Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Break It All! Rocking Around the Americas

In the current months of semi-quarantined torpor I have, like millions of others, spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the tube. Often my tastes run to Scandi-Noir mysteries but, over the past week, we discovered a worthwhile alternative that takes me back to Buenos Aires and elsewhere in Latin America with Rompan Todo (Break It All), a six-part documentary on rock music south of the border (despite some notable omissions, to be detailed below).

Rompan Todo focuses primarily on Mexico (Mexico City, mostly) and Argentina (primarily Buenos Aires), and evokes nostalgia not just for the distant origins of that scene, but also for the city that I can’t visit for the foreseeable future. I’m of the generation for which rock music is a touchstone, and I touched on the Argentine scene myself in a National Geographic Traveler assignment a decade ago.


In the Beginning…

The series, though, starts with the California-born Richard Steven Valenzuela—better known as Richie Valens—who energized aspiring south-of-the-border musicians with his now standard “La Bamba,” adapted from a Mexican folk song. Not so many years later, though, the influence came from across the Atlantic with the Beatles. As the series’ Argentine producer Gustavo Santaolalla notes, the earliest Argentine bands often performed cover versions in English and were often derivative—Sandro, the “Argentine Elvis,” performed Spanish-language versions of songs like Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.”

This tribute album to the late Sandro is a fine introduction to Mexican and South American bands.

From the first, governments and other institutions like the Catholic Church were skeptical and often hostile toward rock. In 1971, for instance, Mexico had its own Woodstock in the unexpectedly politicized Festival de Avándaro, and Mexican officials forced rock to go underground—almost literally—for years. Argentine musicians underwent a similar experience in the approach to and aftermath of the 1976 military coup that resulted in exile for many.

Billy Bond's fans trashed the interior of Luna Park.

One of those was Billy Bond, whose appearance in the film was a revelation–I’d never even heard of the Italian-born rocker (given name Giuliano Canterini) but, from the footage here, he seems a precursor of punk. In 1972, when he and his band La Pesada del Rock and Roll played the iconic Luna Park Stadium—an auditorium where Eva Duarte first charmed Juan Perón en route to becoming Argentina’s most powerful woman ever—Bond urged his cheap-seats fans to descend to the unsold vacancies closer to the stage, resulting in vandalism and a police round-up. Within two years, apprehensive of Argentina’s authoritarian trends, Bond left for Brazil, but continued to produce Argentine bands and, in the course of this series, he proves himself to be admirably articulate (The series, by the way, takes its name from an album by Uruguay’s Los Shakers, but “Break It All” might as well have been Bond’s motto in his youth).


Meanwhile, in Chile

Chile's coupmongers executed Víctor Jara in 1973.

Chile underwent a similar trauma with the 1973 coup that overthrew constitutional President Salvador Allende and essentially shut down the music scene—beginning with folksinger Víctor Jara, whom Augusto Pinochet’s forces tortured and killed in an especially gruesome manner. My experience there has been more limited, though I did have the good fortune to meet, in Santiago, Claudio Parra of Los Jaivas, a group that formed in 1963 (the band name, by the way, is an adaptation of their original English “High-bass,” though it can also mean a species of crab found in Chilean waters).

Los Jaivas backstage at the Teatro Universidad de Chile (Claudio Parra is second from left)

I had assumed the band left because of the coup, but Parra corrected me on that—as the film makes clear, they had already decided to head to Argentina for commercial reasons, and the coup merely delayed their departure. They then spent several years there and in Paris before returning to Chile, where they still tour every year. When I saw them in Santiago around the turn of the century, they struck me as a Pink Floyd comparable and, onscreen here, La Ley’s Beto Cuevas compares their Alturas de Machu Picchu (Heights of Machu Picchu, based on a poem by Pablo Neruda) to Floyd’s Live at Pompeii.


Rock Nacional, In the Post-War

My own experience with Argentina's rock nacional dates from the post-Falklands/Malvinas War period, when the dictatorship faltered (in a brief interview, the Dylanesque León Gieco ruefully admits that he and other musicians were complicit in supporting the war and, by extension, a regime they presumably loathed). After the conflict, though, they focused on songs with Spanish rather than English lyrics—Charly García, for instance, has recorded a Spanish-language version of the Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and once, in an under-the-railroad-tracks dive in Palermo, I heard him do “Soldado de Lata,” a similar adaptation of the Small Faces’ “Tin Soldier.”

A performance at Palermo's Roxy Live Bar (the bassist, second from right, is Charly García's bandmate Zorrito von Quintiero).

Fito Páez performs in El Calafate.

Other than García, the biggest names I’ve ever come close to are Soda Stereo, the first Argentine band to become a major international touring sensation, and Fito Páez, now a solo artist who also worked with García and others. I know little about Soda’s music, but I happened to be in the provincial capital of Tucumán when their publicists were passing out promotional packs of cigarettes in the central Plaza de la Independencia prior to a concert (I was not impressed). Páez I saw as part of El Calafate’s annual Festival del Lago in 2014, but the outdoor sound system was less than ideal.


Oversights and Omissions

One unspoken theme through most of the series is the scene’s overwhelmingly masculinity, but there are several prominent women, most notably Andrea Echeverri of Colombia’s Aterciopelados and Mexico’s California-born Julieta Venegas, who has worked with Santaolalla (who lives in Los Angeles). I’ll note that when I saw Charly García in Palermo, his lead guitarist was María Gabriela Epumer, who died at 39 due in part, apparently, to a medical misdiagnosis. Truly unique is Los Jaivas’ Juanita Parra (in the Chile section photo above), who replaced her father Gabriel as the group’s drummer after a fatal automobile accident. Santaolalla, though, says rock’s future is female—and, as a producer with pedigree, he’s in a position to contribute to that.

In summary, Break It All remains a worthy account of rock music south of the border (and the Equator), but with one other major omission—although it subtitles itself “The History of Rock in Latin America,” Brazil is conspicuous by its absence. I’ll confess to knowing little about its music beyond bossa nova, but a cursory glance at Wikipedia suggests that the region’s largest country has had a flourishing rock music scene ever since the mid-1950s. Perhaps Netflix should retitle the current series to represent its Spanish-language bias, and then underwrite a separate work on the history of rock em português.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Corona v. Corona? Virus Meets Eclipse in South America

In mid-2019, Chileans and many foreigners flocked to the coastline, about 500 km north of Santiago, to see a major solar eclipse—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people. Tomorrow, though, there’s yet another chance, but this year’s event has complications for eclipse-chasers in Argentine Patagonia or southern mainland Chile, the path on which the moon will blot out the sun for a little over two minutes. Those complications have to do with COVID-19, of course, but also the weather.

The path of Monday's eclipse

While people flocked to the 2019 event, that comes with risks this year. A friend in Pucón, who until very recently worked in hotel administration, tells me that the city “is living as if this wave won’t arrive here. There are lots of people who’ve come to see the eclipse, many of whom surely are carrying the virus that will force us to shut down again, perhaps all summer…”

Monday's forecast shows a 90 percent chance of rain at the hour of totality,

Ironically enough, they may be risking their lives—and those of others—for nothing. A few years ago, I and some friends had to cancel an overflight of nearby Volcán Villarrica because heavy cloud cover set in the morning of our departure, and tomorrow’s forecast shows rain throughout the day (the marine west coast climate resembles that of Seattle). In the path of totality, the sky will get darker at 1 p.m., but no one there is likely to see the startling sight of the solar corona (spoiler—it’s nothing to do with the virus!) when the moon blocks the sun.


In theory, visibility should be better on the Argentine side of the border, in the rain shadow of the Andes, but rain is also possible at San Martín de Los Andes, a prime tourist destination that lies barely outside totality. Conditions should be better in the city of Neuquén, a bit farther from the path of totality, but I would expect heavy southbound traffic towards the hamlet of Picún Leufú, which lies within. A 20-something friend of ours in the city (which is not really a tourist destination) at first sounded indifferent when I asked him if he were going to watch it, but now it seems he’ll at least step outside the office to glimpse the partial eclipse.


For those of us unable to reach Chile or Argentina for the event, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will follow it online starting at 9:40 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. There will also be a live show in Spanish starting at 10:30 a.m. EST.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Farewell, Jan Morris...and That Soccer Guy

In the early 1990s, I finished my original guidebook to Argentina for a publisher whose name I will decline to mention here. Shortly thereafter, the same publisher offered me a contract to update their existing guidebook to Chile, which I accepted, and my career as a guidebook writer seemed like destiny.

While those two assignments might sound comparable or almost identical, there were significant differences. The same author—whose name I will also decline to mention here--had done the previous editions of both books. In the case of Argentina, though, the author held copyright and, therefore, I had to start the book from scratch. Given that the book was awful—so bad that the publisher decided to do a new version shortly after the initial publication—on one level that was no big deal.


Of course, that meant more work for me (and my wife), who also wrote part of the new title. We had to avoid plagiarizing the previous author’s work but, given its shortcomings, that was never an issue. The downside was that the publisher would claim the copyright to our new book, as it was then eliminating author-friendly royalty contracts.


In the case of Chile, the publisher already owned the copyright, so plagiarism would not be an issue—or would it? That came to mind last week when I heard that Jan Morris, famed for her journalism, travel writing and personal life, died Friday at the age of 94. I had once unknowingly plagiarized her.

When Jan Morris visited Puerto Montt, in the early 1960s, it looked different than it does today.

In 1961, Morris had described the southern city of Puerto Montt as filled with “structures in the Alpine manner, all high-pitched roofs and quaint balconies.” Thirty years later, the author of the Chile guidebook wrote that “many houses are of northern-European design, faced with unpainted shingles, high-pitched roofs and quaint, ornate balconies,” without attribution.


Updating the book, I was unaware of the flagrant plagiarism until several years later, when I expanded the quotation with appropriate credit to Morris herself. Legally, the publisher would probably have been responsible but, when I was fortunate enough to meet her at the annual Book Passage Travel Writers Conference in 1999, Jan simply laughed it off. That’s a great way to remember her.


It Goes to 11, or Is It 60?

In other necrology news, soccer icon Diego Maradona has died at the age of 60. Never able to appreciate soccer’s absence of hand-eye coordination, I'm not a fan of the sport, but there’s still no underestimating the impact this addictive personality had on his native country—which was always willing to rationalize his personal shortcomings.

Maradona shares a mural with tango icon Aníbal Troilo.

Argentine President Alberto Fernández declared three days of mourning, with Maradona’s body lying in state in the Casa Rosada presidential palace, but that turned into a truncated free-for-all as many fans tried to force their way in to view the corpse; earlier, morgue employees at the autopsy site apparently took selfies of that event.


In a country where embalming is unusual—the most famous case is that of Eva Perón, whose post-mortem odyssey is a true epicMaradona apparently requested to have himself put on public display in perpetuity, but the family appears to have overruled that. “El Diego” may never enjoy Evita’s privileged position at the elite Cementerio de la Recoleta, but his tomb in suburban Buenos Aires Province seems likely to  become a pilgrimage site in its own right.


Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano may have summed up his legacy best: “Maradona was condemned to believe himself Maradona and obliged to be the star of every party, the baby at every baptism, and corpse at every wake. Success is even more devastating than cocaine. No analysis of urine or blood can reveal that drug.”

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Should the Borders Open?

In March, after the COVID pandemic drove me back to California, I put aside thoughts of returning to Argentina and Chile for the foreseeable future. It didn’t help, of course, that my passport expired in September and, amidst evidence that the US Government was slow-walking renewals, I couldn’t even find the document in question—making its renewal a moot point. Somehow, in the process of self-quarantining on my return, it had gone astray.

We thought we’d searched everywhere possible, with no luck whatsoever. But then, in the process of finding a Hawai’i guidebook for my daughter, who was flying there for a ten-day holiday, my wife stumbled upon the document in a basement bookshelf. I had no memory of putting it there, but I’m relieved that it’s still in my possession.


In theory, I could now apply for a renewal right now, but to what end? Historically speaking, a US passport has opened doors to the world, but the current administration’s mismanagement of the greatest public health crisis in a century has rapidly devalued our citizenship. Ideally, the current election will reverse the process but, even so, it’s not likely to happen overnight. We will need a major U-turn.


Desperately Premature?

In the meantime, how are things looking beyond the Equator? Just a few days ago, the government of Argentine President Alberto Fernández made the surprising decision to open its borders to neighboring countries—Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Chile—in the interest of reactivating its economy for the approaching summer. There will be no quarantine, but some limitations: there will be no overland entry points—only by air or river (in the case of Uruguay)—and and a negative COVID test in the country of origin will be obligatory.

Are the immigration lines at Buenos Aires's international airport likely to match this any time soon?

This leaves some questions unanswered, though. Uruguay, which has been the continent’s most successful country in controlling the COVID crisis, has announced that it will not reciprocate, keeping its borders closed to foreign tourists. It may be most concerned with its porous northern border—the Uruguayan city of Chuy and its Brazilian neighbor Chui, for instance, share a main avenue that marks the limit between the countries. Still, even if Uruguay allows its citizens to cross the river to Buenos Aires, it’s not likely to reciprocate toward Argentines heading the other direction.

Argentina may be counting on the passenger ferries from Uruguay, but will Uruguay reciprocate?

The statement issued by Argentina’s tourism minister, Matías Lammens, left some things unsaid. While citizens of neighboring countries are presumably clear to cross the border, what about resident non-citizens—say, a US citizen living permanently in Chile? What about legal tourists to bordering countries, such as Brazil, which still allows US citizens to enter by air? Can they cross into Argentina as well?


Who’ll Go, and How’ll They Get Around?

One question, of course, is whether anybody will want to go. After an early lockdown seemed successful, Argentina’s per capita COVID stats are a bit better than Chile’s but worse than Brazil’s in terms of total cases, though not quite so bad as Peru’s. Another question is the practicality of logistics in a country that now requires special permission for inter-provincial travel, with internal checkpoints at every provincial border.

Argentina's current COVID-19 statistics are not encouraging (

In the course of writing a magazine article on coastal Patagonia, which I submitted last weekend, I heard from one operator that “transportation between cities is restricted, except for emergencies, flights are resuming but only for medical issues and special cases, not for tourists, and I think it will be difficult to open again before the end of the year. All our 2020 reservations were canceled, but there’s a ray of light toward the season’s end, in February or March, if the situation improves, but there’s lots of uncertainty at present.” Another eco-resort was unable to open on October 1st, its usual date—“We have all our hygiene and security protocols in place, but the outlook is uncertain and far from encouraging. Hopefully we’ll be able to open when summer starts, at least!”


It’s worth adding that Chile is also considering reopening its border to tourists. One eco-lodge operation in northern Patagonia just wrote me that “I think we’ll open in early December, right now we’re looking at the security protocols, we’ll also offering a half-price deal if a group wants to take over the whole lodge for a minimum of four days without additional services except for lodging and kitchen access.”


In Tentative Conclusion…

For my part, in search of normality, I’ll take it step by step. In that sense, I actually enjoyed having my teeth cleaned yesterday—my dentist’s reopening is, hopefully, an early indicator that things in California have begun to return to normal (Joe Biden’s victory should make it even more so!). Before we started, the hygienist required me to cleanse my mouth with a wash of iodine and mint (not hydrochloroquine!) and they refrained from polishing the teeth, as that could spread aerosols.


That said, this will be the first winter in recent memory that I will spend entirely in the Northern Hemisphere. Though I miss South America, I’m personally not confident enough to plan my return for another year or so.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Approval or Rejection? Chile's Pending Plebiscite

When I arrived in Santiago in late February, the COVID-19 pandemic was barely underway but, a few months earlier, the estallido social had done away with the complacent view that Chile was the longstanding exception to regional disorder. Ignited by what had seemed a minor Metro fare increase in October, the “social explosion” transformed the capital's urban landscape, such as the landmark Plaza Italia that activists renamed “Plaza Dignidad” (a term which should need no translation).

Late last year, activists turned Santiago's Plaza Italia into "Plaza Dignidad," a rallying point for anti-government protests.

In the aftermath of the explosion, the center-right government of President Sebastián Piñera acceded to demands for a plebiscite on a convention to reform the 1980 constitution that was the legacy of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet and his legal enabler Jaime Guzmán, and that ensured that the far-right would be over-represented in Congress. Pinochet’s legacy also included a “Chicago Boys” macro-economic system which, even as it made Chile Latin America’s most prosperous economy, brought enormous concentrations of wealth and major disparities—including health coverage and student debt—for which the Metro fare increase may simply have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It’s been building over the years, though, as I saw reinforced over the past several days when I discovered the Chilean TV series “Bala Loca” (2016) on Netflix, in which the paraplegic Mauro Murillo (Alejandro Goic)—victim of an automobile accident—is a former TV star turned crusading journalist intent on exposing the corruption behind one of the privatized health services known as Instituciones de Salud Previsional (ISAPREs). A brief trailer (in Spanish) follows here.

Murillo sets up an online news site known as En Guardia (a reference to The Guardian may not be purely fortuitous), but is unable to recruit one of his preferred journalists, Patricia Fuenzalida (Catalina Saavedra). who prefers to freelance and then dies, supposedly coincidentally, from a bala loca (“stray bullet”) during a supermarket robbery. I’m not completely up on the slang here, but its strikes me that Murillo himself, in investigating her death, becomes something of a “loose cannon” as he sees conspiracy in various government institutions including the military. He’s also an alcoholic and a cocaine junkie, facts that figure into the ultimate resolution of the story.


Bala Loca takes some inexplicable digressions and non sequiturs, particularly regarding family issues, so that its ten episodes probably could have been condensed into no more than six. Still, it offers some insights into what’s created today’s political scenario.


That said, the referendum originally called for April but postponed due to the COVID crisis, will take place this Sunday October 25th. The consensus is that it will pass, despite the hysteria of hard-core pinochetistas, as detailed in a recent New Yorker article by Peruvian journalist Daniel Alarcón. How exactly a new constitutional convention plays out, though, could be another issue entirely.

Before postponement of the plebiscite, posters rejecting it were not uncommon in upper-class districts like Las Condes.

That’s because, even if the plebiscite gets a favorable #Apruebo (“I approve”), there’s likely to be a contentious convention to determine the content of the new constitution. That’s unlike the plebiscite of 1988, when opponents of extending Pinochet’s autocracy were virtually unanimous in their rejection of him—as depicted in Pablo Larraín’s landmark movie No. The details remain to be worked out.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Tango War (a Book Review)

It's been a while since I've posted but, given the pandemic disruption of global travel, especially in my favored region of southernmost South America, I've been distracted with other matters. We're not dead yet, though, and I notice that, in recently commemorating the 75th anniversary of World War II's conclusion, the New York Times Book Review included just one minor item in the Western Hemisphere beyond the Río Grande—a children's book set in Cuba.

In that context I'll note that for every other Western Hemisphere country, the United States is not “America” but, rather, part of the Americas (In the end, we are all Americans). So, here's a book that  addresses the Times's lacuna.

The Tango War covers the conflict from a southerly perspective.

In The Tango War, US journalist Mary Jo McConahay demonstrates that the Allied Forces and Axis powers tangled (pun intended) away from the European and Asian spotlights both before and during the actual conflict. She focuses primarily on the United States and Germany, and their involvement in Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Argentina, though her title misleadingly suggests the centrality of Buenos Aires. There is less coverage of other countries, though Chile and Uruguay also figure into the story.

South of the Border… 

Being closest to the United States, Mexico was a priority because of Germany’s need for petroleum and President Lázaro Cárdenas‘s nationalization of the oil industry. In the runup to the actual war, there was a domestic turf war between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of what became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and, after the war, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


Hoover was a publicity hound who tried to intimidate his opponents, but Donovan preferred to work behind the scenes. While Hoover often sent ill-prepared agents into the field, primarily in Mexico, Donovan employed professionals—one of whom was the late Woodrow Borah, a colonial Mexican history specialist who was also my own outside dissertation adviser at Berkeley. Borah, a fairly conservative man whose job involved working directly under a Soviet informant supervisor, told me that his main Research and Analysis (R&A) task was tracing the movement of German money south of the border.


Beyond the Equator

Farther south, the scenario was more complex. On the Pacific Coast, the issue was Japan and, in a regrettable development, legitimate concern took an illegitimate form—with little or no evidence, Peruvian authorities collaborated to expel nearly 2,000 Japanese-Peruvians to so-called “relocation centers” in North America, where US citizens of Japanese descent were already confined. Some of these Nikkei were, in effect, held hostage for prisoner exchanges during the war, though others remained in the United States after the conflict ended.


Brazil gave off ambiguous signals, as dictator Getúlio Vargas had strong economic ties with Germany and Italy, and large German and Italian immigrant communities abounded with Nazi and Fascist sympathizers. Brazil also had its own homegrown Fascist movement, the Integralists, but Vargas’s response to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” tipped the balance. In fact, in support of the famous 10th Mountain Division, Brazilian troops played a key role in the Allied campaign that brought down Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

British agents watched the Graf Spee from atop Montevideo's Palacio Salvo.

Outright combat was rare in the Americas, but the Battle of the River Plate was an exception. In 1939, damaged in battle with three British vessels, the German battleship Graf Spee took refuge in neutral Uruguay—as permitted by international law—where British agents observed it from the upper stories of Montevideo’s Palacio Salvo and the Royal Navy bluffed Captain Hans Langdorff into scuttling it. Langsdorff later committed suicide in the Centro Naval in Buenos Aires; in Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón had sympathized with the Germans, who had suggested they would support his country’s longstanding claim to the British-governed Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas).

The Graf Spee's captain killed himself at Buenos Aires's Centro Naval.

That said, the United States laid the grounds for Argentina’s belated entry into the war, at least partially, through the exercise of “soft power” in the form of–wait for it—Walt Disney! As part of the Good Neighbor Policy, Disney and a crew of assistants known as “El Grupo” produced an animated film that depicted positive stereotypes of Brazil and Argentina, including the legendary “Gaucho Goofy.” Later, Argentine gaucho caricaturist Florencio Molina Campos worked on several Disney projects.

El Gaucho Goofy was part of a longer animated film called Saludos, ¡Amigos!

While Argentina came around opportunistically at war’s end, the country became a prime destination for ex-Nazis who, with Vatican collusion, used so-called “ratlines” to escape Europe and reach South America. Some of the most notorious war criminals, such as Adolf Eichmann and Erich Priebke, became long-term Argentine residents, but others, such as Klaus Barbie,  Joseph Mengele and Walter Rauff, ended up in Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil. A low-level Nazi, Paul Schäfer, headed the cultish Colonia Dignidad  in southern mainland Chile and cooperated with the Pinochet dictatorship before escaping to Argentina to avoid prosecution as a pedophile. Eventually extradited, he died in prison in Santiago.


The Cold War and Its Aftermath

All this constitutes a readable account that fills a notable gap in the World War II saga, but in my opinion McConahay (whom I have met) stretches it a bit to attribute Argentina’s “Dirty War” too directly to World War II. She cites Uki Goñi and Patricia Bernardi, both of whom I know, on the parallels between Nazi tactics and those practiced by their own country’s 1976-83 dictatorship (Patricia’s sister Claudia, who also works with the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) is a frequent houseguest of ours in California).

Intending to dine at the Club del Progreso, in 2002, we were startled to see a dining salon outfitted for an apparent Nazi event.

Certainly the Argentine military had extreme right-wing, often anti-Semitic elements. Anecdotally, I can’t forget the time in Buenos Aires that my wife, her brother, and I were startled to see an entire dining salon at the classic Club del Progreso restaurant outfitted for an apparent private event with swastika flags and other questionable artifacts. Preparing to leave in disgust, we nevertheless asked about the décor, and learned that it was a set for a scene in the 2003 film of Imagining Argentina, with Antonio Banderas and Emma Thompson. That relieved our misgivings for the moment, but the fact that even a period film would depict Nazi nostalgia in Argentina has left a lingering impact—especially since the United States government was not guiltless in the so-called Proceso.

Support Southern Cone Travel

If you've found this article useful and informative, please consider earning me a few pennies by clicking on an ad.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Laugh It Off? Humor in the Age of Autocrats

When I first traveled to southernmost South America, in 1979, both Argentina and Chile were under the yoke of brutal military dictatorships that killed and “disappeared” thousands of their opponents. While I arrived, the grimmest days had passed in Chile, where the 1973 overthrow of constitutional President Salvador Allende was startingly violent but the worst ended relatively soon. Argentina’s military junta, on the other hand, had staged a bloodless 1976 coup that got far worse over the weeks, months and years, with a far higher death toll.

I experienced some of this in public. Chile's regime enforced a nighttime curfew and highway checkpoints were frequent, though I never felt at risk there. I do recall personally disagreeable incidents in Argentina, and I also witnessed the police and military stopping city buses to frisk passengers on the highway between the international airport at Ezeiza and the city of Buenos Aires.
Behind closed doors, though, things could be different, at least in Chile. As I made friends there, I learned they resorted to humor to take the edge off. General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the unquestioned leader of a military junta that also comprised the heads of the Armada de Chile (Navy), Fuerza Aérea de Chile (FACh, or Air Force) and Carabineros de Chile (national police), acquired the nickname “Pinocho” (Pinocchio)—for obvious reasons—and they told jokes about him. Was Merle Haggard right?
In many jokes about Pinochet, César Mendoza was an unwitting victim.
Even then, Chileans could be circumspect. While Pinochet appeared in all these jokes, a key figure was often César Mendoza, head of the Carabineros, widely regarded as the junta's dim bulb. At an informal but discreet weekend retreat on the Chilean coast, called to discuss labor issues among a small group, I recall hearing some of these.
General Mendoza was unclear on the concept of the DC-10.
One joke, for instance, told the tale of junta members boarding a plane (warning: explanation of Spanish-language pun ahead). Mendoza is the last to board and, before doing so, he pauses to hit himself repeatedly on the forehead. Asked by Pinochet why he’s doing that, Mendoza responds that “My general, on the side of the plane it says ‘DC-10’.” (In this context, in Spanish, “¡Dése!,” the imperative form of darse, would mean, “hit yourself,” in this case ten times).
Chilean liberator Bernardo O'Higgins begged Mendoza for a horse.
My own favorite, though, concerns a moment when Mendoza is sitting in his office and the portrait of Bernardo O’Higgins, the leader of Chile’s independence movement, speaks to him: “Mendoza, this country’s in bad shape. I want out! Bring me a horse!”

Stunned, the stuttering Mendoza rushes to Pinochet’s office and exclaims “G-G-G-General, the portrait of O’Higgins spoke to me!” The nonplussed Pinochet responds, “Don’t be silly, Mendoza, get back to work,” but Mendoza insists that the dictator accompany him to his office.

Relenting, the reluctant Pinochet accompanies his subordinate back to his desk and eyes the portrait of O’Higgins, who responds in exasperation: “Ay, Mendoza! I said a horse, not a burro!”
Shortly after Pinochet's arrest in London, taggers in Santiago chuckled that "The circus announces the capture of the gorilla."
In the end, to some degree, the joke was on Pinocho. After his arrest in the United Kingdom on the orders of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, he was a pathetic figure and his Chilean opponents could laugh in public. Even though the dictator ultimately escaped formal punishment—except for his year and a half under house arrest—the rest of his life was not what he imagined when he reluctantly accepted the result of the 1988 plebiscite that restored democracy in his home country. He lived his final years in disgrace rather than the glory he always envisaged.
On this Santiago wall, a British bobby apologizes that "Justice takes time..."
As we in the United States contemplate what our near future holds, we can take some solace in the hope that the current occupant of the White House—already the object of widespread disgust and ridicule—may fare no better than Pinochet. Unlike Chile's dictator, he may even suffer legal consequences, but that will be a process rather than just an event. Ideally, he'll be unable to laugh it off.

Support Southern Cone Travel!
If you have found this article entertaining or otherwise useful, please earn me a few pennies by clicking on an ad—ideally, one that is appropriate to your interests in southernmost South America, travel in general, or other topics.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Walled Out? Walled In? Or Both?

Having received an advance from my publisher, I am theoretically updating the current edition of Moon Patagonia, but it’s not quite that simple. When I flew to Chile in late February, after a few days in Santiago I drove south to the volcanic highlands of the Araucanía region and across the Argentine border to San Martín de los Andes and San Carlos de Bariloche. I abruptly returned to Chile, though, when Santiago announced the impending closure of the borders between the two countries.
In mid-March, Chile was about to close the border with Argentina because of the Coronavirus crisis.
I had double-checked and acquired quite a bit of material in the process but, when I left to return to California in late March, I told my Chilean friends—one of whom is storing my car in Santiago—that I hoped to return in November, but couldn’t guarantee that would be the case. February or March of next year sounded a bit more realistic. Even now, that’s far from certain because of the Coronavirus crisis, which is worsening in Chile—though it’s not yet reached the levels of misgoverned countries like Brazil, the United Kingdom and, of course, the United States.
COVID-19 trends are worsening in Argentina and Chile, but still not close to those in the United States, Brazil, or the UK. 
Many people are without work these days, but my own is simply in limbo even if, in theory, I could be working on the book in question. In past years, spending the summer at home in Oakland before heading south after the World Series, I would revise background material such as government and politics. Still, even before I arrived in Chile earlier this year, that was full of uncertainty with the pending plebiscite on a new Constitution—now rescheduled for October 25th—and whether the accompanying political unrest might affect the travel and tourism sector.

The public health crisis, of course, put that issue on the back burner—almost literally, as the Chilean government decided (rightly, in my opinion) that holding an election in the midst of a pandemic was risky. For what it’s worth, the country does not allow absentee voting, so vote-by-mail is not an option; voting was once obligatory, but that is no longer the case. Interestingly, Chile does allow resident non-citizens to vote in its elections.
Open-air dining space at Pucón's Loretano
Besides background material, though, there’s equal uncertainty about tourist services. In my short time in South America, I discovered new restaurants, such as the Peruvian Loretano which, at present, continues serving takeout meals in Pucón. Still, in the aftermath of the public health crisis, many restaurants, accommodations and other services are sure to fail or, at least, change dramatically. It’s too early to say whether Loretano, or even established accommodations and restaurants with a solid track record over the decades, will necessarily survive.
I'd love to try the Peruvian-style ceviche at Loretano again.
Even if the travel and tourism sector re-opens, there’s another obstacle for me (and many other US citizens). Everybody knows, of course, about the notorious vanity wall under construction at the Mexican border, but now the current White House occupant’s minions are taking it to another level entirely. My US passport expires in early September, and I recently learned that the State Department is not processing either new or renewal applications so that, even if Argentina and Chile open up for tourism, it's uncertain (at best) when we'll be able to return.
In early March, when I entered Argentina from the Chilean side, I saw this camper van with Washington State plates. What their status might be at present, I can only guess, but the immediate outlook is not promising for US travelers.
The United States, of course, always used to criticize the Soviet Union and its allies for confining their citizens within their borders—most notably after the erection of the Berlin Wall. Now, it seems, any supposed “reopening” of the US has its limits, as its citizens must contend with walls—not just to keep foreigners out, but also to keep us in.
Custom Search