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Buenos Aires – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

28 March , 2008

Buenos Aires: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly 

27th March 2008

After the riot, spectacle and melodrama of Iguazu, we returned to Buenos Aires to see that riots, spectacles and melodrama were hitting the big smoke in our absence. First off, the tail end of a tornado had swept through the city the day before we returned, knocking and breaking things about, although causing no loss of life or serious damage. Next, massive anti-government protests across the country were spreading to Buenos Aires.

On March 11th, the government hammered export taxes of around about 44% onto soybeans and sunflower seeds. The farmers, whose livelihoods are made from the export market world’s since the country constitutes the world’s second- largest corn exporter and the third-largest soybean exporter, went out in protest before Easter, blocking the roads and setting fire to tyres. By today, March 27th, buses between major cities have been cancelled by the protests and supermarkets across the country are running out of essential products, including all dairy products and meat. Thousands of people have descended on Buenos Aires, banging pots and pans, symbols of protest here which clang eerily like reminders of the huge financial crisis herein 2001/2. They are the noisy clamour of anti-government demonstrations that are threatening to unseat the government of Argentina’s first elected female President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. She insisted yesterday that she would not back down, and the farmers show absolutely no sign of ending their protest. The pots and pans, it seems, will continue to clang for some time.

A different theme  

But, I have moved beyond myself. Whilst this new tension has been hotting up, we realised that a few essential things remained that we had not seen in Buenos Aires.  The first must-do was MALBA, the Latin American Modern Art Museum about which we had heard such marvellous comments, and the other was to see, even for a moment, the Casa Rosada, seat of power in this vast country, with a tumultuous past and, by the shape of the protests now swinging across the country today, potentially a rocky present and future.


MALBA turned out to be vastly disappointing, both in respect of the art itself and the famous café-restaurant, which was packed to capacity on that Easter Monday. The café was waitered by the most stuck-up Argentines we had yet had the privilege to meet, and since almost every female customer present owned (and proudly displayed) at least one Prada or Gucci bag apiece and every male customer seemed to have been drinking large pieces of ice, doused in several bottles of white wine, for most of the day, the atmosphere in this aesthetically pleasing modern space, sadly was less than convivial. The art collection whetted our appetite still less. We immediately learned two things. One: Most Latin American modern art is housed in Mexico City, despite the grandiose name of this Austral museum. Two: Argentine modern art is bizarre. My adorable two year old nephew could have reached the same elevated standard of many of the paintings adorning these walls. True, there was one Frieda Kahlo, one Diego Riviera and one Amelia Paelez to be admired, but that was the end of the creative road. There was, however, one exhibit worth mentioning – a 20 minute video called The Fox in the Mirror, which consisted of a toy duck being soaked in the rain, and the “artist’s” hand then cutting off the toy duck’s wet hair with nail scissors, in an act of exquisite barbarism. A Chairman Mao watch then tick-tocks furiously in spiral circles, whilst a pair of children’s dolls, not unlike those used in the film, Chucky, spin uncontrollably across the screen. At first we laughed hysterically, wondering in whose name this constituted art. Then, when we watched part of it again, this time from the beginning, only to realise that the piece claimed to illustrate the apparent fact that angels did not recognise concepts of  time and space. Suddenly, this “art” represented some dark, deranged picture of a troubled, abused childhood. We left MALBA needing a drink.


Hesitating to drown our sorrows in Malbec too early in the evening, we hailed a cab to cart us across town to the Plaza de Mayo. This seemed a less touristy way of asking the driver, who was swearing chronic expletives at other crazy cab drivers all the way through town, without so much as a “Pardon-my Disgusting-Filthy language” for the two elegant women sitting in the back of his taxi, to get us to the pearly gates of the Casa Rosada. This swearing, we have since learned, is a typically Argentine trait that we have heard boarding planes, sitting in cafes or lying half-naked sun-tanning in the park of a Sunday in the presence of all and sundry.

As we approached the central area, police were blocking off the roads and the cab driver let us out, grunting vaguely in the direction of the Plaza de Mayo.

Barbaro!” we thought. “We managed to pass for locals, and did not look like complete tourists heading for the famous Pink House.”

We were right. He obviously thought we were on our way to the huge protest march which was converging on the Plaza looking onto the Casa Rosada. Huge chants could be heard, and the sound of marching. We had been totally oblivious to the recent news, having been parked in the fashion show of Iguazu for a few days, and neither of us knew about the farmers’ protests, nor whatever this particular march seemed to be about. From where we were standing, however, it all looked quite carnival-like, with lots of people dressed in brightly coloured cotton clothing, backpacks and Doc Martens, much like any anti-war rally in London. Riot police looked casually onto the scene, parked outside the square. We did notice the red flags being hurled above the trees, and the face of Chairman Mao on one of them came up unexpectedly for the second time that day. It seemed we were having a Communist Day. Ah, and that much painted face here, my very own Che Guevara also looked out at me across the swirling mists of banners and flags. Since Che is little more than a famous Argentine with a recognisable face in this country of conscious consumerism, I paid surprisingly little attention.


For now, I was more fascinated with viewing the Casa Rosada. For those not in the know, this is the famous rose- pink edifice from where Evita and Juan Peron famously roused the nation’s masses in the 1940s, shouting to the descamisados (the shirtless ones, in other words the workers) about their rights, and where the First Lady famously made speeches (from the lower balcony of the edifice, ostensibly to be “closer to the people”) about bombing the middle classes, whilst inconveniently being kitted out in diamonds and fine European fabrics herself. But, put aside the controversy for just a moment- Evita has mythical status in Argentina. There have been numerous petitions to the Vatican for her to be canonised, and her public works of charity and for women’s rights are much lauded. On an earlier visit to the Museo de Evita, I watched her informal canonisation take place in a small house, in the wealthy suburb of Recoleta: Her speeches are televised in black and white, her dresses lay hang on display behind glass cases (similar to the collection held for Princess Diana in Kensington Palace in London) and even her sewing machine from her early film days is put out for the adoring public to consume, cry over and remember how much they loved their lady, even those who are too young to remember or to have known her. Her speeches are framed on the wall, and even the cynics amongst us cannot fail to be moved by the images of an entire nation in grief when she died at the age of 33 from cancer, only for her corpse to be stolen by the incoming military, battered and buried in a hidden grave. She was eventually found in Italy, and her body was brought back to be buried in the Recoleta cemetery. I also visited this on a previous occasion. Unlike most cemeteries, there is nothing remotely haunting about this ground of mini-palaces and shrines to the most applauded or most aristocratic in Argentine history. Families have invested stocks and shares to get the best situated chapels, towers and remembrance houses. It is no more a cemetery than a small town, peopled only by the dead and the visitors who come, often in family outings on Sundays, to place olive branches on the buildings that house their physical remains. Evita’s final resting place is here, along with that of her husband, Juan Peron.

Reading a recent interview with Antonio Banderas on board the Aerolineas Argentinas flight to Iguazu last week (quick aside: it was something of a miracle to find an actual interview, since most of the airline magazine’s pages were dedicated to the advertisement of Spa Plastic Surgery treatments, which made us finally realise why all the girls from trendy Palermo all have the same nose), the Spanish love god himself revealed that one of the most passionate and intense moments of his life was when Madonna sang “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” live, without rehearsal, from the lower balcony of the Casa Rosada. Although the choice to have the Material Girl play the “Actress-Comes-Good-Turns-Politician-Turns-Saint” was hugely controversial in Argentina, apparently Madonna played such a life-like interpretation of their icon, as she sang to 7000 extras in the Plaza de Mayo, with her hair tightly pulled back in a blond bun, that thousands of people genuinely wept as she sang, remembering their beautiful Evita. The images of grief that we watch in that film are all genuine. I would venture that Madonna looked so beautiful as she played the steely actress/politician that the actual pictures of the real Eva Peron are not as photogenic as I had imagined before I came here. Criticism still rages about whether Evita was a gold-digger with knives neatly stuck out for her opponents, or whether she was a Mother Theresa character. Whatever the truth, it is undeniable that she was instrumental in bringing universal suffrage to the country in 1947, and that she was heavily responsible for the Peron labour laws, which certainly played a positive role amongst the iron fists of their dictatorship.

So, as we gazed up at the lower balcony, glowing a dusky pink as the sun set on Buenos Aires, it was with a uncanny sense of deja-vu that we thought we heard a woman shouting for Justice for the People, for the Workers and for the Cartoneros.


Cartoneros are the Argentines (and sometimes the Bolivians or Peruvians) that nobody wants to see. The ugly birthmark hidden behind a neatly pressed shirt and tie. They are the reverse of the coin, the shanty town dwellers, who do not visit modern art museums, and who do not drink in the trendy Palermo bars, although they frequent the Palermo haunts every night, sifting through rubbish bins for cardboard which they pile into their heavy wheelbarrows to sell for pittance to recycling plants. Porteños do nothing to make their life easier. With consummate arrogance, they fail even to separate the card out from the domestic trash into separate bags of rubbish, so that the young boys who often walk 30-50 kilometres every day simply to retrieve these bits of cardboard, are forced to wade through the waste of the wealthy. In my view, this failure of consideration is an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to deny even the existence of this underclass. Such denial is rampant, and extends even to the governing classes who have recently declared that many of the train routes into the city from the shanty towns (known as Villas here) are to be closed, effectively impoverishing yet further whole communities who rely on this pathetic wage; in the case of those who cannot walk the distances which measure from one end of the London Piccadilly line to the other, and back, every day to collect this cardboard, the end of any paid work.


Back to the rallying cry for Justice then. It was as if Evita was speaking to the people again. And then, suddenly, there they were, the masses, thousands of them, pouring into the Plaza de Mayo with banners, and flags, banging drums and chanting songs that bore strange resemblance to the tunes we had joined in with at the Boca Juniors football game a few weeks ago. A carnival atmosphere prevailed, despite the riot police who stood calmly and without provocation, at some distance from the main podium.

Although there were many hundreds of people marching in support of the farmers’ protests, this was an organised march to mark the 32nd anniversary of the military coup which ended with over 30,000 “desaparecidos” (the disappeared), and thousands more executions. This was the day for the nation to remember, and to ask for truth and justice.

The Partido Obrero (the Workers Party) was out in force. Firecrackers exploded in front of thousands of people, and in front of the Churches which line the square, overlooked by the eerie, glowing Masonic symbol high up on the Banco Galicia building. As the speeches called for the perpetrators of the atrocities to be brought to justice – in a country that is finally seeking to come to terms with its past, but shackled by a justice system that is grinding to a halt under the weight of the petitions to the courts – the Casa Rosada glowed in the background, an ever-present reminder of what the seat of power has brought to the people of the Pampas. Children sit on their father’s shoulders, watching and learning, whilst Quilmes sellers carry crates of the local beer to quench the thirst of the participants. This is a side of Argentina we have not seen before, and we are electrified. Gone are the beautiful people of Palermo, and out come men and women of striking mixed Indian ancestry, ardent men with tattoes of Che on their arms, bearded and revolutionary, without identikit haircuts or noses. Mothers bang on drums, calling for justice for their sons as they have been doing since 1977. The anti-war and anti-globalisation rally is out in force too, calling for Bush and Uriarte to get out of Latin America. Peruvian flutes are whistled in Andean unity, drums are beating and people are dancing. This is no poker-faced protest of the kind seen in London. This is real, and the people are demanding change. The Casa Rosada fades into insignificance as the light disappears. Autumnal nights are drawing in now, and fires are being lit in the middle of the streets to keep the marchers warm.

It is a long time until we finally decide to move from the electricity. This is the passion of Latin America that seemed to be lacking in the city that has been our home for the last month.

 Some thoughts on Argentina Today 

As we move onwards past the rallying masses, looking for the warmth of hot chocolate at one of the famous old cafes along these central streets where Borges and Lorca sat to write their works, we are confronted with the reality of Argentina today.

A country of football, literature, grilled beef and a dream of tango. A country of bad coffee – since the good stuff is all exported – and great clothes. A people caught between a crazed Latin passion and a stifling European reserve. A country moving into the future of design and innovation, but a country where mothers still bang drums in front of the Casa Rosada every Thursday asking what happened to the thousands of their sons. A country with pride in itself and its identity, but unsure of how it should value its Indian heritage, since those of Indian blood are still considered second class citizens. A country with a strong European heritage, though with dubious Nazi links. A country unsure of its future, whilst its past remains haunting its every movement. The dollar may be worshipped in these parts, but it cannot buy justice. Argentina’s “dirty war” (1976-1983) left scars deep in the spirit and soul of this country, and although twenty years’ worth of impunity laws were lifted in 2005 (known as the Full Stop and Die Obedience laws), the healing process has barely begun. Judges, human rights lawyers, witnesses still face death threats, and the prospect of potential “disappearance”.

The people, though, still have power here. I could feel it on Easter Monday. I can hear the shouting in the streets below, as ordinary people take to the streets, and those who do not join them come out to applaud them on their balconies. They might not go to Mass, but they do still believe they can bring some righteousness to their country. Argentines still believe in something, and that makes them uniquely Latin American. (the link to an Argentine human rights blog page with some interesting perspectives on the attempts to seek justice)     

  1. Chilanga permalink

    I believe Malba has a couple of gems. It has some paintings by Xul Solar, a master of color. The genius of Uruguayan painter Pedro Figari, who helped introduce the world to the beauty of the African traditions in the River Plate, Candombe dances, as well as two of the greatest innovators of XX century art Leon Ferrari and Antonio Berni. I love our murals as much as the next Mexican, but I agree with contemporary curators in the USA who know that ¨no sólo de Frida vive el hombre¨
    When I visited Malba a year ago, Martha Minujin (if she happened to be American she would be the female Warhol) had great sculpture exhibition too. I made a stop at the café also, and as you said, it had horrible service. A small comment about the clothes: not comparable to the 300 different dress sizes and styles from petite to extra-tall available in the US of A. Mullets , leggings and flats look good on argen-teenagers but everyone else in the world should be banned from wearing those styles. Finally, it is funny that you mentioned it, but some Argentineans think that the only thing that other people know about their country is that most Nazis sought refuge there after WWII, an image that has been popularized by the media (Seinfield’s “soup Nazi” joke for example). But if the Manhattan Project and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strange Love have taught us anything is that those guys were around in many other places too.

  2. SKJ permalink

    Thanks for your interesting comments. Actually, I think we may just have been unlucky with the particular exhibits at MALBA on this occasion, as there were so few pieces and a whole floor had been closed, but the surly service and the spinning duck routine significantly undermined our confidence. We both thought that the Museo de Bellas Artes (modern and traditional) in Havana was far more spectacular in its variety and depth.
    Finally, mullets still rock apparently in Argentina. The main thing is that Argen=teenagers, if no one else, love them”

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