Sunday, August 7, 2016

Rio and Beyond: Argentina

South America is the only inhabited continent I have never set foot on. If Chris weren't sick, we'd be going to Peru in the autumn, but as it is now, he's not able to hike the Inca Trail, and that is part of the Machu Picchu experience, at least the one I want to have.

Argentina seems like it could be a fun place. Buenos Aires seems like it should mean "good times." I guess you could take "good airs" as good times. Yet, I know next to nothing about the country aside from what I learned from Madonna and Maradona. I think Maradona was the first professional soccer player I knew, before soccer was popular in the US and before I had traveled anywhere. He was playing his last years when I was in high school.

As for the Madonna reference, you must remember she played Eva Peron in a movie I adored. It was the first time I learned about the tumultuous mid-twentieth century in South America. As in all Hollywood biopics, I am sure it had its share of historical inaccuracies. No matter. It succeeded in capturing the spirit of Evita and what she meant - and still means - to the Argentine people.

The Portuguese first discovered the land, where they learned of the existence of the Incan Empire from the native Charrúa people, but it was the Spanish who first settled in what is now Buenos Aires. The Argentines fought a revolutionary war and achieved their independence in 1825. After the defeat of the Spanish there was a civil war between the federalists and unionists. The federalists came out on top. The Argentine Constitution, still the law of the land today, was adopted in 1853.

I am often caught by surprise when I realize how similar the history of the countries of South America is to our own. I think my surprise comes from how differently things turned out in the twentieth century. We all fought for independence from European imperialism. We all share the legacy of slavery. I marvel at the turn of events which led the US to become powerful while the countries of South America had such a turbulent twentieth century. The legacy of Spanish feudalism lingered on, creating vast disparities in wealth, which led to worker mobilization that was unsupported by the wealthy elite. Fear of the worker (and fear of communism) led the elites to support awful dictators to protect themselves. While the US also had plantations and wealthy elites, western expansion gave the opportunity for common people to own land and create wealth, so a feudal type system was never truly an institution here, and the workers did not feel the need to rise up. That's a very simplified explanation, of course, but it is quite interesting to think about.

Strange how fate works.

In the seventies, Argentina, like many other South American countries, had a dictator who treated people brutally. Forced disappearance was common, and the children of the disappeared were kidnapped. Human rights groups say more than 30,000 people were killed by the regime from 1976-1983. This period was known as the "Dirty War" in the American media and the "Process of National Reorganization" by the regime. The Argentine government now says the number was 13,000, just now acknowledging the extent of the atrocities.

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (the subject of the U2 song "Mothers of the Disappeared" on The Joshua Tree album) organized across Latin America to bring to light the issue of the disappeared. They pushed for information on the whereabouts of their children, and even after the end of dictatorship fought to overturn the laws that made the disappearances possible. Unfortunately, the group split, and one part became radicalized, wanting a Cuba-style revolution and even supporting the 9/11 attacks. What a shame.

Of course, most of these countries pulled themselves out of authoritarianism through neo-liberal reforms, but like elsewhere in the world, neo-liberalism is showing its cracks. (FYI, American dopes, "neo-liberalism" means laissez faire free market economics.) You also have the Chavistas in several countries, but the failed state of Venezuela is showing that socialism does not work, either. Who knows what's in store for Argentina and the rest of South America?

Turbulent history aside, there are so many better things to think about the country. Tango. Steak. Beaches. Mountains. The Quebrada de Humahuaca, a World Heritage site. Iguazú Falls. Glaciar Perito Moreno. Tierra del Fuego. I'm ready to visit.

Facts
Capital: Buenos Aires
Major cities: Cordoba, Rosario, La Plata, Mar del Plata
Population: 41.45 million
Athletes in the Olympics: 215
Medals in history: 71 (19 gold, 24 silver, 28 bronze)
Languages spoken: Spanish, Araucano, Guarani, Quechua, over 40 minor languages
Heroes: Jose de San Martin (revolutionary war hero), Pope Francis, Eva Peron, Diego Maradona
Bad guys: Jorge Rafael Videla (dictator), Juan Carlos Ongania (dictator), Reynaldo Bignone (dictator), so many others
Persecuted groups: Under the dictatorship: socialists, political dissidents, left-wing activists, terrorists and militants, trade unionists, students, journalists, Marxists, artists, professors, clergy, Peronists. 

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