Saturday, December 29, 2012

Comparative Amenities: Buenos Aires v. Santiago

Every year, the international consulting company Mercer publishes a survey that ranks cities of the world according to their quality of life and infrastructure. The 2012 survey covers some 221 cities around and, while the entire document is only available for a hefty price, some of the publicly released information deserves a look.

Invariably, the highest rated cities are in Europe, with a handful in North America (such as Vancouver) and Asia (such as Hong Kong and Singapore). I won’t go over the standards in detail, but eight US cities rank in the top 50 for quality of living (Honolulu is highest at No. 28), and nine for infrastructure (Atlanta is highest at No. 13). For quality of life, the world’s worst is Baghdad, while the worst for infrastructure is Port-au-Prince.
In South America, my chosen region, Mercer is less impressed than it is in Europe, Asia and North America. For quality of life, Montevideo (No. 77) ranks highest, with Buenos Aires (No. 81) and Santiago de Chile (No. 91) the next best. For infrastructure, Buenos Aires (No. 83) is tops, while Santiago (No. 89) and Montevideo (No. 96) lag behind.

That said, I have to question some of Mercer’s conclusions, or at least consider them to be oversimplifications. I spend a great deal of time in both Buenos Aires and Santiago, rather less in Montevideo, and one of the categories in the infrastructure survey is public transportation. Certainly, compared with most North American cities, both Buenos Aires and Santiago are far ahead in frequency – city buses operate 24/7 – and lower in cost.

In fairness, though, Santiago long ago outstripped Buenos Aires in quality of its public transportation, especially with the Chilean capital’s expanding and immaculate Metro system (pictured above). As Buenos Aires struggles to add stations to the continent’s oldest underground rail system, Santiago’s service is growing at the speed of light, relatively speaking at least, and now more than doubles the mileage of its trans-Andean counterpart.
Buenos Aires’s Subte also suffers from extensive vandalism, especially as the system has become a political football between the federal and city governments. With graffiti that saturates some cars and stations (as pictured above and below), sometimes even covering the windows so that passengers find it impossible to see out as their stop approaches, the Subte is simply a mess. On the Santiago Metro, by contrast, I have never seen even a hint of graffiti.
Recently, the Buenos Aires daily La Nación published a summary of urban problems that would suggest that Mercer’s survey overlooked many more issues: the deteriorating inter-urban rail system that killed 52 Argentines and injured 700 in a February crash; collapsing balconies that killed citizens on the sidewalks below; frequent power outages; floods that inundated city streets because the drainage system is inadequate; and overflowing garbage on the sidewalks (as pictured below).
With the definitive Subte transfer to the city, that problem may ease – already, authorities are closing Línea A for the summer to replace its picturesque but aging wooden cars, but even then, cleaning up damage from vandals on the rest of the system will take some time. On balance, I can’t see how Buenos Aires manages to finish ahead of Santiago on any infrastructure survey. I’ll have more to say about this, especially with regard to public transport, in the near future.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Home for the Holidays?

I’ve never been one for the “holidays,” and have normally worked through them – one of my greatest frustrations, on the road, has been the week of enforced inactivity between Xmas and New Year’s, when it’s difficult or impossible to accomplish much in updating my Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia. I’m always operating on deadline, with limited time to explore and revise my coverage of the cities, towns, parks and associated attractions in the countries I’ve grown so attached to, and the virtual loss of a week when it’s almost impossible to meet with anybody can be frustrating.

The best-case scenario, often, is to retreat to my room, which is easiest when I’m in Buenos Aires, glued to the computer in my own apartment. It’s also a risky time of the year in the Argentine capital, not because of high crime but rather because of uncontrolled fireworks that, during last night’s celebrations, led to 57 emergency room visits. It gets worse at New Year’s Eve, when the reckless airheads start tossing firecrackers from their balconies into the streets.
Alternatively, I’ll stay in a quiet Chilean town such as Villarrica, hoping to polish some of the work I’ve already accomplished. Perhaps the most memorable holiday I’ve spent  was December 24, 1998, when I was the only visitor in the campground at Chile’s Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta (pictured above), home to the largest coast range concentration of the pewen or monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana). That may have been the only place I’ve ever experienced the peace and calm that, ideally and often wrongly, so many people associate with this time of year.

This year, having returned from Buenos Aires about ten days ago, I’m passing the holiday period in the cool, damp winter of Northern California where, however, there’s one enduring reminder of Argentina. With the heavy rains of the past week, we’ve experienced an invasion of Argentine arts in the kitchen and, to a lesser extent, in the bathrooms. Argentines themselves may find it increasingly difficult to travel abroad because of foreign currency restrictions, but their native insect colonies are a permanent presence here.

Explaining the Looting
As Argentines continued to argue over the causes of the wave of looting that took place over the past several days, I concluded that “If you don’t know what’s going on, well, you’re not alone.” One far more astute observer than I has pointed out the difficulties of assigning blame or responsibility in Argentina’s byzantine street politics – the Argentine-born Chilean-American novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman, in an interview with Argentina’s Ñ magazine, was asked the following question: “You have said that nobody has been able to explain Peronism to you in a reasonable manner. How would you explain it to a third party?”

Dorfman, whom I know slightly, gave the following response: “If I could explain that to a second party, or third, or a fourth, I might have written a best-seller about it.”

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bariloche's Burning?

It’s awkward for me to write something that might discourage people from traveling to the countries where I work, especially since that might discourage them from buying my books and other products, but it would be negligent to ignore what’s gone on the last few days in Argentina. Most notably, in the Patagonian resort city of San Carlos de Bariloche, there’s been systematic looting of supermarkets and other businesses, but the problem has since spread to suburban Buenos Aires, the city of Rosario, and other localities.
While Bariloche’s reputation is that of an elite getaway, its southern suburbs – known as the “Alto” – consist of deplorable shantytowns in what has become a classic juxtaposition of haves and have-nots. As always, in this polarized and politically dysfunctional country, there is a partisan element to the disorder, though it’s not entirely clear who’s to blame and who’s to restore order. The federal government blames the political opposition and, most notably, teamster’s union leader Hugo Moyano. It has sent in 400 Gendarmes (roughly comparable to the US National Guard) to control the normally peaceful streets along the Lago Nahuel Huapi shoreline.
Moyano, who has challenged the government to arrest him if it has proof, has about as much reformist credibility as the late Jimmy Hoffa, but there are unmistakable political elements in the crisis. Moyano, a former ally of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has fallen out with her and since organized a general strike and protests in Buenos Aires’s central Plaza de Mayo. The confrontational Fernández, whose popularity and power are declining despite an impressive re-election victory in late 2011, cannot run again unless there’s a constitutional amendment (which her partisans are aggressively lobbying for).

Argentine politics, for better or worse (usually worse), often plays out in the streets rather than in weak institutions such as the Congress, so it’s possible to interpret the current disorder as an early manifestation of the battle for succession even though the next presidential election is nearly three years away.

One friend of mine, who lives in Bariloche's prosperous western outskirts, observes that the looting “seems to be organized” and that a group called Primero de Mayo operates with the support of city mayor Omar Goye, who is a “Kirchnerite” but not, apparently, a supporter of the president. At the same time, Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli is a conservative Peronist who, while publicly supporting the president, has taken a hard line against looters in the Greater Buenos Aires suburbs of Campana and San Fernando. The president’s close advisers mistrust Scioli, who served as vice-president under her husband, the late Néstor Kirchner, and has presidential ambitions of his own.

Another friend, from Buenos Aires, has summarized his opinion of the current crisis, emphasizing that in his opinion “This is not going to blow up. This is not 2001 [when the country suffered a complete economic and political meltdown]. The Peronists are in charge, and they’re not going to let things get out of control.”

Still, he sees serious problems that are going unaddressed: “Bariloche has more than 40 percent of its population below the poverty line…On my last trip, I saw them making houses out of produce crates.” Also, he adds, there is a culture of impunity from the top to the bottom, as “Last week a mob of 20 guys destroyed the Casa de Tucumán [the local office of the provincial government in the capital] with no arrests. Why not loot, if there are no consequences?”

On another issue, he emphasizes, “The most important factor is inflation. Cristina has said ‘If we had 25 percent inflation, the country would explode,’ and she was right.” In addition, he says, this is “a government more worried about its power struggle with Clarín [the country’s most important media conglomerate] than with the people’s real problems (inflation, unemployed youth and personal security).”

Still, as he maintains, a disorderly collapse like that of 2001 is unlikely. Even in contentious places like today’s Bariloche, this is unlikely to cause more than minor inconveniences, and the best advice is to steer clear of political demonstrations unless you really understand what’s going on. If you don’t understand what’s going on, well, you’re not alone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Uruguay Stands Apart

On a continent where there’s often a strong correlation between wealth and political power, Uruguayan president José (Pepe) Mujica is a conspicuous exception. His Southern Cone counterparts, Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, made fortunes from credit cards and real estate, respectively, and appear to enjoy the perks of office (though Piñera has put his assets into a blind trust). Mujica, though, even eschews the presidential palace to live on a small flower farm outside Montevideo (as shown in the BBC report below). According to his obligatory statement of wealth, his only tangible asset is an aging VW bug, and he donates most of his salary to charity.
All this suggests that Mujica is a political maverick, but we could say the same of Uruguay as a whole. On a continent where the Catholic Church has often held disproportionate influence in public life – Chile legalized divorce just eight years ago – Uruguay is a secular state in which not even Christmas and Easter, for example, are official holidays. Rather, December 25 is Día de la Familia (Family Day), and Semana Santa (Holy Week) is the Semana de Turismo (Tourism Week). If the believers wish to observe differently, they are free to do so.

More recently, Uruguay’s unconventionality has extended to other issues. In October, the Congress decriminalized abortion by a narrow vote, despite opposition from the Church, and last week the Cámara de Diputados, the lower house of the bicameral Congress (depicted below), voted to legalize gay marriage by an overwhelming vote of 81 to six (In 2008, Uruguay was the first Latin American country to acknowledge civil unions for both heterosexual and homosexual couples). It remains for the Senate to consider the issue, but passage appears probable and the president will likely sign on to it.
On another controversial topic, the legalization of marijuana, Uruguay has been considering legislation since August, but it’s not the freewheeling sort of measure that might bring an invasion of stoners from around the continent and the world. Rather, it would permit private cultivation and usage by Uruguayan citizens only, under government regulation and supervision. Some cynics, of course, have suggested that President Mujica himself might use that flower farm outside Montevideo for his own stash.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ceasefire in the Traffic Wars?

Arriving in Buenos Aires, I normally recalibrate my instincts to adapt to the Argentine capital’s motorists, who never even seem to see anybody in the crosswalk. I have long written that, as a pedestrian here, the first rule of survival is to appreciate that you are invisible. Making eye contact with a Porteño driver is next to impossible.
Others, though, think even less of those drivers than I do. Last month, at the Feria Internacional de Turismo, a US consular employee told me that he thought pedestrians were not invisible – rather, they were targets. I disagree on that – the fact is that most Porteño drivers look carefully at intersections to avoid other vehicles, but utterly ignore pedestrians. On those occasions when pedestrians do register, few drivers stop; rather, they swerve around them, often while cursing out the window. Once, two doors from our apartment, a policeman told me that issuing citations to drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk was “not my job.”

Having established that, I can say that I’ve noticed improvements, and some Porteño friends agree with me that respect for pedestrians is growing. Etiquette may still be a minority position among Buenos Aires drivers, but some of them are learning. Credit where credit is due.

On a peripherally related matter, though, there’s been regression. In our Palermo neighborhood, in particular, motorists have begun to occupy crosswalks as their own personal parking places, forcing pedestrians out into the street where they’re even more vulnerable to speeding drivers. Only a couple days after my arrival, as I walked toward the nearby Parque 3 de Febrero, I found several cars blocking the crosswalk on the broad and busy Avenida Libertador, with a policeman standing idly nearby.
Approaching him, I asked whether or not blocking the crosswalk (including a handicapped ramp) was an infraction, and he replied that indeed it was. Then I asked him why he hadn’t written out a ticket and, in contrast to the cop who said moving violations were not his job, he pulled out his book and started to cite the vehicles in question (as pictured above). This was positive, of course, except perhaps for the fact that he had to wait for someone to ask him to do his job.
In a similar situation a few days ago, I found another vehicle blocking the crosswalk along Blvd. Cerviño, just steps away from our building. Likewise, a policeman stood nearby as pedestrians maneuvered around the vehicle (and the pile of trash that made things even worse, but that’s a separate issue that I’ll deal with in the near future).  This cop, though, was less compliant than the other – “I don’t have a citation book,” he said, and he didn’t think it would be fair to call the tow truck (ignoring fairness to pedestrians, of course). Argentina may have achieved marriage equality, but equivalent respect for pedestrians has a long way to go.

Chile Travel Adventures
I won’t get back to Chile until next year, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be paying attention to the stringbean land across the Andes. Last year, in partnership with Sutro Media, I published my first iPhone app Argentina Travel Adventures, which recently came out in an Android version as well. More recently – just a week or so ago, in fact – Chile Travel Adventures has gone live to complement Argentina in both iPhone and in Android format, so that readers can explore southernmost South America on their mobiles as well as in print. At just US$2.99 each, the apps are, figuratively if not literally, a giveaway, with regular updates at no additional charge.
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