Archive for the ‘Argentina’ Category

The Iron Lady

It was only during a trip to Argentina a few years ago that I came to fully realize the import, in both Argentina and Britain, of the 1982 mini-war over the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. The war is still a raw and recent sore for Argentina and a (mostly) proud moment of triumph for what is left of a empire that once never saw the sun set.

The Argentine invasion of the sparely populated, wind-blown and British controlled islands came at a low point of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity. But, in the wake of the Argentine aggression, when Thatcher summoned her best Winston Churchill and vowed to retake one of the last remaining outposts of the British Empire her stock began to rise and she truly became the Iron Lady of late 20th Century history.

Lady Thatcher’s death at age 87 will set off a wave of analysis about her role in world affairs, her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who she once called the “second most important man in my life,” and her political legacy. The final chapter on Thatcher – “steely resolve” is the favorite description today – will not be written for another decade or more as Great Britain, under the current Tory government, sorts out its place in Europe and the world, but this much can be said – she was, in the spirit of that great British term, a “one-off,” a tough, demanding, outspoken conservative woman who played politics with sharp elbows and a biting sense of humor. And she often played her role better than the men around her.

One can only speculate that the military junta who ruled Argentina in 1982 never in its wildest dreams believed that an economically troubled Britain so far removed from the islands they call the Malvinas and led, of all things, by a woman would actually resort to force to retake a little patch of rocky soil. Channeling Churchill and vowing not to let aggression stand, Thatcher assembled a War Cabinet, which she dominated, and deployed the British fleet and the Royal Marines. Thatcher’s Royal Navy, for good measure, sunk an Argentine battle cruiser after it had been well established that the generals in Buenos Aires where simply no match for the Lady at 10 Downing Street. The same could later be said for the old men trying to hang on to power in Moscow. Thatcher’s legacy certainly must also include a chapter on her role in defending democratic aspirations in eastern Europe, particularly Poland.

One of the best and most even handed assessments of Thatcher came today from Richard Carr a British political scientist and historian of British Conservative politics: “To supporters, she changed Britain from a nation in long-term industrial decline to an energetic, dynamic economy. To opponents, she entrenched inequalities between the regions and classes and placed the free market above all other concerns. Our politics, and many of our politicians, have been forged in her legacy.” That last sentence may best describe her real importance. Every British politician today has to reckon with Thatcher, just as every American politician must reckon with FDR, JFK and Reagan.

Like her friend Ronnie, the “B” movie actor from humble origins who became a transformative president, Thatcher, the daughter of a grocery shopkeeper who fought her way to the very top of British politics, helped define an era. As the Washington Post pointed out Thatcher modernized British politics to such a degree that future Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair adopted many of her policies and approaches.

“While unapologetically advancing what she considered the Victorian values that made Britain great, Mrs. Thatcher thoroughly modernized British politics, deploying ad agencies and large sums of money to advance her party’s standing,” the Post wrote today.  “The Iron Lady, as she was dubbed, was credited with converting a spent Conservative Party from an old boys club into an electoral powerhouse identified with middle-class strivers, investors and entrepreneurs.” Thatcher’s was the kind of re-invention of the British Conservative Party in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that some American Republicans only dream about for their party today.

Thatcher once said she never expected to see a woman as British Prime Minister, but it is a testament to her and her political party – mostly her – that she seized the chance when she got it and played her hand skillfully for 11 powerful years on the world stage. At her death there will be the inevitable comparisons with “the iron lady” of American politics Hillary Clinton, but in many ways the comparisons really don’t work. Sure, both women are tough and in many respects were tried by fire, but after those similarities the comparison breaks down.

Thatcher was old school. She beat the boys at their own game. She may have been carrying a handbag, but when she swung that bag she aimed for someone’s head. She was also unabashedly full of convictions and understood power. “Being powerful is like being a lady,” she once said. “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”‘

Is hard to envision The Iron Lady – she once famously told a Tory Party conference “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning” – making a YouTube video to announce a change in her position on same sex marriage. Thatcher was a true conviction politician, while Clinton seems to be falling into the same trap that ultimately doomed her presidential candidacy in 2008. She allows her handlers – Thatcher, by contrast, did the handling – to consistently portray her not as a leader of deep and important conviction, but as a woman of destiny, the first female American president who will get there as an inevitable fact of history.

Clinton may eventually find, as Maureen Dowd wrote recently in the New York Times, that she can learn new tricks and not merely be inevitable, but also necessary. “Even top Democrats who plan to support Hillary worry about her two sides,” Dowd wrote. “One side is the idealistic public servant who wants to make the world a better place. The other side is darker, stemming from old insecurities; this is the side that causes her to make decisions from a place of fear and to second-guess herself. It dulls her sense of ethics and leads to ends-justify-the-means wayward ways. This is the side that compels her to do anything to win, like hiring the scummy strategists Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and greedily grab for what she feels she deserves.”‘

There is, of course, nothing inevitable in history and acting on fear is never a winning strategy. Political leaders respond to events, as Thatcher did in the Falklands and to the Cold War in Europe, and either make their mark or are swept along by events they cannot figure out how to control. Thatcher left marks.

As Michael Hirsh points out in a piece at The Atlantic website, no one ever wondered – for good or bad – where Thatcher was coming down on an issue and, as a result, “she became the first female leader of her country, and she did it in such a determined way that her sex was almost an afterthought.” Put another way, Thatcher was a genuine transformational world figure by strength of conviction and by raw political skill. Nothing inevitable about that.

If Clinton does something similar she may some day have a chance to join the real Iron Lady in the history books. Today, however, there is only one female political leader – at least in the western political world – whose place in those history books is secure.

 

Evita Lives!

evitaDon’t Cry For Her…

I’m betting most Argentines don’t think much of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 musical Evita. As one young Argentine woman – well-read, worldly and a Master’s degree candidate – told me, the musical and the later movie that starred Madonna presented “the upper class view of Eva Peron.”

The young woman confessed to having “become a believer” in the good done by the spectacularly controversial wife of the late Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Not all her family agreed, she said. Her grandfather had come to loathe Juan and Evita after his property was confiscated. So it goes with the woman who is still called the “spiritual leader” of Argentina.

Lest one think that Evita and all she represents have become quaint historical footnotes, consider this: Current Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a Peronist, presented her state of the nation speech to Congress on March 1. CFK, as she is called, spoke for 96 minutes and her talk was preceded, as the Buenos Aires’ English language paper noted, by the Peronist chant from the gallery. One might argue that CFK is the ultimate heir of Eva Peron’s influence that reached its zenith just before her death in 1952. Evita had designs on becoming Juan’s vice president, before her fatal illness sapped her physical and political strength. CFK, once an Argentine senator, succeed her husband as president and may just be keeping the seat warm for him to return in 2011. The current president often rules by decree, seems to ignore the rulings of the courts and has her own mini-cult of personality. Evita does live.

Juan Peron somehow was able to accumulate power by appealing simultaneously to the far right and the far left. His wife helped him by establishing her own independent power base. She formed a foundation and shoveled money at the working class – “the shirtless ones.” Not unlike an Argentine Huey Long, the Peron’s built schools, vacation facilities for workers, hospitals, even the amusement park that is said to have influenced Walt Disney’s ideas for Disneyland. They also accumulated enormous power, ruled by decree and personality and drove the country’s economy into the ditch.

Still, the power of Evita lives. In the end of the world town of Ushuaia, the local Peronists maintain a very public monument to Evita. Decked out in haute couture, her photograph is prominently displayed in a Buenos Aires hotel lobby. No Argentine politician dares use the famous balcony on the Pink House – the presidential building -where Juan and Evita spoke to massive rallies. The symbolism would just be too powerful. Evita’s modest tomb – modest at least by this cemetery’s standards – at Recoleta is always surrounded by those who see a visit to the grave as a pilgrimage. The faithful leave bundles of fresh flowers.

There is nothing even remotely like the power of Evita in American political culture. An equivalent would be a cult-like following, years after their deaths, for a Jackie Kennedy or a Hillary Clinton. Evita is in a class of one, even though her reign was a short one, really, only six years.

For years after Juan Peron’s overthrow by the military – another irony, he got his start as a junior officer visiting Mussolini’s Italy – any mention of the famous pair was outlawed, the party was made illegal and Eva’s embalmed remains made a tour of Europe before finally returning to Buenos Aires. But, nearly 60 years after her death, as the song goes, she has never really left.

As for that song – Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – I only heard it once here. An extremely talented trio of musicians struck it up during a dinner performance in a city far from the capitol. Maybe they like the song. Or, maybe they know that Americans think of the lyrics when they think of Argentina. Or, maybe they just get the whole Evita thing – whatever it is.

Argentina

argentinaThe Wandering Gene

In his marvelous book, In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin speculates whether some folks are born with a gene that causes them to wander the earth in search of adventure. Or perhaps the wandering gene simply pushes a deeply felt human desire to visit new places to see and experience new things, different cultures and interesting sights.

I’m not sure I was born with the wandering gene, but thankfully I have been able to do a far amount of wandering during my life and have become more and more comfortable with the surprise and delight that is generally available when one travels. Of course, there are always travel hassles. The South American immigration system, for instance, could be right out of a Marx Brothers movie. Lots of fellows with tired eyes and bored expressions stamping, stamping and stamping thousands of forms. I’d be able to travel more if I could corner the rubber stamp concession for these guys. They must be glad they aren’t the fellows who have to file all those forms.

Even with the minor hassles, I’m often surprised by folks who travel and complain that the new and unusual places they visit “aren’t like home.” Isn’t that the point of wandering? Let’s go see something that isn’t like home. Argentina isn’t like home.

I have a couple more observations about the land of the Pampas, the subtropical rain forest, the glaciers and penguins before fully re-entering the “real” world and permanently forming those enduring memories of a place seen and experienced, even for a short time.

Today – yes, I’ve sampled them all – the four Argentine food groups – meat, wine, dessert and dulce de leche. Tomorrow, what would a visit to Argentina be for a political junkie without some thoughts on Evita.

But first, every wanderer has to eat.

The Four Basics:

Meat: To say that Argentine beef is excellent would be to damn with faint praise. This is not a country for vegetarians. If you like your beef, you’ll like Argentina. Grass-fed, lean, almost always grilled over a wood fire, the cuts are massive, tender and full of flavor. At one of the best Buenos Aires parrillas, La Brigada, in the San Telmo neighborhood of the capitol, the waiter separated the meat from our T-bone (the most massive T-bone I’ve ever seen) with a folk and a spoon. It was that tender.

Wine: Argentine wines have been enjoying a lot of buzz recently and based upon a very unscientific, but tasteful, sample we have not even begun to enjoy or appreciate the full impact of the country’s quality wine. The wine is high quality and value priced. You can spend a lot on a bottle, but you can buy extraordinarily good Argentine wine from the Mendoza region, for example, for $10 or $12 bucks. Perfect with that T-bone.

Dessert: Lots of ice cream in every conceivable flavor and wonderful pastry form the backbone – or waistline – of Argentine desserts. The ice cream rivals the best Italian and it seems to be available on every street corner.

Dulce de leche: At first blush, we’d call this stuff caramel sauce, but in Argentina it is more like a national obsession. The silky dulce de leche fills the center of cookies, is served with pancakes, accompanies breakfast toast and seems to be applied to just about everything.

The food and wine would be almost enough to justify a visit to this vast place that has a vague sense of having one foot in the 19th Century and the other stepping tentatively into the 21st. Buenos Aires has often been described as the “Paris of South America,” and parts of the city, with its French-inspired architecture, wide boulevards and enormous parks, could pass for Paris. But, Buenos Aires is also its shanty towns and street people, a world-class city with world-class problems of poverty and pollution. It is a place that seems not quite up to meeting its potential, but compared to Paris the Argentine capitol is a new outpost on the frontier. This is a young country, younger than our own and full of possibility and challenge.

The Chatwin book, first published in Britain in 1977, and now a Penguin Classic, has been a welcome companion in Argentina. It is a mix of travel writing, personal observation, fascinating history and perhaps just a little story telling. The book centers on Patagonia, but begins in Buenos Aires. Here is an early line: “The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crespina D.Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil, and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild – five names taken at random from among the R’s – told a story of exile, disillusion and anxiety behind lace curtains.”

How could you not wander to such a place and think always of returning.

Uruguay and Argentina

uruguayOdds and Ends: Politics and Mate

A very big day today in Montevideo, Uruguay and you probably won’t read much about it in the U.S. A new president, a left of center politician and one-time guerrilla, who spent years in jail, will take the oath in the famous Independence Plaza in the Uruguayan capitol today. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is attending. Good for her. It will keep the local spotlight from falling totally on Hugo Chavez.

Our knowledge of Uruguay, such as it is, probably just about begins and ends with futbol. One former politician said of the country’s devotion to the great game, “other countries have their history, we have our futbol.” The Uruguayan’s are proud of their two World Cup championships and are already looking forward to hosting the 100th anniversary of the Cup in 2030 in a storied stadium in downtown Montevideo. The first championship was held in the same stadium in 1930. That will be a party.

Back to new president Jose “Pepe” Mujica; in his initial comments he sounded more like an American-style moderate than an ex-con. He pledged, among other things, to try to improve relations with Argentina; relations that have suffered over a controversial paper mill in Uruguay that environmentalists say threatens the Argentines along their shared river border. Pepe, in pledging to work on the dispute, said he didn’t consider Argentina a “foreign” country. Sort of like us saying we don’t consider Canadians to be foreigners, at least we didn’t before the most recent hockey game.

Argentina and Uruguay do share much. A spectacular river – the Rio de la Plata – a language, much Spanish colonist history, most of the same tango moves, grilled beef, futbol, and a curious tea-like drink called mate.

If Starbucks is to America, then mate is to Argentina and Uruguay. Young men especially carry their gourd cups of mate all day and all night, constantly adding steaming hot water from a thermos to refresh the brew that is sipped through a silver straw. Mate is simply everywhere. One young Argentine tried to explain to we gringos what the habit was all about and simply concluded, “we drink mate, we don’t know why.”

Still, like folks from the United States and our Canadian neighbors, we can’t always get on the same page. Tango, for instance, is common to both the South American neighbors, but the Uruguayan’s reject the more athletic aspects of Argentine tango, preferring a more romantic, fluid style. When told of the dramatic nature of an Argentine tango show, a young man in Montevideo shrugged and simply said, “that’s Argentina.”

Both nations also share a weak economy and a burdensome foreign debt, but these days, who doesn’t. At least these Latin American neighbors have their mate and, at least, two forms of tango.

The Graf Spee

grafThe Battle of the Rio de la Plata

The first significant naval battle of World War II took place not in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean, but in the Rio de la Plata that separates Argentina from Uruguay. The battle featured one of the more usual events of the entire war, the scuttling by a German captain of his own ship.

In the late summer of 1939, the German battle cruiser Admiral Graf Spee left home waters on a mission to disrupt British commerce in the South Atlantic. The big ship was very fast and very well armed and over the course of several months preyed on shipping in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, eventually sinking nine merchant ships. Before long the Royal Navy put its own squadrons on the hunt for Graf Spee and when the German ship turned into the mouth of the Rio de la Plata in December 1939 the battle was engaged. Graf Spee was damaged and one British ship badly damaged during the engagement.

The German Captain Hans Langsdorff put into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay for repairs, while the British squadron waited off shore for his next move. Forced to depart Montevideo under international maritime law after only 24 hours, Langsdorff put off most of his 1,000 man crew, piloted the big ship about three miles off shore and detonated a series of explosive charges that scuttled the ship. The captain and a small contingent of sailors made for Buenos Aires in the ship´s launch where they arrived two days later.

The Graf Spee burned for four days before settling, not entirely submerged, in the huge estuary of the River Plate. The German crew was eventually detained in Buenos Aires.

Under circumstances that are still disputed, three days after he arrived in Argentina, Captain Langsdorff wrapped himself in a German naval ensign and shot himself in a Buenos Aires hotel room. He is buried in the Argentine capitol. One explanation for the captain´s suicide might be that Langsdorff felt that he was honorably taking responsibility for the loss of his ship. Other speculation centers on whether the Captain disregarded orders or whether the Graf Spee was really seriously damaged and might have fought through the British squadron to the open sea.

Remnants of the German ship scuttled in the Rio de la Plata are displayed today in the harbor at Montevideo. It is claimed that descendants of some of the German sailors still live in the area.

The battle in the River Plate is a fascinating detail of the role South America played in the war. Both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as the trade and political centers of neutral countries, must have seen a great deal of intrigue and espionage. Both countries remained neutral, in part, to further their extensive trade with both sides. Later in the war, for example, Argentina thwarted U.S. efforts to create formal Latin American support for the Allied war effort. The move deeply angered Secretary of State Cordell Hull and likely moved the already pro-German Argentine military more in the direction of the Nazis.

It makes me think of the great film Casablanca and its timeless take on the intrigue and chaos in an exotic city during wartime. I wonder about the Rick´s and Inspector Renault´s of Latin America and how that awful piece of 20th Century history played out for them.

Iguazu Falls

fallsThe Grand Cataratas

In the far northeastern corner of Argentina, where the border bumps up against Paraguay and Brazil, is one of the most spectacular sights you could ever hope to see.

If the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is, well, grand then the falls at Iguazu are every bit as unique and impossible to capture in words or pictures. About 275 individual water falls dump 5,000 cubic meters per second of water over the falls. Vastly more water than Niagara. Victoria Falls in Africa is higher than Iguazu, but the massive sweep of the Argentine falls has to make it the water fall in the world.

Since 1934 the area has been, wisely for Argentina and the rest of us, protected as a National Park. The park, the first in Argentina, and the surrounding subtropical rain forest is also a World Heritage Site and one of South America’s top tourist destinations.

The river system that produces the falls drains an area comparable to the Amazon or the Mississippi. The system eventually drains to the vast Rio de la Plata separating Uruguay and Argentina. I have never seen so much water.

The park is very well maintained with access to the falls provided by an ingenious series of metal catwalks that allows a visitor to cross the many river channels and literally stand atop the great cataratas. Boat tours also travel up the river for a down below look at the falls. Yes, it is wet down there. Very, very wet. Sort of an E ticket ride at Disneyland, but conducted in the rain forest.

I have always thought the Grand Canyon was the single most impressive natural site I have ever seen. Iguazu Falls is every bit as grand. See this place if you ever get the chance. And good for the Argentines for taking such good care of such a remarkable and sensitive place.