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

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