Monday, November 23, 2015

Argentina's Day After

Argentina’s politics are often dramatic, but yesterday’s presidential election was essentially drama-free. My perception of that, though, may have something to do with passing the day in Chacras de Coria, the upper-upper-middle-class enclave in Gran Mendoza, the suburban communities that surround the relatively small provincial capital.
In the course of the last three days, I saw little evidence of controversy in the closely contested race. Winning candidate Mauricio Macri, who won by about three percentage points, had relatively few electoral posters here, all enclosed on small billboards (pictured above). I saw none at all for losing candidate Daniel Scioli, who was considered a strong nation-wide favorite before eking out only a narrow plurality in the first round in late October.
I spent most of the morning writing before leaving my accommodations for lunch and, when I strolled by the local polling place in mid-afternoon, there were no lines. For someone whose first experience of Argentina came during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, though, it was disconcerting to see police and soldiers with automatic weapons standing guard (at right, above) at the school where voting took place. Few areas in this country are more secure than Chacras.
In theory, Argentina enforces an alcohol-free period from 8 p.m. the night before the election until three hours after the polls close at 6 p.m. on election day. In principle, this sounds like a good idea but, when I’ve asked my Argentine friends whether their countrymen vote better drunk or sober, nobody’s quite sure. When I strolled through town Saturday night, there were bottles of beer and wine on sidewalk tables and, when I ate lunch yesterday the couple at the next table were sharing a large bottle of Stella Artois (pictured above).

However ineffective the alcohol ban may be, I think the US could learn something from Argentina’s elections. It’s admirable that 80 percent of the electorate turns out to vote (voting is obligatory, but the penalty for not doing so is insignificant); in the US, though, some states have made scandalous efforts to suppress voter participation. The quick turnover of government is also worth considering – Macri will take office in about three weeks, instead of the roughly 2-1/2 months that leaves the outgoing US president as a lame duck.

While Macri’s victory was a clear one, he won’t have an easy road. On both domestic and international stages, unlike outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, he’s likely to be less confrontational on issues like hedge fund debt settlement and the Falkland Islands (which Argentina claims as the Malvinas). Still, many of her partisans despise Macri and will provide strong congressional (and even extra-congressional) opposition, though it’s encouraging that she publicly congratulated him on the victory and met with him today.

I spent quite a bit of time since Friday chatting with Daniel Alessio, a former mountain guide who’s my host at Parador del Ángel (pictured above). Daniel, whom I’ve known for some years, is a political junkie who’s out of step with most of his neighbors in the privileged environment of Chacras, though he himself runs a very attractive accommodations on beautifully landscaped grounds, that draws a pretty prosperous clientele. It will interesting to see how Macri manages a delicate balancing act between the country’s polarized extremes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Visa & Money Miscellanea - An Update

As regular readers will know, one of my pet peeves is the arbitrary immigration procedures that some South American countries impose on US citizens and some other nationalities. Argentina, of course, requires the euphemistically named "reciprocity fee," while Brazil requires advance visas.

I am not suggesting, I will repeat, that these fees and procedures are unfair - the United States and other countries require them of Argentine and Brazilian nationals. I do consider them foolish, though, because they comprise one more obstacle to the free movement of visitors (for the record, I also believe my own country should also make the process easier).
I was recently encouraged, though, to hear that Brazil has decided to eliminate visa requirements for a three-month period to coincide with the 2016 Olympic Games there. No doubt this measure owes a great deal to recent economic troubles, and the government has decided they could use the extra foreign currency that additional visitors might bring (those visitors need not actually attend the Olympics).

I don't spend much time in Brazil but, from my point of view, this is a big advantage for visitors to the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls - they'll be able to make a day trip or more to the Brazilian side (pictured above) without wasting time and money getting a visa. The exact dates of the measure are undecided but, hopefully, it will be so successful that the government will end the visa requirement - and perhaps persuade Argentina's new government to abolish the reciprocity fee.
Chile’s gotten most of the way there but, as my arrival photo above shows, Australia and Mexico are still on the hook. Australia has one of the most restrictive visa regimes among western democracies, while Mexico applies its US$15 fee to every foreigner except for US citizens within a certain distance of the border - roughly 60 miles, if I recall correctly.

BancoEstado Breaks Me…
Meanwhile, I’ve had one unpleasant surprise since my arrival in Santiago. For many years, the widespread state-run BancoEstado was the lone holdout among banks collecting a large service charge for use of their ATMs but, when I changed there on Saturday, I had to accept a 4000-peso (not quite US$6) fee for the convenience of it. Yesterday, when I used a private Banco de Chile ATM, the charge was only 3000 pesos (a shade more than US$4). BancoEstado may have lost my business, such as it is – except on Easter Island, pictured below, where it’s the only choice.

I haven’t tried any other ATMs yet but, in the past, charges have always varied slightly from bank to bank. When you do make a withdrawal, the machine tells you the fee, and you have the option to cancel the transaction.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

My Long Good Friday the 13th

Yesterday was Friday the 13th and, whenever I'm in South America, I have to remind myself that it's not bad luck. In the Spanish-speaking world, Tuesday the 13th - martes 13 – is the day and date to fear. When marketed in the region, all those grotesque slasher movies had to be edited, with misleading subtitles, for cultural reasons.
I've never cared enough to sit through one of those movies, but I came perilously close to a disastrous 13th this week. I was due to fly from Los Angeles to Santiago on Thursday the 12th, arriving on Friday the 13th, and ultimately did - as the seatback video screen above shows - but not before getting a scare. It was not the slasher sort of scare, nor was it an airplane problem, but it briefly unnerved me.

On Wednesday I intended to drive to LA, spending the night at the house of friends before catching my Thursday afternoon flight. As it happened, I left the house a bit late to pick up my rental car at Oakland International Airport and had to rush through a couple errands before returning home for my luggage. I quickly loaded the car, gave the dog a bone in the backyard, and then headed south on the MacArthur Freeway.

About ten minutes out, for some reason, I experienced the uneasy suspicion I had forgotten something (for me, packing is the worst part of any trip). The feeling was strong enough that I left the freeway and started going through my bags with only a general notion that something was wrong. It became very specific, though, when I found an empty leg pouch that I had chosen as a backup to the one with my passport and US$2000 in cash - which was nowhere to be found.

I didn't quite panic but, not wanting to return home, I did another quick search before concluding that I had to do so. Another problem was that, before leaving home, I had dropped my house key into our mail slot, so I had no certain means of entering without contacting my wife at work - which I preferred not to do. Fortunately, just before I left, I had seen the next-door neighbor, who has an emergency key, but I have never entered her number on my phone. Thus, I had to drive back and hope she'd be there.

Fortunately she was home but, unfortunately, she couldn't find the key, and I was almost resigned to interrupting my wife at work. Then a near-miracle happened - another neighbor was walking her dogs and, when she heard about the situation, she volunteered the fact that she had a key to our house (I had no idea she had one, and my wife later said she'd forgotten about it).

So, a happy ending, except for the hour and a half it delayed my departure for LA (where my friends and I dined late – for them, at least - at a Brazilian restaurant). I shudder to think what would have happened had I arrived in LA with neither passport nor cash, which would have delayed my departure until at least Friday the 13th - or, for all I know, the next martes 13 (which takes place in September of next year!).
My arrival in Santiago, as indicated in the map above, was a more agreeable experience – though I only managed about two hours of sleep in a 36-hour period. I topped off my Friday the 13th here with a visit to MOVINight 2015, a major tasting event for the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes – an alliance of small-scale bodegas producing, for lack of better world, craft wines. It was at the Centro Cultural Matucana 100 (pictured above), a great facility I had never visited before, and I managed to see a few friends and acquaintances there – thanks largely to Courtney Kingston, of Kingston Family Vineyards. I also got to sample an unusual selection of wines - there were also beers and even whiskey, which are not to my taste - and when I returned to my Santiago accommodations, that helped me catch up on my sleep.
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