- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008





For a (North) American, Argentina resembles fun-house mirrors - like those that make you look taller and skinnier or shorter and fatter - or maybe the way you really look. They show us something about our past, about our present and, one hopes, a future we can somehow avoid.

In the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, there are magnificent, turn-of-the-19th-century palaces in the flamboyant French “belle-epoque” style. Some are now sumptuous embassies, private clubs and hotels. Many are still are in private hands. There are glittering modern apartment houses and hotels. Recoleta reminds one of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

In the center, along impossibly wide avenues march huge neo-classical government office buildings like those in Washington. There is even an obelisk, like the Washington Monument. Fancy neighborhoods like Martinez and San Isidro remind you of upscale U.S. bedroom communities.

It’s a world-class city of something like 18 million, with world-class art, music, nightlife and, of course, food.

If many things in Argentina remind you of the United States, there are striking differences. There are almost no people of color. Very few Asians and, except for some rural areas, there are almost no Native Americans. There are virtually no people descended from Africans.

Argentina is much more homogeneous than the United States. Something like 97 percent of the people are of European extraction. Most are Italian, then Spanish, then English, French, Germans, etc. About 80 percent are Roman Catholic.

They have created a uniquely Argentine society. Throughout South America, a common joke is that an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish - and thinks he’s English. Most live in cities, almost half in Buenos Aires, but they fancy themselves country folk, descended culturally if not physically from the frontier cowboys, the “gauchos” - the way many Americans sport cowboy boots and think themselves cultural offspring of the Wild West.

Nevertheless, Argentina is no melting pot.

Many of the rich think of themselves permanently in hyphenated terms - as “Anglo-Argentines,” for example. Even after families have been here for generations, some live in ethnic neighborhoods, such as the upscale Buenos Aires area called “Hurlingham,” where children attend imitation English schools, such as St. George’s College for boys, and Northlands for girls. Many young people go “home” to England for university. They maintain their British citizenship, and many speak English at home in Buenos Aires. The same is true for many families from France, Germany and elsewhere. It’s an important cultural factor, as seen in Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s novel, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” about Argentine families from France and Germany who intermarry, but send their sons back to Europe to kill one another in two world wars.

Like the United States, Argentina got rich from its natural resources. When the palaces and boulevards were constructed, Argentina was very rich. In 1900, the U.S. had a per capita GDP of $4,000, and Argentina’s was $2,800. Now the U.S. is at $45,000, while Argentina is at $13,000. Argentina has gone from being the 12th richest country to the 60th.

Decay is everywhere. Buildings aren’t maintained. Roads are so bad that fast-moving cars, trucks and buses lurch wildly to avoid gigantic pot-holes. In fancy Recoleta, sidewalks vanish with no warning. Wherever you walk, you have to stare at your feet to avoid breaking an ankle.

More importantly, people are much poorer. Traditionally, Argentina was a rare exception to the old line about Latin America: Too many poor people; too few rich people; too much army; too much church. Traditionally, Argentina had a large, prosperous, well-educated middle class, a small, rich, landed “oligarchy,” and a few truly poor - mostly Bolivian immigrants.

Now you see many poor people. Shantytowns, “villas miseria,” are all around Buenos Aires - common in Sao Paolo and Caracas, but traditionally not here. At night packs of scavengers, “cartoneros,” search people’s trash for cardboard and other things to sell to recyclers. Disciplined bands of unemployed - “piqueteros” - help make the “villas miseria” more habitable and also systematically block highways and streets in and around the city with huge bonfires to pressure the government to do more to help.

The middle class is virtually gone. A schoolteacher with more than 30 years’ experience earns 3,500 pesos per month - less than $1,100. A young schoolteacher earns 2,000 pesos ($625) a month - but she can’t find a full-time job. So she has several part-time jobs and works 60 hours a week and more, plus the time to get from one school to another. Unemployment, officially, is 9 percent. Welfare payments are $40 per month.

Crime is a major problem. Fear is rampant. Security in apartment houses and private homes is amazing. People live behind wrought iron bars, with triple-locked doors, steel shutters on windows, electronic security systems, and dogs. In residential neighborhoods, virtually every block has a guardhouse with a privately paid watchman. Rich people drive old cars and never wear jewelry - even costume jewelry - in public for fear of attracting kidnappers.

How did Argentina go from being rich to poor? It still has rich land and minerals. It has a well-educated population of 40 million. It was never invaded. Except for that silly little war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, it has been at peace for a long time. No natural disasters. How has this country been impoverished?

There are two interrelated answers: First, polarization of the population; second, economic mismanagement by governments of all political persuasions.

Despite ethnic and religious homogeneity, Argentines have been at war with one another for generations. Regardless of ideology, governments have frequently used the power of government to destroy their opponents. From Juan and Eva Peron down to the current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirschner, Peronist governments have waged economic war against the rich. Peron’s widow, Isabel, was overthrown in a military coup in 1976, and, for the next seven years, the ruling junta tortured and murdered tens of thousands of trade-unionists, students and others.

Economically, successive Argentine governments have made just about every mistake in the book - including the fiasco when the junta propped up the peso with a Ponzi scheme. The inevitable collapse is what led the generals to invade the Falklands. Then, in the late 1990s, President Carlos Menem adhered to “Washington consensus” policies of free trade, privatization and deficit reduction endorsed by the United States, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It led to disaster, especially for the middle class.

Argentina has, in effect, two economies: One for the vast majority, squeezed by shrinking real wages, and the other for the very rich, with bank and securities accounts outside Argentina safe from devaluations, expropriation and taxes. The government taxes the rich by taxing exports - beef, soya and other raw materials. President Kirchner recently tried to raise export taxes, and landowners stopped exporting. Mrs. Kirchner gave in. Now she plans to nationalize private pension funds - either because, as supporters say, the funds have been mismanaged, or, as others fear, because the government needs the cash.

The bottom line is a total lack of trust. Argentines have a common culture, but no sense of community. Everyone thinks everyone is corrupt. The pervasive feeling of helplessness has undermined the work ethic. On a recent Thursday night, the owner of a thriving 500-seat restaurant noted that there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. “The place will be jammed up all night,” she said. “We close at 6 in the morning, and there will be lots of people still here then. What kind of productivity do you think they will have at work tomorrow?”

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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