Argentina– not being there in 2010
About two years ago, I abandoned Buenos Aires. But that’s what the city’s native sons and daughters tend to do: we leave. I have not returned since.
It’s the city where I was born, where I spent my first six and a half years, before my parents pulled me into a life of displacements, new cities and countries, occasional returns to Buenos Aires. It is a cycle I’m still immersed in 27 years later as an itinerant journalist.
Yet even long absences don’t afford me the opportunity to put the distant city– on roughly the same latitude as Capetown, South Africa or Sidney, Australia– out of mind for too long.
Not the city or the country, Argentina, which is the immense hinterland of Buenos Aires and this year is celebrating its bicentennial as a nation.
The cliche goes that Argentines, the inventors of melancholy tangos, are supposed to be incurably nostalgic. It’s true enough, and there is plenty to be nostalgic about in this bicentennial year. That’s especially true among the global diaspora of Argentines estimated to number 1 million, political and economic exiles and fortune-seekers of all types, scattered to the four winds by the country’s tumultuous 20th Century history.
This combination of dislocation and a national character attached to memory and the sentimental parsing of it means the condition of being an Argentine abroad lends itself to endless ruminations on exile. What does it mean exactly to be outside the home country when jet engines and search engines and skype calls seem to cancel the distances?
The climax of this year’s bicentennial festivities came on May 25. For 200 years, longer than any other former Spanish possession, Argentina has struggled to exist on its own terms. (As in most events in Argentine history, the true meaning of May 25, 1810 is muddied, since it marked only the revolutionary beginning of a longer struggle for real sovereignty).
The holiday was celebrated with flags, speeches, fireworks and festive crowds thronging the wide Parisian-style avenues of Buenos Aires.
Hernán Casciari, a prominent Argentine blogger and television critic living in Spain, wrote afterward in Buenos Aires daily newspaper La Nación about the curious sadness he felt being absent from the country on that day.
Argentina has been through so many bad times in the last three or four decades– the divisive return and death of strongman Juan Domingo Perón, the Dirty War and disappearances of the 1970s, the Malvinas/Falkland Islands war in 1982, the ravages of hyperinflation, the brutal economic implosion of 2001 and the exodus that followed.
Casciari said he felt robbed of one of the rare occasions in his lifetime when crowds of hundreds of thousands of Argentines from all walks of life actually came together to positive effect. Not to mourn a populist dictator or vandalize symbols of globalization, or indulge the fleeting euphoria created by an Argentine triumph on the soccer field, but to mark a common national history and future.
Casciari, like me, had missed out on one of the few redeeming good times, and he wrote that it was “wrenching to be far away in the midst of the party.”
But what I felt was different. I felt removed pure and simple. It was as if the country was separated from me by an opaque haze that blocked out emotion and interest. On May 25, my uncle wrote me an email which referenced a barbecue he had held that day, and alluded to the date’s significance. When I answered, I could hardly manage a mention of the bicentennial.
Likewise, whenever I hear the latest news about the current neo-Peronist government, or the ongoing spat with London over Malvinas, or the most recent hitch-plagued government bond issue, these seem like notices from another reality, one locked in eternal return mode.
Or more precisely, they seem like events from a complex computer game based on a simulated nation called Argentina.
My family’s roots in Argentina go back to at least the early 19th Century, when Iberian opportunists who were among my ancestors began carving out lives for themselves in a land that proved generous. At least it did until 20th Century politicians delivered the country into a labyrinth of resentments, inefficiencies, and corruption.
And so a prosperous immigrants’ destination became instead a highly effective exporter of talented and driven individuals, my father and mother among them. I can’t put Argentina out of mind, but I find little, other than family ties, to gain purchase on when I think about its current state of affairs.
And I wonder, 200 years after its complicated birth, whether Argentina, a country named after silver (argentum in Latin), mineral wealth that was supposed to be there but ironically was never found there, will ever live up to its promise. A nation, if it is to be more than a kind of P.O. box for businesses and a garrison for an army, is only as strong or weak as the attachments it generates to shared ideals. I wonder what is left of common ideals in Argentina, beyond self-congragulatory thoughts on the country’s fertile soils, its grass-fed cattle, its soccer talent.
The ideas are there, in the political thought of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Juan Bautista Alberdi. We have our own Jeffersons and Franklins.
But it takes more than milling one-day crowds in a Buenos Aires avenue to breathe life into old enlightenment in books, constitutions, and laws. I’m still rooting for the country, just as I’ll root for the national team in the World Cup. Yet I can’t help but feel that something has dimmed in the idea of Argentina, and that the country’s luster may in the end prove irretrievable.