Friday, October 18, 2013

Law(lessness?) of the Gaucho

Many years ago, while researching my doctoral dissertation on the Falkland Islands, I did extensive archival work in the Public Records Office at Kew and the Islands themselves, where I had unprecedented access of a sort that would not possible today. Some time after I left, the late Jane Cameron preserved and organized a wealth of documents to make them more usable but, at the same time, less easily available than they were to me.
One intriguing item I came across, in both places, was the tale of a renegade gaucho who remained in the Islands after 1833, when a British warship expelled most of a small Buenos Aires contingent that remained from a precarious colonization effort. As the sketch above (from the Illustrated London News of 1856) indicates, the gauchos helped capture feral cattle that provide subsistence and livelihood to the Islands’ inhabitants.

After the British vessel departed, leaving the settlement under the authority of another holdover, a Scotsman named Matthew Brisbane, who was soon murdered by the gaucho Antonio Rivero and several accomplices. It’s been nearly two centuries since the events in question, but Argentine ultra-nationalists have long invoked Rivero’s name to justify their irredentist claim to the Islands even though the murder probably had no political significance whatsoever. In all likelihood, it was a foreman-peon dispute.
Last year, though, the province of Tierra del Fuego began to enforce the so-called “Gaucho Rivero” law, preventing two British-flagged vessels from docking at Ushuaia. In a separate but not necessarily unrelated incident in Buenos Aires, political bullies even accosted cruise-ship passengers and vandalized company offices that provided support services. The bumper-sticker slogan above protests the "docking of pirate vessels" in Rivero's name.

Ushuaia businesses that depend on cruise ship visits were furious that the two vessels could not dock. In the words of local businessman Marcelo Lietti, even as he affirmed his belief in the Argentine claim to what they call the Malvinas, it was counter-productive to punish the cruise ship sector: “If the measure was intended to harm the English and the Falklands, the damage has been inflicted on all the people that were scheduled to work with the two cruises in Ushuaia.” It cost the city and its residents income, and damaged the city's reputation with the industry.

Nevertheless, the provincial government appears ready to up the ante this season, apparently unconcerned that it could have any negative effect on the tourism sector even as the tiny Chilean settlement of Puerto Williams looks toward drawing some of that traffic away. One friend of mine who operates a B&B in Ushuaia makes the following anonymous observation: “I don´t think any merchant in Ushuaia is happy with that stupid law. The only persons interested in that are politicians making politics and playing with our income.”

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