A dip in strange waters

October 25, 2011 § 7 Comments

I don’t usually do politics. Not, at least, in an active sense – I’ve always thought university politics to be a bit petty and tedious (this may or may not be justified), and have never really seen the appeal of having to toe a particular party line. Since coming to Argentina, though, it’s been more of a part in my life. Admittedly, this is mainly because politics has been everywhere you care to look in the run-up to yesterday’s elections.

Not just posters, though there are thousands upon thousands of them, but graffiti, murals, and people handing out leaflets in the street. Young people are intensely involved, it seems, which is a welcome change from the UK.

On the other hand, much about the electoral campaign was completely bizarre. I can think of only one concrete policy mentioned by any of the candidates, which was a proposal for free wi-fi everywhere by Alberto Rodríguez Saá, who ended up with 8% of the vote. Everything seemed to be proposed in entirely personal and emotive terms.

No one was better at doing this than the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (always just Cristina). Her husband, Néstor Kirchner, died suddenly a year ago, but is still a constant presence in her speeches, spots and posters. Having been president from 2003 to 2007, most people expected him to run again this year. Since he can’t, he is now being converted into a quasi-mythical figure along the lines of Perón or Evita (both still very present). Cristina tends to refer to him just as ‘él’ (him), and the implication is lost on no one.

This was the last TV ad of her campaign:

The most striking thing here, apart from the fact that the production shows she had about twice as much money as anyone else, is that the entire video is about how Néstor lives on in his achievements. In other words, Cristina campaigned for four more years in power on ‘La fuerza de él’ (the strength of him). The compassion she received from large parts of the population in the wake of his death, and still, for me speaks volumes about the way Argentines relate to their leaders.

I’m nervous about making any sweeping pronouncements about Argentine politics, given my limited, outsider’s perspective but here are a couple of thoughts. Life in Argentina has clearly got better under Néstor and Cristina since the crisis of 2001. How much that has to do with them is debatable. There are big subsidies from the state for areas of transport, food, and child benefit (amongst others), and the economy is growing quickly. Opponents would say, though, that current levels of public spending are unsustainable, especially since the economy is largely dependent on the (decreasing) price of soya and the strength of Brazil.

Anyway, leaving opinions to one side, the straightforward fact is that Cristina wiped the board with the opposition on Sunday. She received 54% of the votes for president (her nearest rival got 17%). Moreover, it looks as if her part will have an absolute majority in the congress, something not very common here.

I went along to the Plaza de Mayo yesterday evening to see the celebrations of her supporters. The huge crowd that gathered to watch her victory speech on big screens reacted with huge cheers for her, and with total silence in the passage(s) where she remembered Néstor.

A short time after the televised speech, Cristina and Amado Boudou, her new guitar-playing, motorbike-riding vicepresident, arrived in the square. This was the cue for total madness. Despite repeated pleas from the organisers for people not to push and to put away their flags to let others see, pushing and flags were in abundance. Nonetheless, we managed to get quite close, and got a few (not very good) photos of the stage:

Cristina's the one with the red hair

The atmosphere all evening was that of a festival, with music, dancing, fireworks, beer and barbecues. Despite my reservations about Cristina, I found myself quite swept up in it (not just physically). Cristina is a hugely charismatic speaker, and she and Amado were content to just let themselves go on stage and dance and sing in a way that I can’t imagine David Cameron doing (well, I can, but it’s utterly ridiculous). In other words, everything was far, far more human than politics at home ever manages to be.

A cynic would look at this all and dismiss it as so much manipulation of the electorate. There may be an element of that. There was also an strange element of selfishness in the way all the different political groups and movements (supporting the same person!) fought with each other to get closer to the action, to make themselves more noisy and more visible. But for all that, it was a unique and stirring experience. Something which, if you’re still reading, you can probably tell by how much I’ve ended up writing about it.

More than ever, comments are welcome – particularly from Argentines if they want to tell me that I’ve got it all wrong!

(One more thing I can’t let slip into oblivion – a woman who saw us looking touristy with weighty cameras tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘Stay in Wall Street!’)


Two weekends

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Buenos Aires is the sort of city that sometimes feels infinite. Parks and green spaces are relatively scarce, and concentrated in well-heeled neighbourhoods like Palermo. Because of this, it’s easy to end up feeling trapped in an endless landscape of concrete apartment blocks, cracked pavements and (all-too-frequent) dog shit.

This weekend and the last, however, I’ve spent mostly out of the centre, in places not only  geographically distant, but also very different (and for very different reasons).

Last weekend, I took part in a project building emergency accomodation for residents of Buenos Aires’ villas (shanty-towns). My group went to Ezeiza, a town/suburb to the south of the centre, where Buenos Aires has its international airport.

The district we were building in, Santa Marta, has two or three paved roads. The rest are dirt tracks, which when we arrived had been turned into muddy bogs by rain. Some houses there are built of brick or breeze blocks, others are thrown together from old wood panels, plastic sheets and cement. Almost all have leaky corrugated iron roofs. There is plenty of green space, but the barrio is seemingly built on top of an old landfill. Each spadeful of earth we dug turned up new surprises, from CDs to sandals to, once, a sheep’s skull.

We were divided up so as to be seven to a house – the house being a 6m by 3m single room hut made from pre-fabricated wood panels and held up on wooden piles. However modest that might sound, in every case it’s an enormous improvement on what the person/family had beforehand.

I don’t want to get preachy. The charity – Un techo para mi país – does great work, and puts great emphasis on not making a present of anything – the recipients have to pay a part of the cost of the house, and most chip in with the construction where they can. Beyond the construction itself, the techo helps all sorts of community projects in areas like enterprise and education. For all that, and for all the good thinking that has evidently gone into it, I couldn’t help thinking that there was a certain air of superiority among the volunteers .

I immediately feel bad writing that, though. The people I spent the weekend with were wonderful: friendly, energetic, never taking things too seriously, but still seriously enough. It might just be the simple fact that we were people with a great deal of advantages suddenly placed alongside others who had very few or none. That is unsettling, and no amount of rhetoric about collaborative effort can get rid of that fundamental inequivalence.

That, then, was one of the weekends which allowed me to completely escape Buenos Aires (my Buenos Aires) mentally as well as physically. The other was, at face value, much more frivolous: a day trip to Tigre this Saturday.

Tigre is a town to the north of Buenos Aires, on the delta of the Paraná river. Within the delta, which is apparently the fifth largest in the world, there are countless islands and inlets, and the place has the feel of a countryside Venice – a rural colony with no roads, just rivers.

It is a world away from Santa Marta, really: the houses there are almost all fashionable weekend cabins with their own jetties, terraces and swimming pools. We (myself and two French friends from the faculty) spent a glorious five hours or so on boats and wandering around the islands, semi-guiltily peeking at the fancy gardens.

The things that most struck me (which I hastily noted down last night in order not to forget) were: the light, the noise of cicadas in the evening, the mud, the crisp lines of trees against the sky, and the absolute perfection of lying on a jetty in the sun, legs dangling above the water, gazing up through the branches of the trees.

It was the first time in the almost three months I’ve been here that I’d spent a day in what felt like countryside. And it confirmed what I’d been thinking for a while – I’m not nearly as much of a city boy as I thought.

The day had a coda in a very different tone. As we were walking to get the boat back to the town, we stopped to stroke a wandering cat and found ourselves in conversation with an old lady who lived the neighbouring house. We didn’t grasp everything she said, but it was soon clear that she was desperately lonely and just needed to talk to someone. She told us, amongst other things, about her childhood in Italy, about collecting chestnuts in the mountains, about the British soldier who promised to come back and marry her if he lived.

For a long time we stayed and talked. Long enough to almost miss the last boat, and to see just the hint of a smile.

An apologetic note

October 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

So I’ve been quite bad at keeping this updated lately…which is not to say that there’s been nothing going on. Highlights of the last couple of weeks include:

A great, free Brazilian concert as part of ‘Brazil month’ in Buenos Aires. I fell a little bit in love with Teresa Cristina (supporting argument below)

I feel a trip to Rio becoming more and more enticing.

I’ve also been to the cinema a couple of times, and saw two very different but equally interesting films (El estudiante and Tree of Life). I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on them, but have let it slip. It will have to wait until next week now, as this weekend I’m off to build emergency housing in some of the poorest parts of Buenos Aires with a charity called Un techo para mi país.

The charity released an interesting report this week which said that there are more and more areas around the capital without decent accommodation, and sometimes even electricity or running water. By their estimation, there are 500,000 families in the villas (essentially slums). I would write more, but I have typically left myself lots to do before we head out tonight.

In any case, more about that will probably feature in the next weekly summary I do for pulsamérica, a great independent website offering in-depth, impartial coverage of Latin America, for which I’m now covering Argentina.

The forecast for this weekend is pretty grim – it seems spring here is as capricious as at home. We get days of glorious sunshine, and then (now) quite torrential rain.


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