Southern Exposure 17: Argentina, First Stop

The Zaandam docked in the massive container port in Buenos Aries before dawn on  November 14. Since we will be here only a day, we  plan to fly back to Buenos Aries after the cruise is over for a few more days. It is kind of hard to learn everything you need to know about a city in one day with an urban core of over 4 million and a metro area of 14 million. It will take two days, maybe even three. Which, of course, points to the principle dilemma of a tour like this. In a best case situation you are skimming the surface. One who suggests that you can even begin to grasp the significance of a country, any country, in one or two days, of course, is a fool. This personality type is illustrated  in the “Howell Personality Matrix,” which demonstrates that there are really only four personality types: smart and arrogant, dumb and humble, smart and humble and dumb and arrogant. The world traveler that thinks he or she can figure out a country in a day or two is Category Four in spades: dumb and arrogant. Count me in.

But on the other hand I recall an experienced world traveler make this comment when we were touring India a decade ago: “You can spend a day or two in India, maybe a week, and conclude that you have a pretty good idea of what the country is all about. You can spend a month or two in  India and start to have doubts. You can spend a year or two and realize you are on shaky ground, or a decade or two and have no earthly idea what this country they call India is all about.”

Now that you have been forewarned, you can put my first impressions in context: Buenos Aires is world class. As Hank’s comments point out in my last post, the city feels more European than any other city in the Americas, North or South. It boasts the world’s widest boulevard with 24 lanes, many separated by slim, green promenades. Some have estimated it takes the average pedestrian over an hour to get from one side to the other, a bit exaggerated but impressive just the same. The city has its green parks and lush gardens with the blue-blossomed jacaranda trees in full bloom, plazas, its “Obelisk,” which looks like the Washington Monument, monumental government buildings, luxury hotels, ancient, elegant apartment buildings with fancy shops on the ground level, restaurants, cafes, museums, and the bumper-to-bumper traffic you would expect. The sidewalks are packed with pedestrians. Clusters of 50 and 60-story, sparkling skyscrapers now dot the skyline. Energy and vitality are ubiquitous. 

Its mix of old and new remind me a bit of  Melbourne or Sydney or Barcelona.

There is a heavy Italian presence here due to immigration and a passion for the tango and for futbol, the two national pastimes. 

Like all of the other countries in Latin America, Argentina has had its ups and downs. The two eras you hear most about are the Peron Era—especially the importance of  Evita—and the oppressive dictatorship that followed when thousands of artists, journalists, intellectuals, professors, clergy and supporters of the opposition disappeared, never to be seen again. This period—from 1976 to 1983 marked a low point in the country’s rich history.   Financial issues and near bankruptcy doomed the country following that in the early 2000s, but were resolved by 2010. Recent years have been strong by comparison with a fairly robust economy and an expansion of the social safety net. Storm clouds, however, appear to be forming again on the horizon, as inflation is running rampant, and concerns mount as to whether the country can afford to  continue to provide generous social benefits. Issues of income disparities are surfacing here as elsewhere.  International finance experts  probably have Argentina on their Watch List. More will follow when we return to the country in about a week.

The story of the day was the drug deal. Well, it was not really a drug deal, but it sure felt like one. We worked out an arrangement with the owner of the Airbnb where we will be staying when we return for us to leave one big piece of luggage with him now so that we could travel light in Brazil. That meant we had to go through customs with the bag, then flag a cab to take us to the apartment. When we got to the customs area, a workman pointed us to a door to the right, which opened into a huge, dark warehouse area with no one present. So there we were standing alone in a vast, deserted area wondering what to do next. It was exactly the kind of setting where two guys in trench coats, wearing fedoras and dark glasses, and carrying concealed weapons come out of the woodwork with a suitcase full of cash. 

We looked around, spotted an exit sign in the distance and bolted for it before the gangsters could catch up with us. We thought we had made it out until apprehended by the authorities, handcuffed and interrogated in the police department. No, this is fake news, but it sure felt like that could have happened. All that did happen is that the port patrol guys ran our bags through the x-ray machine, smiled and wished us luck.

As they say here in Argentina, no problema.

And speaking of fake news, yes, we are following, when we can, on the ship’s fuzzy television, the live impeachment drama on MSNBC where we know we can get totally unbiased news (also the only network available to us that is carrying it). When you follow Mr. Trump, you can’t help making the comparison to the scores of dictators that have left their mark of tyranny and oppression on every single country on this continent. You ask how could this could have happened?   How could a continent which is so close to the U.S. have had such an unstable, tragic, and different history from our  own? Why have we in the U.S. never had to deal with anything like the dictators and scoundrels that they have had?

 Well, guess what, we may not be so different after all. Trump is made out of the same cloth as these South American despots and if successful could make us part of the club. The Republican Party has caved, having morphed into a personality cult. The big question is whether our Constitution—and our voting public– will prevent  Trump from taking us down the road to disaster that has plagued so many nations to our south. 

Jury out.

Stay tuned. On to Brazil! 

2 thoughts on “Southern Exposure 17: Argentina, First Stop

  1. The reason that Latin American countries have had such a tragic, unstable history is largely due to the U.S. interferrence in their elections and deposing the better leaders one way or another. The U.S. has not let a single, leftist oriented leader remain in power.
    Yesterday a guy from Ghana pointed out that N’Kruma, the best leader of that nation, was removed the year after he did one of the best things for the country: stockpile cocoa so that the price rose dramatically.

  2. Great essay as always, but you are understating the tremendous volatility that has affected Argentina’s economy in recent times as well. As it became clear that the reformist Macri government would lose in thie recent elections, the currency and the equity market crashed earlier this year, resulting in a one-week equity market decline of 60%, one of the steepest ever seen in world financial history.

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