I adopted the Richmond Cafe on Florida street a few paces from my hotel as my favourite place to meet friends over a beer.
Here I am learning the intricacies of Argentinean politics from my good friend Alberto Levin who survived the difficult years of military rule when just having negative thoughts about the dictatorship was a liability.
Alberto is an internationally known retired textile expert who has been working part-time recently (probably because of the effect of the crisis on his savings).
I have only admiration for this generous person who volunteers his time to a local organisation called " Cicerones de Buenos Aires" dedicated to showing Buenos Aires to strangers like me
I don't think much of Kirchner for his demagogic position that it is OK not to pay legally contracted debts but I do agree with his closing the infamous Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada (ESMA), that was the central place of torture of the military regime, from which so many desaparecidos have not returned, to transform it into a museum so that it would never happen again (nunca más).
Whatever the gesture meant to Kirchner the politician it was supremely important for the ordinary people to be able transgress onto the territory of the military that was held to be sacred ground during the dictatorship. I came to witness the ceremony with Alberto.
The emotion was deep and intense. We could not speak when we walked out by the fence with the pictures of the known desaparecidos so we went into a nearby bar and had three quick beers one after the other...
We don't realise how easily totalitarian regimes can seize power. We have grown complacent and mistake the ritual of the ballot box for real democracy. The American "democracy" is clearly not the government of the people, by the people, for the people. It has become a government of mercenary politicians hired by corporations and a handful of super rich to look after their special interests.
As I write this in July 2004, it is not at all certain that the "born again" fundamentalist President Bush will be thrown out of office in the fall. There is no telling what further excesses he will indulge in should his patrons succeed in buying him another term!
You might think me needlessly alarmist to write this and I hope you are right but if that "holder of the truth" gets re-elected, he will be, even more than now, convinced that he has a divine mandate to back Israel's excesses, to crush Islam and to take control of all the middle east oil for "the benefit ofcivilisation".
What the world thinks is irrelevant. It is the regiment that is out of step, not Mr. Bush!
Although perhaps not quite as much as in the USA, the Canadian "democracy" is also a plutocracy. The people know it and fewer vote at each election. Besides, why bother choosing a candidate when you know at the outset that your representative is accountable to his party's leader and not to his electors! Any donkey can say "aye" or "nay" just as well when called upon in parliament.
I need to see deep reform before I start believing in politics again. Personally,
I have two minimum requirements:
a) proportional representation so that all votes become meaningful and
public funding complemented by closely supervised limited individual contributions to electoral campaigns (exclusion of all corporate funding) with severe penalties up to disqualification for transgressions.
Alberto took me for a ride in the fashionable barrios of Buenos Aires. Parts of Retiro, built at the turn of the 20th century look so much like Paris you would think you were in the 16th arrondissement!
The same remark applies to parts of Recoleta.
Houses in the exclusive suburb of San Isidoro are not very impressive but that's where much of the porteño super elite live.
There are many like this and better in this neighbourhood.
I wanted to visit these fashionable areas to see for myself the hardships endured by the poor Argentines who, according to President Kirchner, cannot pay their share of the national debt!
Of course, if Kirchner means that only the poor should bear the weight of the national debt, then, I agree, the people living here can't pay even the interest on the 180 billion dollars of loans that benefited the rich in the last several decades.
I wonder whether the wire fence around these shacks between the railway tracks in Retiro are there to keep curious tourists like me from seeing more or to keep the poor from the villa miseria out of the nice parks nearby.
This is what a gini coefficient of 0.65 really means. This reality is not at all an abstract concept.
La Boca used to be a villa miseria around meat packing plants and warehouses along the Riachuelo on the south-eastern edge of town near the industrial suburb of Avellaneda. It was a place where poor immigrants just off the boat could find cheap lodgings until they found a job or moved out of the capital. In other words, a rather unsavoury place.
The legend has it that La Boca was one of the slums where prostitutes invented the sensual and exotic Tango sometimes around 1880 when great numbers of male immigrants came from Spain and Italy to seek fortune in the new world.
Much of La Boca is still to be avoided but the few streets around the colourful pedestrian Caminito alley have become a so called artist colony where tourists are herded to to gape at the brightly painted houses and to buy some cheap souvenir.
Where Caminito meets Alvear de Lamedi is still in tourist territory. Further in is not safe at night.
That day, I also stopped to look at the flea market on Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo on my way back to my hotel. All kinds of interesting junk were on sale there.
I was happy to spend a few weeks in Buenos Aires before returning to Montreal. It is a beautiful city with fine historical buildings and great parks but more importantly it is a very interesting place where people are easy to meet in cafes, in the parks and even on the streets.
My overall impression at the particular time of my visit was that of a friendly population manipulated and exploited by corrupt politicians in the service of a small oligarchy. Victims worthy of compassion. So many countries fit that description that it is banal to mention it but here it is more obvious than elsewhere.
I enjoyed the lively pedestrian Lavalle and Florida streets where I spent a lot of time in bars, restaurants and cybercafes. I don't know whether the large number of public entertainers corresponds to a local tradition or is due to the current economic difficulties but in any case, it does add colour to the city center.
I leave you with a few pictures of these entertainers and wish you a great visit in Buenos Aires if you can manage it. If you do, don't forget the Cicerones.