Words for everyone

May 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Buenos Aires is a city where words don’t stay in books or magazines. Slogans are graffitied on every street, from the Cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo to the back alleys of Constitución. Most are to do with football (‘Con River no se jode’, ‘San Telmo es de Boca’) or politics (‘Néstor vive’, ‘Basta de perseguir a Quebracho’). 

The defining line between the two is not particularly clear. In fact, after nearly ten months living here I’m still amazed by how quickly politics (and, inevitably, the president) become a part of almost any discussion. 

The latent presence of politics is so strong that some words or phrases are, for me at least, irretrievably associated with an idea or a person. One example would be the phrase ‘para todos’ (for everyone), which after a succession of government programmes (fútbol para todos, carne para todos) always makes me expect a new state initiative. After football and meat, what will be next? A quick Google search tells me that ‘fish for everyone’ is already in existence. 

This sort of political penetration reaches even more basic levels of language. I’ve never conducted this experiment, but I’d be willing to bet that if you asked an average Argentine the question: ‘Quién es “él”?’ (Who is ‘he’?), the answer would come quite easily: Néstor Kirchner. I’ve written here before about how President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner effectively invokes the memory of her dead husband without naming him, turning him into a powerful symbol for the successes of his (and her) administration. The comments on that post also show, incidentally, how complex politics in Argentina is.

Still, what I want to get at is the high level of consciousness here of the complex links between politics and language. I wonder whether an analysis like this one of the ‘philosophy of language’ of a political leader would make it into the opinion pages of a leading UK newspaper. 

I suspect that, at heart, this is nothing new. The novel I’m reading at the moment, Sobre héroes y tumbas by Ernesto Sábato, shows how the politics and history of identity can become tied up in language here.

But the linked article, by Beatriz Sarlo, makes an important point: the refusal of the president to admit questions in press conferences, along with the fact that almost no one else from her government speaks publicly, suggests a controlling attitude to discourse. 

An environment where the president’s is practically the only voice – and where all major announcements are transmitted simultaneously on all TV channels – allows the creation of a powerful political narrative. ‘Debate’ is not recognised by the government – as Sarlo says, ‘every contradiction becomes an attack, and every attack becomes personal’. Opposition media commentators are often dismissed as puppets of their evil corporate bosses. 

This is canny strategy, for sure.  But I’m not convinced that it guarantees the best solutions to Argentina’s problems.


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!’)

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