Tuesday, September 30, 2008
After waiting 30 minutes for the bus I realized it was never going to come. No rhyme or reason, just one of the many things in Buenos Aires that just ceases to function without any explanation.
Just like last Friday when for the first time in weeks I had to be somewhere at a certain time (bird camp at 2:00) and the subte broke down in the middle of my commute.
My intended destination on the day was the immigration office. I had been dreading the process of renewing my visa because I feared it would be just like any other official process in Buenos Aires and it would take days of jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
When I finally arrived the facility looked just like I expected. A massive building full of people from all over the world waiting in a mess of inorginazition and inefficiency.
Ten minutes after entering the building I finally figured out where I should be standing and who I should be waiting for.
I had ticket #50, they were currently serving #29 and my new Kiwi friend who had #40 had been waiting for an hour.
There were three desks with three employees designated to the visa renewal area. One woman actually helped people, the other woman only sat at her desk 20 percent of the time and the third woman sat at her computer drinking mate and doing nothing else the entire time.
I walked around the facility and every employee appeared to be doing nothing. There were groups of employees huddled in circles, there were employees smoking cigarettes directly under the "Prohibido a Fumar (No smoking)" sign.
After any one of the several hundred hopeful immigrants was helped, the corresponding attendant would take a quick mate break. I was beginning to think mate was less of a cultural tradition and more of an epidemic.
Not quite three months into my Porteño lifestyle, I was beginning to truly understand my landlord Jorge's central belief that every Argentine is heading in a different direction with little to no regard for their children's generation or the future of Argentina as a whole.
Jorge was born in Argentina and within the first three hours I met him he told me how much he loves Argentina and how his heart belongs to Argentina. He's incredibly knowledgeable on all Argentine history and is also hyper-aware of everything else going on in the world. Granted I know very few Argentines, but I can't imagine anyone wanting better for Argentina than Jorge.
Obviously Jorge's belief is highly debatable, but if we use it as fact at least for the sake of the blog, let's try to figure out why the Argentines don't share a collective belief in improving Argentina.
There are thousands of possible factors, but judging from my talks with Porteños, educated ex-Pats, Jorge and some Wikipedia research, the late 1970s Desaparencia (The Disappearing or Dirty War) is good, albeit very late place to start.
In 1976 an armed junta took over the government and began a strict policy of arresting all those who opposed their plan to completely reset the country's economic and political stance.
Random middle class students, labor organizers and intellectuals, especially those who taught social sciences were arrested and executed without any form of trial. The government officially claims only 1,500 people "disappeared," but many other sources and most Argentines believe the number to be closer to 30,000.
OK, so if my government denied killing 30,000 people and then admitted some guilt 30 years later by slapping the wrist of a few of the now 70+ year old criminals from the junta, without ever officially claiming responsibility for the 30,000 deaths, I would probably have little confidence in my government.
In 1982 the country's on-going problems included a failing economy, charges of government corruption and abandonment for all human rights. The president decided to distract the country of their woes by taking back land they claimed was theirs - The U.K.-owned the Falkland Islands.
For less than a week the country was full of nationalistic euphoria hoping the Argentines could reclaim the islands they once called Las Malvinas.
However once the U.K. realized what was going on with their land, they sent over their army, destroyed the young, under-trained Argentine army and solidified possession of their islands in the process.
The Argentines lost 2,000 lives in the short war along with any sense of nationalism. Although today Argentines still call the islands Las Malvinas, many maps still label the islands Las Malvinas and there is my favorite the Facebook petition: "I bet I can find 10,000,000 people who think the Malvinas are Argentian."
Still all that was 20 years ago, it's gotten better since then right?
From 1989 to 1999 Carlos Memem was the president, among his other notorious accomplishments, he sold almost every Argentine industry to the highest foreign bidder. Today Argentina's largest power company is the Spanish Telefonica and until a few years ago, their entire water industry was ran by a European conglomerate.
This is why many Argentines hate capitalism, because foreign capitalists bought and prosper off most industries in their country.
As for all the money made off the sale of those companies, Menem put it all in a Swedish bank account and then it all "magically" disappeared.
In November of 2001, the government realized they didn't have anything close to the necessary backing to keep the Argentine peso pegged against the U.S. dollar. Those in the government and those with the right connections then liquidated their Argentine assets in US dollars, just before the government passed a law which severely limited the withdrawals any Argentine citizen could make. Overnight the Argentine peso was separated from the USD and it dropped two-thirds in value the next day.
By July of 2002, the Argentine peso was worth one-quarter of it's former value.
After a string of quickly changing presidents, Nestor Kirchner took over and was the president until his wife, Cristina, took over in December of 2007.
I am yet to meet anyone who doesn't hate Cristina. I had one guy tell me that, "Electing Cristina was the worse thing Argentina has done to itself in decades."
Cristina decided to make up for the billions of pesos Argentina had accrued in international debt by heavily taxing Argentina's last and only thriving industry - agriculture.
In Argentina the government often fast tracks new bills or laws without any warning, one of the more bizarre examples of this came on the last week of 2007 when the government told the people that beginning on Dec. 30, 2007 the country would begin using daylight savings time.
A more extreme example came when Cristina instantly raised the agricultural export tax to 21% this past March without consulting her congress. From what I'm told many farmers rioted the streets and many markets went without produce or meat until the farmers were appeased.
Within the next couple months Cristina raised the tax to 35% and then tried to raise the tax rate to 44% all the while using a "floating retention" excuse and claiming that since it was Argentine land, the country should be able to tax as much as it needs.
However this time the government needed to vote to approve the measure. Oddly enough the entire government voted, it was a perfect tie, meaning the vice president would have to make a decision.
Fortunately the VP, Julio Cobos, voted against the tax hike and saved Argentina from what many said would have been complete chaos.
Cobos also saved my trip because he voted it down three weeks into my stay here and my trip would have been much different if I was dealing with a Gobierno/Campo civil war for five months. It's sad and startling that I didn't realize all this until this week.
I really wish that my Argentine university would have mandated an Argentine history course instead of a worthless Spanish grammar class.
Now that Cobos had the support of all the farmers and half the government, he had became too powerful and too much a threat to President Cristina, so she fired everyone who voted in his direction on the tax rise issue, claiming "they were not doing their jobs properly."
Some theorize that Cristina and her husband are trying to set up a dynasty in which they exchange the president title every eight years - in Argentina you can re-run for president after not being president for two terms.
It should also be noted that Cristina, of the Peronist party, won the election after buying the votes of the Madres (mothers) of Plaza de Mayo - a group of women who tried, unsuccessfully, to get the government to acknowledge the death of their children who "disappeared" during the Peronist junta of the late 1970s.
Additionally the Argentine government refuses to give funding to any small town which did not vote for the ruling party.
Currently the Argentine economic officials claim the inflation rate is only 6%, while other economist in the world estimate it's closer to 30%.
Since I have been exploring the city over the past month, I've made it my side mission to find micro examples of a broke Buenos Aires.
The autopista picture at the top of this post is one of my favorites as the two abandoned freeways have since been built around, making their completion today nearly impossible.
Below is a photo of the H line of the subte, which was completed in 2003, but because of a lack of funding and government change over has never been opened and still does not run today.
Then there is the La Biblioteca Nacional (The National Library) which took 30 years to construct. Today it is known as one of the ugliest buildings in the city as the outside looks 1950s-futuristic and the inside is decorated with antique furniture. (pic below is stolen and not mine)
As for me and my visa. After 3 and a half hours of waiting I was handed my renewed visa, which just like my last formal Argentine document had a minor typo in my information.
"Do you wanna fix this, it's not right," I asked.
"It's OK, it doesn't matter," the employee responded.
I walked out the building through the hundreds of Bolivians, Paraguayans and Peruvians trying to immigrate to Argentina and wondered what the hell could be going on in their country.