February 10, 2015
On the Rio Platta sailing away from Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires has given me a lot to think about. How can a first world country become a third world country? Argentina was one of the few countries to do that. Some blame it on the leftist policies of Peron, some on the right wing military dictatorships. I wonder if it wasn’t the victory of passion over good sense, a populist passion fostered by politicians of all stripes, of desperate leaders picking the wrong war, and I wonder if I see the same things happening in my country.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful city that seems to be crumbling. Not as bad as some American cities but the infrastructure is falling apart. Suzi and I walk; the national congress, the Plaza de Mayo, the Pink Palace (presidential residence) and down the main walking and shopping street. Some of the Art Nouveau buildings are beautifully restored. The shops are upscale but the pavement is crumbling. Pedestrians need to take care not to stumble. We walked down several busy streets, not the tony streets with Tommy Whateverfinger stores but just streets. Every block or so the power was off. This must be fairly common because some shops have generators. Some shops have closed, those shop keepers have partially rolled down the shutters and sit outside waiting for power to come back to run, I guess, their cash registers. Other stores are open without emergency generators, summer light pouring in through big windows. Apparently their clerks know how to add without a computer. A sign reads, “No lights still open.” Fortunately traffic signals must be on a different circuit. If they failed the town would fall into complete gridlock.
In the Plaza de Mayo living veterans of the Falkland (Malvinas) War have been camped out for 5 years protesting the lack of benefits while a moderate walk away the Argentine government has built an “Atlantic War” memorial honoring the dead veterans. Men come up and touch names, cross themselves and say a prayer. I think that these men died in an effort to spread fascism and a death squad state to people who didn’t want it. An Argentine might say it was to recover national honor. People see it differently. The memorial is in the shadow of the “English Tower” a red brick clock tower, a gift from the people of England in different times. The memorial is designed face down the English and their tower.
In front of the Congress there is another encampment of families protesting conditions. They live there complete with chickens. On the streets people are selling things to get by. Mostly socks. I don’t understand why socks but we sit at a café and a woman puts two packets of socks on the table and walks away. She does this at each table and then makes the rounds picking up either socks or money. On the street a man approaches me with socks, then a woman. They are always Nike or Adidas knockoffs. This is not much different from New York or DC but still disturbing. One woman approaches Suzi selling big eye, easy thread needles. The streets are not clean and the graffiti is mostly not artful although some is wonderful. Everywhere we walk men approach us saying “cambio, cambio, cambio,” change money. We heard this all the time in Moscow in 1985 as Communism was crumbling. The currency is weak and inflation is high. The official exchange rate is something like 9 pesos to the dollar, unofficially around 14. Many stores are happy to take dollars. Some offer you an exchange of 12 or 14 percent, no receipt. Cab drivers prefer dollars. Both the cruise line and tourist board warn of counterfeit 100 peso notes (with Evita on them). There are long lines, around corners, to buy lottery tickets. This is not to say we are seeing a sad city. People are active and alive. The city has beautiful and wide boulevards and grand palaces. Grit and glamor fit this city.
Walking down the street there are reminders of Eva Peron. A postcard or book on Evita for sale. On 5th of May street the Evita museum is full of tributes and memorabilia, Evita plates, pictures, records and books. Prominent on display are the covers of the two issues of Time Magazine that featured Eva Peron. The museum is free and well curated. The lady who runs it searches for an English booklet on the exhibits and gives it to us along with some Evita bookmarks. She is happy to see us and is excited to share Evita with a pair of Alaskans. This has exactly the same feel of a similar Tito exhibit I saw in Belgrade. Evita Nostalgia, people looking back at a time that seemed more hopeful, or at least had some romance and passion to it. Evita, populism, passion and tango, much of it was on the Radio. Evita had been a radio actress and was a master of the medium. Many of the images of Eita show her in front of a mic. On the street you can buy a reproduction of a hand tinted Evita photograph.
Two of Argentina’s other icons, Maradona and Che have their stuff for sale. Maradona merch is mostly for sale in Barrio le Boca. Che postcards, mugs and stickers are on sale in kiosks. I’m struck by the complete lack of the commercialization of Pope Francis. In Krakow, Poland you could buy Pope plates, statues, postcards, posters, paintings, maybe even a papal bobble head doll. I saw only one souvenir bearing the image of Pope Francis for sale, a sicker. One person I asked said this Pope would not want to be commercialized so we don’t do it.
Now we sail on toward Punta del Este and a day on the beach. I need a down day after the intensity of Buenos Aires. We have walked, watched and tasted excellent wine and beef. We’ve experienced tango culture.
The pictures are various photos from around Buenos Aires over the past two days.