There was some comfort to be drawn last week from the interminable coverage by Grupo Clarín’s TN of the arrival and sighting of the whales at Puerto Pirámides, and the penguins at Punta Tombo, near Puerto Madryn. The satisfying element was that there were no politicians to be sighted. The TV announcer kept on saying that this was the biggest land-based penguin colony in the world and it was on the coastline of the Argentine Sea. This was an important part of his blah blah blah (the Argentine Sea), to emphasise that these were special penguins and they were Argentine, ours, etc.
The TV reporter might be forgiven: he was probably helping to prepare the 200-plus hectares of protected penguin mating territory for devastation by tourists. That is one of the great aspects of Argentina, blowing trumpets to disguise failings. Maybe every society does as much. But we tell ourselves that we are special because we have penguins, and Nobel winners such as Saavedra Lamas, Bernardo Houssay, César Milstein, and more, a Pope and tons of great guys such as Diego Armando Maradona. Leading personalities all… and yet as a society we are a congenital disaster.
Collectively (not always individually) we have made a mess of ourselves from the beginning, or before. Apart from the annual visits of mating penguins it is not easy to explain ourselves.
Cast a read of the court-martial of general John Whitelocke, a desk-bound officer who made a hash of the second British landing (1807) at Buenos Aires, then under Spanish rule. He was put on trial to satisfy a public baying for blood and a commercial community that had banked on a new colony for trade while Napoleon had closed European ports. In a personal discharge which did not help him, but we should not forget, Whitelocke said it was best to bring hostilities to an end because desertion was a disease: “The more the soldiers become acquainted with the plenty that the country offers and the easy means of acquiring it, the greater will be the evil, as the temptation is irreversible.”
That was early 19th century and in the early 20th came the great Georges Clemenceau, Radical Socialist, activist, politician, author and prime minister of France in World War I, who visited Buenos Aires in 1 9 1 0 (he was not invited for the centenary ceremonies), who wrote in a series of travel articles later collected in a book that “Argentina grows thanks to the fact that politicians and government sometimes stop stealing when they are sleeping.” Clemenceau added to this innate evil that, “I have not known any other country in which so many people feel they have a birthright to live off the State.” This might mean living in a lie, not just a bubble.
My grumble was condensed in a woman’s observation during a recent conversation. “Why can’t you understand?” the lady asked. “Argentina lives in a fairy tale. People love Argentina because of tango and those from overseas think they can do everything that is forbidden elsewhere.” I didn’t quite understand that example of Argentine-Think but the vigorous statements were poured out, as often happens, over a delicious meal of best beef cuts. Her husband quipped: “We live in an expanded Macondo,” referring to Gabriel García Márquez. “And that can’t be compared to R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi, a possible Indian equivalent but far more orderly.”
There is an element of veracity in such outbursts, although there seldom is action to reverse the circumstances. Anybody can make a list of choice woes. However, fancy a place where you have a senior member of government trying to store bags full of US dollars in a nunnery which turned out not to be a convent and the occupants were not nuns. We have a justice system that is not just, that is ancient, unchanged in the absurdity of trial by stacks of paper, where people who commit amazing crimes don’t go to prison and occasionally serve brief detentions and then ask for pardons.
No expressed view is objective in Argentina. Often it is not even subjective. It is a straight lie. A recent example happened in a takeover of the University of Córdoba. The activists came from the PO (‘Workers Party’) who sometimes seem trained for executive management, given their dramatic order. They, the Trots, were demanding something which pales in face of the destruction they caused. It was just a show of power in a nationwide fever. They seized a section of the university in which is a huge student refectory. The Trots ruined the furniture (which was not the best, granted) and used the curtains as table covers. The leaseholder asked if he could remove food that would soon rot, but he was rejected and he did not succeed in his recourse to the courts.
Last Monday, September 24, was the 144th anniversary of an 1874 military-political uprising against then-president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Among the rebels was general Bartolomé Mitre who had preceded Sarmiento as president and is now portrayed as a great democrat. The uprising was crushed on December 7, 1874.
In the same line of changing support you could leap almost another century and bring in Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, who was cheered on by thousands on Saturday, April 10, 1982. And on June 16, just over two months later, he was scum. Nobody that you knew had cheered him in Plaza de Mayo. As time rolls on, nothing changes. Nobody, it would appear, voted Carlos Saúl Menem for a second term in May, 1995. But he secured 47 percent. Nobody voted Cristina Kirchner for re-election in 2011. But she won by 54 percent. Her dead husband Néstor Kichner, never did explain what happened with the YPF privatisation cash transferred to Santa Cruz by Menem. Néstor fudged the answer, but with the passage of time an explanation of sorts surfaced. Half of the cash was lost in post-Soviet bonds, in the 1990s. Another portion went to buying Eduardo Duhalde’s support in a presidential election. Kirchner secured 22 percent in the first round.
Even if only a minimum sampling, this shows what we are. Why do we do this to ourselves?
Argentine history is peppered with incidents of dishonesty, but only a sampling can be shown here. There is a flyer in circulation that asks me to support Cristina Fernández de Kirchner against the travesty of democracy that is dragging her through the courts. Does anybody believe this tripe? I was given to read an election pamphlet covering 11 years in government and printed by Uruguay’s Frente Amplio. At the end of it, some smart arse had written, “Success, we are a great small country, and we have no Peronists.” The thing is, Argentina was a mess before 1943, and teenagers have to be taught that history did not start on March 24, 1976, but before that.
I read the pamphlet carefully. It helped me decide that I would be better off counting penguins.