I’ll cry for you Argentina

During the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century, Argentina (along with Australia) was considered by objective analysis amongst the richest (per capita) countries in the world.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Argentina was an affluent society, the most dynamic country in the global system attracting an unprecedented volume of foreign investment and massive flows immigrants. By the end of the century, the former bread basked (sic) of the world had become a basket case.

Argentina circa 1914 was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a GDP more than twice the average for Latin America and Southern Europe.

A New Economic History of Argentina, Gerardo della Paolera, Alan M. Taylor (eds.) Cambridge University Press

The second plunder of Argentina started with English and Italian companies, often established with the simple intent of pillaging natural resources, assisting the original Spanish families in repatriating the huge profits produced by the estancias of the Pampas and Patagonia.

Gradually the habit of sending profits outside of Argentina (and most other South American countries) has become entrenched; the rich and powerful ‘original’ families (who now eke out a precarious existence in the faded coffee shops of Recoleta and alto Palermo) who have always had their children educated in European private schools and US universities.

Argentinians, especially those who live in the best suburbs of Buenos Aires and the major country towns, proudly boast (often in English) that they are the most European of Latinos, the same economic mismanagement that has characterised other South American countries doesn’t apply to them. Chileanos have the same unwarranted high opinion of their government and economy. The former have recently had another dose of reality, I wonder how long the latter can continue to function in a global economy hamstrung by a lack of transparency and structural rigidity. As it has done for a hundred years Argentina completely dismissed trends in globalisation and continued to borrow to fund infrastructure development, capital that could have been raised in Argentina had the will of the landed gentry and domestic capitalists been harnessed by a competent government.

Pretty much the same happened in Australia with one major difference. During the 1980’s the Hawke/Keating governments saw the disaster potential of having a fixed currency maintained at an artificially high level and the potential for economic ruin without structural change to the domestic economy to make Australia more competitive in a global sense. Unfortunately Argentina didn’t see globalisation coming and kept their currency pegged to the $US, denied structural change to the economy and kept right on borrowing.

Almost without exception the Argentinians we met were bright and cheerful, even in the face of horrific changes to their lifestyle (by contrast with Chileans who were generally withdrawn and shy ) but ask about the recent devaluation and Nestor Kirchner’s refusal to honour government bonds (he has offered bond holders 25 cents on the dollar) and they become very bitter and twisted. They don’t understand how they have changed from “In the 1930s Argentina was, thanks largely to beef exports, a global power, boasting income per capita similar to that of France.” to become an economic pariah. Italian pensioners, who bought government bonds now devalued by 75% are calling their cousins (Argentina received huge immigration from Italy) ‘cheats’ and ‘frauds’ because the government refuses to pay interest on the bonds and investors, likely to receive as little as 10% of the investment, when, if, the government agrees to repay the debt.

In a way a visit to Argentina is extremely valuable to Australian voters; it shows just how wrong the politicians can get the economy, making our blokes look positively clever by comparison. My theory is that the malfunctioning economy is directly related to the casual inefficiency that pervades all business transactions. And that Argentinian inefficiency is as a result of diet.

Few Argentinians eat dinner until 10pm, then it’s a huge slab of steak (heavenly) followed by postres of ‘queso y dulce’ or something with ‘dulce leche’ oozing from a pastry crust. I reckon everyone over 40 must suffer shocking reflux; how does one digest a meal that finishes at 2am? Nobody sleeps well, particularly 11 million portenos that don’t have airconditioning or fans in 35 degree heat. So, when they should be bright eyed and bushy tailed in the morning, they’re still hung over (did I mention the wonderful wine?) when they have to start work.

Instead of a nutricious breakfast (they’re still full of steak from last night) they eat fluffy ‘media lunas’ full of dulce leche. About 2pm hunger assaults their stretched stomachs so they pig out on the ‘menu del dia’; three courses that almost always has pasta included – then it’s siesta until about 5pm and afternoon tea (inherited from the Brits) – until the whole cycle is commenced again at 10 pm. In between every one keeps busy making sure that there is enough hot water to indulge in the ‘mate’ ritual.

When does any work get done ? Never ! Tour agencies take two hours to acomplish what Flight Centre staff fix in 10 minutes. If Graham Turner ever decides to expand into Argentina he’ll destroy the competition. With few exceptions, every flight, bus, train, taxi, excursion etc. was late leaving or arriving. Sometimes the whole thing was called off throught lack of interest – just cancelled, no explanation, just “come back tomorrow”. And it’s all because Argentinians are too tired from eating huge meals at midnight ! How can they be world champions at polo, play magnificent hockey, soccer and rugby ? Perhaps David Nalbandian follows a more routine diet – goodness knows he couldn’t play the tennis he does after sinking a half kilo of steak a couple of hours before playing.

Don’t think for a minute that I dislike Argentina or its people. I think Los Galciares NP is superior to and much better value for money that its Chilean equivalent, Torres del Paine; although I only spent a couple of weeks there and lived in one of the most salubrious suburbs I found Bs As one of the nicest cities; an inexpensive Paris, a more temperate Barcelona; big wide streets that encourage wannabe Fangios ( the entire out put of the Peugot factory was sold to the Bs As taxi companies – you’ll not see so many 504’s in one place anywhere in the world); the most handsome men and the best presented female posteriers; buttocks like peaches, and that’s not just my imagination, every TV ad, every billboard, no matter whether advertising icecream (another Argentinian highlight) or condoms (brand name – Tulipan), georgeous girls clad in nothing more than dental floss for bums showing off fabulous figures. And the young women wear their jeans so tight you can almost see their G spots. Every one was helpful and eager to practice their English, proud of their country, if not their politicians, always fishing for compliments.

That’s why the situation is so sad. The economy is in the pits, the future’s bleak and Argentina is being consigned to the same basket as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador by the IMF and international investors. Chile is considered a better investment proposition – and are the Chilenos laughing !

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Jf keegan
Jf keegan
2021 years ago

I have thoroughly enjoyed your adventures and perceptions and,the way you have presented them……obviously you enjoyed your trip as much as I did mine 10 years ago.Interesting that we had quite different–almost opposite experiences in Chile and Argentina—I must admit that by the time I got to Argentina ,I had had enough of “summer” in southern Chile and just made a dash through Argentina–up to more agreeable weather at Iquazu Falls in the North–I actually saw them from the Brazilian side.If Los Glaciers was better than Torres De Paine then…it would be worth returning just to see that park…..
Give a hoy when you sort out the jet lag and reorientation–looking foward to your photos and more tales…JK

Bill S
Bill S
2021 years ago

You have to wonder if the FTA will turn Australia into another Argentina

Craig G
Craig G
2021 years ago

Great article Wayne.

For some reason I have always had an interest in Argentina and Uruguay – never been there mind you so my knowledge and assumptions are all derived from second hand but I would speculate that the “failure” of these states is rooted in the “Latin” temperament. Obliquely you touched on this in referring to the late evenings they keep and lifestyle generally.

At the risk of sounding like a buttoned up prudish puritanical protestant Anglocentric some traits essential / desirable to the emergence of an efficient socio-economic governmental system never really took root in Argentina: thrift, self-denial, notions of service to a common good. Hedonism is stylish and exciting but doesn’t collect the garbage or make a telephone book.Even during its so-called golden age, Argentinian governments operated on the revolving door principle and there were periods of dictatorship. There was inequality of wealth and envy and this lead to the rise of Peron(ism). I think it is generally agreed by objective observers that the General and his wife were a disaster. Subsequent military and “democratic” regimes were equally incompetent. Recent travails with the IMF etc and the meltdown in 2001-02 are just the chronological tip of the iceberg.

So to Bill S it would take more than an FTA to turn Australia into Argentina. (therein is not to be implied my personal support for the FTA).

Antony
Antony
2021 years ago

Wayne,

I think you’ve missed the real reasons for Argentina’s decline. I think the reasons commonly adduced

woodsy
woodsy
2021 years ago

Remarkably several Argentinians made the same comment as Antony; “Australians (and Canadians) are lucky because they were colonised by the Brits” and consequently have benefited from the disciplined work ethic and conservative political structures of our WASP forebears.

Perhaps there is something in the arguement, but I don’t think it’s the whole answer. Look at the corruption in the Indian civil service, the price for every position is widely understood, and paid. The Brits colonised Rhodesia, OK there was a bit of a hiccup in the transition to independence, but you’d hardly call Zimbabwe a good example of ” governed by properly constituted parliaments. ….. always had regular elections, an independent court system, individual property rights, little corruption and a military dedicated to its proper role of defending .. [the] national interests.” I’m sure that you could think of other British ex-colonies that exhibit the same traits as Argentina.

No, I think the problem lies somewhat deeper than just an ‘inheritance’; some of it can be explained by temperament, some by ‘bad habits’ and some by apathy in watching over what politicians are doing. Certainly I have no explanation of how the “Dirty War” was allowed to happen and how the general public stood by while the military exacted such a horrific toll on their ideological enemies.

I think the best we can do is stay interested in what’s happening and show support when we can. Certainly I would recommend that everyone who can, vist Argentina now, it’s the best value for money holiday you can get.

Peggy Sue
Peggy Sue
2021 years ago

Zimbabwe and India were colonies in the sense that a small group of colonists ran the show for a while.

Canada and Australia are quite different – not so much colonies of Britain, and transplanted British.

The Zimbabweans and Indians were RULED by Britain, the original Canadians and Australians were REPLACED by people from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Antony
Antony
2021 years ago

Wayne,

I think you’ve alluded to a very important issue. Formal institutions are all very well, but their proper operation depends on culture.

Our democracy is not some cloak that we slip on whenever it is convenient. It’s part of a culture that permeates our very blood and bones, a culture that’s created a nation with two characteristics essential for progress

Michael Jennings
2021 years ago

Pretty much the same happened in Australia with one major difference. During the 1980’s the Hawke/Keating governments saw the disaster potential of having a fixed currency maintained at an artificially high level and the potential for economic ruin without structural change to the domestic economy to make Australia more competitive in a global sense. Unfortunately Argentina didn’t see globalisation coming and kept their currency pegged to the $US, denied structural change to the economy and kept right on borrowing.

That’s pretty much true. Australia did get a good government at the exact moment it needed one, but I don’t think it is the whole story, or even the most important part of the story. Things went much worse for Argentina than Australia long before that. Prior to 1983 Australia had had on the whole had a series of sleepy, protectionist and at times questionably competetent, but democratic and generally stable governments. In the years immediately preceding that point Argentina had been ruled by a military junta of almost unspeakable awfulness. So if you blame the relative failure of Argentina on institutional failure (as I do), the institutions had failed long before then.

woodsy
woodsy
2021 years ago

You’re right of course, the military junta that both destroyed the economy and the electorate’s trust in Government,(of any ideolgical persuasion I suspect, but certainly for right wing dictatorships)caused irrepairable harm. And, as I have stated before, I can’t understand how that happened (perhaps you have some ideas Michael?). The other question is “How did Australia get a good government at the exact moment it needed one, and Argentina get lumbered with such a disasterous one ? I don’t think being the beneficiary of British institution-building is the answer. Probably of more concern is “Could it ever happen in Australia?”

fernando
fernando
2021 years ago

creo q tendrias q visitar los glaciares , perito moreno y el upsala y las torres de paine