The last time I was in Buenos Aires, I asked a couple of people out for dinner. Time was short, and I thought one night would suffice to meet them both. One was a middle-aged man and a professor in a prestigious University and the other a younger woman – an up-and-coming professional. In Argentina, there are two dominant themes of conversation: one is football and the other is politics. It wasn’t long before we stumbled into the latter. We were talking about the then new Argentine President, Mauricio Macri. The younger woman expressed the view that he was a welcome change from the left-wing Christina Kirchner and might get the economy moving in the right direction.
The reaction of the professor took me by surprise. The normally mild-mannered man exploded with anger. For him, Macri represented the same group of people that had run the country during the military dictatorship. Such were the sins of the Argentine Right during those years of dictatorship that they no longer deserved to be in high office. The dinner did not end well, and the woman was made to feel sufficiently uncomfortable that she took her leave early.
The professor and I stayed on for a few drinks after dinner, but I was a bit put out by the way he had behaved and asked him about the passion. It turned out that during the so-called “Dirty War” he discovered that his name was on a list of those to be disappeared and was forced to go underground for a couple of years in order to survive. During this time, he lost friends to the violence of the dictatorship. Over the dinner table, the Argentine past had exploded into the present. It happened 30 years ago, but wounds remain open and polite political discussions between the left and the right in Argentina remain the exception rather than the rule.
I am back in Buenos Aires again this week. It is one of the great cities of the world; a true mega city of some 15 million inhabitants. Its centre has the grandeur of a European capital. There is a famous cartoon where two Argentine women are walking down the Champs Elysees and one says to the other, “Every year Paris becomes more and more like Buenos Aires.” The main boulevards of the city are truly impressive and so wide you could squeeze in an Irish village. The architecture on show in the downtown area is breathtakingly beautiful and the same is true of the parks. This time of year, many of the trees are in bloom, giving the tree line a violet hue. Macri is still in power and the financial press express optimism that he will run again for office in 2019. In recent legislative elections his centre-right alliance, Cambiemos did well and Macri has an approval rating of some 47%.
All is not well though. The urban landscape gives one a sense of why Argentina’s problems are so entrenched. I took a bus out of the city earlier this week. One leaves behind the modernist architecture of the city centre and passes quickly into the run-down port district, then it takes us nearly an hour to pass through the poorer suburbs of Buenos Aires. As one exits the city, we enter another Argentina; a vast flat rural landscape. This is, in many respects, a divided country and it always has been; between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural.
Yet at the same time, this is a country with a long tradition of liberal education, where the arts and literature enjoy a great deal of prestige. The city is home to the University of Buenos Aires, which has 300,000 registered students. In the economics faculty alone, there are 40,000 students on the books. Despite the repeated economic crises, third level education remains free and not only to Argentine citizens, but also to young people from across South America. It is a remarkable gesture of generosity and social solidarity, as well as being proof of a continued belief in the power of education to transform.
There are a lot of paradoxes in Argentina. It is fractious, but there is also a lot of social cohesion on show. The Argentines are good talkers and social niceties are important here. Displays of physical intimacy are commonplace and there appears to be a good deal of genuine affection. One realises this when recalling the image of that monstrous front row, arms wrapped around one another, bawling crying during the national anthem, before going to give Ireland a proper rugby lesson at the last World Cup. Then again, so does Diego Maradona. Across my desk here, he is on the front page of today’s newspaper La Nacion, pictured alongside Vladimir Putin. The two bad boys laughing together.
Depending on your point of view, Macri is trying to do one of two things. One narrative is that he is trying to reform the country so that Argentina can at last live up to its potential, allowing its abundant talent to flourish. Alternatively, these reforms, so popular with international investors, will undermine the social cohesion evident in the country and will degrade the social capital that still exists here. The narrative in the right wing press here – portraying Macri as someone trying to save the nation from itself – is almost as old as the country itself. Elites in Argentina have, for a couple of centuries, been trying to discipline the country – to bring it into line. It is one of the wonders of Argentina that they have never succeeded.
If I may make a recommendation for anyone wishing to get to know Argentina a bit better, Juan Jose Campella’s movie El Secreto de Sus Ojos (the Secret of Their Eyes) is a great place to start.