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.

An Argentine Icon

firpoDempsey vs. Firpo – A Fight For All Time

Only the most die hard American sports fan is likely to recognize the name Luis Angel Firpo. In Argentina, he is a national icon thanks, in part, to one big fight and one amazing painting.

In 1923, Jack Dempsey was the biggest name in sports. The heavyweight champion of the world took a backseat to no one, not even the great Babe Ruth.

In 1923, Luis Firpo, nicknamed “the wild bull of the Pampas,” was handsome, strapping, 6′ 2″ heavyweight contender who had made a name for himself by beating, among others, former champ Jess Willard. On September 24, 1923, Dempsey and Firpo met before 80,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York. The fight was over inside of two rounds, but what a brawl it was.

Within a few seconds of the first round, Firpo knocked Dempsey down with a hay maker, but Dempsey bounced back to knock the Argentine down an unbelievable seven times. (No three knockdown rule and no neutral corners in those days.) Firpo somehow survived the onslaught and kept pn punching. Just before the end of the first round he hit the champion so hard that Dempsey fell through the ropes and out of the ring. Dempsey landed on the press table.

That moment – Luis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring – is captured in George Bellow’s famous painting.

Amazingly, somehow Big Jack pulled himself back into the ring and the round ended. The slug fest continued in the second round with Dempsey finally knocking Firpo out to retain the championship. Firpo pocketed more than $150,000 for the fight, a lot of money in 1923. He went on to fight a while longer, but used his smart business sense to parley his boxing skill into a fortune. Luis Firpo died in 1960, but is well remembered in Argentina where statutes have been erected in his memory.

The Bellow’s painting hasn’t hurt either man’s reputation either. Firpo is the only man to ever knock Dempsey out of a boxing ring. Dempsey was tough enough to take it and still prevail. The picture has been reproduced a million times. If I ever own a place where you could get a beer and shot, I know what would hang behind the bar.

There you have the Argentine roots of the one of the greatest boxing matches of all time and the origin of a painting the Smithsonian ranks as an American masterpiece.

The Malvinas

christinaPolitics the World Over

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is not really a movie star, she just plays one in the bizarre world of Argentine politics. As the first woman elected president of Argentina – she succeeded her husband who remains in Congress – she does command a certain rock star celebrity.

The papers in Buenos Aires right now are full of President Cristina’s worries about impending British oil exploration off the coast of the Falkland Islands, er, make that the Isles Malvinas in the south Atlantic.

Some might remember that Argentina and Great Britain engaged in a deadly little shooting war over those islands in 1982. The then-Argentine military government, hoping to divert public attention from its awful human rights record and inability to improve the economy, launched an invasion of what the Argentine’s still consider their territory. Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” and not willing to look weak in a showdown with Argentina, of all countries, dispatched the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy and several boatloads of national pride several thousand miles to the southern hemisphere to keep the desolate specks of land that make up the Falklands in the hands of the Brits.

Now, the British, no doubt sure that they settled the matter years ago, want to explore for oil in the area. Some estimates place the reserves in the billions of barrels. Silly Brits. Argentine maps still claim the territory – ergo it is really Argentine oil – even if most of the rest of the world thinks the whole affair a little silly; a Latin version of The Mouse That Roared.

Argentina plans to raise the oil exploration issue – “anachronistic colonization” one Argentine pol called it – at the United Nations. And not to put too fine a point on the dispute, it is being suggested in Buenos Aires that maybe British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is hoping to trigger an international incident to help his flagging standing in front of a national elections in Britain now expected in May.

The thought occurs that perhaps President CFK, as she is called in Argentina, also suffering in the polls, in a nasty dispute with her own vice president, and not very popular, may too appreciate the distraction of a good, old fashioned international dust-up. Just to put this in some context, one of the daily demonstrations last week in Buenos Aires’s main square – where Juan and Eva Peron used to rally the faithful – was a protest of Malvinas war veterans who were calling for better benefits. That little south Atlantic war back in 1982 may be mostly forgotten elsewhere. Not in Argentina.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borge once referred to the Falkland’s War as “two bald men arguing over a comb,” but “wagging the dog” has long been good politics the world over. Expect diplomacy to prevail – eventually. For one thing, one Argentine writer estimates that the “powerful” Argentine Air Force might be able to get all of ten aircraft off the tarmac. Still, and more seriously, Argentina is threatening to hold up shipping in the area to halt the British moves.

Also expect, based upon the reaction in the land that still lays claim to the Malvinas, that a lot of newspaper ink is going to be spilled for the sake of national honor and, of course, politics. In the British press, CFK is dismissively called “the botox Evita,” but she knows a good role when she sees one. Drama is part of the president’s job description in Argentina.

Eye to Eye

penquinsThe World in Balance

It is impossible, I think, to kneel down to eye level with a penguin and not be impressed – awed even – with power of ol’ Mother Nature to put the whole world proper perspective.

On a tiny, rocky island in the Beagle Channel off the coast of Argentina, about 8,000 penguins have settled in for their summer break in the southern hemisphere. Some of them spent the winter getting to this remote birthing room from as far away as Antarctica, 1,000 kilometers further south. The happy penguins we saw this week seem remarkably tolerant of humans, although the government here is careful to allow no more than 20 visitors at a time to their island and the visits – like to any maternity room – are short and quiet. Sudden movements are discouraged. Don’t mess with the penguins, in other words.

The day of our visit was beautifully sunny, warm and not too windy. Most of the chubby penguins seemed to enjoy basking in the warm, summer sun of the very South Atlantic with an occasional quick swim to bring lunch back for the kids. The penguins, mostly the black and white Magellanic penguin, happily posed for pictures. They should have been running a photo concession. They could easily have collected boat fare back to winter quarters.

On this perfect February day, nature seemed in perfect balance. That is, of course, a momentary, human illusion. The glaciers nearby are retreating. The Antarctic ice is shrinking. Whatever one thinks of the global climate change, it can’t be lost on any of us that places like this tiny, rocky island off the coast of Argentina are indicators of the health of our own lives on the blue planet. For one day it all seemed in order, in balance. I’m already thinking about coming back for another visit. I hope the penguins feel the same, next year and for thousands more.