Margaret and Dick   


May '11: Don't cry, Argentina

We’ve gotten braver about traveling to Spanish-speaking countries, now that we can talk Spanish like stuttering two-year-olds.  Guatemala, Peru, Nicaragua, and this year Argentina.  Affordable wines, great steaks, and they tango night and day, no?  Like so many South American countries, Argentina is a democracy with politics that swing widely from leftist populist regimes to right-wing periods.  After ten years of a progressive free-market regime, they are back in a populist period that promises power to the people, usually by nationalizing things. 

We enjoyed a warm welcome from the friendly Argentines.  We spent a day at scenic Iguazu Falls followed by two days of wine-soaked bliss in Mendoza at the foot of the Andes.  We saved Buenos Aires (BA) for last.  We had reserved at Che Telmo, a five-room B&B that was in the right neighborhood (San Telmo) and is highly rated in TripAdvisor.

The modest B&B is actually an apartment on the fourth floor of a large and somewhat stately old apartment building.  Our host was the friendly and voluble Mario, and we understood almost nothing of what he said.  Margaret claimed, after touring the premises, that she might not have been aware that we would be sharing our bathroom with other rooms.  We were installed in the Evita room, with photos of Evita Peron smiling down at us from all walls.  The heater was noisy, the bed was two single beds pushed together (not the matrimonial we had requested), and the shared bathroom was down the hall.  Breakfast at the cozy kitchen table, shared with mostly South American students, consisted of coffee/tea and sticky-sweet croissants or toast.  A tub of dulce de leche was available for spreading and was the star of the breakfast. 

Margaret was distraught.  “We’re moving to a hotel,” she announced after breakfast as she pulled up TripAdvisor and began searching in the same neighborhood.  She found several, though at more than twice the price of Che Telmo.  Of course – our host Mario offers hostel accommodations at very fair hostel prices.  “We have to tell Mario we’re leaving.  Forget about the two more nights we prepaid.  We can afford it.”  At $48 per night, I suppose she’s right.  I was neutral on the stay-vs.-move issue.  Margaret pulled up and composed a paragraph explaining that we were moving, didn’t know we were sharing bathrooms, looking for greater luxury, etc.  She waited until the other guests had left and marched out to talk to Mario, netbook in hand.

Mario was upset, and not just about the money.  He was offended.  “Two bathrooms for five bedrooms?  It’s no problem to share.  Look, there’s nobody in the bathroom right now.”  He marched her through the kitchen to the other wing.  “See, the second bathroom – it’s empty too.  You want a matrimonial bed?  Here, move next door.”  He ushered us into the Che room and pulled down the blanket to demonstrate a true double bed.  “No problem with the bed.”  We were overwhelmed, and we capitulated.  Mario may speak Spanish but he talks like an Italian, like many in Argentina, with passion and emotion.  And we regretted having offended this genuinely nice person.

So we moved from the Evita room to the Che room, these walls covered with photos and posters of Argentina’s most famous son.  Had we needed to move again, we could have had the bedroom dedicated to soccer star Maradona, to the Tango, or to some politico.  As it turned out, Che suited us just fine.

As for me, somewhat overwhelmed by busy spread-out Buenos Aires, I was happy to get adjusted to one small neighborhood.  The San Telmo neighborhood is manageable for walking around, close to parks and government buildings (the Casa Rosada from which Eva Peron famously waved and Madonna famously sang Don’t Cry for me Argentina), and known for its quaint sidewalk cafes, antique stores, and sidewalk artisans. 

Walking back home one night we stopped to watch a demonstration, complete with police road blocks, armored cars with water cannons, and students waving flags and banners and beating drums.   What was this all about?

Possibly the upcoming election, where President Cristina Kirchner hopes to continue the post-Peronist dynasty that her husband Nestor Kirchner began?  She ran in his place after his maximum two terms were up, but before they could get the constitution changed to allow him to run again, a fatal heart attack made him ineligible anyway. 

Between the banners that night and the BA Herald next day, we learned that this time it was students protesting poor conditions in the dormitories.  BA was busy with several other strikes during our short visit, including airport security personnel blocking the airport (oh crap!) to protest their salaries being eaten up by inflation - officially 10% but actually 20-25% according to reputable economists.  But be careful not to say that out loud:  President Cristina has fined economists up to $125,000 for slandering the government.

Evita and her husband Juan Peron are long gone but their populist legacy remains.  Our Argentinean Airlines magazine spoke proudly that their airline had recently been “returned to the people”, code words for recently re-nationalized after a decade in the free market.

The government ran short of funds last year, so it nationalized all private pension funds.  Now folks have their retirement funds managed by the government, which uses the interest generated to cover its budget shortfall.  Populism might not be such a good road for Argentina.  Their future risks evolving more like Chavez’s Venezuela than Lula’s Brazil. 

Just like at Che Telmo, where we moved from Evita to Che, chapters of Argentinean history are playing out anew.  We have a lot of confidence in the Argentinean people.  Friendly, outgoing, patient.  “We’re used to these problems,” we heard again and again.  People find a way.  Not surprisingly, most B&Bs require payment in cash, preferably US$.  That now makes perfect sense to us:  folks in Argentina do just fine by running an informal economy well outside the reach of the tax collector.  Don’t cry, Argentina.  Have a nice steak, a glass of wine, do a tango.  You’ll feel better. 

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