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South American Diary

Chile in the Hour of Bachelet
Santiago, March 10-12

Everyone talks about politics here. Although there were plenty of celebrations when Michelle Bachelet was elected in January, this is the inauguration weekend, with plenty of state fanfare and nearly round-the-clock TV coverage of the new president and her cabinet (10 of 20 of whom are women) walking red carpets and taking official photos. The mainstream Chilean left has moved from the genuine socialism of Allende to the technocratic social democracy of the widely popular Ricardo Lagos, and Bachelet is clearly heir to the latter. But as the first democratically elected woman leader in South America, her rise to power is historic and, for the time being at least, inspiring.

At Saturday’s swearing-in in Valparaiso, Hugo Chavez tells reporters that Venezuela has oil for all of Latin America; Evo Morales wears a leather jacket and repeatedly states his goal of access to the sea for Bolivia; and Brazil’s Lula and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner stand out among the rest of the leaders on-hand. South America’s move to the left is obviously on display in the corridors of state power, not to mention on the streets of Santiago, where statements like “Condi Go Home” are, in my eyes, a welcome sight.

Everywhere I go that day with Diego and Alvaro, both Pinochet-era exiles and longtime Rail comrades, the first thing people talk about is watching the inauguration ceremony that morning. Needless to say, it’s been a long time since anyone I know has bothered to watch such an event in the US. Diego’s sister Marcia, exiled to Costa Rica, is pleased that her native country is run by a liberal woman (as opposed to Costa Rica, which is now governed again by Oscar Arias, a neo-liberal crony). And Diego’s father Rafael, who was hounded out of the U.S. during the post-WWII Red Scare, seems content with Bachelet as well. Our friends Alejandro and Marta, the latter a journalist who traveled frequently with Lagos, have some doubts regarding whether Bachelet can match Lagos’s legacy. And so a political sparring match erupts over lunch.

But when we visit Solange, Alvaro’s cousin, her excitement is palpable. She is divorced, a modestly middle class therapist, and has three daughters, two in their teens and one who is 20 and studying in Costa Rica. Her refrigerator has a calendar featuring photos of Bachelet interspersed with various working and middle class Chilean women and men. The slogan says “Estoy contigo,” and yes, Solange most certainly feels that Bachelet is with her. We then spend the evening at the lovely hillside home of one of Alvaro’s brothers, Felipe, which is located in the hippie-ish enclave of Peñalolen, where squatter riots will break out the next day. Alejandra, Felipe’s wife, is also a therapist (as yet another psychologist told us, Chileans, post-Pinochet, need a lot of therapy) and is equally moved by Bachelet’s rise, and she and Solange talk at length about it. I joke with the other men that women taking power first in Germany and now in Chile mean that we’re losing control of “our” world.

On Sunday afternoon, Diego and I visit Alejandro and Marta at her mother’s house in the decidedly Socialist neighborhood of Lo Prado. Everyone there lives in small bungalows built by the Allende regime, after it seized the surrounding property from rich landowners. Leaning against the tree in the front yard are two huge Bachelet flags, as Marta’s mom, also named Marta, had served as a neighborhood leader in the campaign. Her friend Oscar Jiménez, a radical Jesuit priest who once ran the local parish in Lo Prado (but who is now stationed in Valparaiso), tells us tales of his battles both inside and outside the church in the ‘70s and ‘80s. En masse, as two generations of Socialists, we will go to the inaugural celebration concert being held that Sunday night in the Plaza de la Cultura, which is in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace where—on September 11th, 1973—the US-backed coup toppled the democratically elected Allende, thus forcing countless thousands of Chileans into mass graves, prison, exile and therapy.

At the concert, the crowd is mostly young and very festive. Standing out among the many featured performers, each of whom plays two songs, are Gilberto Gil, Brazil’s minister of culture, who along with his daughter leads the crowd in “No Woman, No Crime,” sung in English, Spanish, and Portugese; Pedro Aznar, an Argentine who performed a moving song by the legendary Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who was killed by Pinochet’s henchmen in the massacre at the Stadium of Chile; and Mexican pop star Julieta Venegas, who—unbeknownst to her— will ride the same plane as me the next day to Buenos Aires. The mood changes when Myriam Hernández joins Inti Illimani, the Chilean national folk group; she had once performed for right-winger Joaquin Lavin when he ran against Lagos. The spirited crowd is unforgiving, and jeers her mercilessly throughout the song. The next thing I know, the crowd reaches a fever pitch. Everyone around me is hopping up and down, chanting “El que no salta es Pinochet!”—meaning “Whoever doesn’t jump is Pinochet!” I am trying to take photos, and so for a minute am standing still. Just then a young girl behind warns me, in English, that I should “jump!” I can only hope that she didn’t think I was some sort of gringo for Pinochet.

For this weekend at least, the fervor for Bachelet, herself a former political prisoner whose father was killed by Pinochet, is everywhere, and it’s infectious. Only time will tell if it lastsâ?¦.

Beauty and the Beef Buenos Aires y Mar del Plata, Mar. 13-30, 2006

My first impressions of Buenos Aires will be lasting ones: It’s a beautiful city, its scale much grander than Santiago. And the women, steak and wine are all quite lovely, too. Aside from few journalist contacts in Buenos Aires, I know far fewer locals here. So, in my pidgin Spanish, I will interact mainly with cabbies, waiters and hoteliers. But there is a pretty decent English-language paper here, The Buenos Aires Herald, enabling me to be well aware of what’s going on. It’s not exactly surprising, but nonetheless still exciting, that like Chile, Argentina’s daily life is suffused by a vibrant political culture.

Signs of enduring conflict dot the landscape, from the official political murals to the anarchist graffiti on various statues. The Dirty War clearly remains an intense battlefield. The week I am here, the official debate centers around President Nestor Kirchner’s somewhat ham-handed, but ultimately successful effort to make March 24 a national holiday. (A few days after I leave, on this year’s March 24, hundreds of thousands will march through the streets of Buenos Aires to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the coup that launched the Dirty War). Many families of the coup’s victims have set up a large tent that serves as a meeting and exhibition space across from the National Congress building, and they frequent the local news channels and daily papers this week with their pleas for belated justice.

Economically, an equally meaty issue is on the table this week: Kirchner’s six-month ban on exports of beef. His goal is to control the runaway inflation in the domestic price of beef (25-30% in the past year, versus 12% overall inflation), by forcing producers to sell the same output on the domestic market. Like his call for a national boycott of Shell over its price increases last year, Kirchner’s export ban is nobody’s neoliberal nostrum. The beef industry—backed, of course, by the international financial press—reacts with tremendous hostility to such state meddling in the market. But Kirchner pushes forward, and in a national speech on March 14th, urges Argentines to either boycott or at least drastically reduce their own beef consumption in order to force prices downward. For many among the nation’s many carnivores, and for all of its free marketeers (a far smaller, but quite vocal number), this is sacrilege.

My unscientific sampling of public opinion suggests that an export ban will go down much easier than a boycott. Cecilia, a documentary filmmaker who worked with Naomi Klein on The Take, and who shares the film’s skepticism regarding Kirchner, explains that beef will remain the better option for the many living in poverty in Argentina. “It fills people up for a lot longer than fish or chicken,” she explains. As we discuss the overall political landscape, Ceci advises me that Buenos Aires cabbies are a stronghold of right-wing sentiment. Sure enough, my cabbie the next morning is frothing about the “mediocrity” of Kirchner. He is being egged on by the morning shock-jock radio announcer, who goes over the top about the beef ban, at one point declaring, “Viva la milanesa!” It’s rather difficult to envision the milanesa sparking a revolution. A breaded veal cutlet on a long roll, it’s a highly forgettable sandwich with little to recommend itself other than the fact that it’s indeed cheap and filling.

In addition to the Dirty War and the beef battle, this week’s other major issues include a series of mini-strikes by workers at Aerolineas, thus shutting down the national airline, and the ongoing mass sit-ins and protests by Argentine locals and environmental activists on the border of Uruguay, where the coming of international paper mills to the Uruguayan side threatens the towns on the Argentine side. Quite obviously, the political upheaval of 2001 has sparked an enduring culture of protest—which seems to flow from the bottom to the top, and, in Kirchner’s case, sometimes vice versa.

The pervasiveness of politics in the everyday lives of people here is driven home to me when I have lunch in Mar del Plata—a beautiful seaside resort city, where there is also a lively international film festival in town— with my friends Maddalena and Pedro. They live in the East Village, but the latter is from Mar del Plata, and his mother, Aurora, has cooked up some delicious polenta (the culture is part-Italian, after all). Aurora’s friend who runs a food program for the local poor joins us. The lunchtime discussion is dominated by a debate over a conflict between Kirchner and his rivals over how to dispense food subsidies to the poor. My limited Spanish prevents me from grasping all the specifics of the policy, but one general point is clear: everyone talks politics in Argentina, too.

I spend the final weekend of my brief trip (constrained, alas, by the timeframe of spring break) back in Buenos Aires, at a hip and very handsome hotel near San Telmo named Boquitas Pintadas, after the novel by the great Argentine writer Manuel Puig. That Sunday, they host an art opening and raucous party on the roof, full of VJ’s and DJ’s, many of the latter being NYC transplants. It feels a bit like Williamsburg, except that there are trees. In any case, it’s driven home to me that night that for many Americans, Buenos Aires is the new Prague. And Gerd, the very cool German guy who runs Boquitas Pintadas, foresees an even greater wave of Americans coming there in the next couple years. Call me naïve, but I do think that the political life of Argentina can’t help but make an impact on them. And so in the future, perhaps, more of us here in the US may be talking politics over lunch.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2006

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