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Argentina

ARGENTINA | Wednesday, 6 September 2006 | Views [5323]

Don't mention the War. The Falklands War Memorial in Buenos  Aires.

Don't mention the War. The Falklands War Memorial in Buenos Aires.

Unlike every other South American country I’ve seen on this trip, Argentina is a country I have visited before, on a two week holiday in which I went to Buenos Aires and Patagonia, flying around the country in order to see as much as I could in the time I had. This was in November 2001 and Argentina was an expensive country to visit then, as the government was holding the Argentinean Peso to parity with the US dollar, a position which was under relentless pressure. There was a subdued feeling in the country, as if everyone knew that the economy was on the edge, an edge over which it fell a week after I’d left. For the rest of the year the cities were rocked by mass demonstrations with police shooting protestors dead in the street.

Argentina took a long time to recover from its economic collapse and is still one of the world’s most indebted countries. Arriving here now almost five years is to see a real contrast. This is a fat and happy nation again with real prosperity evident by the booming malls and smart cars on the roads. Most people seem to be doing very well indeed and there is sense that the country is going somewhere. But not everyone has recovered from the crash and part of the evening scene in Buenos Aires are groups of people going through the garbage looking for things to scavenge, plastic bottles having particular value. Even in the smartest areas men push supermarket trolleys around the streets loaded up with their booty from the bins. In the streets and restaurants, men and even children hawk small items like pens and calculators. They make quite a few sales too; hard times are a recent memory for many people.

In many ways this is a European country that just happens to be in South America. Most of the immigrants were originally from Italy and Spain and they bought their culture with them, including good food, wine and corruption, as well as an obsession for smoking at every opportunity and a liking for lingerie shops. Buenos Aires was laid out by French architects at the end of the 19th Century and arriving there is like finding yourself in Paris but at a fraction of the price. In comfortable cafes, attentive waiters serve decent coffee and people write in pads and read books, a sight unseen in the rest of South America. Street performers with some original wit compete against each other on the pedestrian streets, while the buskers are made up of bands who really know how to play their instruments. Argentineans have a more sophisticated society than exists in most of the rest of the continent, and they know it.

So grateful are the Argentineans to their current President, Nestor Kitchner, for delivering the good times again that they have allowed him to increase his power at the expense of the Congress, which happily voted to hand over more responsibilities to him. For better or worse, Mr Kitchner has also dragged out some issues from the recent past, which is an uncomfortable place for many people.

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo are well known around the world, helped along by Sting having written a song about them. They are the Mothers of the people who disappeared in the dirty war when the Army dictatorship ran the country in the 1970’ and 80’s. Every Thursday afternoon they gather in Plaza de Mayo, one of the main squares to march and remember; this has now turned into a tourist event with coach loads of mainly foreigners taking pictures. The Mothers have their own logo, a white scarf, which is painted on the paving stones where they march and they run their own souvenir stand. Most of them are now very elderly and the whole occasion is like an OAP get together as the ladies exchange gossip and chat about the events of the week. Now thanks to Mr Kitchner they really do have something to talk about, as he has removed immunity to prosecution from the Army torturers and even former government ministers and they are now being bought to justice.

Another issue from the recent past now revived by Mr Kitchner is the Falklands or Malvinas Islands, a sore point for many Argentineans after they were ejected by force during the 1982 war with Britain. Banging the Nationalist drum over this issue he hopes will help the Peronist party’s re-election chances next year. What is surprising are the number of new and very grand memorials that have been built around the country over the last year or so. Every town of any size has a Malvinas memorial, even if only one son of the town died there, usually the dead of the whole province are added on as well. The main memorial in Buenos Aires is very grand affair indeed with an eternal flame and honour guard. In Cordoba, there is a street stand which is manned most days by Malvinas conspiracy theorists claiming that the British ‘occupation’ is part of a wider plot to expand the British Antarctic Territory? Most of this is winging, as there is little Argentina can practically do to get the islands back. For example the TV weather gives the weather forecast for the islands, and it’s illegal to own a map of Argentina that does not show the Falklands as part of the country. Why a country with vast areas of empty space would want such a barren, useless place is a question someone here should be asking but no one is. The islands whichever name you use, will continue to be British as it would be political suicide for any British politician to hand them over.

The irony is that previous to 1982, the British and the Argentineans had always got on very well. Britain helped build the railways (now mostly in ruins) and develop the meat trade and the well to do of Buenos Aires, with their love of horses, dogs and Rugby have always been Anglophone in outlook. When telling people I am British I have received only kind words, usually with some comment on Beckham or Princess Diana (a sort of British Evita, pretty and died young) and British brands from Landrover and Cadburys chocolate to Robbie Williams are widely liked. So why rake up the issue again? Most people in Argentina and Britain just don’t care.

Politics aside if you want to visit a country where you can live well, with a great outdoors as well as nice cities, come to Argentina, before the prices start going up.

Check out the Photo Gallery on the sidebar called Argentina for some photos on this topic.

Tags: Observations

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