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Argentine Impressions

Av Peter Luthersson

A cemetery walking tour of Buenos Aires raises questions about Argentina's history. Why did the successful country of the late 1800s become today's debt-ridden nation? The hunt for an explanatory perspective led me to an Emmy-winning television journalist, a couple of professors of history and economics and a former finance minister in neighbouring Chile.

1. What do I want to see in Buenos Aires? First, Recoleta Cemetery. Here lies history in a mausoleum, for example, the dictator Rosas, who was overthrown in 1852 in the Battle of Caseros. After his defeat, he went into exile and spent the remaining 25 years of his life in Southampton, England, where he was buried.

The national historiography was initially not merciful to the dictator Rosas. The lion's share of his twenty-year hold on power came to be known as "the terror". But, after World War I, there were revisionists who wanted to refurbish and upgrade him and his rule – revisionists who were nationalists and anti-liberals. Eventually, the revisionists were joined by Juan Perón, not during his first presidential term (1946-1955), but during his second (1973-1974). He wanted the dictator Rosas's remains to be moved to Argentina. It all fizzled out since Juan Peron died and his widow and successor, Isabel Perón lost power after a military coup.

But Carlos Menem, Peronist and president between 1989 and 1999, took up the idea and showed decisiveness and urgency. Already in September 1989, the dictator Rosas's remains had been transferred from England to revolution-celebrating France, where they were received with honours appropriate for a head of state and placed in a new coffin. The coffin was then taken to Buenos Aires and Recoleta Cemetery to the family tomb.

2. Argentina's great poet, Jorge Luis Borges, died in 1986 – shortly before his 87th birthday – and was therefore spared the experience of seeing the dictator Rosas’ remains being repatriated in triumph, albeit with the alleged purpose of achieving "reconciliation". Borges walked happily in Recoleta Cemetery and wrote about it, about wandering "between the long lines of family graves, / where they, with the eloquence of shade and marble / promise or produce the desirable / dignity in being dead".

Borges also wrote poems about the dictator Rosas and about the sea as "a watery barrier / between his remains and the fatherland," Rosas, with "the familiar and dreaded name", Rosas, whose image dwells "mighty and shading / like a shadow of a distant mountain", Rosas, who should not be deigned the "alms of hate".

3. When he walked in Recoleta Cemetery, Borges could walk to other funerary monuments than where Rosas would come to rest, monuments to politicians whom he revered. Here lies Bartolomé Mitre, a liberal who was president between 1862 and 1868 – the founder of the newspaper La Nación, which in 1989 vigorously renounced the Peronists’ repatriation of the dictator Rosas’ remains – the author not only of an extensive biography of the anti-colonial struggle’s frontman, San Martín, but also to a national history where the dictator Rosas’ portrait is painted in the darkest colours. And also resting here – above all – is Domingo F. Sarmiento, also a liberal, Mitre's successor as president from 1868 to 1874, profiled for his commitment and efforts in training and education, for his efforts to put every child and woman in school, the author who even wrote one of Argentina’s and Latin American literature's classic works, Facundo, an embroidery of ideas around the authentic life story of Juan Facundo Quirogas.

Quirogas was gaucho – a representative of a lifestyle on horseback and on the fringes of the law, roving and violent. The dictator Rosas built his power on the gauchos, gathered them around him and exploited them to bloody ends. The Peronists came at last to romanticise the gaucho, perceiving him as a free spirit, as a national symbol to mobilise against foreign influence and foreign interests, and as a defiantly independent figure. They then invoked another literary work of the 1800s other than Facundo – a work that just made a hero of the gaucho – that is, Jose Hernandez’s epic verse, MartínFierro.

Sarmiento, for his part, associated the gaucho not with freedom and independence, but with "barbarism". His counteroffer in Facundo was "civilisation" – a European attitude, marked by tolerance, the statutory rights of commerce and sophisticated culture.

4. Sarmiento's tomb consists of a pillar, on top of which a condor spreads its wings. A text box, just below the bird's claws, contains the words civilizaciónyBarbarie, which is also the subtitle of Facundo.

Borges has also written about Sarmiento and his tomb: "Neither marble nor honour weigh on him. / Our intrusive rhetoric does not erode / his harsh reality," he writes. And: "He is who he is. The fatherland's witness, / who sees our wickedness and our glory, / the light in May and Rosas' tyranny / and the other horrors and the secret days / in a scrupulous future. "And:" His persistent love wants to save us."

5. Under Presidents Mitre and Sarmiento, Argentina would develop until the late 1800s as one of the world's most prosperous countries, with an economy that was one of the best half-dozen or so in the world. Now, today it is different. If I leave Recoleta Cemetery, and instead walk along a street like Moreno in the city centre, I hear everywhere men who whisper or shout "cambio", eager to trade away pesos (that quickly lose their value against the US dollar) at an exchange rate far better than the official one. What has gone wrong in Peronism’s Argentina? In the Rosas admirers’ Argentina?

To get an answer, I go on visits together with some colleagues. First, to the Instituto deInvestigacionesSocialesyJurídicasAmbrosioLGioja, which belongs to the Universidad de Buenos Aires. Gerardo Scherlis receives us in a crowded room with old-fashioned furniture and portraits on the walls of what I assume are former professors, far earlier professors. On the ceiling are three lamps; two work, and the third perpetually blinks. The room thus has an atmosphere that would be at home in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film adaptation of Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Gerardo Scherlis cannot help but comment on the relationship: "So it is in Argentina. Of three things, there is always one that does not work." Then, he immerses himself in the non-functioning.

"The political system is Peronised," he says. President Cristina Kirchner's party, which does not want to be called a "party" but a "movement", has made itself one with the state. There are no seams between party and state. Gerardo Scherlis confided an example of the expression this symbiosis can take: "Five new rooms were being built at the university, so a banner was put up in the party’s colours that says that it's Cristina Kirchner, and this ensures that it gets done." The party in itself has, he says, no longer any ideology. Holding power is the goal. The party, which he prefers to call "the machine", has pursued policies that have sometimes been fascist, sometimes socialist, and sometimes neo-liberal. "The machine" works so that everyone will be dependent on it. But, if the president is unable to serve "the machine", so he or she will be replaced. However, there remains Peronism. The redeeming feature of the real one-party state, as Gerardo Scherlis perceives it, is that it is based on clientelism rather than repression. Therefore, he can fearlessly say what he says to us.

Questions about the state's economic health he waves away: "It's not good, but we've seen worse." He cites his own past, yet still fairly fresh, experience: "Over ten years ago, gross domestic product fell by 20 percent in one year and the unemployment rate rose to 30 percent. Private bank accounts were frozen. I did not get access to my bank accounts for eight years."

6. Jorge Lanata receives us in his home on AvenidadelLibertador. He lives high on the nineteenth floor, and have a wide view, immediately above a railway depot, then a favela, then industrial buildings and a harbour area, where beyond the Río de la Plata, and on the other side of the river, in the distance, there is at least a glimpse of Montevideo. Jorge Lanata chain-smokes. In the bookcase behind him, there are no books but a row of awards. Soon, he will travel to New York to receive an Emmy Award – the television equivalent of film's Oscar.

He is a host on both radio and television, and a former newspaperman. His radio programme has two million listeners, and his television programme has five million viewers. The government, he says, has forced the Argentine Football Association to add televised matches against his own programme, at the same time, but without success in reducing his number of viewers. In his radio and television programmes, he is ironic about the abuse of power and jokes about those in power, but he also scrutinises the state's top executives. Above all, he is mindful of corruption. Argentina has accumulated a considerable debt. But much of the money flow has gone into private bank accounts in Switzerland, he says, and he tells about a twenty-year-old boy with whom he came into contact – a twenty year old boy who had two suitcases full of 500-Euro banknotes, a courier for the ultimate power.

Jorge Lanata is a very intense man. Both words and saliva squirt out of him. Cristina Kirchner wants to silence him and others like him. She has, therefore, pushed through a law against ‘monopoly’ in the media. In practice, however, the law applies only to ‘monopolies’ that are critical of the government. Such ‘monopolies’ have been forced to sell part of their holdings.

7. Our little circle continues on and ends up with yet another executive at the Universidad de Buenos Aires; a macro economist, Professor Daniel Heymann, who turns out to be a modern Powerpoint expert. He shows us a considerable amount of charts, curves, graphs and lines running the length and breadth. He reels off numbers after numbers and even more numbers. But not once does he gather himself to present a context, a sufficient connection or causal relationship. Any complication seems to make something as trivial as a context quite impossible.

We take an excursion to Santiago to get some perspective and meet another macroeconomist and professor – a man with a name that can get in his own way, Rolf Luders, now 78 years old, once a finance minister under General Pinochet. Rolf Luders is no Powerpoint expert. He takes a felt pen and draws, freehand, a curve on a white board. It is a comparison between Chile's gross domestic product per capita and the United States’ from the early 1800s to today. From 1810 to 1912, the line rises steadily and the gap decreases. In 1912, Chile's gross domestic product per capita was 52 percent of America's. But then the line dips and the gap increases. In 1980, Chile's gross domestic product per capita was only 17 percent of the United States. Then the line rises again and the gap is reduced. In 2013, Chile's gross domestic product per capita was 38 percent of America's. Where the two lines rise, Rolf Luders writes "free market". Where the line tilts downward, he writes "protectionism". Right away, I think I have understood something.

Rolf Luders’ freehand drawn curve is certainly true of Chile and not Argentina, but probably also says something about Argentina. Presidents like Mitre and Sarmiento focused on the "free market", while Juan Perón and most Peronists have invested in "protectionism". Argentina, unlike Chile, has not seriously re-established the late 1800s’ recipe for success and got the line to rise again. It has instead continued to tip downwards. Yes, I know, I’m speculating. But the hypothesis seems strong.

8. So it was with General Pinochet, who led a military junta that overthrew President Allende on September 11, 1973. At the time of the senior officers' seizure of power, Chile's economy was in chaos. Gross domestic product had fallen apart, and inflation was 500 percent. The generals, let us for simplicity’s sake call them that, had to choose whether to establish a command economy through the usual dictatorship cuts or to push market economic reforms. It stuck, at length, with the latter.

Rolf Luders talks about how he became finance minister in August 1982. General Pinochet called him and made him the offer. The dialogue that followed was roughly this:

-- What am I supposed to do? – That I do not know. It is you who knows what you want to do. But there will be a big political price associated with it. – Do not worry about that. The political price, I will pay.

Rolf Luders became finance minister and conducted market economic reforms, ‘free market’ instead of ‘protectionism’.

Would it then be correct to say that Chile's economic success in recent decades can, to some extent, be attributed to General Pinochet? "I would not put it that way," says Rolf Luders, "We would never have been able to do this without Pinochet. Another fact is that he was very brutal."

Three thousand people were murdered in Chile in the aftermath of the Pinochet's seizure of power.

9. Borges, an admirer of Mitre and Sarmiento and critic of the dictator Rosas and Juan Peron, failed to simultaneously hold the two thoughts in his head that Rolf Luders saw as inseparable. Borges fell for the logic about making friends with one’s enemy's enemy. When General Videla in 1976 overthrew Isabel Perón, Borges was invited to lunch by the new leader. Afterwards, he explained that the junta in Argentina consisted of gentlemen. Later, in 1976, he traveled to Santiago in Chile, the Chile where Sarmiento had been in exile during the regime of the dictator Rosas and where Sarmiento had then authored Facundo. In Santiago, Borges met with General Pinochet. And from his hand, he received the Grand Cross of the Order of Bernardo O'Higgins.

10. Back in Buenos Aires, we visit Carlos Escudé, who once several years ago was a doctoral student at St Antony's in Oxford, but got his doctorate at Yale and is now a history professor in Buenos Aires. Carlos Escudé’s floor is enchanting. The walls are covered with framed pictures: engravings, knitting, illuminations, and prints, Goya, Piranesi. In a couple of glass cabinets, there are mostly aged Native American objects: pipes, pots, and figurines. There are cupboards and boxes with marquetry inlays and, for me, unknown contents. In a decorated vase, there stands a collection of walking sticks. On a tea trolley is a collection of shells. The floors are covered with carpets, which also partially overlap.

Carlos Escudé is not prepared to say anything unambiguous about Argentina or Argentina's history. He revels in paradoxes. As soon as he tries a generalisation he states something somewhat contradictory and unleashes a boisterous laugh. Of course, he is worried that taxes as a share of gross domestic product have passed 30 percent, and certainly he dislikes inflation and the national debt in dollars that never seems to go away. But, above all, he wants to draw attention to the qualities of Argentine society: security and everyday life. The risk of war with other nations is non-existent and the space for well-being is sufficient, at least for university employees. He wonders: "If you had a house in London, one in Berlin and one in Buenos Aires 100 years ago, which has the biggest chance of still existing?" And he says, sweeping his hand towards a window onto a courtyard garden: "Do you hear the birds?" We both hear and see them. He adds: "I live between two avenues, but you hear no traffic." He would not dare to live in Europe. Speaking of the future, he notes, laconically: "I see genocide." 7

The quotations from poems come from Jorge Luis Borges’Tigrarnasguld (Swedish interpretation by Marina Torres and Artur Lundkvist, 1975).

Mest lästa just nu

1) Tystnadskultur av Jon Åsberg

2) En evig renovering av Peter Santesson

3) Barnen byggs bort av Simon Westberg

4) Liberal svanesång av Malcom Kyeyune

5) Från taktisk triumf till pyrrhusseger av PJ Anders Linder

NR 7 2014

Axess Magasin

Är en tidskrift inom området humaniora/samhällsvetenskap och utges av Axess Publishing AB. Tidskriftens målsättning är att fungera som en knutpunkt mellan den akademiska och den publicistiska sfären.

 

Chefredaktör: PJ Anders Linder
Redaktörer: David Andersson, Mats Wiklund, Jan Söderqvist.
Redaktionssekreterare: Katarina O’Nils Franke
Redaktionsråd: Peter Elmlund, Thomas Gür, Peter Luthersson, Nathan Shachar, Louise Belfrage
Ansvarig utgivare: Peter Elmlund

 

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