Archive for March, 2010

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.