The COVID Files: A Conversation with Paulina Spinoso

Paulina Spinoso is a psychologist and professor of philosophy. She has served as both deputy director of the psychology program and coordinator of the philosophy program at the University of Business and Social Sciences (UCES) in Buenos Aires, and has taught at the UCES, the University of Palermo, the University of Belgrano, and the Argentine Social Museum (USAM). She has written and published on a number of topics, from psychoanalysis in the hospital setting to the cultural significance of tango in Argentina.

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(Vance) Tell me about your personal experience of the Covid pandemic. How has it impacted your daily life, your professional activities?

(Paulina) It didn’t happen from one day to the next, and we were already aware that something was wrong, but the pandemic really registered with me on March 14, 2020, when the people who organize milongas [tango events]–events that I love to attend–decided to suspend them. That same day a group of friends and I had theater tickets and we had to return them. That was the most “shocking” thing, that activities that once seemed natural to us, joyful even, suddenly became dangerous; not a slight or even a moderate danger, but a matter of life or death.

I teach philosophy at two universities and classes were just starting–I remember talking with the students in that first face-to-face class, which was also my last. The government decided to offer the classes virtually and I, partly because of my age and partly because of my resistance to technology, decided to hand off my teaching responsibilities to the adjuncts in my department, who are younger than I am. I miss meeting with the students, but I am relieved not to have to learn these new methods; also at not having so many daily obligations, waking up early, holding to schedules, and other things like that.

At first, I was quite cloistered because I belong to an “at-risk population,” not due to previous illness, but because of my age (I celebrated my 74th birthday during the pandemic). Of course, there were things I lost: going to the theater, milongas, get-togethers, dinner outings with friends, and going for walks, which is one of my favorite things.

I also gained some things, unusual things that I had been postponing. For example, I was able to engage in a more or less systematic reading of Argentine literature–such as the literature of the gaucho, which had always been on my to-do list. I took courses via Zoom, something I never had time to do before. I used my resources to help me face the new situation. My ideas about the necessary and the superfluous changed a lot. I don’t need to buy more clothes–although I regret the loss of jobs in that sector; on the other hand, the ability to maintain friendships, for example, is very necessary.

To this point, the degree of confinement has varied greatly given the changing circumstances–the arrival of summer, the rise and fall of contagion rates, the various health policies adopted by the government. Now I take yoga classes in Parque Centenario, or go out to eat with friends…with, of course, the appropriate precautions, although I have already received both doses of the vaccine and a flu shot.

“Staying at home”–I prefer that expression over “confinement”–doesn’t make me feel alone, although I do live alone–sometimes I do feel alone, of course, but it has nothing to do with the pandemic. I talk on the phone with my friends; fewer obligations mean these conversations can be longer. I participate in Zoom gatherings with my film group, gatherings we used to hold at a friend’s house, or with Resistencia Milonguera, a special interest tango collective to which I belong, and also with many people who are directly involved in the tango industry, and are trying to solve the cultural and labor-related problems posed by the inability to work during the pandemic. I watch movies (many), I read (less than I would like, but as one psychoanalyst pointed out recently in a newspaper column, it seems this is a common complaint). I also write; I really enjoy that. Lately, I have been writing “Ephemera”–tributes to our nation’s great tango artists–for Resistencia Milonguera.

Of course, all of this takes place alongside uncertainty, anguish, and sadness about the situation. Very early on, a friend of mine who was hospitalized around the corner from my house died of COVID, as did the husband of a neighbor in my building, and, very recently, Horacio González, a point of reference among Argentine intellectuals and a man whom I admired very much. In short, although all deaths matter, those that put faces to names tend to affect us more.

As a philosopher–my own professional affliction–I try to reflect on and read about this new situation. Early into the pandemic, I read Sopa de Wuhan [Wuhan Soup], published by a group of Argentine intellectuals, ASPO (Aislamiento Social Preventivo y Obligatorio) [Preventive and Obligatory Social Isolation]. Just yesterday I bought a new book by various authors, titled Desafíos en pandemia [Challenges of the Pandemic], which I expect will be interesting.

At the moment, I am trying to enjoy the reopening a little more–always taking precautions–trusting in the progress of vaccination efforts, and waiting for spring to arrive.

“Today we enter our thirtieth day of quarantine, and most days we don’t even know which one it is. The news, on television or the radio, overwhelms; almost no one watches or listens anymore. Ma’am how have you spent your quarantine, is there anything you’d like to say, or so-and-so said wear your masks, don’t go outside, if you’re 70 years old or more get a permit. We want to be informed, but when we change the channel or move the dial, everyone echoes everyone else, trying to scoop the others or say it better than they can, even while it’s evident that no one has any idea who’s right.”

Rosa Monfasani, Crónicas en tiempos de pandemia (2021; my translation)

(Vance) You mentioned that you live in the El Abasto area of Buenos Aires, which is heavily associated with the visual and culinary arts, tango culture, and other forms of social intercourse. What impact has Covid had on the life rhythms of your neighborhood?

(Paulina) How interesting that you are familiar with El Abasto. There are many Abastos, existing in overlapping and/or interlocking layers. There are remnants of the old Abasto, that of the wholesale fruit and vegetable market [which operated from 1893-1984]. There is the Abasto of the 1990s, when the market became a shopping mall, and luxury hotels, supermarkets, and new, taller buildings were built around it. In this Abasto, tango is for tourists. There is the Abasto of the collectivities: Sephardic Jews, occasional Russians, Bolivians, Peruvians, Senegalese. Yes, and the Abasto of true tango culture: Carlos Gardel’s residence is in our neighborhood, and there are several milongas [tango venues]–few, perhaps, considering the neighborhood’s renown. There are also cultural centers, theaters, small art galleries (a relatively new addition to the neighborhood). Finally, and most recently, there is the Abasto of the nightlife, where young people meet for dinner, or a beer with friends.

Regarding the pandemic’s impact here, the things I mentioned before also apply to El Abasto. Businesses and supermarkets are open, but with precautionary measures in place; the neighborhood’s street fair is a good place to shop outdoors; cultural centers and restaurants also manage their activities in the open air. Parks like the Centenario are used for gatherings and celebrations. So, the street remains busy, but, as the health authorities suggest, in ways that keep people from crowding together indoors, although, as I also mentioned, these protocols are not always strictly observed.

(Vance) Since the beginning of 2020, what are the most significant changes you have seen in your immediate surroundings? In the city of Buenos Aires? In Argentina as a whole?

(Paulina) As José Ortega y Gasset would say: “I am myself and my circumstances,” so part of the answer to this question is in my response to the previous question. However, a single, comprehensive reply is difficult for me, for several reasons.

Moments in time: There were times when people went out only out of necessity and the streets appeared strangely empty, the shops closed, some definitively. Then there were times, like now, in which the level of activity returned almost to normal, with a few differences: for example, face coverings are now universal, hand sanitizer is available everywhere, the number of customers allowed concurrently in banks and businesses is limited…and there are certain activities that have yet to resume, such as milongas (at least the official ones; there are some that have been organized on the sly).

Generations: All the above applies to the daytime hours. At night, it is different. The city is taken over by the younger generations. I don’t intend this in a pejorative sense, but I also don’t know if they take the necessary precautions. In fact, I rather doubt that they do.

The everyday and the extraordinary: When things happen that are out of the ordinary, such as the death of Diego Maradona or Argentina’s championship victory in the Copa América, the enthusiasm of the people often overwhelms precaution and they celebrate together en masse with no care for social distancing. These occasional bouts of death-defying enthusiasm are quite curious; as it is also curious that these events tend to be soccer-related (although Diego’s importance to us transcends the merely soccer-related).

Degree of impact: I am retired, I am relatively healthy and I do not have either elderly or children to care for. In a way, this is a privilege. There are those, such as health personnel, whose workload has increased dramatically, as well as those who have either lost their jobs or suffered a reduction in hours and are consequently experiencing financial difficulties, or who have family members who are ill. For these people, the pandemic worsens an already difficult situation. Everyone experiences these things differently.

Attitudes and interpretations: As has been the case around the world, in Argentina there are many people in denial. There are also those who believe that the pandemic is a ploy concocted by those bent on world domination, that vaccines transmit ideology, and other things like that. Luckily, many of these thought processes are not internally consistent, and despite what they claim to believe, these people get vaccinated anyway. Others completely refuse. They believe that “vaccination = genocide.” It seems unbelievable, but I saw this formula painted on a wall. These individuals classify themselves as “libertarians,” understanding liberty as being free to remain unvaccinated or to move about at will, infecting others or becoming infected themselves.

Politics: It is a shame, but in our country a situation like the pandemic, in which we might expect community to take precedence over partisan conflict, the opposition–which is quite aggressive–is willing to adopt any position, so long as it runs contrary to that of the governing party. This makes things very difficult.

(Vance) I am interested in your opinion as a psychologist; the pandemic will leave us all with some level of post-traumatic stress, expressed in one form or another. In Argentina, what do you think the long-term effects of this phenomenon will be?

(Paulina) I think it’s accurate to say “everyone,” because that’s what a pandemic is all about. This was a catastrophe. There are psychologists who focus on these situations, not only as a field of study, but as care-givers for people in such circumstances. Here we call this specialty “Emergencies and Catastrophes.” I wish these professionals could be more involved, but they are probably not completely prepared for a situation like this. They deal with fires, accidents, train derailments, floods, earthquakes; events that are both more limited and more spectacular. This situation is different: quieter, longer, more diffuse, less visible.

There are several issues that must be considered prior to answering your question:

1. We talk as if there will be an “after”–thus the use of the word “post-pandemic”–although this is by no means certain.

2. The experience of trauma involves some unexpected stressor, the degree of impact of which depends to a large extent on how well prepared an individual is to incorporate it, based on the resources available to him or her. Identical experiences affect different people in different ways.

3. The pandemic was not a lightning strike on a sunny day. We were all already immersed in many stressful situations which also prompted different reactions, and which familiarity had already rendered relatively inconspicuous. At the global and social level: serious ecological problems, growing inequality, open or underground conflicts, racism, migration, and exile; at the personal or family level: mental illness (depression, psychotic conditions, psychosomatic illnesses, addictions) or physical illness (cancer, heart disease, disabilities), family dysfunctions, and the generalized ills that, because they are so common, do not seem pathological, such as the colonial subjectivity upon which the global consumer society is built, or our voluntary subjection to the media and the consequent inability to distinguish fact from falsehood, or the imaginary from the genuine.

I say all this because, even supposing we ever arrive at a post-pandemic world, we will still have to deal with these things, with the added turmoil of the post-traumatic. Surely there will be “some level of post-traumatic stress.” There will probably be an early euphoria–perhaps a bit manic (rushing to travel, to dance, to eat out again)–but at some point we will have to face our loss in terms of lives (for instance, will the the families of the dead hold “delayed” funeral ceremonies, and what will they look like?). Surely it will not be as if nothing had happened (that would be the worst possible outcome). It will be necessary to rethink work situations and related activities: what will it be like to return to in-person classes after two years of remote education?; will educational institutions use this as an excuse to eliminate jobs?). These are the contexts I know best, but surely things will change in all professions, likely for good. We could see it as an opportunity: trade unions have begun to talk about reducing working hours. That is to say, more people with more to do, fewer people unemployed or overworked. The self-employed or workaholics would have the chance to recover whatever part of their being was previously lost to the workplace.

For each one of us, there will be work to do on a personal level, learning to accept the uncertainty–which may be more evident now, but when was anything ever really certain?–of the human condition, our own vulnerability and the need we each have of “common-unity”–as we say here, “no one can save himself”–and the inevitability of loss. This is a task for the “after,” but in many ways we are already doing that work–or not–right now.

Besides the things I’ve already mentioned, there are certain behaviors I’ve been struck by during these times:

1. The inability to postpone things or give them up altogether. For example, concern that young people might have to forgo “their holidays, or their classes, or their parties and class trips,” as if these things had been somehow guaranteed by God at the dawn of time. As if they were inalienable rights that society has an obligation to protect.

2. Submission to the imperatives of the superego. Lacan defined the superego as that which governs enjoyment and consumption, accompanied by the assumption that someone else is to blame for our limitations, which are therefore not understood as simply part of our reality. The result is narcissism cloaked in libertarianism: “I will not be imposed upon.”

Obviously, those who have lived the pandemic in this way will find the “post-traumatic” more difficult to navigate.

(Vance) The rollout of the COVID vaccine has been a complicated process in Argentina as in the United States, although perhaps for different reasons. Between political, commercial, and socioeconomic issues, it is not necessarily the case that everyone who wants the vaccine has access to it. What do you think of this problem? What, if any, social conflict has this caused? How do official efforts to encourage vaccination clash with the reality of vaccine shortages?

(Paulina) The fact that the pandemic has become fodder for political gamesmanship has made things more difficult. However, it’s not exactly surprising, either. The teachings of the Stoics are very pertinent here: “It is not the things themselves that affect us, but the opinions we have about those things.” I wish it were easier for us to encounter reality directly, and it is necessary that we make the effort, but this truth expressed by the philosophers in part defines the reality we encounter. Sociologists might say that what people think about what happens is part of what happens. Ideology and opinions are both part of the same conceptual world.

I already mentioned the resistance to the Sputnik vaccine. It was rumored that it secretly implanted a microchip, that it spread ideology, that it was evil, etc. Everyone talked–and still does–about the “Russian” vaccine, invoking communism and the Soviet Union, as if it were not common knowledge that the USSR ceased to exist a long time ago. Government officials were maligned, an accusation of poisoning was made, and terms such as “infectatorship” were coined. I find it somewhat amusing that Marx–who failed in so many of his predictions–was correct in his assertion that “a ghost haunts the world,” because here we continue to stir up the specter of communism anytime anything carries the slightest hint of social solidarity.

With Pfizer, long and complicated negotiations began early and ended only recently in an agreement. From the outset, there was official acceptance of Pfizer regardless of where it came from, as demonstrated, very early on, by the tests performed with volunteers at the Argentine Military Hospital. Later, there was noncompliance by Pfizer, along with overly burdensome demands involving corporate liability waivers and the offering of Argentine national assets as collateral. (Did they make these demands of all countries to which they sold the vaccine? Were the conditions they placed on us ideologically motivated? I don’t know; it would be interesting to find out). Finally, though, an agreement was reached, and now we are here. Understandably, people who love their homeland would find these demands difficult to tolerate, but vaccination is a priority for this government. People accuse the president of having “fallen in love with the pandemic,” while those in the opposition have said things like “let the ones who must, die” and “it’s just a little flu.”

As far as the vaccination program is concerned, it is based on priority: the elderly, at-risk populations, health personnel, and now young people, who seem most susceptible to the Delta variant. It is true that we cannot stage a universal vaccination campaign because there are not currently enough doses for all those who want to be vaccinated. It is also true that there are people who favor direct purchase by pharmacies from laboratories, at whatever price, and that the vaccines be marketed on an individual basis so that those who have the means can purchase them privately. Some level of social conflict may exist between these people and those who–for any of the reasons mentioned above–receive them for free and before they become available to everyone else.

There are also provinces, such as Córdoba, where there are more vaccines than people who want them; the anti-vaccine narrative has really taken hold there. It is also one of the provinces with the highest rates of infection.

Here is an example of the contradictions that plague the official response to the pandemic: in the City of Buenos Aires, as the Minister of Health insists that we are facing a new and serious danger, the Chief of Government is doing away with social distancing in the schools (previously, they had been required to maintain a meter and a half of distance between students). I read something that seems to me to describe well what is being done in the city: “just when the fire is beginning to ebb, they throw on another twig.”

The most problematic aspect of all this is that a universal humanitarian catastrophe is being treated in a way that is blatantly partial and subject to the laws of the market. Vaccines should be considered artifacts of global material and cultural heritage. Instead, their development has become a matter of competition between private laboratories that sell them at a high price and favor countries with greater economic wherewithal or ideological affinities. Understandably, it doesn’t make me happy that we are last among the first–because, after all, the vaccination program is making progress–but it makes me even less happy to be first among the last–because this means that there are countries that are much worse off than we are. This saddens me very much. I have no sympathy for individuals who believe they should have priority of vaccination just because they have the money to pay for it themselves, nor do I sympathize with countries that adopt the same attitude.

Increasing inequality, which was an issue well before COVID, has been exacerbated further by the pandemic; unequal access to vaccines is proof of this fact. Today, I read a comment that seems fair to me: “the production and availability of vaccines is linked to geopolitical issues that outstrip the will of a country like ours.”

You ask whether “official efforts to encourage vaccination clash with the reality of vaccine shortages.” I would suggest to you that they do and they do not. They do not, because the answer is a coherent vaccination program based on the availability and efficient delivery of vaccines; they do, because that availability is contingent upon extrinsic obstacles that are intrinsic to our peripheral condition in the world.

How do we deal with those contingencies? The way we deal with all such things in life: we struggle and endure.

(Vance) This is only one crisis among many in Argentina, but it is qualitatively different, more restrictive than a political or economic crisis, and in different ways. What impact do you think this will have on the national psyche? How does the country recover from this?

(Paulina) I must confess that I find it a bit difficult to accept that my country is exceptional in this regard. It is true that we have experienced many crises, and this one is exceptional for us as it is for everyone. But in the United States, did the Trump administration not end in crisis, is there no ongoing crisis in regard to racial discrimination, have there been no crises in the banking system?

(Vance) Your point about the universality of crisis is well taken; it’s been a pretty rough couple of years here in the United States, and from what I can see there is little sign of change on the horizon. I suppose that the distinction I’m trying to make between this country and Argentina is not the experience itself of crisis, but the way in which crisis is experienced. In the United States, we seem to have a greater psychological need to dissemble our experience of crisis, a need which has been greatly challenged during this particular crisis by the mere fact of its global nature. Our customary way of distracting ourselves from an unpleasant moment has been to compare ourselves with the rest of the world (we may struggle with racism here, but in Iraq…; we are dealing with drought and terrible wildfires here, yes, but in Ethiopia…; etc.). In the present situation, we don’t have that safety valve, because throughout much of the pandemic the rest of the world has been able to compare itself favorably to us. I think that has been the most significant blow to our national psyche in these times.

(Paulina) I appreciate your willingness to tell me about your own personal experiences. You reminded me of a saying of our poet, Leopoldo Marechal: “The fatherland is a pain in one’s side.” Each of us has regrets about the state of our homelands, and sometimes, as you say, it is tempting to say, yes, but we aren’t as bad as some. The point is not to rejoice in the predicaments of others but to share ourselves with them…even if all we have to share is vulnerability.

(Vance) In an article published on July 14, 2021, La Nación announced that the death toll from Covid in Argentina had grown to over 100,000. This is a discouraging milestone; it is also far from a final tally, since between 200 and 300 new deaths are still being reported every day. Under the circumstances, how does one sidestep despair, how does one maintain a semblance of optimism? You suggested that if we neglect the lessons the pandemic has taught us, history will simply repeat itself. What will have to change in order for us truly to take advantage of what we have learned from all this (assuming we’ve learned anything at all)?

(Paulina) If our interactions with reality are mediated by our opinions and those of others, it is worth considering the process by which those opinions are formed, often called the “construction of common sense.” While a person often “loves his opinions more than himself,” as Lacan says, the greatest error lies in believing that they truly belong to us. As the passage continues, “of the unconscious we do not speak, we are spoken.” “Mass” media–the term itself deserves attention–performs a fundamental role in this process, since it is they who are speaking to us.

Let’s take this in stages:

The article references the 100,000 dead, a shocking figure the actual weight of which would be no different if it were 99,999 or 100,001, but it serves to produce just that: a shock.

Forgive me another philosophical reference: the Frankfurt School long ago posited that, in a consumer society, “all cultural production takes the form of merchandise.” News is a commodity, and it is sold by the same or similar means as any other product–novelty, impact.

I recently bought and read a very interesting book by Laurent de Sutter, Indignation totale, which is subtitled Ce que notre addiction au scandale dit de nous [What our addiction to scandal says about us]. There is a cycle in motion that I try to avoid, though not always successfully: the search for the scandal du jour. The media take up a topic for one day, morning to night, never really getting past a superficial treatment, with the sole intention of filling us with indignation, and then, the next day, they move on to something new.

“100,000 dead” lends itself very well to this cycle. It also allows for attribution of blame to only one bad actor–Covid-19–when in reality there are many of them, including a denial-ridden, anti-vaccine, anti-restriction media regime. The media are never going to acknowledge their role in this process. They are always only reporters, shielded by their supposed neutrality.

Umberto Eco spoke of the “Santa Claus effect,” the idea that people don’t believe what advertising says–do you really believe that “life with Coca Cola is better”?–but they do believe in advertising itself.

Something very striking is happening. Many people believe media personalities who blatantly lie, or blatantly contradict themselves. It is as if one were to say: “I do not believe what you say–that would be stupid–but I still accept it as valid.” “Lie more to me; your wickedness makes me happy,” as a famous bolero says.

You speak of “despair,” you are looking for just a “semblance” of optimism. Well, I don’t feel that tone represents either my attitude or that of many of my fellow Argentines. Which is not to say we’re “optimistic.” Another book that I would recommend is Hope without Optimism, by Terry Eagleton.

Yesterday, a Sunday, I went to yoga in the Parque Centenario, performed a small ceremony for the Día de la Pachamama [the Incan “Earth Mother], and went out with a friend to eat asado at a parrilla–always with face coverings and hand sanitizer in tow. We didn’t feel desperation, nor did the people with whom we crossed paths. True, perhaps not everyone took sufficient precautions, which goes far towards explaining the high infection rate. That night, I attended my Zoom meeting with my film group. We felt concerned, preoccupied with the pandemic, but not desperate.

This brings to mind a phrase–this is beginning to feel like free association, yes?–which is maliciously applied to the Left (there is some truth to this), but which these days seems more applicable to the Right: “They wake up sad and go to bed furious.” In order to escape this dynamic, they would have to start watching different networks and reading different newspapers.

All of this must, of course, be weighed against what I told you at the beginning of our conversation: not all life situations are the same. There are other people on whose lives despair has a real bearing.

I just read an article by an Argentine essayist, Alejandro Kaufman, who, in reference to his refusal to predict the future, says: “There is a reason that the great religions rejected fortune-telling and distinguished it from prophecy, that age-old means of interrogating the present.” By this logic, the prophecy most suitable to this present moment would be one that calls attention to the fact that if we–the world–do not face the problems mentioned above, which preceded and perhaps even led to the pandemic, we cannot expect much improvement in the future.

“The pandemic violates us in that it reduces us to numerals. The only way we can know what is happening is to count the deaths. A paradoxical situation occurs: we need to know how many people are dying but, at the same time, this process of counting trivializes death and desensitizes us to it. One way or another, these were preventable deaths that we nevertheless were unable to prevent. In the context of globalization, the tally is global, continuous, and in real time, which generates a kind of constant panic. Everything we can do to mitigate and assuage these situations is as valuable as it is necessary. For the media to act as a witness, to recover the testimonies and life stories of the deceased, would be a very positive effort.”

Alejandro Kaufman, Entrevista con Pablo Esteban, Ciencia, comunicación y política (21 Junio, 2021; my translation)

© Vance Woods

For Spanish version, click here!

Los expedientes COVID: Una conversación con Paulina Spinoso

Paulina Spinoso es psicóloga y profesora de filosofía. Se ha desempeñado como vicedirectora de la carrera de psicología y coordinadora de la carrera de filosofía en la Universidad de Ciencias Empresariales y Sociales (UCES) en Buenos Aires, y ha enseñado en la UCES, la Universidad de Palermo, la Universidad de Belgrano y la Universidad Museo Social Argentino (UMSA). Ha escrito y publicado sobre diversos temas, desde el psicoanálisis en el ámbito hospitalario hasta la trascendencia cultural del tango en Argentina.

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(Vance) ¿Cuál ha sido tu experiencia personal durante la pandemia Covid? ¿Cómo ha impactado en tu vida diaria, profesional, etc.?

(Paulina) Aunque nada comienza de la noche a la mañana, la pandemia me “impactó”, aunque algo ya sabíamos, el 14 de marzo del 2020, cuando los Organizadores de Milongas–lugares/eventos a los que yo asistía–decidieron suspenderlas. Ese mismo día un grupo de amigas teníamos entradas para el teatro y las devolvimos. Eso fue lo más “impactante”, que actividades que nos parecían naturales en nuestras vidas, regocijantes además, de pronto resultaran peligrosas; no un peligro leve o mediano sino “peligro de muerte”.

Yo doy clases de Filosofía en dos Universidades y recién comenzaban–recuerdo la conversación con los alumnos en esa primera clase presencial que fue la última para mí. Las autoridades resolvieron pasarlas a virtuales y yo, en parte por mi edad y en parte por mi resistencia a las tecnologías, preferí derivar el dictado a los adjuntos de mis cátedras, que son más jóvenes que yo. Extraño el encuentro con los alumnos, pero me siento aliviada por no tener que aprender esos nuevos procedimientos. También por no tener ya obligaciones cotidianas: madrugones, horarios, y otras cosas así.

Así que, al principio, bastante encerrada porque pasé a pertenecer a la “población de riesgo”, no por enfermedades previas, sino por la edad (74 cumplidos en pandemia). Ahí claro, perdí cosas: espectáculos, milongas, reuniones, salidas a comer con amigos, callejear, que a mí me gusta tanto.

También gané otras; cosas inhabituales pero que tenía postergadas. Por ejemplo leí en forma más o menos sistemática la literatura argentina–como es el caso de la “gauchesca”–, que tenía siempre pendiente. Hice cursos por Zoom, para lo que antes no tenía tiempo. Usé los recursos que tenía para afrontar la nueva situación. Noté que cambié mucho la idea sobre lo necesario y lo superfluo. Comprar más ropa no es necesario–aunque lamento la pérdida de fuentes de trabajo; tener amigos, por ejemplo, sí es muy necesario.

Desde entonces y hasta ahora el grado de encierro ha variado mucho dadas las distintas circunstancias–el verano, la baja o suba de los índices de contagio, las distintas políticas de cuidado que iba tomando el gobierno–. Ahora estoy yendo a clases de yoga en el parque Centenario, a comer con amigas/os…con los cuidados pertinentes aunque ya tengo las dos vacunas y la de la gripe dadas.

En el “quedarse en casa”–expresión que prefiero a la de “encierro”–aunque vivo sola, no me siento sola. A veces sí, claro, pero no tiene que ver con la pandemia. Converso por teléfono con amigas–con menos obligaciones pueden ser más largas las conversaciones–, participo en Zooms con mi grupo de cine–que antes era en casa de una amiga–y en reuniones de trabajo de una agrupación a la que pertenezco, Resistencia Milonguera, y en las reuniones virtuales de mucha gente del tango que está tratando de resolver los problemas laborales y culturales que les plantea el no poder trabajar. Veo películas–muchas–, leo–menos de lo que quisiera pero parece que eso nos pasa a muchos, según lo comentó un psicoanalista en una nota periodística–. También escribo; eso me gusta mucho. Ultimamente escribo las “Efemérides”–homenajes que hacemos a nuestros grandes artistas del tango–para Resistencia Milonguera.

Claro que junto a todo esto corre la incertidumbre, la angustia, la tristeza por la situación. Muy tempranamente murió por Covid una amiga que estaba internada a la vuelta de mi casa, el marido de una vecina de mi edificio, hace muy poco un referente de nuestros pensadores–Horacio González–a quien yo aprecio mucho. En fin, aunque todas las muertes cuentan, las que tienen nombre propio para nosotros afectan más.

Y como filósofa que trato de ser–o que es mi enfermedad profesional–reflexionando y leyendo sobre la nueva situación. Al comienzo de la pandemia leí “Sopa de Wuhan”, y una publicación de pensadores argentinos: “ASPO” (por Aislamiento Social Preventivo y Obligatorio). Y ayer compré un nuevo libro de diversos autores que se llama “Desafíos en pandemia”. Supongo que ha de ser interesante.

Ahora estoy disfrutando un poco más de la apertura–pero siempre tratando de ser cuidadosa–confiando en el avance de la vacunación, a la espera de la primavera.

“Hoy llevamos más de 30 días de cuarentena, la mayoría de los días no sabemos en cual estamos. Las noticias de la televisión o la radio son agobiantes, ya casi nadie las mira o escucha. Señora cómo pasa la cuarentena, tiene algo para decir, o fulano dijo pónganse el barbijo, no salgan a la calle, si tiene más de 70 años saque su permiso. Queremos estar informados, pero si pasamos el canal o corremos el dial, todos copian de todos para ver quién tiene la primicia o informa mejor, pero en definitiva nadie sabe quién tiene razón.”

Rosa Monfasani, Crónicas en tiempos de pandemia (2021)

(Vance) Me has contado que vivís en el barrio El Abasto, que se identifica con las artes plásticas y culinarias, el tango, y otras expresiones de la vida social en conjunto. ¿Cuál ha sido el impacto del Covid en los ritmos de tu barrio?

(Paulina) Qué interesante que estés informado sobre el Abasto. Hay muchos Abasto. Son como capas superpuestas y/o entrelazadas. Hay restos del viejo Abasto, el del Mercado de frutas y verduras [en operación desde 1893 a 1984]. Hay el Abasto de los 90, cuando el Mercado se convirtió en Shopping, se construyeron hoteles de lujo, supermercados y nuevos edificios altos. Para éste, el tango es para el turismo. Hay el Abasto de las comunidades: judíos sefardíes, rusos en cierto momento, bolivianos, peruanos, senegaleses. Sí, también el del tango: la casa de Gardel está en nuestro barrio y hay algunas milongas, pocas quizá, si se compara con la fama del barrio. Y está el de los centros culturales, los teatros, las pequeñas galerías de arte (algo un tanto nuevo en el barrio). Finalmente, hace un tiempo, el del encuentro nocturno de jóvenes para la cena, la cerveza con amigos.

Con respecto al impacto de la pandemia, lo que te conté antes vale un poco también para el Abasto. Los negocios y supermercados funcionan pero con los cuidados, la feria barrial, en la calle, es un buen lugar para comprar al aire libre; los centros culturales y los restaurantes se las arreglan para sus actividades también al aire libre. Los parques como el Centenario, se usan para encuentros o festejos. Así que la calle está concurrida, pero para que la gente no se amontone adentro, como sugieren las autoridades sanitarias, aunque, como te adelanté, no siempre se cumpla estrictamente con los protocolos.

(Vance) De principios del 2020 a hoy, ¿cuál ha sido el cambio más significativo que has visto en tu entorno? ¿En la ciudad de Buenos Aires? ¿En el país?

(Paulina) Bueno, Ortega y Gasset decía: “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia”, así que parte de esta respuesta está en las respuestas anteriores. No obstante, me resulta difícil una descripción unitaria por varias razones:

Momentos: Hubo momentos en que se salía sólo por verdadera necesidad y las calles se veían extrañamente vacías, los negocios cerrados, algunos definitivamente. Otros, como ahora, en que la actividad se parece mucho a la de siempre, aunque por ejemplo, el barbijo está universalizado, hay alcohol en gel en todos lados, número de gente acotado en bancos y negocios…actividades que aún no han vuelto, por ejemplo las milongas (por lo menos las oficiales, porque hay algunas clandestinas).

Edades y horarios: Lo que acabo de decir se aplica al día. A la noche es distinto. Los más jóvenes se apropian–no lo digo en mal sentido–de la ciudad  y no sé si tienen los cuidados necesarios, más bien dudo de eso.

Lo cotidiano y lo extraordinario: Cuando sucede lo extraordinario, como la muerte de Diego Maradona o la obtención del título de Argentina Campeón de la Copa América el entusiasmo de la gente superó los cuidados y se amucharon sin respetar las distancias. Curioso que cada tanto aflore esa cuota de entusiasmo que desafía a la muerte y también curioso que se trate de acontecimientos ligados al fútbol (aunque Diego es para nosotros mucho más que fútbol).

Grados de afectación diferentes: Yo soy jubilada, estoy relativamente sana y no tengo ancianos o niños que cuidar. En cierta forma es un privilegio. Hay quienes tienen que trabajar mucho–como el personal de salud–o han perdido o disminuido su trabajo y se encuentran en aprietos económicos, o tienen un enfermo en la familia y la pandemia agrava su situación. En fin, no es lo mismo.

Actitudes e interpretaciones: Como en todo el mundo acá hay mucho negacionismo. Gente que cree que la pandemia es un subterfugio para dominar al mundo, que las vacunas inoculan ideología y unas cuántas ideas más. Por suerte muchos son contradictorios y a pesar de eso se vacunan. Otros se niegan. Creen que “vacunación = genocidio”. Increíble, pero lo vi pintado en una pared. Se autocalifican como “libertarios”, entendiendo la libertad como la de no vacunarse o que no te impidan salir a contagiarte o contagiar.

Posiciones políticas: Es una pena pero en nuestro país una situación como la pandemia donde esperaríamos que la “comunidad” prevalezca sobre el conflicto de partidos, la oposición–que es bastante agresiva–toma cualquier posición con tal de que sea contraria a la del gobierno. Eso dificulta mucho las cosas.

(Vance) Me interesa tu opinión como psicóloga; la pandemia nos dejará a todo el mundo con algún nivel de estrés postraumático, expresado de una forma u otra. En Argentina, ¿cómo ves los efectos a largo plazo de este fenómeno?

(Paulina) Me parece bien que digas “todo el mundo”, porque de eso se trata con una pandemia. Lo que ha ocurrido es una “catástrofe”. Hay psicólogos que se ocupan de esas situaciones; no sólo de estudiarlas, sino de ocuparse de asistir a la gente en esas circunstancias. Aquí llamamos a las materias que dictan esa especialidad “Emergencias y Catástrofes”. Me gustaría que estuvieran interviniendo más, pero probablemente no están muy preparados para este caso. Ellos se ocupan de incendios, accidentes, descarrilamiento de trenes, inundaciones, terremotos; siempre algo más acotado y más espectacular. Esto es diferente: más silencioso, más prolongado, más difuso, menos visible.

Hay varios problemas previos a la posible respuesta a tu pregunta:

1. Hablamos como si hubiera un después; eso se ve en el uso de la palabra postpandemia, lo cual no es seguro hasta ahora.

2. El trauma implica algún estresor, sorpresivo, cuyo grado de eficacia depende mucho de cuánto se está preparado para recibirlo, y con qué recursos se cuenta. La misma cosa puede afectar de distinta manera a distintas personas.

3. La pandemia no fue un rayo en medio de un día luminoso. Ya teníamos muchas situaciones estresantes a las que reaccionábamos también de distintas maneras y que también se habían tornado relativamente silenciosas por efecto del acostumbramiento. A nivel mundial y social: graves problemas ecológicos, desigualdad creciente, conflictos abiertos o soterrados, racismos, migraciones, exilios, destierros…A nivel personal o familiar: enfermedades mentales (depresión, cuadros psicóticos, enfermedades psicosomáticas, adicciones), o físicas (cáncer, enfermedades cardíacas, discapacidades), disfunciones familiares, y esos sufrimientos difusos que por ser comunes no parecen patológicos como la colonización de la subjetividad por las exigencias de la sociedad de consumo o la servidumbre voluntaria con respecto a los medios, incluso los digitales, con sus efectos de falta de distinción entre lo falso y lo verdadero, lo imaginario y lo real.

Comento todo esto porque aun suponiendo que hubiera postpandemia, habrá que seguir lidiando con todo esto, más lo postraumático que ella acarrea. Seguramente habrá “algún nivel de estrés postraumático”. Probablemente habrá una primera reacción de alegría–quizá un tanto maníaca (salir corriendo a viajar, a bailar, a comer afuera)–pero luego habrá que afrontar lo que se ha perdido en vidas (las familia de los muertos, ¿harán alguna ceremonia “en diferido”? ¿Cómo será eso?). Seguramente no será como si nada hubiera pasado (eso sería lo más grave). Habrá que reorganizar el trabajo, las actividades (¿Cómo será volver a clases presenciales después de dos años de clases virtuales? ¿No aprovecharán las empresas educativas para suprimir puestos de trabajo?). Esto para hablar de lo que más conozco, pero seguramente en todos los campos las cosas no volverán a ser iguales. Podría ser una oportunidad: hay sindicalistas que están hablando de disminuir las horas de trabajo. Es decir: más gente ocupada, menos desocupados, menos gente sobreocupada–los “empresarios de sí mismos” o los adictos al trabajo podrían recuperar lo que de su ser escapa al trabajo.

En lo personal, para cada uno habrá una tarea que hacer, en la aceptación de la incertidumbre–que es más patente ahora, pero ¿cuándo tuvimos certezas?–de nuestra condición de mortales, de nuestra vulnerabilidad, de nuestra necesidad de común-unidad–acá solemos decir “nadie se salva solo”–, de la inevitabilidad de las pérdidas. Probablemente es un trabajo para la post pero que ya estamos haciendo–o no–ahora.

En estos tiempos me llamaban la atención ciertas actitudes que sumo a las que ya te conté.

1. La imposibilidad de postergar o renunciar. Por ejemplo mucha desesperación para que los chicos tuvieran “sus vacaciones, o sus clases, o sus fiestas y viajes de egresados”, como si todo eso se los hubiera prometido Dios desde toda la eternidad. Como si fueran derechos inalienables que alguien tenía el deber de satisfacer.

2. El sometimiento a imperativos superyoicos –Lacan hablaba del superyó que ordena gozar- de disfrute y de consumo. Acompañado de la suposición de que alguien tiene la culpa de las limitaciones y no están fundadas en esta realidad. Mucho narcisismo nimbado de libertarismo: “A no me van a imponer x cosa”.

Evidentemente a quien ha transitado la pandemia de esta manera lo “postraumático” le va a resultar más difícil.

(Vance) El tema de las vacunas ha sido complicado en Argentina, al igual que en Estados Unidos, aunque quizás por diferentes razones. Entre problemas políticos, comerciales, y socioeconómicos, no es necesariamente que todos los que desean vacunarse tienen acceso a las vacunas. ¿Cómo ves este problema? ¿Surgen conflictos sociales a causa de esto? ¿Cómo conviven los esfuerzos para alentar a vacunarse con esta realidad de desabastecimiento? 

(Paulina) Sí, complica las cosas que la cuestión de la pandemia haya entrado en la lógica de la lucha política. Pero, tampoco es demasiado excepcional. Sabés que los estoicos decían algo muy pertinente: “No son las cosas las que nos afectan, sino las opiniones que tenemos acerca de las cosas”. Ojalá pudiéramos–y es bueno hacer el esfuerzo–ir directamente a las cosas, pero esto que comentan los filósofos forma parte de lo que son las cosas. Los sociólogos también dicen que “Lo que la gente piensa sobre lo que ocurre forma parte de lo que ocurre”. Lo ideológico forma parte de ese mundo de opiniones.

Ya te conté la resistencia que tuvo la Sputnik. Se decía que te instalaba un chip, que te inoculaba ideas, que era mala, etc. Hablaban y hablan de la vacuna “rusa”, implicando “comunismo” y Unión Soviética, como si no supiéramos que la URSS ya no existe desde hace mucho tiempo. Se agravió a funcionarios, se hizo una denuncia por “envenenamiento”, se instalaron términos como “infectadura”. Me causa cierta gracia que Marx–que falló en muchas de sus predicciones–haya acertado en la de que “un fantasma recorre el mundo”, porque aquí siguen agitando el fantasma del “comunismo” por cualquier cosa que tenga un átomo de solidaridad social.

Con Pfizer hubo una temprana, larga y complicada negociación que terminó ahora cuando hubo un acuerdo. De entrada hubo aceptación de Pfizer sin preocuparse de dónde venía, como lo muestra, muy al comienzo de la pandemia, el trabajo conjunto de pruebas que se hizo en el Hospital Militar Argentino con voluntarios. Después hubo incumplimientos de Pfizer y exigencias demasiado fuertes como la de deshacerse de toda responsabilidad por cualquier reclamo, queriendo que sea Argentina quien pusiera como garantía bienes nacionales. (¿Lo pidieron a todos los países a los que le vendieron la vacuna? ¿Nos lo pidieron sólo a nosotros por selección “ideológica”? No lo sé. Sería interesante averiguarlo). Pero, finalmente, se llegó a un acuerdo y así estamos ahora. Comprenderás que para cualquiera que ame a su patria eran exigencias difíciles de tolerar. Pero este gobierno prioriza la vacunación. Lo han acusado al presidente de haberse “enamorado de la pandemia”, mientras otros actuales o ex decían “que muera el que tenga que morir” o “esto es sólo una gripezinha”.

En cuanto al plan de vacunación, se está llevando a cabo según prioridades: la gente de mayor edad, la población de riesgo, el personal de salud, y ahora los jóvenes que parecen los más amenazados por la variante Delta. Es cierto que no podemos hacer una vacunación masiva porque no hay todas las vacunas a la vez para todos los que quieren vacunarse. También es cierto que hay personas que preferirían que las farmacias compren a los laboratorios al precio que sea, que la comercialización sea privada y que ellos–que tienen los medios–puedan ir a comprarlas. Puede ser que estas personas se sientan en “conflicto social” con los que–por alguno de los motivos señalados antes–las reciben gratuitamente antes que ellos.

También hay provincias como Córdoba, donde hay más vacunas que gente que quiera vacunarse; ahí prendió mucho el discursos “antivacunas”. También es una de las provincias con más contagios.

Ejemplo de contradicción: en CABA, mientras el Ministro de Salud dice que estamos ante un nuevo y grave peligro, su Jefe de Gobierno anula la distancia en las escuelas (antes se organizaban para que hubiera un metro y medio de distancia entre los chicos). Leí una frase que me parece que describe bien lo que se hace en CABA: “cuando se está por apagar el fueguito, tiran una ramita más”.

Lo más problemático es que una catástrofe humanitaria universal se esté tratando de esta manera parcial y sometida a las leyes del mercado. Las vacunas deberían ser algo así como “patrimonio material de la humanidad”. Lo que ocurre en cambio es que está sometido a la competencia de los laboratorios privados que las cobran muy caras y que las venden a países privilegiados no sólo económicamente–tienen más dinero–sino también “ideológicamente”. Te imaginarás que no me pone contenta que seamos el último de los primeros–porque después de todo, el programa de vacunación avanza–pero mucho menos ser el primero de los últimos–porque hay países que están mucho peor. Esto último me apena muchísimo. No comparto la falta de solidaridad ni de las personas que quieren vacunarse primero porque tienen la plata para pagarlo, ni con los países que adoptan igual actitud.

La desigualdad creciente de que te hablé como un tema prepandémico, se agrava con la pandemia y el acceso desigual a las vacunas es una prueba de eso. Hoy leí un comentario que me parece justo: “la producción y la disponibilidad de las vacunas se vincula con una cuestión geopolítica que desborda la voluntad de un país como el nuestro”.

Preguntás cómo “conviven los esfuerzos por alentar a vacunarse con la realidad del desabastecimiento”. Y…te diría que conviven bien y mal. Bien porque la respuesta es un plan coherente de vacunación relacionado con las posibilidades de compra y entrega de las vacunas y mal porque hay una parte inasimilable del asunto que tiene que ver con nuestra condición periférica en el mundo.

¿Qué hacemos con eso inasimilable? Lo que hacemos con todas las cosas inasimilables de la vida: luchar y soportar.

(Vance) Esta es una crisis más de muchas en Argentina, pero esta es cualitativamente diferente, limita más y en diferentes formas que una crisis política o económica. ¿Cuál será el impacto en la psiquis nacional? ¿Cómo se recupera de esto?

(Paulina) Debo confesarte que me cuesta un poco tomar a mi país como si fuera excepcional. Es cierto que hemos tenido muchas crisis y esta es excepcional, como lo es para todos. Pero ¿es que en EEUU no ha terminado el gobierno de Trump con una crisis, no se repiten crisis por discriminación racial, no ha habido las crisis de los bancos?

(Vance) Tenés razón en tu observación acerca de la universalidad de las crisis; ha sido un par de años bastante complicados aquí en EEUU, y por lo que veo no hay señal de cambio en el horizonte. Supongo que lo que quiero distinguir entre este país y Argentina no es la experiencia de crisis, pero la forma de experimentar la crisis; parecemos tener mayor necesidad psicológica aquí en EEUU de disimular nuestra experiencia de crisis, que se ha visto muy desafiado durante esta en particular por el mero hecho de su carácter global. Nuestra manera acostumbrada de disimular un mal momento ha sido el compararnos con el resto del mundo (habrá racismo aquí, pero en Irak…; tenemos sequía e incendios brutales aquí, sí, pero en Etiopía…; etc.). En esta situación, no tenemos esa válvula de escape, porque durante gran parte de la pandemia el resto del mundo se ha estado comparando favorablemente con nosotros. Creo que ese ha sido el golpe más significante a la psiquis nuestra en estos tiempos.

(Paulina) Te agradezco que me cuentes de tus propias experiencias. Me hiciste acordar de un verso de nuestro poeta Leopoldo Marechal: “La patria es un dolor en el costado”. A cada uno de nosotros nos duele algo del estado de nuestras patrias, y a veces como contás, hay la tentación decir que sí, pero que hay otros peores. La cuestión no es alegrarse del mal del otro sino de compartir…aunque lo que tengamos para compartir es la vulnerabilidad.

(Vance) En un artículo del 14 de julio, La Nación anunció la llegada a los 100 mil muertos por Covid en Argentina. Es un hito poco alentador, y tampoco es cuenta final, ya que se siguen anunciando entre 200 y 300 más por día en el país. ¿Cómo resistir el impulso a la desesperación, cómo mantener alguna chispa de optimismo bajo las circunstancias? Has dicho que, si descuidamos las lecciones impartidas por la pandemia, las cosas simplemente volverán a repetirse en el futuro. ¿Qué habrá que cambiar para realmente aprovechar lo que hemos aprendido de todo esto (si es que hayamos logrado aprender alguna cosa)?

(Paulina) Si nuestro acceso a las cosas está mediada por opiniones, cabe preguntarse por el proceso de formación de las opiniones, lo que suele denominarse “construcción del sentido común”. Y aunque uno “ama a sus opiniones más que a sí mismo” como dice Lacan, lo más engañoso que hay es creer que son propias. “No hablamos sino que somos hablados”, para seguir con la cita. Los medios de comunicación de masas–ya llamarlos así es toda una cuestión–tienen un papel fundamental en eso. Son los que nos hablan.

Vamos por partes:

Menciona los 100.000 muertos, cifra impactante que en lo esencial no variaría si se tratase de 99.999 o 100.001, pero sirve para producir eso, el impacto.

Disculpame otra referencia filosófica: La Escuela de Frankfurt  hace tiempo ya que planteó que en la sociedad de consumo “toda producción cultural adopta la forma de la mercancía”. La noticia es una mercancía, y se vende con los mismos o parecidos recursos de la publicidad de cualquier producto; por ejemplo novedad, por ejemplo el impacto.

Hace poquito compré y leí un libro muy interesante de Laurent de Sutter: “Indignación total”, que lleva el comentario: “Lo que nuestra adicción al escándalo dice de nosotros”. Viene ocurriendo algo a lo que trato de sustraerme, no siempre con éxito, que es la generación del escándalo cotidiano. Medios que de la mañana a la noche–pero ya mañana pasan a otra cosa–se prenden de un tema para tratarlo todo el día superficialmente pero con la intención de llenarnos de indignación.

“100.000 muertos” se prestó muy bien a eso. Más el adicional político de atribuirle exclusivamente la culpa a un actor, cuando los actores somos muchos, entre ellos los medios negacionistas, antivacunas, antirestricciones, etc. Nunca los medios se van a hacer cargo de su papel como actores. Ellos son siempre relatores, supuestamente “neutrales”.

Mencioné la publicidad. Ya Umberto Eco hablaba del “efecto Santa Claus”, la idea de que la gente no cree lo que dice la publicidad–¿vos realmente creés que “con Coca Cola la vida es mejor”?–pero sí le cree a la publicidad.

Está ocurriendo algo muy llamativo. Mucha gente les cree a personajes que mienten descaradamente, o se contradicen descaradamente. Es como si dijeran: “No creo lo que decís–sería demasiado estúpido–pero aun así lo doy por válido”. “Miénteme más, que me hace tu maldad, feliz”, dice un famoso bolero.

Hablás de “desesperación”, buscás una “chispa” solamente de optimismo. Pues te diré que ese tono a mí y a muchos argentinos, no nos representa. Sin ser por eso “optimistas”. Otro libro que te recomiendo: de Terry Eagleton, “Esperanza sin optimismo”.

Te cuento que ayer domingo fui a hacer yoga en el Parque Centenario, hicimos una pequeña ceremonia por el día de la Pachamama y luego nos fuimos con una amiga a comer asado en una parrilla. Siempre con los barbijos, con el gel, etc. No estábamos desesperadas, ni la gente con la que nos cruzábamos. Quizá no todos se cuidaban lo suficiente, eso explica un poco el número de contagios; es verdad. A la noche tuve mi encuentro por zoom con mi grupo de cine. Estábamos preocupados, ocupados con la pandemia, pero no desesperados.

Me estoy acordando de una frase–esto ya se aparece a una asociación libre, no?–que malévolamente suele atribuirse a los izquierdistas (algo de eso hay), pero que estos días me parece más aplicable a los derechistas: “Se levantan tristes y se acuestan furiosos”. Y sí, para no ser así tendrían que ver otros canales y leer otros diarios.

Todo esto que acabo de decirte hay que matizarlo con lo que te dije al comienzo: no todas las situaciones son iguales y hay también gente para la cual la desesperación tiene un anclaje en lo real.

Con respecto al futuro, acabo de leer un artículo de un ensayista argentino, Alejandro Kaufman, quien, para referirse a su negativa a anticipar el porvenir, dice “Por algo las grandes religiones repudiaban los vaticinios y los distinguían de las profecías, que eran la forma antigua de interpelación al presente”. Así que la profecía adecuada a este momento presente sería la de llamar la atención sobre el hecho de que si no encaramos–el mundo–los problemas antes mencionados, que precedían y quizá hasta hayan causado la pandemia, no podemos esperar mucho del futuro.  

“La pandemia nos vulnera de manera tal que nos convierte en números. La única manera de saber lo que está ocurriendo es a través del recuento de las muertes. Se produce una situación paradójica: es necesario saber cuántas personas fallecen y, al mismo tiempo, el proceso de conteo insensibiliza y banaliza la muerte. De una u otra manera, se trata de muertes evitables que no pudimos evitar. En el marco de la globalización, el recuento es global, continuo y en tiempo real, por lo que genera una especie de pánico constante. Todo lo que se haga por atenuar y consolar este tipo de situaciones es tan valioso como necesario. Que los medios puedan producir relatos, recuperar testimonios e historias de vida de los fallecidos sería muy positivo.”

Alejandro Kaufman, Entrevista con Pablo Esteban, Ciencia, comunicación y política (21 Junio, 2021)

© Vance Woods

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La City, Dancing: A Conversation with Marcelo Solís

In 2011, Marcelo Solís, together with associates in Argentina, founded the Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires (ETBA), which boasts the participation of renowned tango instructors. He has been teaching tango since 1994, and has taught and performed in Argentina, the USA, Canada, Europe, and Indonesia. Now located in the San Francisco Bay Area, he travels to Argentina several times a year to teach and perform at prominent milongas, such as Salon Canning, Confitería Ideal, Obelisco Tango and El Beso. He was one of the jurors at the First and Second Argentine Tango USA Official Championship & Festival, which took place in San Francisco in 2011 and 2012.

* * * * *

(Vance) Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today? How did the Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires come into being?

(Marcelo) I was born in Argentina into a working-class family. My childhood was typical of my social background, living in the suburbs of a big city, a sort of intersection between the countryside and the noisy mix of asphalt and concrete, that existential landscape described in many tangos recorded by D’Agostino-Vargas, Troilo-Fiorentino, or Pugliese-Chanel.

Although my parents were not highly educated, they had a strong sense of duty, clear ethics, and honesty. They were aware of their limitations, so they encouraged my tireless curiosity, letting me read as much as I wanted, even though they sometimes worried that I spent so much time alone, reading whatever book, newspaper, or magazine I found. I also loved to play fútbol (soccer) and any sport or game the kids in the neighborhood played.

I really enjoyed studying. This allowed me to get scholarships that helped me get an education that my parents’ budget couldn’t afford. When the time came to decide my career, I had to choose between my love for science and the arts. I had to work to pay for my career, so I wasn’t able to follow both paths simultaneously. I decided in favor of art because my intuition told me that I would enjoy more freedom. My formation as an artist includes literature, philosophy, history, psychology, and sociology, on the one hand, and dance and theatre, on the other.

Tango reappeared in the Argentine cultural scene with the return to democracy in 1983. I was 17 years old when I had my first tango class. From that day, I’ve been involved in tango, learning, practicing, researching, dancing, performing, teaching, and organizing practically every single day of my life.

In 2011, together with Néstor Pellicciaro, we decided to create Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires, an institution dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of tango. We have a wonderful staff of teachers in Buenos Aires and all over the world. We teach the general public, and we also provide training and certification to new instructors. I am now located in San Francisco, USA, where I teach, perform, organize trips to Buenos Aires and collaborate with a strong tango community in Northern California.

(Vance) Many people know the tango as dance, but there is also a strong poetic/literary tradition behind it; most Argentines can quote their favorite tango lyrics and do, frequently. Can you comment on the development of the tango as a dual artform? And, what is your favorite tango lyric?

(Marcelo) Tango is a way of life. Human beings are very adaptable. We are highly shaped by the environment into which we develop our lives. The way we think and feel is determined by the culture in which we live. Tango offers you a chance to live your life as a work of art, guided by an ethical/aesthetic dynamic structure of references. It is a culture you choose to learn. Even if you are an Argentine who did not grow up in the golden era of tango, you choose tango because you realize that it is the way to live your life to the fullest. You have the music, the dance, the poetry of its lyrics, and you have Buenos Aires, you have an Argentine/Porteño character, a whole system of identifications from which you can create your dance, your life. To grasp what tango is, you need to make a complete commitment to it, to an existential place in which you become Tango itself.

The greatest creations of tango, regarding music and lyrics (and probably dancing, as well) appeared in the 1940s, due to the coincidence between an increase in the living standards of the working and middle classes in Argentina who were able now to have leisure time, and the outcome of a process of many decades of evolution of the art form.

“Jamás retornarás…
lo dice el alma mía,
y en esta soledad
te nombro noche y día.
¿Por qué, por qué te fuiste de mi lado
y tan cruel has destrozado
mi corazón?”

Music and lyrics by Osmar Maderna and Miguel Caló

I have infinite favorite songs. I will choose today to talk about “Jamás retornarás,” a beautiful tango written and composed by Miguel Caló and Osmar Maderna. The recording by the authors, made in 1942, starts with the melody in a violin solo by Enrique Francini, so sweet and sad, anxious and anguished. The lyrics are about the realization of a lover that the object of his passion will never return. Raúl Berón delivers it with mastery. A simple, romantic song about love unfulfilled. However, you’ll hear it again, and again, in the milongas, while dancing, while resting at your table, or at home while dreaming of dancing that night, and what you feel is that a myriad of other things will never return, either. Then you understand that the song is talking about life itself and its ephemerality. Then perhaps, you learn that Osmar Maderna, one of the authors, died at 32 while flying his own plane, something he was passionate about. That ongoing experience is Tango: your participation with your personal interpretation, which does not need a test of truth, which is yours, your emotions, made of a collage of pieces of information that randomly become intertwined with your own memories and images.

(Vance) When I think of tango, the image of La Boca springs to mind, with its street vendors, conventillos, and wildly colorful buildings. Is it possible to locate tango geographically within Argentina, to define its epicenter, so to speak?

(Marcelo) Tango is Buenos Aires. You cannot have one without the other. Those who love tango have equal love for this wonderful city. Porteños [people from the city of Buenos Aires] just adore it. One of my dearest wishes is that the spread of tango across the globe might inspire humanity to care for our planet the way people from Buenos Aires care for their beautiful city.

(Vance) An Associated Press article from June 15, 2021, addresses the effects the Covid-19 pandemic has had on tango culture. Among other things, it states that in the past two years, some 40 out of 200 tango clubs closed permanently, as have 28 of 40 industry-related footwear and apparel companies. Tango tours (which you yourself have led) have been canceled.

What is your perspective on the impact of Covid-19 on the tango, both as an industry and as a cultural expression? How/Can it reinvent itself to cope with a time in which close physical contact has become problematic, if not outright taboo?

(Marcelo) In essence, tango is no different from any other human endeavor. It has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic to the same degree as other activities and industries. It has begun to follow the trend of virtualization, with classes, private lessons, milongas and lectures online. This has been more challenging for some than for others, but in most cases the industry has adapted quickly.

Regarding the issue of physical contact, tango has never been an activity involving close physical contact between total strangers. I’ve been dancing with ladies I know for a long time, years and decades, and when I dance for the first time with someone, it has been through a previous introduction, by a friend in the milongas, and failing that, if I do want to dance with someone to whom I have no connection, it would be because I have seen that person dancing. A milonguero learns everything they need to know about a person by watching them dance. This is how milongueros understand tango: it is as if we were members of the same family. You wouldn’t have a problem getting close to your relatives.

As far as classes are concerned, the approach we have taken at Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires is to require students to attend classes with partners, to register in advance (no drop-ins), and if it is their first time, to meet previously with their partner to get to know each other better before they come. It is a more rational approach to the classes, which we had wanted to implement anyway before, but were prevented from implementing by the inertia of how things were done. The interruption of the classes that happened last year provided us with the opportunity to make this adjustment.

(Vance) You’ve referred to yourself several times as a milonguero. Could you give me a basic definition of the term?

(Marcelo) The word “milonguero” dates to the origins of tango. “Milonga” was used to refer to this particular music and dance, and consequently, became the name of the tango dance gatherings. A “milonguero” is, then, a person who participates in these gatherings. Today it indicates an attitude in relation to tango. A milonguero or milonguera is a person whose life is centered around tango. It is a system of values that is expressed in the way you dance and behave in the milongas, and by extension how you carry yourself through life. As a synthesis, it states that when you dance the tango, the intricacies of the choreography are meaningless if you do not experience the emotions inherent in the dance. Emotions can be very elaborate, and are the foundation of rational thought. Soon, a robot will be able to dance tango, but will it be able to experience these emotions, too? Perhaps this is the definition of the human realm, the one to which we belong.

(Vance) Can you comment on the tango as tourist-based industry as opposed to tango as local cultural practice, and how these two aspects interact? What distinguishes the one from the other, and which is the more important, in your opinion?

(Marcelo) These two aspects of tango are as intimately connected as the partners who perform the dance itself. They are necessary to each other. Tango has been both a culture and an industry from its initial moments, when the first tango musicians passed the plate to receive money from dancers. Francisco Canaro started this way at the beginning of the 1900s, and by the end of the 1920s he was one of the richest men in Argentina, with stakes in authors’ and composers’ rights management, in the recording industry, theatre, movies, and publications. The customer base of tango is made up of passionate consumers who care about quality and are very educated in the matter. With globalization, with a more integrated world, people everywhere now enjoy greater access to the producers of the tango industry and its culture.

Each time a person has an encounter with tango–going to see a tango show, taking a class, going to a tango concert, going to dance–this person is getting educated in what Tango is. At each point in his or her path through tango, he or she discovers more and more layers of its deep beauty. Eventually, this person may embrace the culture of tango. If a tourist goes to a milonga in Buenos Aires and finds it empty, the business model of the tango industry collapses. If tourists did not spend money on tango, it would be hard for the milonga organizers, instructors, and performers to survive in what is basically a purely internal market.

“Generally, popular musical forms enjoy a fairly short lifecycle: first, they cause a great uproar, they become the fashion, then once they have become established they stagnate, decay sets in, and finally they remain only as a witness to an era, or merely to a brief moment in time. Tango, on the other hand, is not an isolated incident, tango is an end in and of itself, an end that epitomizes a perception of beauty and a subtle meditation on the whole of human society in its unfolding, encapsulating all aesthetic, sociological, and even metaphysical considerations.”

Carlos A. Troncaro, El tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires (2009; my translation)

(Vance) Why do you think the tango appeals so strongly to Argentines? Carlos Troncaro, in his book El tango, el gaucho y Buenos Aires (2009), writes that while many popular musical forms fall out of style quickly and culturally come to symbolize only the era to which they belonged, the tango goes on, constantly evolving, growing, and changing alongside Argentine society in a way that keeps it always current. To what do you attribute tango’s staying power? Will there ever be a time when it ceases to be relevant?

(Marcelo) Argentines struggle with identity. Since our nation’s founding, it has been difficult to define what it means to be Argentine. Tango provides a clear element of identification. Your background–if your ancestors came from Spain, Italy, Poland or the Middle East, if you are rich or poor, if you got a university degree or educated yourself in “la universidad de la yeca (the university of the streets)”–does not matter. Even if you do not care much about tango, you hear its music and you know it is about you, your things, your particularities; you see a couple dancing and you feel proud even if you yourself do not dance, and you tell yourself: “We did this. Others put a man on the moon, created the nuclear bomb, devised the computer. We, as a particular culture, gave birth to tango.”

I think tango belongs to all of humanity, in this era of global metropolis and increasing interconnectivity. Tango is a manifestation of our particular situation as human beings, with human bodies, in the face of dehumanization in an urbanized world. As long as we live in this interconnected way, which seems to work beautifully as a driver of prosperity, tango will not only continue to be relevant to Argentines, but it will become increasingly relevant to humanity as a whole.

“I shall die in Buenos Aires, in the early morning hours,
The hour at which they die who best know how;
And on my deathly silence wafts the perfume of misfortune,
The words for you I can now no longer speak.”

Balada para mi muerte – Music by Ástor Piazzolla; lyrics by Horacio Ferrer (my translation)

© Vance Woods

Review – Jorge Schvarzer. Bunge & Born: Crecimiento y diversificación de un grupo económico. Buenos Aires: CISEA/Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1989.

“A largo plazo, las fallas de esos sistemas se hicieron sentir en el desarrollo económico del país, pero a principios de siglo quedaban disimuladas por el rápido crecimiento de la producción que parecía ofrecer un horizonte sin límites para el futuro. Mucho más tarde se comenzaría a apreciar que algunas actividades ‘industriales’ habían colaborado en mantener el atraso porque sus intereses concretos apuntaban a mantener el statu quo antes que a impulsar el progreso tecnológico y el cambio social. La Compañía Industrial de Bolsas parece haber sido una de ellas durante muchas décadas, hasta que el progreso técnico la llevó a su eclipse definitivo en los setenta.”

(“In the long run, these system failures negatively impacted the country’s economic development, but at the turn of the century their effects were obscured by the rapid growth of production which seemed to promise a future of limitless horizons. Much later, it would become evident that certain ‘industrial’ ventures had conspired to halt progress, since their business interests benefited more from the status quo than they would have from pushing for technological and social change. The Compañía Industrial de Bolsas appears to have been one of these ventures for many decades, until it was itself rendered obsolete in the 1970s by the very technological advancements it had sought to impede.”)

Jorge Schvarzer

Jorge Schvarzer’s Bunge & Born hit the presses in March 1989. Argentina was one month into the hyperinflationary crisis that would drive President Raúl Alfonsín from office six months before the end of his elected term. On July 8, Carlos Menem assumed the presidency, and as part of his recovery plan (the so-called Plan B&B), he recruited his first two ministers of the economy–Miguel Roig and Néstor Mario Rapanelli–directly from the executive ranks of Bunge & Born, one of the oldest, largest, and most diversified corporations in Argentina. This marriage between state and industry was at the time hailed as unprecedented in the history of economic policy worldwide. Whether or not this assessment is accurate, under the circumstances it isn’t difficult to detect a muted urgency to the author’s statement, that he wrote this book in order to “fill a gap in the literature,” so that the mammoth and highly secretive multinational corporation might become “a topic of open discussion in a society that wants and must come to know itself better” (page 11; my translation). While he does not mention explicitly this burgeoning political relationship, it must have been uppermost in Schvarzer’s mind at the time of publication.

Viewed through this interpretive lens, the book takes on a depth of meaning belied by its somewhat clinical brevity. On the surface, it is more technical report than anything else. It is divided into three chapters: the first offers a brief historical synopsis of the company’s founding and development over its first hundred years; the second, a more detailed description of Bunge & Born’s various subsidiary ventures and their place in the history of Argentine industrial development; and the third, a rather misleadingly named conclusion, in which few conclusions are drawn and fewer concrete opinions voiced. Schvarzer’s is, in fact, a work strikingly devoid of analysis or interpretation, which forces one to read between the lines. It quickly becomes clear that the author’s most pressing points are the ones he never quite makes.

Ernesto Bunge arrived in Argentina in 1880 from Antwerp, home of his family’s import-export business, Bunge & Co., since 1859. In Argentina, where prosperity depends almost entirely on the ability to move large amounts of money in and out of the country–often at a moment’s notice–this transatlantic connection would be key to his future success. Bunge’s brother-in-law, Jorge Born, followed soon afterwards. The corporation which came to be known as Bunge & Born was founded in 1884, just as the nascent Argentine agro-export model began to hit its stride. Originally centered around the grain export trade, the company expanded quickly and by the end of the century had added first manufacturing then processing to their repertory. Finance came next, in 1905, with the formation of the Banco Hipotecario Franco Argentino which, given its founding members, didn’t really merit the national adjective. This was, as the author points out, “one of the least known aspects of the company’s little known activities” (p. 17; my translation), and one which, in Argentina, truly meant standing with one foot on either side of the fence. At the very least, these international linkages would have enabled Bunge & Born to weather with a little more aplomb the multiplicity of financial crises that dogged the country throughout the 20th century. At worst, it would have allowed them to perpetrate a number of technically legal but socially detrimental acts related to the movement and accumulation of wealth in a nation where far too few people are able to participate in either process.

In 1905, the corporation built its first flour mill in Brazil, thus beginning its expansion within the Latin American continent. Peru and Uruguay soon followed. In the 1920s, they entered the cotton trade, again in Brazil, another step in their expansion within Latin America. Throughout the 20th century, Bunge & Born and its subsidiaries grew steadily, with the exception of the war years and the global depression in the 1930s–both of which forced the corporation back into a domestic mindset, if only momentarily. Then, in 1975, two of the Born brothers, including Jorge Born III, future president of Bunge & Born, were kidnapped by the Montoneros, a leftist paramilitary organization, and ransomed for 60 million dollars. After their release, both relocated to Brazil, taking “effective control of the group” with them. After nearly a century, “the largest multinational of Argentine extraction” was suddenly no longer strictly Argentine.

This fact is key to a complete appraisal of the developing political situation in 1989. Not only was the Argentine economy in chaos, but the people who had been entrusted with restoring it to health represented a multinational conglomerate with fingers in everybody’s pies and numberless interests in overseas markets that often benefited directly from Argentina’s economic woes. Their sitting president hadn’t resided in the country for over a decade; in fact, when Menem began courting their support, Jorge Born III had to fly in from Brazil, where he was living at the time, to confer with the future president. Moreover, in that conference and others that followed it, the Ministry of the Economy was essentially sold to Bunge & Born for a healthy–and indeterminate–dose of campaign financing, making it clear that the “Plan B&B” had far more to do with winning an election than it ever did with the formulation of substantive economic policy. Given that the corporation’s first nominee to the Ministry, Miguel Roig, died from exhaustion six days into his tenure, according to some due to the intransigence of his employers and their industrialist friends and their systematic attempts to sabotage his efforts to enforce the policies they themselves supposedly created, it is easy to understand the doubts that might have led to the publication of this book. The keys to the henhouse had effectively been auctioned off to the foxes.

The story of Bunge & Born is one of broad and rapid diversification, but it also reveals a relentless campaign to corner markets and capture supply chains throughout the Argentine economy. It is impossible to truly understand the corporation’s staggering and apparently immediate success without taking into account both sides of this coin. For example, from grain exportation the company branched into transport infrastructure with the manufacture of tin containers (Centenera, founded in 1899) and grain sacks (Compañía Industrial de Bolsas, 1900). The latter provides an excellent example of the oligopolic nature of the Argentine industrial complex (then and now). At several points during the first two decades of the 20th century, the government attempted to regulate the import of grain sacks, which tended to represent higher costs for the agricultural sector (and also left local producers of raw materials out of the loop). Some of these failed due to official incompetence, but in some cases–such as the elimination of import tariffs on grain sacks, which companies like Compañía dodged deftly through cynically-timed price gouging–they failed because of the counterthrusts of the industrial leadership, either through market manipulation or the exercise of political influence.

Bunge & Born also branched out into chemicals, textiles, and wall coverings (anyone who has ever painted their home in Argentina will recognize the Alba brand, although the company’s website makes no mention at all of their founding fathers and is now owned by AkzoNobel, a Dutch conglomerate out of Amsterdam). However, by far the most wide-ranging of their ventures was Molinos Río de la Plata, now known simply as Molinos. This began in 1901 essentially as a government contract intended to take advantage of what was assumed to be a burgeoning global flour export market; the first of Bunge & Born’s flour mills went into action one year later in Puerto Madero. It very quickly became evident that this perceived market was more mirage than reality, however, which forced the corporation to focus its attentions on the domestic demand, and again, Bunge & Born went into predatory mode. One by one, they picked off their Argentine competitors all over the country, overpaying grain and underselling the flour until their rivals had no choice but to sell out. Since then, Molinos has expanded into everything from olive oil to yerba mate, and are now, according to their website, responsible for 13 top consumer brands and 23% of the basic household food requirements.

Both the Compañía Industrial de Bolsas and Molinos are excellent examples of a time-tested business model that Schvarzer describes as a feedback loop. Bunge & Born tended to invest in activities that in some way fed back into already established areas of concentration (such as the relevance of grain sacks to a company founded on grain exports). These lateral movements allowed for maximum growth with a minimum of effort, and explains why Bunge & Born’s expansion was so explosive in nature. The lessons they learned from the failure of the flour export trade also taught them to bet on other people’s horses when their own flagged or failed; they began instead to invest directly in those markets they couldn’t access via exportation, thus diverting money that could have gone toward bolstering local Argentine industries. As Schvarzer points out, rather tongue in cheek, “it is possible that certain of their decisions, although understandable from a microeconomic perspective, may have had deleterious effects in terms of national development” (p. 75; my translation). From even a surface reading of the situation, it seems fairly obvious that this was the case.

Schvarzer’s book was first drafted, according to its brief preface, in 1987 for a 1988 workshop at the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan. The present version, he says, is by way of “reaching a wider public” and in light of new information that has emerged on the subject, in the interests of counteracting what he calls “an absence of study and debate” on such matters in Argentina. Again, the timing cannot have been a coincidence; it is difficult to believe that this “new information” is not related or at least relevant to the political ascendance of Bunge & Born and the formulation of Plan B&B. Since the author does not really engage in any evaluative analysis, it is hard to discern his personal feelings (if any) toward the multinational; however, with its influence on the rise, it is not at all difficult to understand why he might wish to shed new light on a somewhat obscure subject. At the time of writing, the author notes that due to marriage alliances between corporate families, in Argentina and in Europe, it was difficult even to determine what interests Bunge & Born encompassed; reading the portfolio of the corporation as it stood resembled trying to decipher a medieval royal genealogy. As they stood to take up the economic reins of the nation, the impossibility of defining their corporate identity or their political–or even national–loyalties, and given the extent to which the conglomerate controlled Argentina’s productive apparatus, one might naturally fear that, rather than swooping in to save the day, Bunge & Born was actually poised to stage a hostile takeover. Or, perhaps, that they already had.

© Vance Woods

Review – Federico Finchelstein. Fascismo, liturgia e imaginario: El mito del general Uriburu y la Argentina nacionalista. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002.

“La historia del mito de Uriburu es la historia de un fracaso. Los nacionalistas no fracasaron en su propósito de que la figura de Uriburu se convirtiese en su mito fundador sino que fracasaron en conseguir que esa identidad colectiva progresivamente aceptada por todos pudiera expresar la realidad de un movimiento nacionalista unificado.”

(“The story of the myth of Uriburu is the story of a failure. The nationalists did not fail in their aim to set up the image of Uriburu as a foundational myth; their failure lay in their inability to translate that collective identity, gradually acknowledged by all, into a unified nationalist movement.”)

Federico Finchelstein

In Fascismo, liturgia e imaginario, Federico Finchelstein argues that the many and diverse nationalist groups in Argentina in the 1930s (and beyond) were linked less by a formal and universal ideology than by a shared repertory of political and cultural practices and symbols, foremost among which was veneration of General José Félix Uriburu, whose afterlife proved of far more consequence than his actual life, and the September Revolution of 1930, which he led. This is, according to the author, the story of a failure: beyond Uriburu’s basic failure to turn his revolution into a viable political program, the various nationalist organizations in 1930s Argentina failed to coalesce around an established dogma, a situation which persisted throughout the 20th century. Nevertheless, the Uriburu myth, foundational to Argentine nationalist thought and practice, provided the theoretical underpinnings of the political pandemonium that defined the next half-century, culminating in the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (Process of National Reorganization), which held violent sway in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

General José Félix Uriburu led the coup that toppled Hipólito Yrigoyen on September 6, 1930, and instituted Argentina’s first 20th-century dictatorship. Two years later, Uriburu was dead, succeeded by Agustín P. Justo, and the nationalists who had followed him into rebellion were left “political orphans.” From its brief moment of officialdom, Argentine nationalism receded once again into the ocean of Argentine social and political theory. Now though, thanks to Uriburu’s brief moment of glory, they had tasted power (and blood), and they were no longer willing to remain mere proponents of disembodied doctrine. The nationalist press, which had preceded and supported the 1930 coup, would thereafter be complemented by nationalist action, defined by a liturgical politics that created an inextricable link between the Catholic church and the nationalist movement, sacralizing the political violence central to the movement and firing the Argentine nationalist imagination with assurances of political resurgence to come.

Observers in the 1930s, especially after the death of General Uriburu, were divided on the question of historiographical integrity. On the one hand, nationalist groups, encouraged by the success–although brief–of the “revolution,” saw in its imposition an inflection point comparable to the victories of San Martín at San Lorenzo and Justo José de Urquiza at Caseros, two key moments in the Argentine march toward freedom and independence. Two years after the fact, they already had entered the September Revolution into the annals of heroism and projected that perception onto future generations of historians. Meanwhile, those on the opposite side(s) of the aisle insisted that the moment was still too fresh in the collective memory, too recent to begin making such historical judgments, let alone indulging in the logical leap into the minds of scholars to come. However, this idealized vision of what amounted to a coup d’état served to legitimize the genre; to, the nationalists it had not been an attack on the democratic processes of a free people, but a blow struck against the tyranny of the masses in the name of Argentine national honor. As such, it paved the way for repeated use of the military option throughout the 20th century.

Linked to the perceived heroism of the moment is the perceived heroism of those who participated in its realization. Finchelstein understands the Uriburu myth as an extended exercise in projection: the violence that characterized Argentine nationalist action after the end of Uriburu’s administration was modeled intentionally on the violence that accompanied its establishment. The “martyrs of September,” if somewhat lacking in definition in terms of pedigree or merit–as demonstrated by the story of the author’s great-grandfather in the preface–served as exemplars of honor and patriotism, as well as symbols of Uriburu’s own virility and dedication, to the men who took part both in the systematic torture of political opponents–yet another persistent 20th-century practice debuted by the general’s followers–and in the street warfare between nationalist gangs and supposed communist or socialist groups. As the author notes, “death in action and in the leader’s name amplified the symbolic dimensions of the [Uriburu] myth to the highest degree” (93; my translation). In essence, this sacralization of violence created an army of believers prepared to suffer, but more significantly to do, anything in the name of Uriburu and the nationalist cause. Violence was thus rendered “beautiful and sublime,” the quintessentially ethical response in the face of anti-Argentine aggression.

Veneration of the leader and martyrs of the September Revolution was objectified through a dual process of spatial representation–the renaming of cities, streets, and highways in honor of General Uriburu and September 6–and sacralization of those spaces through ritual and performance. Finchelstein elsewhere refers to the “vernacular” Argentine nationalism as “clérico-fascista” [clerical-fascist], referring to the strong identification of the nationalist movement with the Catholic church, and vice versa (Finchelstein, La Argentina fascista, 2008). The second chapter of Fascismo, liturgia e imaginario is dedicated to an extended analysis of the formally religious ceremony underpinning the formation and growth of the Uriburu myth, such as the widespread celebration of Masses in his name. In the fifth chapter, the author explores the civil religion that grew up around the general’s memory. There was a distinct messianic element to this formulation: the gatherings and marches offered purification, a rededication to the nationalist cause and a washing away of the social contaminants picked up from contact with non-believers; the streets and highways became a sort of secular “Way of the Cross,” to be traveled on the special days associated with the general, in triumph and in death, both of which became symbols of sacrifice and righteousness to his followers.

All of this, insists Finchelstein, was by way of objectifying the postulates of the Uriburu myth, of turning theory into experience, thereby anchoring it in reality in a way that the mere spoken or written word could not. Museum exhibits, housing artifacts associated with General Uriburu, served to historicize (or in some regards, to de-historicize) the man and his place in the Argentine story. They exalted his past, reified his influence in the present, and promised his followers a place in the future. His tomb in La Recoleta cemetery and the monument to the “martyrs” erected outside the cemetery gates offered places of embodied collective memory: to gather there was to reaffirm one’s stance vis-à-vis Uriburu and his imagined political program, and against everyone else. Given the fractured nature of the nationalist movement in the 1930s, these moments of joint veneration were essential to its long-term survival.

Nationalist civil religion in the 1930s had its icons as well as its shrines; according to the author, the dead general’s image was everywhere, his portrait presiding over official gatherings and private dinner tables across the nation. His voice was still heard, as recordings of his speeches in September 1930 were pressed and mailed to the faithful–and the not so faithful–as a reminder of those fateful days and their implications for present and future behaviors of Uriburu’s followers. Even his gestures and his posture were studied and imitated–although Finchelstein points out that these memories were often more idealized than real–in an effort to reproduce the leader’s supposed strength and resolve. On that note, there is an odd contradiction between admiration of the man’s “archetypical masculinity” and the dewy romanticism with which some of his male followers recalled his “humid and tender eyes,” capable of transmitting either kindness or fiery darts, depending on the situation; the latter carries almost erotic undertones, and expresses the sexual element in the nationalist appreciation of the myth–the virility in the masculinity, which casts in another light completely the symbolic stature of Uriburu’s sword, which becomes a representation at once martial and phallic, the sign of a “real man.”

The 1930s were, in the author’s eyes, the key moment in the history of Argentine nationalism. It was during this time that nationalist thought became radicalized, both encouraged by the fleeting political success of Uriburu the man and spurred to further action by the persistence of Uriburu the myth. Their mythical backstory, however, proved itself a double-edged sword: on one hand, its shared nature distracted from the absence of cohesion within and between the multitude of nationalist organizations that sprang up during the years following the general’s death; on the other, its single-minded devotion to a dead leader prevented the emergence of new leadership among the living. Instead of drawing the different groups together under one new banner, it ultimately effectively guaranteed its ongoing acephalous state.

To Finchelstein, this failure to flourish is how Argentine nationalism, ironically, found its teeth. Since they could not pull together as a self-sufficient political movement, the nationalists began to seek alliances that would advance their cause, ultimately turning to the “Church-Armed Forces binomial” as the most viable option. The course of the Argentine 20th century hinges on this fact: Uriburu, who was both a committed Catholic and a dedicated soldier, provided a point of contact between the ecclesiastical-military entente on the one hand, and the nationalists as representatives of Uriburu–whom they considered the ultimate champion of both–on the other. From here, the die was cast: while the Uriburu myth as a foundational conception of nationalist identity began to die out toward the end of the 1930s, as a linchpin it persisted–perhaps still persists–the violence it inspired threading its way forward through time until the street wars of the 1930s morphed into the systematic, Church-sponsored political repression of the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional of the late ’70s-early ’80s.

©2021 – Vance Woods

Conscience of Crisis: A Conversation with Nicholas D’Avella

Nicholas D’Avella is an anthropologist with research interests in markets, expert knowledge, and urban ecologies. His work brings concern with practices into dialogue with anthropological themes related to money, exchange, and value. His book, Concrete Dreams: Practice, Value, and Built Environments in Post-Crisis Buenos Aires was published in 2019 with Duke University Press.

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Vance: Before we get into it, I want to say that yours is hands-down the best English-language book on Argentina I’ve ever read, and one of my favorite books in general. I have my own copy now, and I look forward to what I’m sure will be multiple re-reads in the future.

I grew up in Argentina; my parents were missionaries there from 1988 to 2002, and I was there between the ages of 10 and 19. That places me in-country during the austral crisis in the late ’80s-early ’90s. Although I had already returned to the U.S. for college by that time, I was visiting my folks over the Christmas and New Year holidays in 2001-2002 when De la Rúa’s corralito was in full swing and the country cycled through five presidents in a week and a half. Finally, I was there when inflation set in again under Mauricio Macri in 2016-2017 and consumer goods tripled or quadrupled in value in a matter of months.

However, while I’ve witnessed a number of Argentine economic crises, I’d never really experienced one personally until this last time around. In the late ’80s, I was quite young and shielded by the fact that my family wasn’t really from Argentina. My parents were paid in dollars by employers in the United States, and we were free to leave the country at any time. Even recently, during Macri’s debacle, my exposure was relatively superficial; while my options were as limited in daily practice as anyone else’s, I was still free to leave at leisure and in fact did. This is a choice few have the wherewithal to make. I’m left with the question, then: how to understand the role of crisis in Argentine life? Since I admire your book, and since it deals directly with this question, in the context of the crisis of 2001-2003, I am thrilled to be able to speak with you.

I’m curious, right off the top, to know more about your connection to Argentina. What was it that attracted you to that country as a topic of research?

Nicholas: I started studying anthropology as a grad student, and was interested in cities and urban life, how cities grow and change over time. I wasn’t an anthropology undergrad, though; most anthropology students have previous experience in the field and connections to a particular country. I’d lived in London, but that didn’t strike me as a great choice for an anthropologist career-wise. There are anthropologists working in the United States; I could have stayed here to do my research, but I liked the idea of going somewhere else. I didn’t even speak Spanish the first time I went to Argentina, but I liked Latin America. I had a bunch of friends who had just gone to Buenos Aires on holiday and loved it. I had also just seen Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ 2004 film The Take, about worker takeovers of factories and hotels. It was really that sort of decision.

I was there for three months in 2005 and 2006, a month and a half in 2007, and then fulltime from 2008 to 2010. I went back for two more months in 2012 and then for three or four months in 2016. Of course, now I go back to visit friends and not for work. I didn’t have any connections there when I first went, but now I have many of them.

Vance: That really surprises me, because the comprehension of the country that you express in your book is quite deep, and quite personal as well. I kind of assumed you had a connection to Argentina similar to mine, going back years and years. I spent most of my childhood around people who had been working in the country in some cases for 20 to 30 years, and I didn’t necessarily see in them the level of investment in the place or the people that you show in your work.

Nicholas: I’m glad that came across. I definitely feel that connection and I wanted to express that in the book. It’s a very personal book, even though it’s not really about me. I decided to include some of those moments and stories that go beyond the facts and figures of the argument–conversations I had with close friends who taught me about things like the comics or the tango. I didn’t expect to include tango lyrics, for example, in the book because they’re so cliché, but I realized that if they are cliché, it’s because they’re very present in Argentina, so I figured out a way to use them after all. It seemed very relevant, and stemmed from conversations and questions asked to people I spent a lot of time with and with whom I developed very warm relationships.

Vance: Facundo Manes, an Argentine neuroscientist, talks in his book El cerebro argentino [The Argentine Brain] about the constant state of crisis that doesn’t give people time to really reflect on the past or plan for the future because they are always in the middle of some developing crisis moment, either recovering from one that has just ended or preparing for one that’s setting in. In your book, you write that “crisis, while an event that names an epochal moment, can also be made to intertwine itself across registers binding the epochal to the everyday [p.16].”

When I read your book, Mauricio Macri had just left the presidency. The October 2019 elections were over, Alberto Fernández had assumed, and the country was once again caught in a cycle of inflation and issues of international debt, depositors’ money was to some extent trapped inside the banks and a new cepo [restrictions on foreign exchange] was in place. So, the subtitle of the book–“post-crisis Buenos Aires”–captured my attention. It shows the limitations of historical work conducted in the present moment. It’s very difficult to see into the future, especially in a place so defined by cyclical crises. So, the first question that occurred to me is this: Is there really such a thing as a “post-crisis” Argentina?

Nicholas: When I would say to people, “Oh, with the crisis,” they would say, “Which crisis?” They knew which one I meant, you know, but it was this performance of this thing that you just said, that there are many, there are so many. They can rattle off the history of these different moments of economic difficulty–hyperinflation in the late ’80s, the crisis in 2001, and of course the knowledge that there would be future crises.

I guess I would disagree with Manes’ claim that Argentines aren’t able to reflect on their situation, precisely because of the constant nature of crisis. I think there is a “post-crisis,” there are many post-crisis moments. There are also moments when that sort of epochal peak arrives, as in 2001, but between 2003 and, say, 2010, it didn’t feel like one of those moments. In 2012, the feeling returned, with the first cepo. New forms of crisis emerge, but there’s certainly time for people to reflect, and they do reflect; they tell a lot stories about past crises, and that was very interesting to me. The stories are always told with this vibe of future preparation, and as I say in the book, it’s not as if analysis of the past helps you predict the future, but it does help you hold the future open, and inspires an attitude that says, “We don’t know exactly what the future will be like, but look, we have this beautiful collection of horrific moments that we’ve lived through.” That’s what makes those stories so valuable, to think them over and consider them with an attitude to the future.

Vance: Your thought on the survival aspect of storytelling interested me as well. I hear stories about people who had bad experiences during the Rodrigazo, in the 1970s, from younger generations who saw the continued effects of those experiences as they came up, and how that changed their outlook on the future. They were able to put that awareness to good use; some got out of the corralito pretty much intact because they saw it coming and completed all of the transactions necessary to protect their savings just in time. I’ve also heard stories of people who did not because they were so invested in the present that they forgot the lessons from the past.

We could take a lesson from this here in the United States, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I lived with my grandmother during college. She was born in 1917 and lived through the Great Depression and World War II, in which my grandfather served. She would go into a panic if she had to buy a broom or some other small item like that, because she was convinced that she wasn’t going to have the money she needed, even though, in all honesty, she was loaded.

As we move farther away from that generation, we lose that sort of historical consciousness. I think the pandemic will probably change that for a lot of us. I’m curious to see what sort of storytelling efforts will emerge from all this. I work in a library, and I’ve seen a number of archival efforts to gather and document the experiences people have had with COVID-19 in order to be able to pass them on.

Nicholas: It’s interesting to think about stories as one form of memory, and of course there are many forms. Your grandmother’s was perhaps more embodied and deeply psychological, I’m sure based on a rational story–“I’ve lived these things and they were difficult”–but it also has a traumatic aspect to it. If we take memory as an expansive category, then that kind of lived experience and the archive that your body carries with it would be another form of memory. Archives that are more formal and document based would be another. The popular stories I include in my book are yet another.

This comes out, too, in the commitments of the architects I talk about in the book, around not just crisis but also the dictatorship, and their efforts to hold present a way of thinking about architecture and their engagement with the popular classes. They didn’t really talk about it this way themselves; it took a lot of work to figure out the commitments of these architects to do architecture a certain kind of way. I had to ask myself, “What’s leftist about this sort of architecture?” I realized there were certain key moments that were really important to them, that led them to work in a way that introduces a consciousness of class, and a conversation about architecture as an elite good versus a non-elite good.  These moments formed a sort of memory about ways of doing architecture that had existed briefly in the early 1970s and then were snuffed out by dictatorial violence.

Vance: Switching gears a bit, I’d like to talk a little about the rebusque. As we go into this particular crisis here in the United States, I’m starting to see signs at supermarkets that talk about coin shortages and exact change, which makes me think back to all the odd forms of change I’ve received in Argentina: Band-Aids, candy, even a tangerine once. There is a always a shortage of change there, although in their case we’re usually talking about small bills rather than coins. When the 500 peso bill came out in 2017, for example, it complicated things because in my somewhat marginal neighborhood no one had change for them, so I had to spend them in town to get change, which I could then use closer to home.

I remember that as the current crisis began to unfold in 2016, my neighborhood started to look like the United Nations. There were flags all along the sidewalks, showing where someone had basically turned their home into a kiosco [convenience store]. They were selling the same things as their neighbors, who had also turned their homes into stores. This is a flexibility we don’t necessarily have here in the United States, due to zoning ordinances and things like that. I’m fascinated by this sort of phasing in and out of identities of a domestic space. Is this something you experienced in your research of built environments, that they can almost effortlessly go from domestic setting to commercial setting and back again?

Nicholas: There are a couple of layers to that. I definitely remember getting candy as change, and it was impossible to take the bus when I was there in 2006 because you needed exact change and no stores would give it to you because they didn’t have it either. I remember thinking, “Where is this change? Who has it? Somebody has to have it.” I bought so many things in order to get change for the bus, and sometimes I’d end up with candy anyway. It was like a foiled effort to get money to do its job, and it was unfathomable to me that nobody had solved this problem.

Regarding people who convert their homes into kioscos, I’ve heard stories, although I don’t recall witnessing it myself. I do have a lot of stories about people figuring out ways to make money with what they’ve got. People bake things and sell them; if you go to an Argentine park where there are a lot of people, you can expect someone to come by with a basket of items for sale, empanadas or something like that. I’m starting to see activities like that here in the U.S. Cartoneros, of course, were a huge figure in Argentina in the late ’90s, and still are; here we have people who collect recycling for resale. This is something you see in New York all the time, since we have can and bottle deposits that can be collected upon trade-in. That sort of activity is part of the informal social architecture of cities; it’s something you see that changes your consciousness. I think that’s the sort of thing we’re seeing a lot of now, as people try to figure out how to make ends meet by means of informal labor, just like someone who opens a kiosco in their home.

As far as more formal architecture is concerned, it’s an interesting question. I live in New York; commercial rents have plummeted, a lot of stores are closing up. There has been a lot of research done on “luxury blight,” the phenomenon of unrented storefronts in expensive neighborhoods due to landlords’ unwillingness to lower rents and miss out on tax abatements based on lost rent. Lower rent means less money at tax time. We have yet to see the long-term effects of those things. There’s also the issue of “Airbnb-ification”: whole buildings dedicated to temporary rentals, which have also changed the landscape of housing in the city. I’m sure the super-rich aren’t the only ones doing these things; there are also people with just enough money to invest in creative ways that may generate income.

Vance: One of the reasons I connected with your book so quickly was the story you told in the introduction about Mariela and her efforts to purchase an apartment, how she and her sons strapped the cash to their bodies under their clothes, hoping to reach the bank without running afoul of the motochorros [muggers on motorcycles]. I haven’t purchased a home in Argentina, but I have sold one, and I too, after the papers were signed, had to strap a ton of cash to myself beneath my coat and book it through a crowded city center to the bank before it closed for the weekend, so that I could fly out of the country the next day.

We think of homes here in the United States largely as a short-term investment: we buy it, we stay in it long enough to build up some equity, then sell it at a profit in order to move on to a bigger home. This is definitely not the case in Argentina. For one thing, home loans are not really an option, unless you’re just filthy rich, so if you’re going to buy a house you have to save up the full amount beforehand and set it down in a chunk on the realtor’s table. That is much more of a long-term investment, in that it takes a lot more work to get to the table at all, and in that selling isn’t nearly as attractive an idea, since once it’s gone you don’t know what if anything you’ll find to replace it. There isn’t much scope for trading upward since your next purchase can’t really exceed the cash amount you got from the sale.

Another one of my new favorite books is Historia del dinero [The Story of Money], by Alan Pauls, which you mentioned in your own book. You use the protagonist’s purchase of an apartment and the time and money spent on renovations, and how that process intersected with successive economic crises along the way. The apartment basically turned into a money pit, which he ended up selling at a loss soon after work was finished. Real estate is such a tenuous, and yet such an important part, of Argentine life and the Argentine imaginary: I was once told that as long as you have a roof over your head, you can get by. Governments come and go, inflation comes and goes, but as long as those bricks are there, you’re safe.

What is the biggest difference you saw between the perception of real estate and the built environment in Argentina and the same perceptions here in the U.S., and what lessons do you think we can learn from this?

Nicholas: In terms of contrasts, I think what you said is right: in Argentina, these things are thought of as a good that has a monetary, or market, value, but people don’t typically think of their homes exclusively in those terms. It’s not thought of as a short-term investment. It’s thought of as a home, in a much more substantive way. We have that here, too, to an extent, but certain phenomena like subdevelopments with much more comparable or fungible homes, where one is very similar to the others and you could move three blocks away to an identical unit, which I think is much more common here, probably tend to erode that sense of deep connection. I’m sure it allows for other sorts of connection; it’s not like Americans don’t care about their houses or don’t have affective attachments to them, but there is definitely that contrast there.

I think that maybe poses a question I would be interested in, then, in terms of the United States: what does “home” mean to people, how do they think about it, and where does the value of a house lie? Maybe what we would find is that it really is just an economic proposition: where can I live and send my kids to a good school, or to not have a long commute. But I suspect it would be more complicated than just that. Also, when we think about the translation of this question from Argentina to the U.S., it is a problem because there are so many important differences. Argentina, for example, doesn’t have a functioning mortgage market, so what it means to buy a house is very different.

Vance: When I bought my first home here in the U.S., everybody kept talking to me about “starter homes.” Also, when I bought my first home, I didn’t really buy anything; I basically paid rent to the bank for the seven years I lived there. This is a big difference, in that the act of purchase in Argentine is a wholesale act; you take the money with you, and it becomes your house and no one else’s. It may not be complete; you may have to add on two-thirds of the house after buying it, but it is yours with a capital “Y.”

Here, if I lose my job, I lose my home, because I don’t have the income to keep up the mortgage, whereas in Argentina, if you lose your job, that home becomes your refuge and base of operations and you make it into whatever you need it to be in order to weather the crisis.

Nicholas: We also have different geographies of movement; people move around here, and farther from their extended families, much more easily than in Argentina.

Vance: I remember a conversation I had with a friend in Argentina about that. I was driving from Texas to Missouri to see some old college friends–about a nine and a half to ten hour trip–and it was this unheard of distance to him. Then I remember making a trip from my home to Buenos Aires, which is half the distance and requires half the time, and it was still logistically more difficult than my car trip in the United States. So, the mobility issue is definitely important.

One last question: I mentioned Facundo Manes’ book, and there is also a book by Carlos Nino, titled Un país al margen de la ley [A Country Outside the Law]–there are any number of academic or journalistic books about the Argentine dilemma, really, that are very good, the theory is great, and I think they’re spot on in a lot of ways. One of my favorite quotes from the Manes book has to do with the infamous viveza criolla [a sort of native common sense], which the author describes as an “intelligence with short legs.” I think that’s probably a fair description. However, I’ve noticed in my conversations with the people with boots on the ground, so to speak, who have actually lived through all of the nastiness and have had to adjust their lifestyles and actions accordingly, that there is a very large difference of perception regarding this so-called dilemma. I’m convinced it isn’t a lack of understanding on the part of the average Argentine. I think they’re very aware of the way things work, or else they wouldn’t survive. It seems to be a difference not just in the approach to solving the problem, but in the perception of whether or not there’s even a problem to be solved. Here we return to the multiple black markets and the practice of giving candy as change, and the attempt to make money do what it’s supposed to do. I think they’ve pretty much given up on what money is supposed to do, so they’re making it do what it has to do.

As I watch what’s happening here as we move through this pandemic period, I see us becoming in some ways more flexible, or adaptive, in the ways we solve our daily problems. I see signs around town outside houses, people who are sewing masks and selling them out of their homes, which is exactly what happens in Argentina when a crisis kicks in: people sew socks and sell them door to door, or they bake bread or make milanesas. Or they put a kiosco in their home and sell things through their front window.

The perception here, I think, generally is that when the politicians stop working for us, that puts us against the wall and we have no outlet, but what I see in Argentina, where it’s been years since most people have been really invested in the political process on a macro level, is that not only are people still getting by, but that in some ways that divorce between the macro and micro levels of government has created a vacuum which allows the popular form of politics greater room for expression. I’m thinking here also of Queremos Buenos Aires and other grassroots groups you talked about in the book, as well as things I saw when I was there. What do you think about this?

Nicholas: There’s a whole cottage industry of publications about Argentine economic woes that places the blame on the Argentines themselves, the viveza criolla, a sort of cunning that’s also selfish, that isn’t capable of forming collective projects which might improve the national situation. That’s a trope; it’s something you can read a lot of books about. It’s also a common belief among people in Argentina; the reason those books exist is because it’s an idea the people connect with. I always had a very different take on it, which is similar to what you were saying, that people are actually very smart and are doing what they have to do to get by.

You can blame the situation on poor economic decision-making by the government, as well, but the truth is that most economies that exist in the shadow of the United States and Europe are not doing well, or do well only in fits and bursts–they are not stable. There’s something about thinking of a world capitalist system that’s really important to thinking about the position of Argentina in that world. That, I think, is why so much attention is paid, say in the films of Pino Solanas, to this idea that, yes, the Argentine government is corrupt and that’s a bad thing, but that corruption is also due in part to the influence of multinational corporations, because of international banking systems and the role of global banks. Argentina is situated in a system of power, and no matter who you vote for, it’s not clear that they’re going to be able to fix that. There are different ways of approaching the problem, which might have different impacts, but the problem itself remains.

Regarding Argentina, I do think some people are a little more short-sighted, who think in terms of this government or that government, but I think it is easier to meet Argentines who are aware of the larger systemic issues than it is to meet Americans who are aware of them. People who have a perspective on Marxism are much more common in Argentina than in the United States; in the United States, people will say that they hate it, but they don’t really even know what it is. If you went to university in Argentina, you’ve had a close encounter with Marxism and probably a lot of friends who are Marxists.

Vance: Things swing back and forth so much; one thing about Argentine economic history is that there doesn’t appear to be a middle way. You’re either completely isolationist, or you’re completely open, and it changes almost with every new administration. If you are over the age of fifteen, you’ve been in one or the other of those situations, so when you talk about socialism or Marxism–or any other “ism”–it’s very likely that you’ve experienced it personally to some extent. Here, it’s all theoretical, as you pointed out; most people don’t know what the difference is between socialism, Marxism, or communism. In Argentina, it’s a lived experience.

You reminded me of one of the greatest summations of what it is to be Argentine that I’ve ever heard. I was once told that the good thing about Argentina is that you’re always starting over. If that is not a way to make the sour grapes sweet, I don’t know what is. But it’s true: every time a new face shows up in the Casa Rosada, every time a new economic tack is taken, everybody starts again. Whether it be a new cepo, or inflation, or defaulting on a debt, something throws everything out of whack. That is an experience that I think we here in the U.S. have not really had. I’m still paying today for a gallon of milk what I was paying in college, give or take a few cents. Gas prices go up and down constantly, but still within a fairly established margin depending on where one is in the country.

This is what interests me about the time we’re going through right now. I just read an article about the ways in which COVID-19 has changed our economy, and that it’s probably not going back to the way it was before. Businesses are focusing on connectivity because we’ve gone remote and will probably stay that way to some degree; the educational system has changed because the things we need to know and the ways we need to learn them have changed; we can’t even shake hands anymore. We’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for a little over a year, and we’re coming apart at the seams. I think there are lessons we can learn from the flexibility that I saw in Argentina, because I think you’re right, I think people there are extremely intelligent in the ways that matter to them. When I say the ways that matter to them, I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just that they’re in a very different situation and have been for years. This ability to think on their feet–and through their stories–and to survive could teach us a great deal, if we’re willing to listen.

©2021 – Vance Woods

Review – Amalia Leguizamón. Seeds of Power: Environmental Injustice and Genetically Modified Soybeans in Argentina. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

“Actors who wield power at the higher levels of politics and the economy–heads of government alongside agribusiness executives and entrepreneurs–promote the GM soy model on the promise of ecological modernization for sustainable development: that is, the promise of technological innovation for economic growth and social well-being in an environmentally sustainable manner. These powerful actors have tailored what is otherwise a broad and abstract promise to fit the Argentine context: Argentina’s historical dependence on a gendered and racialized political economy of Pampas agro-extractivism. Moreover, they have used Argentina’s cultural myths of national identity to legitimate the unequal and unjust dimensions and consequences of soybean extractivism.”

Amalia Leguizamón

In Seeds of Power, Amalia Leguizamón lays out the rationale and historical roots of the GM soy model in Argentina to explore the lack of popular response to an arguably hazardous agricultural practice, from the perspective of both health and property rights. On the one hand, she details the historical confrontation between “civilization” and “the desert,” arguing that the GM soy model allows at long last for a reconciliation of the “oxymoron of an urban country that has historically turned its back on the countryside, yet embraced dependency on agricultural exports.” On the other, she underscores the country’s self-perception as the European nation of the Latin American continent–the First World of the Third World, so to speak–and the ways in which the GM soy model plays into that national conceit, thereby presenting itself in a flattering light that deflects the criticisms that otherwise might come its way.

The author begins her argument in the 19th century, confronting two foundational myths of the Argentine people. First, the so-called Generation of ’37, a group of intellectuals which included, among others, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Juan Bautista Alberdi, who laid the intellectual foundations of a European-style modernism which split the Argentine territory into two, opposing ecosystems: the urban, civilized world of the Argentine littoral (mainly the port of Buenos Aires), and the desert, barbaric regions of the nation’s interior. Added to the second myth, that of the “granary of the world,” GM soy (and the agro-export economic model in general) becomes in many ways a social mandate, very similar to Manifest Destiny in the United States: once tamed, the wilderness is transformed into “a factory of commercial crops,” which can then be delivered, fresh from the fields of the world’s breadbox, to hungry people around the world.

The use of GM soy in Argentina was legalized in 1996, under Carlos Menem, and is the latest in a series of agricultural technologies adopted eagerly by that nation. The “granary of the world” myth comes into play here as well: beginning with the Green Revolution in the 1950s and ’60s, the progressive agriculturalization of the Pampas (entailing a switch from livestock to commercial crop production) reflected the national self-perception as a cutting-edge provider of sustenance in a time of global shortage. The downside of this switch, for Leguizamón, is its extractivist bent, which emphasizes that which may be gotten out of the soil while to a large extent ignoring the need to put anything back into it.

To Leguizamón, one of the key detrimental aspects of the GM soy model is its tendency to divorce land use from land ownership. She outlines the geographical distance between those who farm the land and the land they farm: the technologization of agricultural activities leads to the technocratization of the agricultural workforce. The technicians who “manage” the land neither own it nor live in its vicinity, and therefore their stake in the enterprise is purely financial and immediate. There is no incentive to invest in sustainability because the future is entirely in the now, calculated in dollars and cents. On the other hand, those who do own the land, leased for production by large agribusinesses, have very little say over the way their land is used, since to voice concerns would be to chase away their only source of income.

The author also addresses the gendered and racialized aspects of access to and participation in the benefits of the GM soy economy, showing that while women are often the more aware of the ills of the system, they are also the least likely to be acknowledged as legitimate critics, even while they lead the charge against it. She speaks with representatives of two anti-GMO movements, both led by women: the Grupo de Madres de Barrio Ituzaingó Anexo and the Asamblea Malvinas Lucha por la Vida. While both have won key legal battles over spraying and factory runoff, they have done so while being subjected to gender-based harassment and criticism, in spite of the fact that they have become self-taught experts in the science and medical implications of the GM soy model.

Part of the gender/racial divide, but not exclusive to it, is the concept of latent conflict, the objections to GM soy that are felt rather than voiced–or if they are spoken, it is only in private and at a whisper. It is a matter of gender in that it is often mothers and other female care providers who notice at close range the adverse effects of GM agriculture on their own children and other neighborhood residents. It is a gendered situation in that the relative social position of these women vis-à-vis their husbands/other men relegates their form of knowing–affective and embodied as opposed to scientific–to a lower level of reasoning.

While the argument from gender is no doubt correct, its formulation in some ways reveals the author’s own bias. This is especially true in the case of Mariana, a female agronomist, a scientist whose agreement with the way things are being done is automatically consigned to an unconscious acquiescence to a male way of thinking: Mariana is, categorically, “a masculinized subject” whose professional scientific opinion has, unbeknownst to her, been coopted by a masculine perception of GM soy that prevents her from forming a perspective of her own. The idea that this might be a legitimate point of view, arrived at on the basis of education and on-the-job experience, doesn’t seem to enter the equation.

This is an interesting standpoint when juxtaposed with the sections on women’s reasoning from intuition, and the author’s protests that arguments springing from that reasoning should be given more weight in the debate over GM soy. Ostensibly, Leguizamón seeks to underline and enhance the agency of women within this conversation, but in the case of Mariana, she is quite openly taking it away. This is not to say that Mariana’s opinion isn’t in some measure affected by her interactions with male colleagues, and Argentina’s labor market is by any measure blatantly sexist (and ageist). However, the author’s analysis in this case is slightly one-dimensional and skewed toward assumptions on the author’s part as to the agency of her female interlocutors.

There is a sort of conspiracy of silence surrounding the issue of GM soy, the domain of those the author refers to as “in between,” those who neither benefit the most from these agricultural processes (politicians, agribusiness companies) or suffer the most from the damage they may cause (the poor). Gender continues to be an issue insofar as many of those who participate are middle-class women whose social position depends entirely on their spouses. However, “in-betweenness” is a broader condition: anyone who benefits financially or socially from GM soy, from small-town shop owners to the technicians hired by agribusinesses to run their operations, may be included. These people are caught in a wider net of dependency that keeps them from speaking out: the threat of long-term harm–especially in ways that are imperceptible in the moment, such as chronic disease that develops slowly over time–is not as frightening as the threat of immediate loss of livelihood.

Leguizamón insists that the “in between” are not dupes; rather, they are consciously involved in what the author calls “synergies of power,” partnerships between policy makers and agribusiness owners that shift models of accumulation in favor of a relatively limited number of privileged players, while at the same time creating just enough collateral well-being for those below to give the impression of co-participation. It is the definition of trickle-down economics. The “in between,” for the author, are actually the engine that runs these “synergies of power”–the small landowners who lease out their property to agribusinesses, the technicians who work for those businesses, and so on. The problem is that the collateral benefits generally stop here; this intermediate level is impermeable, and anyone below it–namely the poor–will likely see only the harmful effects of the system. This is where the injustice named in the book’s subtitle creeps in: for the “in between,” participation in the system is a choice, however assymetrical, based on cost-benefit analysis, conscious or otherwise, whereas for the lower classes, it is simply a reality imposed from above, from which they have little or no freedom to abstain.

The use of GM soy and other crops is a complicated issue, as is any conversation having to do with the Argentine economy and the people who manage it. Here again, Leguizamón’s argument is a bit too one-sided. She does a very good job of demonstrating the harm that may arise from too great a focus on this particular agricultural practice but, having shown what not to do, a vacuum remains in terms of what should be done instead. In a country where finding an economic model that works long-term, even a little bit, has been historically difficult, this is not enough. A necessary evil may be evil, but it is still necessary, and to the pragmatists among us, that is often more than enough.

©2021 – Vance Woods

Review – Quino. Mafalda: Todas las tiras. México, D.F.: Lumen, 2011.

“Lo central es que, en vez de una visión ascendente y exitosa, Mafalda—la niña/joven—desenmascaraba las frustraciones, las dificultades—cuando no directamente las imposibilidades—que ese proceso de modernización sociocultural imponía a los varones y las mujeres de clase media: las limitaciones de los proveedores, las frustraciones de las madres y amas de casa, las impugnaciones de las nuevas generaciones al orden familiar.”

(“At the heart of the matter is the fact that instead of offering a vision of upward mobility and success, Mafalda—the girl/youth—laid bare the frustrations and difficulties—if not impossibilities—that the process of sociocultural modernization represented to middle-class men and women: the constraints on fathers’ ability to provide, the frustrations of mothers and housewives, the challenges of new generations to the established family order.”)

Isabella Cosse, Mafalda: historia social y política (2014)

A little girl sits on the stoop of her family’s apartment building in Buenos Aires. As she watches, a military officer walks past, carrying a briefcase. Then, a worker, hard hat on his head. Next, a priest in his cassock. Finally, a cat strolls by. The girl gets up and goes inside to find her mother. She asks, “Which sector of a democratic society do cats represent?”

And just like that, in five frames, Quino, the man behind Mafalda, crystallizes the political, social, and spiritual history of Argentina between 1930 and 1989: the military, the Church, and organized labor duking it out on the political stage while the middle class, represented by Mafalda, sat by and watched it all go down.

I bought my first Mafalda book when I was 16 years old and read it on my way home from my weekly rehearsal with the youth orchestra of the Universidad Nacional de Misiones. I was hooked from the start, and began purchasing one each time I’d saved the money, until I had all 10 of the individual volumes. My relationship with the orchestra was fleeting, and didn’t last past graduation from high school, but my relationship with Mafalda has endured, and will endure. After all these years, I can quote the strips verbatim, and even though I’ve read them a hundred times, each one still makes me laugh until I cry.

More than just “the funnies,” though, Mafalda and her friends are a window into the life of the Argentine middle class between 1964 and 1973. Published from 1964-65 in the magazine Primera Plana, from 1965-67 in the newspaper El Mundo, and then from 1967 to 1973 in the weekly Siete Días Ilustrados, Quino’s sophisticated political and social commentary, whose humor stems from its emergence from the mouths of babes, is nevertheless incredibly perceptive, highly observant, and sharp as the proverbial tack.

There is, of course, Mafalda herself, the younger, disruptive eyes of the average nuclear family in Buenos Aires, apartment dwellers, breadwinning male and domestic female. The central theme of the comic strip is the youngster’s attempts to understand the world around her, an effort which ironically takes place in tandem with her parents’ attempts to do the same. It is an ongoing dialectic in which the child serves to awaken the parents to just how much they themselves do not understand.

Later in the life of the strip, Quino gives birth to Guille, the little brother, and in many ways Mafalda’s Mafalda. In the same way that she acts as a conceptual check upon her parents, Guille challenges her own notions of what is right and how things work. Thus does Quino create a three-dimensional generation gap, parents and older and younger siblings playing off one another in order to understand the world around them, to the latter fresh and new, to the former changing unrecognizably fast, and equally confusing to all.

Then there’s the rest of the bunch: Felipito, Argentina’s Charlie Brown, the hopeful intellectual whose schemes and dreams generally blow up in his face; Manolito, petit bourgeois of the group, whose father immigrated from Spain and now owns a supposedly successful general store (although we only ever have the boy’s childish impressions as proof); Susanita, future housewife and present airhead, happily eager to surrender her autonomy to a socially respectable male provider, singlehanded epitome of all Argentine middle class prejudices and airs; Miguelito, a new Perón in the making, demagogue to Mafalda’s democrat, quick to pontificate but never quite able to close an argument; and Libertad, the last to join the gang, a tiny rebel with big ideas, Quino’s nod to the emerging radicalized left and a definite sign of complicated things to come.

Quino stopped writing Mafalda in 1973, on the cusp of Juan Perón’s return to the country and to power, arguing that the world was changing in ways that he didn’t know how to illustrate. The situation in Argentina was too raw and too real to allow for caricature, and in many ways it had left the little girl behind. In any case, censorship of the press was ramping up to new levels, and the sharpness of Quino’s political and social commentary might not have been as humored as it had been in the past. So, in a between-the-lines sort of way, the character’s disappearance stands as her final comment on the Argentine condition: she stopped talking because there was nothing more she could say.

Mafalda exists and engages the reader on a number of levels. First and foremost, it is fun and endearing; many people come to Mafalda, as I did, at a young age and enjoy it simply for its humor and loveable characters. As one progresses to an older demographic, the deeper meanings hidden within and behind the punch lines begin to emerge, and the reader realizes the true nature of Quino’s legacy. At its heart, Mafalda is a heuristic key to a nation, and the little girl and her friends a Greek chorus, presenting a humorous (and human) take on an often humorless (and inhumane) reality. As such, no library of Argentine history and society is complete if Mafalda is missing from its shelves.

©2021 – Vance Woods

Review – Luis Majul, Por qué cayó Alfonsín: El nuevo terrorismo económico: Los personajes; las conexiones; las claves secretas. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1990.

“La administración radical se despidió con la sensación de ser inoperante, ineficiente, e indiferente ante las necesidades de los más pobres. Algunos funcionarios fueron sospechados de corruptos, y la memoria colectiva se reserva el derecho de la duda. Pero también la primera etapa del gobierno de Carlos Menem se está empezando a teñir de esos presupuestos. ¿El Estado nacional es un instrumento para satisfacer el bienestar común o la palanca para que algunos funcionarios, muchas veces en complicidad con ciertos empresarios y sindicalistas coimeros, se enriquezcan con velocidad y sin esfuerzo?”

(“The Radical administration left in its wake a sense of its own dysfunction, inefficiency, and indifference to the needs of the poorest citizens. Some officials were suspected of corruption, and the collective memory reserves the right of doubt. But the first stage of Carlos Menem’s government is also beginning to be colored by these suppositions. Is the State supposed to be an instrument whereby the common welfare may be achieved, or is it meant only as a mechanism by means of which government officials, often in complicity with certain greasy-palmed businessmen and trade unionists, may enrich themselves quickly and without effort?”)

Luis Majul

Majul’s narrative, which reads like a dime store thriller, begins three days before “Black Monday,” February 6, 1989, and covers the tumultuous five-month period between that day and July 8, when Raúl Alfonsín ceded the presidency to newly elected Carlos Menem, six months before the end of the former’s official term.

The author gives a blow by blow account of the unfolding hyperinflationary crisis, from the initial surge in February, through the tribulations and fall from grace of two consecutive ministers of the economy, Juan Sourrouille and Juan Carlos Pugliese, the failure of the outgoing Radical and the incoming Peronist administrations to reach any sort of impartial accord regarding the handling of the ongoing crisis, and the social explosion that rocked the nation from late May into June, and finally to the passing of the presidential baton on July 8, in the Salon Blanco of the Casa Rosada.

At the center of the “biggest social and economic mess in the history of the nation” lies the eventual partnership between two countervailing forces: on one hand, the “exporter class,” whose refusal to convert their reserves from dollars to australes in order to bolster the local currency drove the value of the dollar ever higher; on the other, the Menem effect, the businessman’s fear of a Peronist hyper-regulatory government, which supposedly drained the economy of 4 billion dollars, money which might have been used by the Alfonsín administration to combat the crisis. In the event, the two forces coalesced in the so-called Menemtroika, and Bunge & Born, one of the chief offenders among the exporters, was placed in charge of Menem’s Ministry of Economy. The businessmen, who supposedly feared a Menem presidency too much to risk priming the austral, actually found themselves sheltered by his administration.

In any case, it is doubtful whether access to those 4 billion dollars would have done much to counteract the Alfonsín administration’s inability to curb the crisis. Alfonsín’s plans were effectively derailed by the midterm elections of 1987, which were swept by the Peronists, and by the time things came to a head in 1989, his main concern was to get out of the presidency with his reputation intact, and–if possible–to preside over the first democratic transition of power in 61 years. Consequently, talks during those final five months had less to do with economic solutions than with political survival. And thus, the crisis was kicked down the line.

The key moment, as far as Majul is concerned, is the failure of Operativo Retirada (Operation Retreat). This is the name given to the talks between Radicals and Peronists regarding an early and graceful departure from office for Alfonsín, which began immediately after Menem’s electoral victory on May 14. They are, according to Majul, “an overwhelming proof of the suicidal vocation and immaturity of the Argentine political leadership.” This is an opinion voiced by many in the years following the end of the Proceso in 1983; Argentine politicians were not used to functioning in a democratic environment, and had no idea how to include the welfare of the people in their equations of power. Menem’s demand for essentially plenipotentiary powers, which ironically was ultimately legitimated by the departing administration in the July accord, blew the conversation out of the water, and these negotiations, which should have acted as a social palliative, ended in stalemate as the rest of the country imploded.

The book includes 4 one-on-one interviews (“monologues”) set within the context of the crisis of 1989. First, Majul speaks to Juan Sourrouille, the minister responsible for the Plan Primavera, which the author describes as little more than an attempt to keep a lid on inflation for the duration of Alfonsín’s administration and let the “time bomb…go off in his successor’s face.” Then, there is a conversation with Carlos Menem, the successor, about the time bomb and how he dealt with having it thrown in his lap. Next, with a 14-year-old named Martín Laguna, who witnessed and participated in the social meltdown in May and June of 1989, defined by violent looting and equally violent repression. Finally, he speaks with Raúl Alfonsín himself, around the time his term was supposed to have ended, about the way and why things fell apart, and how the former president expects to be judged by history.

Majul concludes his work with a postscript dedicated to a “new creature,” a new Argentine who offers solutions to successive crises out of everyday experience, from the local and the micro, rather than seeking answers from above–a cult of individuality rather than of personality. This, to Majul, is essential: politics, labor, and business are so intertwined and each so closely implicated in the malfeasances of the others that it is virtually impossible for a workable and equitable solution to lie in that direction. It is an optimistic ending, envisioning a country kept afloat by the right action of its people when right action from its leaders cannot be depended upon. Thirty years and several crises after the fact, the reader can decide whether or not Majul’s observations are justified or merely wishful thinking.

©2021 – Vance Woods