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!

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 – 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