When a bunch of trees on the main street of the capital city become a major political talking point, either the news has become rather dull with nothing of merit to report or something odd is going on. In Argentina, nothing is ever ordinary, from the overly plastic celebrites on their version of Dancing With the Stars to the exchange rate of the peso. This is the country where old ladies walk their dogs on the street at 3am on a weekday night, the steak on your plate is the size of a small child and no restaurant website contains prices because they go up so quickly and at a rate no one, not even the state knows or admits to knowing. For some foreigners this can seem exhilirating but at the same time it grates, making one age quicker than they would normally do. Yet somehow Argentines seem to revel in it.
Argentines are people of extremes; hot and cold with a distrubing penchant for a kind of masochism for faulty things that rather than fixing them would find more pleasure in the the act of protest, the white heat of emotion than the cold, calculated need for collective consensus and planning.
It was less than thirty minutes after stepping off my plane I came in to contact with this side of the Argentine psyche. As the airlines disgorged their passengers, many of them locals with oversized bags full of electronic goods their government had tried to discourage them from buying at home with import restrictions, the crowd slammed head on into the painfully slow queues of customs. Literally hundreds of people were met with just four x-ray machines as if a storm surge came in to contact with an impregnable dam. People packed up in lines that swirled around the baggage claim area for hundreds of metres like a drunken snake. It was 9am and after an overnight flight lasting 14 hours I was not prepared for the electric atmosphere that resembled a football match. People screamed, shouted and slow-clapped at the indifferent and lazy customs officers who grumpily barked at you to put your bags through the x-ray machines. There were no riots but certainly irate people yet strangely it almost felt like they were consumed in parts by the whole experience. It seemed like the frustration emitted a pheromone that the locals just could not get enough of, one that certainly I was not affected by as I grudgingly and quietly slugged along in the queue.
This was not something new, a product of increased passenger numbers with no increase in supply of customs officials and machinery. It has always been this way. They say the British love queuing but in Argentina it is warily a part of life, an inevitability like humid summers in Buenos Aires. It is to be expected but no one can do anything about it but to everyone else who is not from Argentina would certainly beg to differ. They will moan and complain yet nothing will change.
Argentina has successfully made itself an image out of not changing. Buenos Aires is the city of “Faded Grandeur”, a place that in parts resemble Belle Epoque Paris with a metro over a hundred years old that until recently ran on one of its’ lines the same clickety, wooden cars that swooped through its’ tunnels upon its inauguration in 1912. History abounds, looking forlorn and lived in without the spruced-up chocolate box look many other cities around the world have created of their architectural heritage. In that one can find charm but also something more sad and symptomatic of inherent problems in Argentine society.
|Glamour and decline on Buenos Aires Metro|
In a society of so many extremes, there is no middle ground. You are either a Boca Juniors fan or supporter of River Plate; a Peronist or not. In the 19th century you were either a firm believer in a strong, centralized state or for a loosely federal nation. There was and to many extents there still is no middle ground. Consensus is an alien term, bereft of the passion and conviction of taking sides. It is here that lies the handicap of Argentine society that has hobbled it for generations and to this very day. It manifests itself in the strangest of ways but has distilled itself in to its finest form in the politics of the nation.
From the fulcrum of the Argentine Congress and the Casa Rosada, the official residence of the President of the Republic, its’ tentacles latch on to a constellation of issues and grievances. The fate of some trees on the vast expance of 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world become pawns in a political struggle where environmentalism is just an excuse for lobbing another political bomb at the opposition.
Each side has at its head a charismatic leader, someone who fights tooth and nail for the cause, who advocates an existentialist fight where you are with or against them. If against you are a dangerous threat and must be eliminated. All this passion feeds the masses who lap it up and come under its spell. A strike by border police hints a government official is akin to a coup, the end of support of a major media group for the president results in legislation to break it up. From each side the leaders stand on their podiums to berate, instill fear and galvanize their supporters. It is almost theatrical if it was not so damaging. All the time any concept of the middle ground is evaporated in the heat of the political fire from the extremities. Politics is made on the foundations of consensus, without it, the edifice of the nation slowly crumbles.
|Argentines are consumed by the drama of protest|
Argentina seems to be thoroughly engrossed with its own personal theatre while its neighbours slowly and calmly move on. Many of its South American peers have had a similar history to Argentina yet have in the past twenty years taken a different path, one where the hard work and the building of bridges is bearing fruit. On a recent trip to Santiago I was surprised by how different it was in Chile. Basically things worked while in Argentina they did not. While both have grown rapidly over the last decade, the physical product of that effort is to be seen in Chile with clean streets, extensive, modern infrastructure and a city one feels safe in. This is to be contrasted with the shoddy, dog excrement-strewn and at times dodgy streets of Buenos Aires, full of tragic looking old buses, unkempt and old highways and a metro that until very recently was a neglected relic, incapable of accommodating the increased passenger numbers.
In Argentina’s closest neighbours; Chile, Uruguay and Brazil; the bitter divisions of the past have been constructively tackled and an air of consensus has prevailed. In Brazil, former president Luiz Inacio da Silva, an ardent left-winger worked closely with other parties generally opposed to him in Congress to create a consensual framework to reduce poverty and harness the wealth of resource-rich nation. Working together is not seen as denying the original cause but a means to move forward bit by bit. If the United States wanted to see the effect of a polarized and divided political establishment, it would find a chilling example in Argentina.
This drug of drama intoxicates the nation and handicaps it while its’ neighbours move along the steady road of progress. While leaders galvanize hearts and minds over nonsensical and trivial notions and the people pleasure themselves masochistically over the products of their failures of crumbling infrastructure and indemic corruption, a nation which a hundred years ago held so much promise and was the fifth richest nation in the world continues its slow decline. As much as Argentina needs a big slap truth, it continues its own dance. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that “reality is not always probable or likely”. Maybe this Argentine had his country in mind. It certainly feels that way there.