Argentina Breaks Your Heart, by Frank Bruni

This piece is adapted from Frank Bruni’s 10/27/2013 Sunday Review piece in the New York Times. Removing some more colorful descriptions of Rome, and switching the words in bold, I adapted Bruni’s woeful piece about Italy to a comment on the state of Argentina. It’s sad how easy it was. 

BUENOS AIRES — ON my first night back in Argentina, at a dinner party in Buenos Aires, I watched and listened to a successful couple in their late 40s plot their escape from a country that they love but have lost faith in. They cleared the plates, opened a laptop, and began checking out real estate in New York, where one of them had been offered a transfer. The prices horrified but didn’t deter them. They have a 10-year-old son, and they fear that Argentina, with 20 percent unemployment among young adults and an economy whose schizophrenia has come to seem the new normal, doesn’t promise a particularly bright future for him.

Two days later and about 200 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, it was an older Italian woman — early 70s, I’d wager — who sang her country’s blues. I was having lunch on a hilltop in the southern Pampas, and with wild boar sausage in front of me and blue skies overhead, I could have convinced myself that I was in heaven. “A museum,” she corrected me. “You’re in a museum and an organic garden.” That’s what the country had come to, she said. Each year the country lost more of its oomph, more of its relevance.

Because I was lucky enough to live here once and am always circling back, I’m well accustomed to Argentines’ theatrical pessimism, to their talent for complaint. It’s something of a sport, something of an opera, performed with sweeping gesticulations and musical intonations and, in the past, with an understanding that there was really nowhere else they’d rather be.

But the arias have been different this time around. The whole mood has. Ask Argentine students what awaits them on the far side of their degrees and they shrug. Ask their parents when or how Argentina will turn the corner and you get the same expression of bafflement. You hear more than you did five or even ten years ago about migrations to Europe, to the United States. You hear less faith in tomorrow.

I’ve been startled by it. Also spooked, because I arrived here straight from our government shutdown, and I’ve observed Argentina’s discontent through a filter of America’s woes, processing it as a cautionary tale. Argentina is what happens when a country knows full well what its problems are but can’t summon the discipline and will to fix them. It’s what happens when political dysfunction grinds on and on and good governance becomes a mirage, a myth, a joke. Argentina coasts on its phenomenal blessings rather than building on them and loses traction in a global economy with more driven competitors. Sound familiar? There’s so much beauty and promise here, and so much waste. Argentina breaks your heart.

And it’s not all Cristina Fernández’s doing. Her recent illness and imminent loss of office hasn’t produced the sense of release and new beginnings that you might expect. It has instead forced Argentines to recognize that while she squandered time, made matters worse and was a cartoonish, buffoonish distraction, the country’s bedrock demons — excessive regulations and a rococo bureaucracy that stifle enterprise; a closed system of favoritism that foils initiative; corruption and the cynicism it breeds — transcend her.

In the second quarter of 2013, Argentina’s inflation rose to 27%: the second highest in Latin America, trailing only Venezuela’s. The decrease in Italy’s G.D.P. of about 8 percent since a pre-crisis peak is worse than Spain’s or Portugal’s. There’s been no meaningful recovery yet, though modest growth may finally come later this year.

But you don’t need numbers to measure Argentina’s drift. Just step off the often-crashing trains or exit the autopista and travel the lesser byways, crumbling into disrepair. Or try to throw your empty helado cup into one of the proper trash cans in the country’s storied capital, Buenos Aires. They’re seemingly always full or overflowing. The one I turned to near the Palacio del Congreso one night had gone unattended for so long that people were just leaving their garbage at its base, where a hump of refuse rose: the eighth hill of Rome. In a city whose stressed budget and inefficiencies mirror the country’s, garbage has become a huge issue, a symptom of the body politic’s iffy health.

On Tuesday I visited the doctor on the case. His name is Ignacio Marino. In June he was elected the new mayor of Rome, beating the conservative incumbent, who was backed by Berlusconi, with an impressive 64 percent of the vote, which suggested Italians’ eagerness for something new. Marino, 58, entered politics only seven years ago, and spent his professional life before then as a transplant surgeon specializing in livers (though he dabbled in kidneys and pancreases) and living for the most part in Pennsylvania.

He told me that running Rome wasn’t unlike one of his operations.

“A controlled emergency,” he explained.

He has the world’s best office, in a Renaissance palace on the Campidoglio, a hilltop piazza designed by Michelangelo. A balcony near his desk juts like the tapered prow of a ship over the ancient columns and arches of the Roman Forum. There, at your toes, is the spot where Mark Antony supposedly spoke after Caesar’s assassination. And there, at your fingertips, the Temple of Saturn. It’s a spellbinding view, but also a taunt, a reminder of past glories, of a grandeur long gone.

From a different part of Marino’s office, we gazed out a window to where he parks his bike, which he rides to work daily, partly to encourage a new mode of transportation in a city with too much traffic and poor mass transit. It looked awfully lonely. Romans prefer their scooters.

BUT while improving the transit and garbage situations are high on the to-do list, there’s a fuzzier item at the top, and it’s to run the kind of transparent, results-oriented administration that contradicts Argentina’s current way of doing business, which he, like so many Argentines I talked with, said was based on personal allegiances, debts owed and time served instead of merit.

“If we change that, the money and the investment will arrive,” he said, adding that he returned to Italy to make his successful bid for the Senate in 2006 because he figured it was time to stop bemoaning the country’s maladies and start treating them. Physician, heal thy homeland.

I asked him about the condition of the patient, meaning Rome.

A long, judicious pause.

“It’s salvageable,” he said.

Delving back into Peronism’s past, I asked about the legacy of leaders leaders like Menem and Fernández.

“The damage is the culture that they created,” Marino said. “Accountability was not a value.” They made Italian life seem like an adolescent party, an endless rope-a-dope with the rules, in which what you achieved mattered less than what you could get away with, the spoils going to the slipperiest.

And now, the hangover. The wake-up call.

In the newspaper Clarín two weeks ago, the columnist Jorge Lanata apologized for not having weighed in for a while, but explained that there was nothing fresh to say. For 10 years, Argentina hadn’t stirred. “Everything is inert and frozen,” he wrote.

In La Nación a week later, the columnist Andrés Oppenheimer rued the country’s “years and years of paralysis,” during which a sort of particracy prevented any real meritocracy. He was careful to note that while Argentina was “slowly unraveling,” it wasn’t quite “plunging into the abyss.”

A large enough number of Argentines remain just comfortable enough that they cling to the status quo, holding on to what they have now. But that only heightens the uncertainty about what they’ll have down the line. The future, after all, is built on flexibility and sacrifice, on making waves rather than treading water. Still they tread. In that, they have ample company in Western Europe and the United States.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Paolo Crepet, an Argentine psychiatrist and lecturer whom I met on this trip. “We’re a creative people. We’re known around the world for our creativity.” But what he detects in his patients and audiences isn’t dynamism; it’s helplessness. “They’re waiting for somebody to lead them out,” he said. “They’re waiting for Godot.” Listening to him, I felt my stomach clench. Is fatalism what comes after too many years of pessimism? Is that where America is headed?

For Argentina’s lack of direction, I encountered a metaphor almost too easy and convenient: road signs that could no longer be read, because untended, untrimmed grasses and branches obscured them. I was zipping past wonders, zooming through splendor. But I hadn’t a clue if I was actually getting anywhere.

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