Wednesday, April 29, 2009

An Argentine Artist's War on Hypocrisy

Anyone visiting New York up until mid-June should not miss the opportunity to see the Museum of Modern Art’s “Tangled Alphabets” exhibition on Argentine sculptor León Ferrari’s work, along with that of the late Brazilian artist Mira Schendel. Ferrari, who is nearly 90 years old, is an iconoclast whose notorious “Western and Christian Civilization” (pictured here) protested the bombing of Vietnam in 1965 by depicting Christ crucified on a diving F-105.
In 2004, at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, a 50-year retrospective of Ferrari’s work (which has criticized the Catholic Church for torture and abuse) briefly closed following a lawsuit by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and a subsequent court order. After protests and government action allowed the exhibition to reopen, Ferrari couldn’t have hoped for better publicity, as attendance broke all records.

Shortly after that, I met Ferrari in his Retiro apartment when I needed a permission signature to be able to publish a photograph of “Western and Christian Civilization” in the second edition of Moon Handbooks Argentina. Despite his ferocious iconoclasm, and his obvious resentment toward his Catholic upbringing, Ferrari is a soft-spoken individual who seemed genuinely flattered that I would include coverage of his work in a guidebook. Before I left, he presented me with an autographed booklet of his poems.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Argentine Sports Update

Argentines have made their mark in sports - everybody knows about soccer, where they’ve won two World Cups and Diego Maradona may have been the greatest player ever. More recently Argentines have also made their mark in basketball (winning the Olympics in 2004), tennis, and other sports. Most recently, for different reasons, polo and golf have made the headlines.

Polo aficionados revere Argentina at least as much as soccer fans do, and Adolfo Cambiaso is the sport’s Maradona or Willie Mays. The Campeonato Abierto de Polo (pictured here), which takes place in Buenos Aires in November and December, is one of the world’s signature polo events. Last week, though, polo drew unfortunate publicity when 21 polo ponies from the Lechuza Caracas team - owned by Venezuelan multi-millionaire Víctor Vargas - died from apparent vitamin poisoning before the U.S Open in Wellington, Florida.

Most of Vargas’s players, though, are Argentines, and Argentine player Juan Martín Nero told a Buenos Aires newspaper that the five surviving horses did not take the vitamin mixture Biodyl, used to help the horses recover between matches. Biodyl may be illegal in the United States; in any event, this has raised the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, which in this case may have even been improperly mixed.

On a more positive note, just last week, Angel Cabrera became the first Argentine to win the Masters tournament, one of golf’s most prestigious competitions, in Augusta, Georgia. Cabrera, who rose from a humble upbringing in Córdoba province (where Ernesto “Che” Guevara also learned the sport) was the lowest-ranked golfer (69th) ever to win the Masters. He was also the first Argentine ever to win the U.S. Open (in 2007) and quite possibly the first Argentine ever to be caricatured in the satirical newspaper The Onion.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tanking Up in Argentine Mesopotamia

In last week's entry, I wrote about the demise of differential fuel prices in Argentina but, as I subsequently heard from Charly Sandoval of Yacutinga Lodge, near the famous Iguazú Falls, the matter has not gone away completely in Argentine Mesopotamia, the area between the Paraná and Uruguay rivers. As petroleum prices have fallen in Chile, the Argentine government has eliminated the differentials there, but Charly writes that "Differences in fuels for foreigners and locals in Misiones province still apply. Perhaps they are going in the near future to cancel this ridiculous disposition..." but, as this photo from Puerto Iguazú shows, there are different pump prices for Argentine and foreign vehicles (full disclosure: this photo was taken last year, when prices were lower for everyone than they are today).

Still, as he says, "There are plenty of Paraguayans and Brazilians searching for better fuel prices. Being Misiones surrounded by these two countries, the situation here is delicate" as fuel prices are higher there. But, he adds, "Without this price distortion, we were unable to fuel our own transportation in the past. Fuel smuggling all kinds of crazy situations were common some time ago. The price differentiation is ridiculous but it's also ridiculous the situation of running out of diesel for our own working vehicles because foreigners deal with the advantage of the low price and the peso devaluation."

While the measure can be irritating to those of us who travel with foreign vehicles (my own car has Chilean plates), it only rarely affects overseas tourists. If you rent a car with Argentine plates, for instance, you will pay Argentine prices; on the other hand, if you rent a Brazilian vehicle and enter Argentina, you will still pay Brazilian prices for fuel. I expect, although I'm not sure, that the same is true for Uruguayan vehicles, as fuel prices are traditionally much higher there than in Argentina.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Southern Cone Road Trip: Filling the Tank in Argentina and Chile

Last week, I drove from Mendoza (Argentina) to Santiago (Chile), which has given me an excuse to post a comparative analysis of driving costs in the two countries - something I promised to do a couple months ago, as I was driving through Chilean Patagonia (pictured here, in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine). Today I’m going to analyze the micro-economics of car travel in those countries, specifically the cost of fuel, but bear in mind that this is a moving target, even as there are some constants.

Fuel costs, of course, vary according to world petroleum markets. Chile, which imports nearly all of its oil, has been highly vulnerable to these fluctuations; the government reviews fuel prices on a weekly basis, in accordance with the price of crude. In general, both diesel and bencina (gasoline) are cheaper in Santiago; prices increase with distance from the capital, with some exceptions. The country’s highest pump prices are in the remote Patagonian town of Cochrane, along the Carretera Austral, because it’s nowhere close to a refinery; fuel is cheaper in the more distant city of Punta Arenas, partly because the country’s small petroleum reserves are nearby.

Until recently, Argentina was self-sufficient in petroleum, and it still provides the vast majority of its own. Some of this comes from Neuquén and Mendoza provinces, but most of it derives from the southern Patagonian provinces of Chubut, Santa Cruz, and Tierra del Fuego. For this reason, and because of their vast distances, the federal government has decreed that nafta (gasoline) prices in southernmost Patagonia are tax-free - more than a third cheaper than in the rest of the country. Diesel prices, though, are about the same throughout the country.

What does this mean in practice? A year ago, before petroleum prices collapsed from roughly US$150 per barrel to about US$50 today, Chilean pump prices - close to US$5 per US gallon - were roughly double those in Argentina (the Chilean peso was much stronger then than it is today as well). Today, though, the situation has almost reversed itself. As the photograph indicates, the price of super (premium) gasoline at the Argentine border town of Uspallata (Mendoza province) is 3.383 pesos (91 US cents) per liter, or roughly US$3.47 per US gallon. Diesel costs 2.621 pesos (71 US cents) per liter, or US$2.69 per US gallon.

On the other side of the border, at the town of Río Blanco (pictured here), last week’s pump price for premium was 485 Chilean pesos (84 US cents) per liter or US$3.18 per gallon, slightly cheaper than in Argentina. Meanwhile, the price for diesel (which last year was higher than that for gasoline) is now 353 Chilean pesos (61 US cents) per liter or US$2.32 per US gallon, now even cheaper than in Argentina.

Many Argentines and rather fewer Chileans use diesel-powered vehicles for everyday transportation, partly because of lower diesel prices. In southern Argentine Patagonia, however, there is no advantage in doing so - south of the Río Negro province towns of Sierra Grande (on coastal Ruta 3) and El Bolsón (on the Andean Ruta 40), premium gasoline goes for about 2.169 pesos (57 US cents) per liter, about US$2.17 per US gallon.

Argentina, as so often, is going against the grain with its energy prices - even as they are falling elsewhere on the continent and around the world, they are rising in Argentina. Of course, there is a good case that to be made that prices were unrealistically low in the recent past, and that this caused shortages that made car travel unpredictable last year. Over the last month and a half in Argentine Patagonia, this was not an issue for me.

Another happy side effect of this has been the end of differential energy pricing, at least along the Chilean border, as Argentina’s federal government had decreed special pumps, with higher prices, for cars with foreign license plates. This, in effect, turned 18-year-old pump jockeys into de facto customs officials, but there were ways around this, as I wrote in a post in late 2007. Whether the measure has been rescinded along the Brazilian and Uruguayan borders, I do not know yet.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Diverting Dakar: San Pedro de Atacama Says No to Fossil Fuel "Sports"

Earlier this year, for the first time, the famous Paris Dakar Rally took place in Argentina and Chile, the first time it had been held outside Africa. The rationale for shifting the race was fear of terrorism along parts of the African route, while Argentina and Chile are countries with no recent terrorism problems.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems with Dakar, including at least three deaths: one French motorcyclist died in a remote part of the Argentine province of La Pampa, and an Argentine support vehicle killed two Peruvian motorists in a head-on collision on Ruta 43, just north of the Chilean city of Ovalle. That’s not to mention, of course, the environmental damage caused by Hummers and other massive machines kicking up dust and tearing up the fragile Atacama Desert.

The 2010 Dakar will once again race through Argentina and Chile, but it will not come anywhere close to San Pedro de Atacama, where the organizers had hoped to arrange a rest day. Chilean government officials, under pressure from archaeologists and conservationists, had expressed doubts about any such use (or abuse) of Chile’s archaeological capital and its spectacular surrounding countryside (pictured here). The organizers finally decided to seek alternatives.

Those alternatives include Antofagasta, Calama, Copiapó and Iquique. Except for Iquique, which has its own historical heritage in and around the town, all of these are industrial and mining towns where the environmental impact should be minimal. Calama, though, is a little too close to San Pedro for comfort.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bariloche, Land of Presidents

In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to visit San Carlos de Bariloche - which he described as “a real frontier village” - but he wasn’t the last. In reality, T.R. was an ex-president at that time - his term had expired in March of 1909 and he lost a semi-independent “Bull Moose Party” candidacy in 1912, after which he headed to Chile and Argentina (followed by Brazil). He did, though, meet with pioneer conservationist Francisco P. Moreno, who jump-started Argentina’s national parks system with a gift of several thousand hectares that became part of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi (pictured here). To digress a little, Roosevelt's grandson Kermit Roosevelt Jr. was born in Buenos Aires when his father Kermit (T.R.'s son) was working at a bank there.

When Roosevelt went to Argentina, though, he couldn’t have stayed at the Hotel Llao Llao, architect Alejandro Bustillo’s Euro-Andean masterpiece, which I revisited recently (I didn’t stay there, as the Llao Llao’s rates are well beyond my budget). While there I noticed a photograph of Argentine president Arturo Frondizi, who was hosting U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Llao Llao in February of 1960. According to the New York Times of February 29, 1960, “Ike” tired himself out by fly-fishing - press secretary James Haggerty rhetorically asked a news conference audience “Have you ever tried fishing in a stream for two and half hours?” - and golfing on the Llao Llao’s course. Eisenhower, who was notorious for seemingly spending as much time on the fairways as in the Oval Office, could only summon enough energy to play four holes.

Later, in October of 1997, Bill Clinton was a guest of then Argentine president Carlos Menem at the Llao Llao and dined at the grill restaurant El Patacón, which prominently displays photos of Clinton and current president Barack Obama’s Secretary of State (who happens to be Clinton’s wife).

Perhaps the most memorable thing to come out of Clinton’s visit, though, was a piece that appeared in the satirical newspaper The Onion a few months later. Don't miss it.
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