Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dispatches from Latin America # 1: Argentina

Regular readers of this blog will have been eagerly awaiting the first report from Latin America by a friend of mine, 'Paddington', who is currently visiting the continent - for background see here. With the World Social Forum preparing to meet in among other places Caracas in Venezuela in January next year, Histomat is very happy to have a correspondent in the continent where opposition to US capitalism and neo-liberalism is at its greatest - and even happier that he has now managed to find an internet cafe to send us this report:

'My first post as Histomatist´s Latin America
correspondent comes to you from a park in Buenos
Aires, Argentina. It is saturday afternoon, I have a
cold beer by my side, am surrounded by beautiful
people in various states of undress, and it is 33ºC in
the sun. Sorry - I´m not making you jealous am I?

So, my first week in South America has gone something
like this. I arrived in BsAs on Sunday morning and
was taken by cab to my residence. Apparently STA
should have told me the address of the house before I
left the UK, but they didn´t so neither I nor the
cab-driver knew where I was supposed to be delivered
to. After much pidgin English from him and pidgin
Spanish from me, we eventually found it: 1081 Medrano
in the barrio of Almagro, a ten-minute subway ride
from the centre of the city. I am living there with a
mixture of students and travellers, but I am the only
person whose Spanish is not fluido - in fact, it is
pretty lousy. My first evening meal with the
household is completely incomprehensible, even when I
ask them to slow down. I´m also quickly learning that
the Spanish that porteños speak is quite different to
the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. So those
pre-trip verb flashcards were a bit of a waste of

Enough of my Spanish, except to say that I have not
yet fulfilled my objective of chatting anyone up in
Spanish (though my attempts in English have been
unusually successful). My grasp of it is improving
though, and I am definitely teacher´s pet in Spanish
class. I go to class every day from 9 until 1, except
last Friday when I had too much of hangover, and my
class consists of one fellow Londoner, an Irish guy, a
Swede, an Icelandic *gril* [girl?] and an American. Our
teacher, by the way, has two cats called Lacan and
Freud and a dog called Trotsky: so-called, she
explained, because he is Russian and because he often
gets into a bad mood and buggers off for a day or two
in a huff. My hours means that I have plenty of time
each day to explore the city with mis compañeros. But
before I give you my impressions of BsAs, here´s a
quick (and no doubt hopelessly inadequate) history
lesson. I should add that this is pretty much all
sourced from my Lonely Planet - I would be very
grateful for others to clarify or amend any bits that
I have got wrong.

The overall pattern of South American history is one
of colonialism and post-colonialism. The Spanish (or,
in the case of Brazil, the Portuguese) first invaded
the continent in the 16th century and, after a strong
rebuttal from the indigenous people, conquered it.
They hung around for around 300 years, exploiting its
abundant resources and killing its people, until one
by one independent republics were formed in the early
1800s. After a while, social movements get off the
ground, though Indians continue to be repressed to
this day. The continent sways to the left for much of
the twentieth century, until the 70s when a series of
military dictatorships come to power. These are
eventually replaced by a new form of colonialism:
neoliberalism, which has mostly been welcomed by
governments and strongly opposed by the general
public. In some places, particularly Venezuela and to
a lesser extent (if the Left is as successful as is
anticipated next month) in Bolivia, neoliberalism
appears to be on the wane. Indeed, even where
governments do follow neoliberal policies (Brazil, for
example), it does not look likely that their voters
will put up with it for long.

I said this history lesson would be pretty amateurish,
and I can see I am proving myself correct. However,

Argentina roughly follows this pattern. The Spanish
first tried to invade present-day Argentina in 1536,
but were driven back to Asuncion in present-day
Paraguay by Querandi natives. The Spanish returned in
1580 and founded Buenos Aires. Its growht was
hampered by trade restrictions, but in spite of this
and British attempts to take over trading power in the
region, it remained in Spanish hands until 1816.
After a fairly bloody civil war between the
powers-that-be in the city and the powers-that-be in
the country, Juan Manuel de Rosas became governer of
Buenos Aires and subsequently took charge of the

Rosas was what you might call a bit of a shit. Like
lots of great military butchers, his success lay in
his populism. He touted himself as a man of the
people, and the people put their trust in him. This
pretty much paid off, unless you belonged to an
indigenous group in Southern Argentina, in which case
you had your land appropriated and your family killed.
Nice. Rosas hung around until 1852, when he was
overthrown. He spent his last days as a farmer in

After 1852, Argentina became liberalised - socially,
but more importantly economically. Free trade meant
that Argentina (now populated predominantly by
European immigrants) became an extremely rich country.
Not that you´d know this if you weren´t a member of
the tiny wealthy minority - the gap between rich and
poor grew and grew until a left wing colonel turned
social democrat called Juan Peron became President in
1946. Peron pursued a "third way" style of politics
and economics - a third way, that is, between
capitalism and communism (much in the same way as
Chavez is doing at the moment, though I suspect the
similarity ends there). Peron and his wife, who later
had hits with "Like a Prayer" and "Vogue", were a
great hit with workers and capitalists, which somehow
makes me distrust them enormously. The
Peron-dominated Congress legislated against opponents
of the government in 1949 - this meant jail for anyone
(including newspapers) who showed disrespect to the

Fast forward to the late 60s and early 70s. Peron´s
star has waned in the last 20 years, and a group of
left-wing Peronists try to bring his "third way"
politics back into the political fray. Their tactics
are often violent, but it is the right-wing terrorists
who win the day, and in 1976 the army takes power.
The years that follow are known as the Dirty War. Up
to 30,000 left-wingers, liberals and intellectuals
"disappear," and when democracy is restored in 1983,
the military are given an amnesty which prevents the
perpetrators of human rights abuses in the Dirty War
being brought to justice. The Mothers of the
Disappeared have kept a vigil ever since in Buenos
Aires, and the current President, Nestor Kircher, is
the first to address this issue in a meaningful way.

The last twenty years have seen disastrous economic
and political fluctuations in Argentina. Partly this
is a hangover from the military regime of the late 70s
and early 80s, during which the ecnomony foundered,
and the subsequent failures of democratic governments
to sort the economy out. President Carlos Menem´s
solution to this was to privatise everything during
the 90s - just like in Britain, the private companies
has utterly failed to make utilities more efficient,
and these policies are still very unpopular 10 years

In 2001, Argentina´s economic balloon finally burst.
Before the collapse, the peso was tied to the dollar.
There are now three pesos to the dollar. Half the
population were left in poverty, and after Menem left
office, Argentina had $114 billion of public debt.

In 2003, Nestor Kircher, a Peronist, became President,
and remains President to this day. Wikipedia says he
"started implementing new policies based on
re-industrialisation, import substitution, increased
exports, consistent fiscal surplus, and high exchange
rate." I have no idea if that´s true or not, but he
joined forces with Chavez in the war of words against
Bush and Vincente Fox recently, so he can´t be all

So that´s Argentina in a nutshell. I have a hot date
tonight, so I don´t really have time to write any more
today. Besides, I have probably bored you all into
submission. But coming up in a couple of days: a
Paddington´s eye view of Buenos Aires.

¡Hasta luego!'

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At 4:22 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...


How was the date? Liked your take on BA - where are you now? So how is Argentina same/different from you expectations before you arrived?


At 11:54 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The date went well, ta very much well. I´d put money on her becoming Mrs Paddington before the year is out.

Will send another post with my take on Argentina in the next couple of days.

P xx

At 7:48 pm, Blogger Rachel said...

It seems he was having fun! I travelled to Argentina too and I was also living with a mixture of students and travellers that were exploring Sounth America. I did so many things and met so much people that I can´t even remember it all. There were some memorable things i do remember like hot weather, the recoleta cemetary, the zoo, and a short trip to Uruguay, where I stayed at this hotel in montevideo. I had so much fun that day because I met this guy who loved the sea and talked about it all the time! You usually meet crazy people when you are on a trip!


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