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Argentina Six Months On

Vincent Halloran - Buenos Aires

Beagle Channel

The Beagle Channel, a body of water connecting the Atlantic and Pacific at the bottom of the world in Tierra del Fuego.

I find myself sitting down to write this post on my final afternoon in Buenos Aires, a place that has become my home over the last six months. The moment is bittersweet; I am excited to return home to see family and friends for the Christmas holiday but I will undoubtedly miss the life I have led in this bustling, often confusing, and cosmopolitan city. I will miss Susy, my host here in the neighborhood of Palermo who has so generously welcomed me into her home, and especially her cooking. I will also certainly find myself longing for $7 steaks and $2 bottles of Malbec, though my reunion with Hoosier cooking may distract me from this. Most of all I will miss the friends I have made from across the United States during the semester who have accompanied me through this wild ride. Though I may miss many things about Argentina, I think many things I have learned here are likely to stay with me.

Argentina, in ways I likely will not even realize for months, has left its mark on me. Most of all, I find my political perceptions profoundly affected by the firsthand experience I have had in witnessing Argentine elections. I arrived in Argentina an admittedly very liberal young man, drawn to leftist thought of all its varied stripes. However, in Argentina, particularly in the Peronist Argentina lead by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, I have seen the many downsides that progressive populism can bring. From mysterious killings of opponents, deep-rooted corruption and clientelism, and an economy choked by regulation, Argentina offered many examples of where my preferred form of government can go wrong. I have yet to draw ultimate conclusions from this exposure, I remain unsure of how many of these issues are isolated to Argentina and which may instead be attributed to larger flaws in left-leaning, assertive populism as a whole. Therefore, I remain a steadfast proponent of progressive change, but have gained a profound respect for Western mixed-market economics and the institutional limits which keep power in check in the United States.

I have always found myself drawn to politics at some fundamental level of my being, my preferred conversation topics always drifting towards the taboos of government or religion and the like, but as I have grown I have realized the importance of consensus above all else. Argentina’s aggressive zero-sum politics have left me convinced that the only way forward is through cooperation, through engaging diverse stakeholders to create policy that works for all, not just for some. I will take this valuable lesson with me for years to come, and if I am ever lucky enough to serve in public office I will strive to remember that it is practical results for constituents that matters above all else. Argentina is a nation defined by political uncertainty, of ebbs and flows that have dramatically altered its model of insertion in the world from decade to decade. As Argentina turns from leftist populism to right-leaning economic reform once again (with the newly floating peso surging and prices fluctuating wildly), I feel incredibly lucky to have been raised in a remarkably stable nation and feel naive to have taken it for granted for so long.

classic Argentine lunch

The classic Argentine lunch of milanesa completa, a pork tenderloin accompanied by two fried eggs with a side of fries (and, of course, it would not be Argentina without Quilmes).

 

subway stop

My Subte stop, Bulnes, which took me to school and across the city for many explorations.

There are other ways Argentina has impacted me as well, like forgetting that breakfast can be more than a medialuna (i.e. croissant) and coffee, or that coffee is more than just espresso. I will surely miss the simplicity of commuting by subway to class aboard the Subte D Line each day, especially midst Bloomington’s inevitable snows of January and February. It will be odd to not eat empanadas (meat-filled pockets of bread) or milanesa (sandwich very similar to pork tenderloins) almost everyday for lunch. Above all else, not being able to text the friends I have made here to go to some museum or sit in a park and relax will be especially difficult. Buenos Aires has been very good to me these past six months, for that, and my ever improving Spanish, I am grateful.

Vincent Halloran - analyzing Argentine political and economic models

Argentina’s Historic Election

Vincent Halloran - Buenos Aires

Waving the Argentina flag at a street celebration

As a Political Science major and campaign staffer back home, I couldn’t help but take part in the celebrations at the Obelisco after Argentina elected a new President, Mauricio Macri, on November 22nd.

Throughout my semester in Argentina, I have had the privilege of watching an unprecedented and contentious election season play out. The elections, a referendum on distinct visions of Argentina’s future, have dominated news broadcasts and even daily discussions with my host family. The omnipresence of political discourse, particularly in a nation with compulsory voting (don’t worry, it is possible to vote in blank), has been a dream come true for an aspiring political functionary like myself. As Argentina chose between the status quo of a tightly regulated economy with an expansive welfare state, and a liberalized future focused on opening up the economy to the international market and dismantling strict capital controls, I found many of my own convictions challenged along the way.

Giant political ad down the side of a tall building.

One of the countless political advertisements that have seemingly covered the country this Fall. Pasted to bus stops, hung from balconies, and displayed on the sides of high-rises, posters like this banner for the eventual victor, Macri, dominate the city and countryside alike.

The elections were largely expected to be a long victory lap for the Peronist candidate Daniel Scioli, the Governor of Argentina’s largest province, Buenos Aires. Scioli, who represents the party that has dominated Argentina’s democracy since its inception in 1946 under Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, looked to take the place of term-limited Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The Peronists, representing a diverse collection of political ideologies and labor unions, have used their populist appeal to reassemble the Argentine welfare state and ‘protect’ the domestic market from the volatile and capitalistic world market. Despite success in this project for nearly a decade, allowing Argentina to emerge from the Crisis of 2001 and weather ensuing default, growth has slowed of late and accusations of corruption have mounted for the incumbent party. This all led to shocking results in the first round of the presidential election in late October, when Scioli found himself surprisingly challenged by Mauricio Macri.

Macri, the Mayor of the Federal Capital (a separate administrative entity from Buenos Aires province, much like our own District of Columbia), offered another vision for Argentina’s future. The outgoing mayor spoke out against corruption, the refusal to negotiate with the holders of Argentina’s defaulted bonds, and Argentina’s increasingly controversial and confrontational foreign policy. He offered an Argentina without strict capital controls that have made exchanging for dollars nearly impossible (and made my trip exceedingly complicated) and instead hopes to create an increasingly open economy based on cooperation with Europe and the United States rather than states like China and Russia. In late October, Macri came within just two points of Scioli, initiating the first runoff election in the history of Argentina’s young democracy. The debate that would engulf the country, between two distinct approaches, left me on the front lines of a historic shift in Argentine politics.

smoke rises at a political demonstration on the street

Political demonstrations in the final days before the October elections led groups to cutoff one of Buenos Aires’ main avenues during morning rush hour – a common tactic in political activism here (don’t worry, this is as close as I dared go).

The runoff, occurring on November 22nd after an unprecedented election season which saw Peronists on their heals for the first time in over a decade, featured historic events such as Argentina’s first successful presidential debate between the remaining candidates. The contentious debate spurred a shouting contest between supporters of the two candidates from the balconies behind my apartment, with shouts of “traitor!” directed at Macri and accusations of “liar!” directed at Scioli. On election night, with Macri’s upset win seeming inevitable, people in my upper-class Buenos Aires neighborhood took to the streets to celebrate the dawning of a new Argentina. I joined several other students to go downtown to watch as Macri’s supporters shot off fireworks and blazoned their national flag while reveling in the victory. However, I remain unsure of Argentine’s future, fearing for the safekeeping of its welfare state yet happy that clientalism and corruption have been dealt a blow. One thing is certain, for Argentina the future will not be easy, regaining growth and leaving strict economic regulations behind will impoverish many on the path towards the promise of future prosperity as part of the global economy.

Vincent Halloran - analyzing Argentine political and economic models

Political Correctness for the American in Argentina

Vincent Halloran - Buenos Aires

Something I learned quickly upon arriving to Buenos Aires is that political correctness, at least in the way we as Americans understand it, does not really exist. Instead, discourse is largely without limits for most Argentines, whether it’s regarding their distaste for the political status quo or a critique of your fashion choices on a given day (my pink chino shorts have attracted diverse comments, even from strangers, ranging from praise to looks of horror—though that may have been because it was 50 degrees). Becoming accustomed to the directness of discourse here, like having a professor tell you without hesitation that he is an unwavering supporter of the current regime and that any reasonable person should be too, is difficult at first. In the United States, so much is left unsaid in regards to certain topics, such as religion, race or politics, or at the very least subject to an unwritten code we all abide by when addressing these polemic topics.

halloran_102815b

I recently visited La Bombonera, home to the most popular and controversial club in Argentina, Boca Juniors.

I learned during my first ride on the subway here in Buenos Aires, referred to as the “Subte” by porteños, that politics in its rawest form is an intrinsic part of Argentine life. As I stood on the platform, watching a city government announcement advertising a program to provide shelters to the homeless during the colder months, I turned to an American friend to note the benevolent program. As soon as I looked away from the screen with my approving look, a well-dressed older Argentine woman interjected forcefully with one word, Mentiras! (Lies!) I learned then that I was in for a semester at the front row of a chaotic and controversial election season, and that my Argentine hosts would not hesitate to let me know where they stood.

There are two issues, as controversial as they come in Argentine life, that Americans (or norteamericanos as we are called here in the rest of the Americas) are best advised to avoid in all but the most intimate of settings: futbol (soccer) and the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands). The domestic soccer league divides the city and nation into entrenched neighborhood and class-centered tribes, with passions so high that they often turn into riots and have forced games to be played in stadiums devoid of fans to avoid trouble. One club stands out amongst the rest as a center for admiration (or loathing depending on your perspective) among all the rest, the dominant Boca Juniors. In Boca, games had gotten so wild, with opposing fans and foreigners being harassed and beaten in the stands, that games are now closed to all but members of the club’s official supporters group. Noting the sometimes violent passion of the local fans, it is best to stay on the sidelines of these disagreements and instead wear neutral colors, like the always acceptable Messi jersey.

A sign I saw in the regional capital of Cordoba in Argentina's interior. Signs like this, depicting the outline of the Malvinas (or Falklands as the are known to the British) and some defiant slogan can be found everywhere. This one says, "It is prohibited to forget them, they are not negotiable."

A sign I saw in the regional capital of Cordoba in Argentina’s interior. Signs like this, depicting the outline of the Malvinas (or Falklands as the are known to the British) and some defiant slogan can be found everywhere. This one says, “It is prohibited to forget them, they are not negotiable.”

The other issue that any foreigner is best advised to avoid in any circumstance other than in outright support of the Argentine stance, is the question of the sovereignty of the Islas Malvinas. The Malvinas lie off Argentina’s southern Atlantic coast and are inhabited by several thousand British citizens as an overseas territory of the Crown. However, for Argentines, the Malvinas are an example of imperialism and colonization, unacceptably incompatible with trends of decolonization and historical claims. Argentina even once went to war in an attempt to retake the Islands, invading in 1982 in the final months of the military dictatorship; however, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government quickly defended the Islanders and retook the Malvinas. This issue, seemingly engrained in every Argentine irregardless of political ideology, is so strongly felt and controversial that it is best left off-limits at all times. Though Argentina is often a land of the politically incorrect, it is often best to just be a bystander to it all, so as to better learn and enhance our own individual cultural understanding.

Vincent Halloran - analyzing Argentine political and economic models

Exploring a Natural Wonder of the World

Vincent Halloran - Buenos Aires

Waterfall

The Argentine side of Iguazu Falls, a massive series of waterfalls along the Argentina-Brazil frontier amidst dense jungle.

On a Thursday evening after a busy week of our first Argentine midterms (a perilous experience even before considering the language barrier), I left the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires for the small jungle border town of Puerto Iguazu. Iguazu, accessible by a 2-hour plane ride aboard the state-owned Aerolineas Argentinas, or an 18-hour journey on one of Argentina’s long-haul buses—it’s safe to say my group elected to fly—is a small tourist town located at the convergence of the Parana and Iguazu Rivers. At this point, where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil meet, one of the world’s great natural wonders lies waiting at the end of jungle paths. Our 2-day stay near the National Park allowed us enough time not only to hit the usual tourist traps, but to find our own piece of this incredible natural feature. The international character of the crowd at our hostel, which included Germans, Britons, Australians, Brazilians, and Argentinians, assured us that this must be a place worth the trip from anywhere; we wouldn’t be disappointed.

Waterfall 2

A part of the falls known as Devil’s Throat, where water cascades down a 260-degree cliff, straight down the middle of the border with Brazil.

When we arrived at the park, a short bus ride from Puerto Iguazu, I found myself pleasantly surprised to enter a jungle sanctuary with lemurs and brightly colored birds at every turn. The park itself was a fascinating excursion, with a scenic train guiding us through the dense forest to the falls. As you step off the train, and begin following one of the myriad trails to the falls, you soon begin to hear their low and steady roar through the undergrowth. Finally, after managing the winding course of trails lined with raccoon-like coati’s (who have an insatiable interest in humans and particularly our habit of dropping food), you emerge at the edge of the mighty falls. The drop-off of at least 10-stories, higher than even Niagara, surprised me at its untamed and raw appearance in comparison to North America’s great cascade. As mist swirls upward and jungle birds soar along the updrafts created by the water’s sheer force, you begin to appreciate what draws so many to this place so far from the typical tourist stops of Rio or BA. While standing beside the falls, gasping in awe beside people from every corner of Argentina and the world, all are made equal in appreciation of the sheer majesty unfolding around us.

Waterfall 3

Waterfall 4

Salto Arrechea, our own waterfall for the day; definitely a highlight of the trip.

Though the main falls are breathtaking, my greatest memory of Iguazu will always be my second day at the park. Instead of returning to the well-traveled tourist trails by the larger falls, we elected to take a local’s advice and take a small jungle trail to one of the side falls where a natural pool supposedly waited at its base. After hiking for around an hour and descending the many steps down the steep ravine which lines the river, we finally broke through the vegetation to find our oasis in the jungle. At the base of a small waterfall, a clear and cool pool invited us in for refuge from the nearly 100-degree heat and humidity. Along with several other adventurous visitors, we swam and took turns bearing the brunt of the small cascade. After taking in the secluded pool, we returned to town for our flight back to our busy lives in the Federal Capital, all the more grateful for having chosen the path less taken.

Vincent Halloran - analyzing Argentine political and economic models

Meeting my “Argentine Family”

Vincent Halloran - Buenos Aires

I cannot describe how pleased I have been with my experiences in Buenos Aires so far. On our second night in the city, after spending our first night in a hotel, we were each picked up by our respective host families and taken to our new BA homes. My host, a sweet Argentine grandma named Susy, is a former social psychologist who now focuses her free time on painting and writing poetry. We live in a comfortable first floor apartment with two beautiful patios in a trendy and beautiful neighborhood known as Palermo. Soon, after arriving and taking a moment to unpack my mountain of clothes (I am here for 5 months, remember), we sat to eat dinner with Susy’s cousin Ernesto. Ernesto, upon learning that I study Political Science, shared with me a passionate and encyclopedic knowledge of Argentine politics over dinner; I could not have been more thrilled.

 

Casa Rosada

Casa Rosada, the seat of the Argentine presidency

Ernesto, over the course of our two-hour meal of chicken soup, chicken salad and a delicious apple salad, essentially broke down the last 50 years of Argentine political history. His account, accompanied by the occasional clarifying interjection by my endlessly kind host Susy, captivated me with its level of detail. At one point, to illustrate Ernesto’s level of knowledge, Susy randomly asked him “Who was the Argentine Economic Minister in 1947?” Ernesto answered so quickly that I even thought they may have planned it before!

the Obelisco

The Obelisco, a potent symbol of Argentine democracy

From 8 until almost 11, Susy and Ernesto debated the merits of the current administration, headed by the heavy-handed but progressive Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Ernesto, a steadfast supporter of the left-leaning populist, praised “Kirchnerismo” for revitalizing Argentine domestic industry. Meanwhile, Susy decried the current level of corruption, highlighted by the Nisman controversy earlier this year, so much so that at one point the discussion escalated to shouting! As a passionate observer of Latin American politics, I felt incredibly fortunate to have this intimate window into the Argentine reality opened. The evening left me filled with anticipation of an exciting semester to come.

Vincent Halloran - analyzing Argentine political and economic models

Off to Argentina

Vincent Halloran - Buenos Aires

As I find myself in transit to “BA,” as I am told the locals refer to the Argentine capital, I am considering the many motivations that have led me to embark on this semester abroad. This journey is about more than just solidifying my ability to speak Spanish, it is about embracing a lifestyle without borders. I refuse to live constricted to Indiana or even the United States; I know I will benefit throughout my personal and professional life by taking on this experience while still in my formative college years. After so much reading about Argentina’s culture and history, I cannot wait to be on the ground to experience it firsthand.

In the past, I have been lucky to study abroad in central Mexico and San José, Costa Rica; these experiences have provided me with a unique background which I may reference in future posts. I will often look to juxtapose Argentine realities with my time in other Latin American nations and even the United States. I expect Argentina to have more in common with the capitals of Europe or uniquely opulent North American cities like Montreal than with Mexico City or the Costa Rican capital. I will attempt to continually relate my time here with previous experiences in hopes of drawing more thoughtful conclusions about life abroad. My posts will often focus specifically on comparing and contrasting the democratic realities of Argentina against the backdrop of a potentially pivotal presidential election later this fall.

In Buenos Aires, I hope to experience everything the so-called “Paris of South America” has to offer, from incredible national museums to the famous street cafés in the city center. Beyond the unique places I will be able to go, the people I will meet and learn from are what I am looking forward to most. The Argentine capital is not only physically distant from our Hoosier home, but culturally distinct as well. This cultural immersion, which will put me in the midst of an incredibly diverse global city, will allow me to move beyond the homogeneity of Indiana. My ultimate goal is to be comfortable amongst as many cultures as possible, so that I can become a citizen of the world rather than just Bloomington – as much as I have grown to love it. My bags are packed, now all that is left to do is to get there!

Vincent Halloran - analyzing Argentine political and economic models

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