That's right: for the first time ever, a white guy is going travelling in South America. Read about my adventures as I travel the continent and try my best not to steal or conquer anything.

March 23, 2006

Fútbol! - and other Argentine happenings

When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, on February 7, I got the sense that I was in very large, but spacious and not especially bustling city. Turns out everyone was on vacation. These days, the cafes are packed, the traffic is ludicrous at all hours, but, more importantly, it's all happening. Argentines are taking to March and a return to normal life with far more enthusiasm than I was ever able to muster for September.


Most notable, by far, is that this town is on the brink of going fútbol mad, though they were pretty mad about the stuff to begin with. The Primera División de Argentina will showcase its greatest rivalry on Sunday: the Superclásico, a match between arch-rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate. Still three days away, the news programs have been showing archive footage of previous matches, discussion of the match fills the front page of every newspaper's sports section, and any local with whom I've discussed the subject of football has expressed a preference. Boca, unsurprisingly, seems to be the people's choice.

Though Boca has had the upper hand in the rivalry of late, I'm pretty confident that my boys River are going to pull this one off. River has been playing very well of late, with convincing victories in both the Primera División de Argentina and the Copa Libertadores (more on that later). The Primera División de Argentina is split into two tournaments, which to us look just like leagues, with the winner being the team with the best record at the end. The first tournament is the Apertura, and the second the Clausura. Boca rolled to victory over second-place Gimnasia la Plata in the Apertura, but have stalled in the Clausura, sharing second place after a disappointing tie last week with one of the league's weakest teams. As Boca hesitates, River are striving forward, and sit atop the league with nine games remaining, but the most important by far taking place this Sunday. But while River may seem to be the favourite on paper, as the saying goes, the game is taking place in La Bombonera, an advantage that occludes analysis.

While the Primera División de Argentina offers more than enough football to keep this town engaged, we're also fortunate enough to be right in the middle of the Copa Libertadores - South America's answer to the Champions League. Currently, 32 teams are playing to determine the top two teams in each of eight divisions, with those winners moving onto an elimination tournament. Teams from every South American country (and Mexico) are eligible, and the international rivalries are as impassioned as the inter-club rivalries. Argentina tends to work itself up a little more than usual when one of their squads meets one from Brazil or Uruguay. Argentina's top clubs, naturally, are represented, with the surprising exception of the Boca Juniors, who fell to Guadalajara (Mex.) in the qualifying round. Their deciding game was abandoned in the second half when - their team's defeat inevitable - Boca fans hurled missiles onto the field, rushed Guadalajara's goalkeepeer, and incited violence generally. The players had done their fair share of brawling at that point as well.

30 años

On a more demure note, tomorrow is a national holiday here, but not of the happier variety. On March 24, 1976, Argentina's President, Isabel Perón, was ousted in a military coup d'état. What followed in the seven years of dictatorial military rule has been called the "Dirty War": a program of state terrorism in which civilians suspected of opposing the junta or having left-wing political views were tortured, murdered, and "disappeared". In 1976, a General in the junta predicted that "We are going to have to kill 50,000 people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes." A civilian government commission convened after the military's fall estimated the number of the killed or disappeared at 11,000, though some groups, such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, claim that the number is as high as 30,000.

So while tomorrow's holiday - the first ever on this day for this event - ostensively exists to allow Argentines to remember the past and honour the memory of the dead, many have pointed out a contradiction: on one hand, memories of a terrible day and a terrible time for Argentina; on the other, long weekend! While some are packing for the beach, many will gather in a series of demonstrations, one of which I will be joining tomorrow in the Plaza de Mayo outside the Casa Rosada. I suspect that it will be fascinating and quite moving. There are many other events surrounding the holiday, including art exhibits, films, speeches, and music. I hope to take in a least a few of these, particularly a performance of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps. It will match the tone of the event well, I think.


The big political news here has been the re-nationalization of Aguas Argentinas, Argentina's water supplier, which had been run by a French firm called Suez. The rhetoric has been none too surprising: Argentina's president, Nestor Kirchner, claimed that Suez was reaping substantial profits while many Argentines suffered shortages, and Suez claimed that they in fact have incurred substantial losses, particularly since the government imposed a price freeze in 2002. A crisis in which some of the water supply was contaminated with nitrates certainly didn't bolster the relationship much. Many hope that the national service won't be just another inefficient state-run monopoly, but few would bet on it.

Michelle Bachelet, Chile's recently elected socialist President is in town, on her first visit abroad since taking office. A little like Stephen Harper going to Afghanistan, only more expected. Lastly, economic signs are good: the economy continued its impressive growth of 9.1% through January, and the number of the Argentine poor fell from 40.2% in the second half of 2004 to 33.8% in the same period of 2005. President Kirchner stressed that "while we are determined to see even further reductions in the number of the poor, 2/3 Argentines are now out of poverty, and that ain't bad." Sorry.


Post a Comment

<< Home