Sunday, July 29, 2012

Evita's Money

A decade ago, on one of my rare winter visits to Buenos Aires, I went to the opening of the Museo Evita on July 26th, 2002 – the 50th anniversary of Eva Perón’s death. Evita events were ubiquitous, as pilgrims flocked to her tomb, and there were even press tours of her former Posadas street apartment in Recoleta (pictured above; an AP correspondent friend of mine garnered an invitation but, unfortunately, I was not so lucky).
All this necrophilia recalls the sardonic observation of the late journalist and novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez (author of Santa Evita) that “We Argentines are cadaver cultists who commemorate our greatest our greatest figures not on the day of their birth, but on the day of their death.” History repeated itself again this past Thursday, the 60th anniversary of her death, when president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced the issuance of a new 100-peso banknote with Evita’s image.
Evita’s visage replaces that of President Julio Argentino Roca (1880-86; 1898-1904), a military man whose so-called Campaña del Desierto is widely considered to have been a genocidal campaign against the Mapuche of Patagonia. Roca is a polarizing figure, whose equestrian statues in Buenos Aires and Bariloche (pictured above) are often defaced with graffiti.

At the same time, Evita herself is one of the most polarizing figures in a country whose political motto seems to be “if you’re not with me, you’re against me.” This week, Henry Whitney of Olivos (a prosperous northern Buenos Aires suburb) wrote the English-language Buenos Aires Herald that, when he was a child, “We had her jammed down our throats every day in the class-room, newspapers, radio and signs everywhere. We had to use her autobiography La Razón de Mi Vida as our reading-book for the last two or three years of primary school.”

Even at home, there was a genuine paranoia, claims Whitney: “Our parents had to tell us repeatedly not to make any comments, even to our best friends, about [President Juan Domingo Perón or Evita] because ‘they’ might come after us. We were never to mention her name near the maids, even in English. We were warned that our telephones were tapped. We laughed about it, but we were also scared.”
I have heard anecdotes before from Anglo-Argentines who obliquely referred to Juan Domingo Perón as “Johnny Sunday,” a literal translation of his name. Certainly, the Peróns went out of their way to antagonize what they considered to be the “oligarchy,” especially outspoken opponents like the writer Victoria Ocampo (whom Perón imprisoned briefly in 1953, the year after Evita’s death). The thematic Palermo hotel Legado Mítico (pictured above) has rooms dedicated to both Evita and Victoria – ironically enough given that, if the two had ever confronted each other in the same room, only one might have left alive.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Black-Browed Albatross Stages Comeback; Plus, Five-Star Falklands?

In the course of more than a year in the Falkland Islands, from January 1986 through February 1987, I grew to adore the place. Just four years earlier, it had been the site of brief but contentious conflict when Argentina’s vicious military dictatorship invaded and occupied them on the basis of an ambiguous 19th-century territorial claim, and held them for 74 days before being dislodged by a British task force. During those ten weeks, the territory changed from a state without police – local cops did not even carry firearms – to a police state that threatened them and their property.
My own stay, funded by a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, gave me plenty of time to get to know the islands, which were much more than just a war zone – they are also a great biosphere reserve and home to a local population who made us feel at home – in fact, several of them even shared their homes with us, despite my wife’s suspect Argentine nationality (she traveled there on her US passport, as Argentines passports were then unacceptable to local authorities).

Over our 13 months, we enjoyed observing enormous amounts of wildlife in what felt like a sub-Antarctic Galápagos, at least in the sense that the countless birds and numerous marine mammals were virtually fearless – it was easy to approach penguins and other birds, not to mention marine mammals such as southern elephant seals, for photographs. I now have thousands of photos of Falklands fauna, many of them taken on succeeding trips as I have updated my Moon Handbook to Patagonia.

The difference, of course, is that the Galápagos’ species diversity is far greater; the Falklands have fewer species, but greater numbers of individuals in sprawling shoreline colonies. Five different species of penguins breed in the Islands, with occasional visitors as well, but they’re not my favorite birds here.

Rather, I prefer the black-browed albatross (pictured above), with its almost porcelain beauty, which is easiest to see and approach on Saunders Island, one of the archipelago’s largest islands after East and West Falkland. At The Rookery, near the sandy isthmus called The Neck that virtually separates Saunders in two, these curious birds warily waddle up to visitors who take a seat nearby.

That’s why I was encouraged to read that the species, which Falklanders call the “mollymawk,” is recovering from a population decline that had placed it on the IUCN endangered species list because long-line fishing had contributed to high mortality rates. Seventy percent of the species breeds in the islands, though there are also substantial numbers on South Georgia (which, unfortunately, I have never been able to visit). According to local conservationist Sally Poncet, whom I know fairly well, South Georgia mollymawk numbers have not recovered in the way Falklands populations have.

Five-Star Falklands?
Meanwhile, the new director of Falkland Islands Tourism, Tony Mason (whom I have never met, as he only recently took over the job) has suggested that the Islands are ready for their first five-star hotel. At the moment, accommodations in the capital of Stanley consist mostly of cozy B&Bs plus the Malvina House Hotel (pictured below), which would be good accommodations almost anywhere. Nearly all the Islands’ tourism is cruise-ship based and, when things get crowded in town, beds can be hard to come by (on a handful of occasions when high seas and winds have made it impossible for cruise passengers to return to their vessels, local authorities have had to appeal to residents to open their spare rooms to the temporarily stranded).
The question is whether a country whose total population is barely 3,000 (of whom roughly 2,000 reside in the capital) can justify the construction and operation of a facility that will sit virtually empty about half the year (the wildlife season runs from September to March or April). Given the limited and precarious overseas communications (weekly flights from Chile, depending on a capricious Argentine foreign policy, and two or three charters a month from the Brize Norton, Oxfordshire), devoting limited resources to such a project would seem debatable. Even the most well-to-do sightseers and wildlife-watchers would probably only stay there at the beginning and the end of their visits. Maintaining that level of service in a destination with a limited labor force would appear to be a real challenge.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Día del Amigo

I’ve always been annoyed by what I consider “greeting card days,” mainly Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, in the United States. They’ve always seemed manufactured celebrations that should be utterly unnecessary for any thoughtful husband, wife or child, and I always tell my wife and daughter that I’d rather ignore them.
I feel slightly differently about the Día del Amigo, the “Friendship Day” that, to the best of my knowledge, is only observed in the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay on July 20th (in neighboring Paraguay, it takes place on July 30th). While it’s not a public holiday in Argentina, there’s been sentiment toward moving it to July 19th, marking the death of Rosario cartoonist Roberto Fontaranarrosa, creator of the popular gaucho philosopher Inodoro (“Toilet”) Pereyra and his talking canine companion Mendieta.

Perhaps I feel differently because Día del Amigo is an optional thing unencumbered by traditional social convention – I’m rarely in Argentina at this time of the year, but if a friend in Buenos Aires contacts me for dinner or a drink on this date, I know it’s something genuine rather than just a formal obligation. It’s a big enough occasion that, according to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, yesterday’s traffic nearly collapsed the cellular system with calls and text messages.

That’s how I felt yesterday, when I received an email from my friend Gabriel Famá (pictured above), the owner of Cadore (my personal choice as the city’s best ice creamery). Since my recent surgery, I’ve had plenty of get-well emails, but the one I got from Gabriel yesterday was particularly heart-warming, so to speak: “You know we value friendship highly here” and “I wish you all the best during your recovery.” In a politically and economically erratic country, that's something you can count on.

To my mind, that’s a real departure from greeting-card commercialism, and it perked up my spirits. The only downer is that, in the aftermath of my surgery, I will probably have to limit my consumption of Cadore’s exquisite chocolate amargo (bittersweet chocolate) and mousse de limón (lemon mousse), my two favorite flavors.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Coffee & Cannabis Controversies

I neither like or drink coffee, and would never even consider going to a Starbucks because, among other reasons, I detest overbearing chain franchises. I would never consider including any of them in my books when there are far better local alternatives.

Argentina in general, and Buenos Aires in particular, would seem unlikely destinations for the world's most notorious espresso pusher, if only because espresso is the default choice for Argentine caffeine junkies at any corner café – even in small provincial towns. In Chile, where semi-soluble Nescafe was the only option for decades, espresso drinks are still relatively hard to come by (though Starbucks has a growing Santiago presence).
Nevertheless, Starbucks – with tentative plans to open about 20 locales per year in Argentina - has made news the last few days. First, it issued an apology (as shown in in the screen shot above) to its Argentine patrons that it could not serve their lattes and other espresso drinks in their brand name cups because of domestic trade secretary Guillermo Moreno’s capricious import restrictions. Consequently, the company had to serve them in generic, locally produced containers, and publicly apologized for having to do so.

Presumably, the coffee tastes the same, and I don’t have a lot of sympathy with Starbucks or any other chain that goes out of its way to emphasize the corporate uniformity of products that are probably inferior (my wife, and other coffee drinkers I know, prefer local outlets such as Peet’s here in the Bay Area). Starbucks’ Argentine apology fell on unreceptive ears, though, and it soon had to issue a second apology for having implied that locally produced containers were of inferior quality.

Certainly, the manufacture of Starbucks-logo containers is not equivalent to producing iPads, iPhones or other high-tech products for which Argentina lacks the technological infrastructure – in principle, at least, it’s doable. Whether it’s doable in the context of an economy with 30 percent inflation and consequent high production costs is another question entirely (it’s probably cheaper to import them). One would hope that government officials would rather see the company devote its investment resources to opening additional branches that would employ larger numbers of Argentines.

Marijuana in Uruguay
A few weeks ago, Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica (pictured above) proposed legalization of marijuana as a state-run monopoly, but he has recently backtracked. The original idea was to provide legally grown weed for the country’s estimated 150,000 regular users (out of a population of 3.5 million). Lest the country become a destination for stoners, Mujica emphasized that only registered Uruguayan citizens would have access, and that they would have to register for rehab.

Opinion within and beyond the government has been mixed, and Mujica finally declared that “If 60 percent of the country does not support us, we are abandoning the initiative.” How the government will determine that degree of support – through a plebiscite or otherwise – apparently remains undetermined.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What's in a (Sur)name?

Like many other Latin Americans, Chileans customarily use double surnames to identify themselves; a child takes both the paternal and maternal surnames, in that order. In the case of Salvador Allende Gossens, for instance, Allende comes from the father’s side, while Gossens comes from the mother’s. Normally, Salvador would go by the surname Allende, but he would sign legal documents as Allende Gossens.
Marriage complicates matters. After marrying Salvador Allende, Hortensia Bussi Soto became Hortensia Bussi de Allende. Their daughter Isabel, a current Chilean senator, goes by the surnames Allende Bussi (the California-based novelist Isabel Allende Llano is their niece). Hortensia’s own surname would be lost in the succeeding generation.

There are exceptions even to these rules, especially when elite families want to retain conspicuous evidence of their heritage - the late president Eduardo Frei Montalva (pictured above, 1964-1970) married María Ruiz-Tagle Jiménez, whose hyphenated first surname dates well back into Chilean history. The children of their son, former president Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994<\#208>2000), have lost the prestigious Ruiz-Tagle surname, however.

Aside from knowing which surname to use when dealing with locals, visitors to Chile may find a more practical application<\#208>don’t be surprised to hear Chilean officials, at immigration offices or elsewhere, use your middle name on the assumption that it’s really your father’s surname.

Customs differ in Argentina, where the double surname is unusual, but that may be changing. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, 40 percent of all new births in the city now bear the names of both parents – representing a 76 percent increase over the past decade. On one level, in this regard, it would appear that Argentina is conforming more closely to Latin American customs; on another, it would seem to acknowledge a greater equality between father and mother (though the paternal surname always comes first). My late mother-in-law, an Argentine of Spanish descent, used her husband’s surname Massolo rather than her birth surname of Rodríguez; my wife uses the Italian-derived Massolo rather than a hyphenated Massolo-Rodríguez. Our daughter, born in California, uses the hyphenated but rather awkward surname Bernhardson-Massolo, which she signs “B-M” in the interest of brevity.

In either event, the result would appear to be a greater measure of legal equality between the sexes and within the family. It’s worth adding out that, according Portuguese naming customs, the maternal surname comes first, followed by the paternal surname.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Another Airline Grounded: Uruguay's Pluna

Recently I wrote about the origins of Aerolíneas Argentinas and Chile’s LAN Airlines, and the different routes they have taken – in the former case, to inconsistency and unreliability, in the latter case, to rapid growth and expansion that’s made it South America’s most reliable airline. The recent merger with Brazil’s TAM has only increased LAN’s prestige and, presumably, its profitability.
I have almost never written about Uruguayan air services, largely because it’s rarely necessary to fly there – in Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, I cover only the coastal strip from Carmelo to Colonia del Sacramento (both along the Río de la Plata) and from the capital city of Montevideo to the resort of Punta del Este (both fronting on the South Atlantic Ocean). Uruguay is only about the size of the state of Washington and, given the frequent ferries and catamarans that connect Buenos Aires with Montevideo, and with Colonia del Sacramento and Carmelo, flying there is almost pointless for a trip that takes barely an hour over water. The only notable airport is Montevideo's renovated Aeropuerto Carrasco (pictured below).
That’s good, in a sense, because Uruguay’s own flagship carrier Pluna recently pulled an Aerolíneas, suspending all flights indefinitely and laying off 80 percent of its personnel. Pluna is operated by LeadGate, an Argentine financial company with links to Canadian interests, but the Uruguayan government is now considering whether to cut its losses, selling both the airline and its assets.

Aerolíneas, for its part, is honoring Pluna tickets, but given its own shortcomings, that will probably only augment the company’s already devastating financial situation. Meanwhile, the company has tried to compensate for its disastrous economic performance with a 1950s-style newsreel PR offensive under the name of “Alta en el Cielo” (“High in the Sky”). Appropriately enough for a country that’s living in the past, the campaign focuses on Aerolíneas’ accomplishments in the first half of the 20th century, ignoring the debacles of the present.

Health & Heart
This is to thank all the well-wishers who have sent comments or direct emails after my recent surgery. I’m still feeling weak, but comfortable at home and expect to be back on the road later this year. In the meantime, I have plenty of deskwork in between naps.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Perla: a Novel

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case, about the final days of poet Pablo Neruda around the time of the 1973 coup against Chile’s constitutional president Salvador Allende Gossens. Translator Carolina de Robertis, a fellow Oaklander whom I have not yet met in person, provided me review copies of Ampuero’s book and her own novel Perla, which deals with the aftermath of Argentina’s 1976-83 “Dirty War” against “subversives” who were often brutally kidnapped and executed by coup-mongers such as General Jorge Rafael Videla.
Videla made the news again this week, as a federal court in Buenos Aires sentenced him to 50 years in prison for plotting the theft of babies from political prisoners and their subsequent “adoption” by supporters of the coup. The events in question took place at the Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (pictured above), the naval engineering school that was one of the regime’s most notorious detention and torture sites. It is now a museum, open to the public, where visitors can see the cell where pregnant detainees gave birth to children most of them never saw again.

The exact date when the novel takes place is unclear, but the title character Perla, a young woman in suburban Buenos Aires, has a surprise guest – a sopping wet young man who can only nourish himself with water - while her Argentine family (a naval officer and his wife) are on vacation in Punta del Este (Uruguay). As happens, Perla’s parents (whom she is due to join across the River Plate) were directly involved in the trafficking of Dirty War babies.  In the tradition of magical realism, as the ghostly figure’s presence becomes more tangible – it’s also worth noting the naval “death flight” pilot Adolfo Scilingo is a family friend – Perla has to confront truths she’d rather avoid. Just as Argentina has had to confront figures like Videla, who is already serving a lengthy prison sentence for other Dirty War crimes.

Argentina has dealt with this theme cinematically, in the Oscar-winning film The Official Story (1985), and in many non-fiction books, but Perla appears to be the first to grapple with it in fiction. One of the book’s protagonists is Perla’s crusading journalist boyfriend, to whom she eventually returns when the issue of her origins becomes too difficult to face alone. In the end, De Robertis, who hails from Uruguay via Europe, has written an absorbing novel, in elegant language, that leaves an enduring impression on the reader.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Gracias, Dr. Favaloro

Over the past couple months, I’d been experiencing chest pain, and had attributed that to the series of bronchitis infections I’d suffered over the past several months in California, Argentina and Chile. Two weeks ago, though, they became sufficiently acute that my GP suggested I do a treadmill stress test and see a cardiologist who, evaluating the results, told me that “you’re a sick puppy.”

There’s a history of heart disease in the family, as my father and both his brothers died from it. The cardiologist’s original idea was to place a stent to clear out my clogged arteries without undertaking anything more invasive, but a camera probe showed the arteries could not support that alternative and that, in fact, I could have suffered a massive heart attack at any point. Keeping me under intensive care at Kaiser San Francisco for several days, until the dissolution of blood-thinning medication I had been taking, permitted them to undertake a triple bypass operation last Wednesday June 29th, and I came home this afternoon.

That’s where the link with Southern Cone Travel comes in: the Argentine cardiologist René Gerónimo Favaloro (pictured above), who worked at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic, was a pioneer in arterial bypass treatment, and his Fundacion Favaloro, in downtown in Buenos Aires, is probably Latin America’s foremost cardiological research institute and teaching hospital. Unfortunately, Favaloro himself never lived to see the success of the procedure, as he killed himself with a gunshot wound to the heart in 2002 – when the depths of Argentina’s worst economic crisis ever must have made that success seem ever more remote.

Dr. Favaloro’s procedure, though, should make it possible for me continue updating and improving my Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia, with a minor inconvenience: the wire that now holds my healing sternum together may set off airport metal detectors. That’s a small enough price to pay for another two decades or so on the planet.
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