defending ‘the Argentine flag.’

Whether you believe these acts are pure politics or true patriotic gestures, the fact is the issue is not likely to go away soon but while the UK and Argentina quibble about the future, the Islands’ residents will continue to get on with the task of living.

“We are happy with the status quo, and do not like being told by others what to do,” said the Islands’ Legislative Assembly Member Emma Edwards during a UN seminar last year. “We are currently not ready for independence, but we do express our right of self-determination with almost all of the people on the Islands wishing to remain and enjoy our British Overseas Territory status.”

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Argentine university honours Venezuela's Chavez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was honoured in Argentina this week with a freedom of press award in recognition of “his unquestionable and authentic commitment to support the freedom of peoples.”

The University of La Plata presented Chavez with the prestigious Rodolfo Walsh Journalism award to pay tribute to the Venezuelan leader’s efforts "to support popular communication by breaking up media monopolies in Latin America."

Claudio Gomez, a journalism professor at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata said that the faculty’s decision to honour Chavez with the award “does not mean that the university agrees with certain measures his government has taken against critical mass media but it wishes to recognize for example his creation of the Telesur Channel.”

Created in 2005, Telesur is a state funded alternative to the continent's private television stations and covers Latin American and international news. It is considered to be an alternative voice to the massive privately owned media conglomerates, which Chavez highlights ‘seek to control the people.’

“One must fight the media dictatorship. The dominant classes always manipulate the communications media and trick the people through powerful psychological campaigns,” he said during his two hour acceptance speech at the university.

“There is more freedom of expression and press in Venezuela today than during any time in our history,” he claimed, stating that he was proud to receive the award even though “some people say the dictator Chavez doesn’t deserve it.”

The journalism award is named after the journalist Rodolfo Walsh who, after co-founding Cuba’s state-run news agency Prensa Latina, was killed during the Dirty War in 1977 when the military dictatorship in Argentina went about eradicating the country of dissidents.

Those opposed to the university’s choice stressed Chavez’s track record with the media. “He has closed more than 30 radio stations and six television channels,” pointed out Buenos Aires province congressman Jorge Macri. While Silvana Giudici, the head of the Argentine parliament’s commission for freedom of expression, said it was “inconceivable” and “a contradiction” to issue the award to the Venezuelan President.

But the university stuck by its decision to honour Chavez for “his commitment to defending the liberty of the people, consolidating Latin American unity, and defending human rights, truth, and democratic values.”

“You head a profound process of emancipation in Latin America,” said the university’s Dean Florencia Saintout, who announced that a new category of the Walsh award had been created for Latin American leaders committed to giving a voice to the people who are least heard from; adding that she hoped for an open debate about Chavez’s ideas. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

La fiesta de quince - The 15th birthday party

For girls in the US it’s a sweet sixteen party, for those in the UK it’s probably two or three bottles of Vodka Absolut while larging it about town on the night of their eighteenth. Every part of the world has its own customs to mark that first moment of adulthood. In Argentina, like in many other Latin America countries, the age at which young girls celebrate their coming of age is fifteen; and they do it with style.

La fiesta de quince, the fifteenth birthday party for girls, is more than just a big deal in Argentina. It’s the moment every little girl has waited for since she was messing around with her Barbie doll and playing dress-up (or messing around with her Action Man and playing footy; to be politically correct).

Although a trip abroad is gaining popularity, more often than not to that fun-packed destination favoured by middle class Argentines – Florida’s Disneyworld, traditionally the birthday is celebrated with an almighty party, largely reminiscent of a wedding.

And it's a party that parents have planned for their daughter since the day she was born; the crowning moment when their baby girl makes the transition to womenhood. They've scrimped and saved, booked the venue, arranged the music and entertainment, and food, and drink, and the guest list, and the flowers, maybe a mariachi band, the cake, the limousine, the photographer, the cameraman, the decorations; it’s all ready to go, one night to celebrate their daughter’s fifteenth with a bang.

In general, it goes something like this.

The hundreds of invited guests, both teenage friends of the birthday girl and adult family and acquaintances, get to the salon ahead of time where the waiting staff accommodates them all while they anticipate the arrival. The dress code is formal and the salon is decked out with all sorts of bright and colourful decorations.  

As the tension builds, tongues are moistened with free flowing beer and soft drinks until the announcement is made; she is here. It is time for the grand entrance.

Guests red rose-up and line the hall to form an aisle, while the immediate family waits at the end of the line to greet their daughter and sister.

The music starts. A song chosen by the girl - maybe a little Britney or Cristina. And then the doors open. She appears on the arm of her father; the duo's smiles lit up by spotlights.

She’s nervous, apprehensive, perhaps visibly overwhelmed; but she’s beautiful. Her hair and make-up are exquisite, and the dress; the all important dress is glamorous, long and glamorous. Gasps and mutterings can be heard in the crowd ‘Que hermosa que está, es una princesita!

By the time her father has walked her down the aisle to present her to her family, she is holding all the red roses and is breathing normally again. She is plastered with kisses from every direction as she soaks up the applause. She is fifteen and this is her moment.

Papa retakes her hand and accompanies her to the floor for the first dance with his grown-up daughter. The Waltz. Eyes are directed to the couple as all the men queue up to take a turn spinning the birthday girl round in celebration.

And when the Waltz is concluded, the food is served. Adults drink and chat, family members reminisce, spotty teenagers joke around and seek out a sneaky beer, while little toddlers run all over the place as they play with their new friends.

After a couple of hours of energetic and rhythmic dancing in a typically natural and Latin manner (the way Argentines are so coordinated on the dancefloor is frankly not reminiscent of everyday society and really beggars belief), the ceremony of the fifteen candles takes place.

This is the moment when the birthday girl chooses the fifteen people she sees as having been the most important in her life thus far. She makes a speech about each and presents them all with a candle.

Finally the cake is cut and scoffed, and the real partying begins. Lights dim, cumbia music starts back-up and it’s proper dancing time until the night finally draws to a conclusion somewhere around 6am.

A good old bit of fun-til-the-sun-comes-up has been had by all, and for now the parents can relax until number two daughter approaches that all important age and la fiesta de quince, which in Argentina, marks the end of childhood and the beginning of womanhood.  

Friday, March 4, 2011

Stolen babies and Argentina's Dirty War

Jorge Videla, left and Reinaldo Bignone
Two former dictators of Argentina, along with six other ex-military figures have gone on trial this week accused of stealing up to 500 new born babies from political prisoners during the country’s violent military rule.

Jorge Videla, who ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1981 and Reinaldo Bignone, the county’s leader for the last year of military dictatorship before democracy’s return in 1983, appeared in court last Monday where charges covering 34 individual cases were read to them.

During the trial, officials for the prosecution will present evidence from around 370 people to outline the viciously cruel acts carried out by the regime during Argentina’s Dirty War – a period that Federal Prosecutor Federico Delgado called ‘one of the darkest episodes in Argentine history.’

Activist groups like La Asociación Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) say that the mothers of the children stolen were imprisoned in torture houses, where shortly after giving birth while blindfolded, they were executed and usually dropped from airplanes over the Atlantic or the River Plate. The babies were then given to families sympathetic to the military regime. 

The 85-year-old Jorge Videla, who is already serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity after the amnesty he’d previously received was overturned in December last year, is widely regarded as the mastermind of Argentina’s Dirty War, which lasted seven brutal years from 1976 to 1983.

Videla's real rise to power came in 1975 when pressured by senior military figures and the wealthy rightist elite, President Isabel Perón appointed him Commander in Chief of the Argentine army after her government became increasingly threatened by a left-wing uprising. Videla immediately promoted the use of death squads, asserting that ‘as many as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.’ With his mitts firmly wrapped around power, a junta led a coup one year later.

Videla in the 1970s
The new regime, with Videla at its head, took on the task of ‘stabilising’ society. 

It labelled itself ‘National Reorganisation Process’, and went about eradicating the country of so-called subversives, principally left-wing activists, trade unionists, Peronists, students, journalists and Marxists - a campaign that was known as Operation Condor.

Despite history, Videla still claims today that Argentine society at the time of his reign demanded strength to counter Marxist revolution.

The USA, a country petrified of communism, agreed, and so the Argentine military junta was allowed to carry on its brutal rule without an ounce of international objection from the north. In fact, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information act show that many high ranking US officials, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, gave their full support to the murderous regime and its Dirty War, and the US congress granted more than $US100,000,000 to assist the military dictatorship.

That astoundingly generous US donation was used to torture, kill and illegally arrest the regime’s enemies. Forced disappearances were the chosen method of disposal – no bodies meant wrongdoing was difficult to prove and the method was a popular one in many South American dictatorships.

All in all, the period was a dark and frightful time for Argentines. Many recall today how a halting late night train could leave you in terror at the sound of military boots marching down the aisles as soldiers checked order. While lending a fellow student (who then turned out to have Marxists tendencies), a textbook with your name in it, would more than likely see you join the growing list of the ‘disappeared’.

Photographs of los desaparecidos
It is estimated that 30,000 people went missing during the Dirty War. The majority remain unaccounted for but it is supposed they were tortured and murdered in concentration camps and their bodies dumped out at sea. 

The case of the stolen children is particularly disturbing. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which is a group of mothers whose children disappeared, has identified 102 of the stolen babies to date. The grandson of the group's vice-president Rosa Roisinblit for example, was located in April, 2000. He'd been robbed from his mother after she gave birth to him in the concentration camp where she'd been imprisoned with her husband in 1978.

Jorge Videla and Reinaldo Bignone, who handed power over to the Social Democrat Raúl Alfonsín after Argentina was defeated during the military's last ditch effort to hold on to power with The Falklands War episode, are expected to be sentenced by the end of the year.  

Monday, February 28, 2011

Argentine Oscar glory

After last night's Academy Awards it is a good moment to remember the 2010 ceremony when Argentina became the first Latin American country to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for the second time, when El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), walked off with the gong.

Written and directed by Argentine director Juan José Campanella and based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, the film stars Ricardo Darín, a frequent collaborator of Campanella’s and one of the country’s biggest stars.

Darín plays former Federal Justice Agent Benjamin Espósito, who in 1999 sets out to write a novel about a savage and unsolved rape and murder case he worked on back in 1974.

The film flashes effortlessly backwards and forwards between the nineties and the seventies as the story unfolds, inviting the viewer to join Espósito, who inspired by the writing of his novel, re-examines the facts in a quest for the truth.

Intrigue and suspense are balanced throughout by the subtle prospect of romance as Espósito is reunited with his ex boss, Judge Irene Menéndez-Hastings, with whom he was always secretly in love. There is even room for a little comedy back in the seventies sequences where his alcoholic partner Pablo Sandoval, portrayed by Guillermo Francella, entertains with some amusing one liners.

But the film is ultimately a serious one.

After seeing the ‘look in the eyes’ of a childhood friend of the victim, Espósito becomes convinced that he’s got his man, but he's constantly blocked from capturing and punishing him by corrupt colleagues who, rather than punish the true perpetrator, prefer to beat a confession out of two innocent bystanders. The injustice is toe-crawlingly irritating, but is a fine example of the crooked Justice System and excessive violence of 1970s Argentina.

In fact the entire film is one that stirs the emotions with some outstanding performances all round in what is an extremely well directed effort from Campanella, who returned to Argentina to make the movie after a spell directing episodes of Lost and House in the U.S. His 1970s sequences in particular, which include an electrifying aerial shot during a scene at Racing Club football stadium on match day, really do the trick.

No Argentine film made this year's nomination list but El Secreto de sus Ojos was a crowning moment for what is a vibrant national film industry here and the Oscar was a proud moment for everyone involved. If you still haven't seen the film then it is highly recommended that you do so.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

It’s not inflation, it’s just a sensation

4% annual inflation in the UK, 4.9% in China; figures like that would be a dream year in Argentina where despite official government statistics suggesting otherwise, inflation both last year and this is widely accepted as between 25% and 30%.

Inflation in Argentina is nothing new; in fact the ‘I’ word pretty much sums up the recent economic history of the country and has played a role in several landmark events here. The country’s return to democracy for example, followed a period of time in which the biggest banknote went from 1000 pesos in 1975 to 1000000 pesos in 1981; the financial crisis at the end of the eighties came after annual inflation had topped 5000%, and the 2001 national meltdown saw inflation run rife both before and after the 300% devaluation of the currency.

And despite a few years of steadiness it’s back with a vengeance now.

Charting official inflation against private sector estimates
In 2009, private economists and financial consultants calculated that prices went up by between 15% and 18%. In 2010 they suggested inflation ran at around 25% and this year’s figure is expected to be pushing 30%.

Of course the government does not accept these estimates, (which come from internationally respected firms like Barclays Capital and Credit Suisse) and prefers to stick with its Statistics office, INDEC, which puts official inflation at around 10%. 

'No es inflación, es una sensación.'

Inflation is not a subject any politician likes to talk about; in fact the present Economy Minister Amado Boudou refers to ‘price dispersal’ rather than even mention the word; and the government here will often try to suggest that the whole thing is really just a figment of the imagination. This month it has even tried to shoot down the messenger by sending out questionnaires to private consultancies threatening them with a fine of up to AR$500,000 (US$125,000) if they don't demonstrate how they calculate their inflation estimates. 

But despite political spin, Argentines all over the country are suffering the consequences of rising daily costs and are well aware that in this country, ‘prices go up by the lift and come down by the stairs’; if of course they ever come down at all.

In the last few weeks the price of a litre of Quilmes beer in some small shops in Gran Buenos Aires for example, has leapt from around $AR5.25 to $6.50 (a rise of 24%); while customers of Cablevision and internet provider Fibertel received letters last month stating that, ‘due to the generalised rise in prices, we inform you that from February 1, 2011, the national basic cable television rate will rise by 15.9%.’

Not to mention ever increasing property rents, school fees, taxi fares and the cost of bread and milk.

Other businesses do their best to hide inflation.

Many cafes for example try not to adjust prices, but instead of serving three croissants with a cup of coffee, they serve only two for the same price. While Personal (a mobile network operator) has replaced its 80SMS top up card, which previously sold for AR$10, with a 100SMS card with a value of $AR15. At first glance it might look a good deal, but that extra AR$5 buys only 20 extra messages while before it bought 40.

But whose fault is inflation?

In an opinion poll published in last Sunday’s edition of La Nacion newspaper, 52% blamed greedy entrepreneurs and business owners while 38% blamed the government.

In a rare discussion about the subject, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner defended herself last week.

“We can't continue with the farce of reading the newspaper and seeing shopkeepers and businessmen complaining because prices are going up and then blaming the government,” she said, “I don't sell anything, I don't produce tomatoes, I don't sell cars, I don't produce steel, I don't produce cement.”

Of course it is not the government which ultimately sets private sector prices but when it comes to for example, food inflation (an estimated 40% last year), CFK can surely not deny a certain degree of culpability.

Her government continually fails to address the uncompetitive nature of the food distribution market which is dominated by only two major companies; and it is her policy of heavy export duties on cattle farmers that persuaded many to abandon the beef industry and switch to the more profitable production of soy, leading therefore to the current low supply of beef and the consequent soar in prices. (Argentina’s long and proud history as the world’s biggest consumers of beef is over and the country currently only accounts for 22% of Mercosur beef exports).

And despite asking for help from the IMF to design a new national price index, the president is shying away from tampering with what experts call 'loose fiscal and monetary policies which make rising prices even harder to contain,' while employing the same unorthodox methods to control inflation and stubbornly refusing to face reality. 

She continues to run with the massively underestimated levels of inflation published by INDEC, even though according to last Sunday's poll in La Nacion, the majority of those interviewed have no faith in the organisation, which has lost all credibility since the Kirchners replaced its boss in 2007.

Instead 35% believed inflation last year was more than 30%; a further 26% estimated it to be between 21% and 30%; while 15% of those asked considered inflation at between 11% and 20%.  

As for 2011, 57% expected it to be above 25%.

Argentina it seems is in the midst of a dangerous game. Most salaries are raised annually by around 20% to keep up with the ever increasing prices, which are not only affecting life here, but are making the country increasingly less competitive in international markets.

Sensation or not, inflation is dangerous.

It is something that dominates the thinking of nearly everyone in Argentina, and be it investing in property or buying foreign currency, people will do anything to avoid it; which can often fuel the situation.

One of the contributing factors to the hyperinflation in the 1980s for example, was Argentines’ investments in savings accounts which guaranteed to beat inflation; meaning that when the government printed new banknotes the inflationary consequence was that much greater. 

Presently the Kirchner government has been careful with printing new money and has been reluctant to issue a 200 peso note despite the devaluation of the 100 peso one.

But Argentines know that in the current climate, keeping pesos in the bank is just throwing your money away and they await a real governmental response. With true inflation in the period 2007-2010 totalling 120% according to IPC (el índice de precios al consumidor) drastic measures could be just around the corner.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Julio Cortázar and Rayuela

Cortázar's iconic image
If asked to name a famous Argentine writer, nine times out of ten Jorge Luis Borges is the first to spring to mind. But this week marks the 26th anniversary of the death of one of the country’s other true greats in the literary world, Julio Cortázar.

It is fair to say that in English speaking nations Cortázar has not achieved the level of fame that Borges has. In the Hispanic world however, he is rightly considered a maestro of the written word, and his most famous work, Rayuela (Hopscotch) a masterpiece of ingenuity and originality.

Julio Cortázar was born in Brussels, Belgium on 26th August 1914 while his father, an Argentine diplomat, was stationed there. The family returned to Argentina after the First World War where abandoned by his father, the young Julio was raised by his mother and her family in Banfield, a suburb to the south of Buenos Aires. It was a humble neighbourhood where milk was delivered on horseback, and Julio spent his childhood there reading and reading and reading, as well as writing poetry and short stories.

He went on to study languages and philosophy at university in Buenos Aires, and it was during a career as a secondary school teacher and then professor of French literature at Cuyo University in Mendoza, that he began to successfully turn his hand to writing, publishing a book of poems and various articles under the pseudonym Julio Denis.

His writing career was subsidised by his translations of the complete works of Edgar Alan Poe, as well as works by André Gide, G.K. Chesterton and Daniel Defoe. And then in 1949 his own dramatic poem, Los Reyes (The Kings) became the first original work to appear under his real name.

In 1951, aged 36, his collection of short stories, Bestiario was published and it was in this same year that Cortázar, opposed to the government of Juan Perón, emigrated to Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Established in the bohemian French capital, Cortázar, who became good friends with fellow Latin American writers Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, divided his time between working as a translator for UNESCO and writing.

The short story collections Final del Juego and Las Armas Secretas appeared in 1956 and 1959 respectively and the novel Los Premios was published in 1960. But it was with the publication of Rayuela in 1963 that Cortázar achieved massive accolade.

Speaking in an interview with A Fondo in 1977 Cortázar says that it was while writing a short story called Casa Tomada that the idea of multiple readers of a text who are reading what is written from a totally different perspective to that which he himself had when he wrote it, first occurred to him.

It is this idea that forms the basis of Rayuela.

'The book', said Cortázar 'was an attempt to see the relationship between a novel and its reader in a different way. Though a reader's attitude is in general a passive one in which he reads a novel from page 1 to page 300; with Rayuela I took on the task of writing a book in which the reader has different options, giving him an equality with the writer. The reader can leave parts out that he doesn't like, read the book in a different order if he wants, and basically create a world in which he plays an active role and not a passive one. A reader who is an accomplice to the story.'

The book can be read in a number of ways. The first part is formed of chapters 1-56 and the reader can finish here with a ‘clean conscience’ as the story ends. Or he can continue with the remaining 99 chapters which are referred to as expendable. Here the reader can follow the author’s instructions which after each new chapter send him backwards and forwards through the first 56 chapters in a changed order, 'hopscotching' to experience a completely different story. The whole novel can even be read by only reading odd or even pages, and is often referred to as a counter-novel or anti-novel for its multiple endings. 

In the narrative Cortázar employs Joyce like use of interior monologue in which characters play with the reader’s mind to take them on a journey in which they themselves can control the outcome. It is a stream of consciousness which, influenced by the author’s interest in Zen Buddhism, 'tries to negate daily reality by proceeding with incongruous and absurd episodes in which the serious events are treated with humour and the humorous ones with earnestness'. 

At work in his Paris flat
Despite his long exile in Paris, a city which the Argentine loved from the bottom of his heart, Cortázar remained actively involved in campaigning against human rights abuses in Latin America and leant support to several, mainly socialist states, including Castro's Cuba, Allende's Chile and the Sandinista ruled Nicaragua, places he visited frequently during the seventies. Towards the end of his life he attended a meeting of 'The Permanent Committee of Intellectuals for the Sovereignty of Our America' in Cuba before visiting Buenos Aires after the fall of the dictatorship in Argentina.

Julio Cortázar was married three times but never had children. He died on 12th February 1984 of Leukaemia, continuing to write until almost his last day, and is buried in the Cimitière de Montparnasse in Paris.

‘No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost.’ (Jorge Luis Borges).

Cortázar talking about Rayuela (Spanish only)

'Much of what I have written falls into the category of eccentricity because I have never admitted a clear distinction between living and writing. (From Cortázar's biographical note to Around the Day in Eighty Worlds).