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).

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

McDonald's, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut

Argentina's empanadas
Cheap fast food makes for popular grub from New York to Beijing, but when brands like Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken tried their luck in Argentina, they failed. It’s not that Argentines don’t like fast food, but it seems that deep fried chicken legs just don’t really stimulate local taste buds, and although pizza is massive here, when Pizza Hut attempted to establish itself in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the cultural barrier proved too strong to penetrate as its North American take on it didn’t measure up to la muzzarella local style.

Cheap burgers and fries however have proved more successful at rumbling Argentine stomachs, and both the fast food giants Burger King (referred to here simply as Burger) and McDonald’s have a strong presence. Burger King has 45 restaurants in Argentina, 24 of which are in the capital, while McDonald's has 187 nationwide. However, prices for a combo nowadays reach $AR35 (almost ten US dollars), so according to Burgernomics and the trusty Big Mac Index to measure purchasing power, they can no longer be considered a cheap fast food option; especially for their own workers, who earn approximately $AR10 per hour.

Buenos Aires though does offer plenty of other options for cheap and quick eating.

Street vendors flog homemade sandwiches de milanesa (breaded meats) for around $AR6 while for $AR5 or so hot dogs, known here as panchos, can be picked up at most kiosks, on trains or from specialist pancherias who will season the sausage with more than just the typical ketchup and chopped up crisps. And of course empanadas (pasties filled with ham and cheese or chicken or beef or corn etc) are available nearly anywhere at anytime, individually or by the dozen.

As for pizza, well it's pretty much take your pick.

Fugazetta at El Cuartito
Every porteño has their favourite joint and sampling a $AR4 slice or two at lunchtime from one of them is a quick and atmospheric way to eat real fast food. There's plenty of varieties but la Muzzarella, which is a thick spongy based pizza covered in mouth melting mozzarella cheese, is a standard choice while la Fugazetta is a cheese and onion pizza, often made with a cheese filled base. Among the best pizzerias in town are El Cuartito, located on Talcahuano and Paraguay, and El Palacio de la Pizza on Corrientes and Maipú.

But for something super simple and chuff-worthy cheap then Ugi’s will provide.

Since its first place was opened in the eighties Ugi's has gradually turned into somewhat of an institution in Buenos Aires and is even considered a valuable reference when calculating true inflation. Its idea is to sell only one product, la mozzarella a la piedra, at the cheapest possible price, and to do it with honesty. If la grande muzzarella costs $AR14 (current price) then a quarter costs $AR3.50. The profit margin is a low 15-20% each year and its motto is sell cheap to sell more; if its prices go up then inflation is real.

Ugi's - No a la droga, sí a la pizza
Ugi's are simple places with no glamour attached. There's no overspending on fancy gimmicks and they don't even have customer toilets; it's all about the product. And the product is tried and tested.

Once una grande is ordered, the base is rolled out, covered with tomato sauce and a handful of the mozzarella cheese that Ugi's produces itself, and then slotted into the stone oven, all right in front of the customer's eyes. The chef then sprinkles the final product with the quantity of oregano you want, and it's time to shove it down the hatch. With fifty locations in Buenos Aires each selling around 250 pizzas per day, the recipe is one that has been able to hit the spot in a way that Pizza Hut and Co. has not.

That being said, rumour has it that The Hut is planning to come south again in 2011 and hoping for third time lucky in Buenos Aires. If it fares better than on previous occasions then KFC may follow suit.

But until then Argentines will make do with the occasional Whopper or Big Mac, while enjoying all the local fast food that the country has to offer, safe in the knowledge that a life without certain junk elements of US culture doesn't necessarily equal missing out.