Thursday, November 3, 2011

Goodbye Buenos Aires (Dr. Joel Horowitz)

I left Buenos Aires on October 31 and arrived the following day in Buffalo. What struck me immediately besides the change in weather—going from spring to fall—and a fall that is about as cold as winter in Buenos Aires, was the quiet. There is no noise on my street or, when there is, it is sporadic. Buenos Aires is like all big cities noisy, but, even more than most, there is constant noise and bustle. The only time my street seemed quiet was in the early morning hours. There is also, with the exception of the early morning, seemingly always lots of people going somewhere or doing something, even if it is drinking coffee in a café. I would guess that in a three block radius of the apartment where I stayed there were almost as many cafes as in all of western New York. It was an area with a very large number. (I could see five cafes from my balcony). Nevertheless it says something about life in Buenos Aires. People’s social life is often in public places and eating and drinking well is important. It is also a society in which, because of a history of numerous periods of high inflation, believes that money might as well be spent.

What could have been an exciting event, the presidential elections of Sunday October 23, turned out to be a non-event. Elections are always held on Sundays and voting is a requirement. The weeks before the election there was no real excitement. There were ads on television but not a lot of posters or people handing out fliers. I only received two fliers during my time there. (Not because I look any different than Argentines—I was asked countless times for directions. If I knew the answer, people always looked embarrassed to be getting directions from a foreigner but until I spoke and my accent was displayed I looked and dressed no differently than many others.) The reason for the lack of interest was that everyone was sure that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would easily win reelection. They were correct. While she won with roughly 54 percent of the vote, she had a 36 percent margin over her closest opponent. The opposition was deeply split and there were many candidates. None of the opposition candidates articulated very clear positions.
Election day I walked around my neighborhood and while there were some lines of people waiting to vote, no one seemed excited. Electioneering is prohibited on election day, as is the sale of alcohol. Late that afternoon, I went over to some friends’ house for tea. (A very Argentine tradition of drinking tea and eating little sandwiches on thin white bread without crust and also pastries of various and sundry types. The idea is of course borrowed from the English.) We turned on the TV to see what the margin was but nothing else. Cristina’s supporters did go to the Plaza de Mayo (the plaza in front of the government house) to celebrate, as one would expect but there was little sense that anything had happened. In the short term little will change. There will be some changes in the president’s cabinet. There are signs that there will be an attempt to improve relationships with Washington, as there had been a relatively rocky relationship and some adjustments in the economic plans. I suspect that the changes in the economy will be larger than the government hopes. The continuing world economic crisis will probably have an impact. Brazil’s economy (Argentina’s most important customer) is slowing down. Whether China and India will continue to buy so many soy beans is beyond my abilities to predict but as long as they do, the basic economic model can survive. However, many people were predicting that right after the election there would be a devaluation of the peso because people think it over valued but the government wants to lessen the devaluation in an attempt to keep inflation somewhat under control. What this has meant is that people are buying dollars and trying to ship them out of the country. The government has instituted tight controls against the buying of dollars. The day I left, I tried to convert my remaining pesos into dollars at the airport but could not. The bank was not allowed to do so. (I could have converted them in Atlanta at the airport but the rate was so bad that whatever the impact of a devaluation, it will be no greater). This type of policy almost certainly will fail as those with real knowledge and large sums of money will find some way of converting to dollars and putting them overseas, forcing a devaluation.

During the time since my last blog, I did spend some time playing tourist. My wife did visit for two weeks and I took some time off to visit churches and historic neighborhoods and the like. Buenos Aires has acquired numerous new museums which are interesting. Some of them are in the new and most expensive part of the city, Puerto Madero. This section of the city was a part of the port and has been the site of intensive real estate development for about two decades. Part of the development is quite attractive. The areas where ships docked are still there, as are the cranes. The old warehouses have been recycled as well. It is the one part of the city that opens itself up to the river that flows by it. However, the many new towers that have been built are soulless. There are few real stores, just expensive restaurants and hotels. Transit to the area is difficult, since access is by a series of bridges and there is little public transit, unlike the rest of the city. It reminds me of the worst of US cities, big towers with no real life (suburbia without grass and trees).

One other way that Buenos Aires has changed is that there are lots of tourists. Thirty years ago there were almost none. Now the city is a hot tourist destination with lots of Europeans and Brazilians and a fair number of North American as well. In some ways it is of course good for the economy, pumping money into the service sector and creating a tremendous need for hotels which had not existed before. It does mean sectors of the city become difficult for local inhabitants to use. For example, one day I was working in a library downtown and I essentially worked through lunch. By about 3:30 I was starving and just finished what I was working on. It was about four and so I decided to walk about four blocks to the Café Tortoni and have hot chocolate and churros (Spanish style crullers), their specialty. The Tortoni is a gorgeous place of wood and stained glass that has been in existence since the 1880s and has been a center of Buenos Aires culture for a long time. President Marcelo T. de Alvear in the 1920s used to walk there from the government house regularly. I have been there numerous times over the years. However, that afternoon I could not get in, as there was a line out the door, all of them tourists, as going to the Tortoni is now seen as a must. I went down the street and ate some pizza instead. Pizzza in Argentina is quite different than in the US and to my taste better. I did make my pilgrimage to the Tortoni by going at about 10:30 in the morning. One could get a table but most people were tourists and the Tortoni has ceased to be a place that locals will go.

Besides being a tourist, I did spend a lot of time in libraries reading old newspapers and taking lots of digital photos and then carefully cataloging them. The next couple of months will entail reading them carefully and organizing them. I also gave four presentations of various sorts to various groups of graduate students and professors. Giving the presentations is relatively stressful and tiring because the preparation time is greater speaking in a foreign language, but more challenging is the question and answer portions but it went well. I gave presentations on the last Wednesday and Thursday I was there and on Wednesday I got taken out for drinks and on Thursday to dinner, so by Friday I was exhausted. In the best tradition of eating out late, on Thursday I got home at a little before midnight and I got up early the next day as it was my last day of research.

The strongest impression I have of my two months in Argentina is that the world recession is uneven. Argentina has been growing fast despite inflation and many people have many more things than ever before. The period since 2003 has seen some of the fastest growth in the history of Argentina. Some of this growth can be put down to the recovery from the economic crisis of 2001, which was the worst in the country’s history, but the economy has long since passed beyond the recovery phase. Whether this can be sustained is hard to say but the neo-liberal model imported in the 1980 and 1990s (less government role in the economy etc.) has left a decided mark. There is a clearer difference between the rich and the poor than there was three decades ago just as there is in the US. The poor are more numerous and more visible and the kind of economy that exists can provide little hope for them. Drug trafficking has also expanded and has brought with it greater crimes rates or at least greater fear of crime. (It is difficult to say whether real statistics would indicate a sharp increase in crime or not. Probably yes but would it be as sharp as the perception of crime?)

Buenos Aires is also a wonderful place that just hums with energy and creativity of all sorts. People seem to be on the go at all times and places. Sometimes because even the simple can be complex but it is a wonderful place to visit and study.

I would like to finish with a fragment of a classic tango which expresses a longing for the city of Buenos Aires. It was first sung in a movie made in Spanish by Paramount in New York in 1934 and sung by Carlos Gardel. Gardel is usually seen as the greatest tango singer and the tango is the classic urban music of Buenos Aires.


My beloved Buenos Aires (1934)

Music by: Carlos Gardel

Lyrics by: Alfredo Lepera

Translated by: Joseph Del Genio

The first link is to the scene of the movie where Gardel sings the song. The second link is to the song (again sung by Gardel) with scenes of Buenos Aires put together by someone.

Mi Buenos Aires querido,
cuando yo te vuelva a ver,
no habra mas penas ni olvido. El farolito de la calle en que naci
fue el centinela de mis promesas de amor,
bajo su inquieta lucecita yo la vi
a mi pebeta luminosa como un sol.
Hoy que la suerte quiere que te vuelva a ver,
ciudad porteña de mi unico querer,
y oigo la queja
de un bandoneón,
dentro del pecho pide rienda el corazón.

My beloved Buenos Aires,
the day I see you again,
there will be no more sorrow or forgetfulness
The lamp of the street where I was born
was witness to my promises of love,
It was under its dim light that I saw her
I saw my pebeta as bright as a sun.
Today luck wants me to see you again,
you my beloved city porteña,
and I hear the lament
of a bandoneón,
asking for his heart to be set free.

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