Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The mysterious politics of Argentina

This illuminating commentary is from my friend Brian Kantt, an instructor at B.A. Plus language school in Buenos Aires:
"I'd just like to point out two facts you may find useful to know, which are kind of funny and tragic at the same time.

"When Néstor Kirchner ran for president against Carlos Menem in 2003, he didn't actually beat him. There was a second election ("ballotage") because none of the candidates had got the minimum of 45 percent to win the first election (as required by the Argentine law). The ballotage was between Kirchner and Menem, since they were the two candidates who had got more votes on the first round. A few days before the election, Menem analyzed the polls and realized he had no chance to win – not because people actually liked Kirchner as much as because they hated Menem so much – so he withdrew from the election to "save his honor" and not have to face a defeat. This automatically made Kirchner president, with less than 20 percent of the country's population having voted for him. (I remember many people didn't even actually know who he was before this).

"The other thing is that in this past Sunday's elections, Kirchner didn't actually want to get a seat as a Representative. (This would of course be "too little" for someone with such a big ego). What he and Buenos Aires governor Daniel Scioli did, is what we call "candidatura testimonial." This means that they run for Representatives at the top of the list, only to get people to vote for them (making use of their image), but when they get elected, they resign and pass the seat to the next person on the list. They said they'd do that from the beginning, even before the election. So, without meaning to sound disrespectful, you can imagine what the people who vote for them's brains are like.

"Weird facts, right? Welcome to Argentinean politics."

Power shift

For those of you who are checking in via Google Reader, drop by the actual blog to see the election-day slide show above. Thanks.

On Sunday, Argentina had legislative elections – half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and a third of the seats in the Senate. Despite being midterm elections, this was a pretty big deal because there was an important shift in power. Until yesterday, Argentina was operating under a situation similar to what's going on in the United States. The majority in the legislature was the same party as the president, just like we have a Democrat majority in Congress and a Democrat in the White House.

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is a Peronist, which was the same the party started by Argentina's sweetheart Evita and her husband Juan Perón. Before Cristina (who is, coincidentally, the country's first elected female president) became president in 2007, her husband, Néstor Kirchner, served in the office for a term after disgraced ex-President Carlos Menem withdrew from the run-off race in 2003.

But on Sunday, Argentines made it clear they want to take a different path than the one they've been on for the last nine years. Néstor Kirchner lost the race for a Senate seat in the province of Buenos Aires, and for the first time in recent memory, power will have to be shared between the executive and legislative branches.

Not only does this mean a difference in the political atmosphere of the country, but it also means the beginning of a possible departure away from Peronist politics, as Néstor Kirchner is currently the president of the party.

One of my friends, Cierra Obioha, wanted to go out and cover the election like the motivated reporter she is, so she asked me to tag along and produce the pictures while she did the interviews. Our project should be up soon. I'll post a link when it is.

In the meantime, here's a fun story. After getting pictures of the Casa Rosada and the Palacio del Congreso, I was walking toward the Subte station so I could go home after reporting all day. I was walking by the Hotel Bauen when I noticed a hive of activity outside. I figured it was probably where a candidate was going to give their post-election victory or defeat speech, and kept walking.

But then I decided to go back and find out who exactly it was, just in case it was Kirchner (because that would have been sweet). I asked a photographer, who was smoking outside, what was going on. It turned out I was right, but it wasn't Kirchner's hotel. Instead, the hotel was the victory bunker of Pino Solanas, an Argentine film director who was running on the Proyecto Sur ticket. I told the photographer that I was a studying journalism, and trying to make small talk, joked that I should have tried to get a press pass.

"Well, you should go in and ask for one," he said, point with his cigarette toward the inside the hotel.

So I walked inside, asked where the press table was, and waited to talk to one of the organizers. I explained that I was studying journalism and interning in Buenos Aires for the summer, and I asked if there was any way I could get press credentials. She asked me where I was interning.

"We've already got someone here from Terra," she said. "But, what's your name?"

And then she filled out a press pass for me and turned me loose on the hotel. Success.

Recommended reading:
Argentina's legislative election: Double or quits | The Economist

Friday, June 26, 2009

Workers taking charge: The fábricas recuperadas movement in Argentina

In my class "Challenges faced by the media in Argentina," we just turned in our first essay. We were given a variety of topics: Media outlets in Argentina, the national debt, etc. I chose to write mine on a pretty fascinating documentary we watched about worker-controlled factories in Argentina.

To watch the The Take (2004) in English, click here.

Not the most scintillating read, I know, but here’s the essay I wrote (with links!), if anyone’s interested:


Desperation can make people take crazy, unpredictable forms of action. Losing your job in the middle of a national economic crisis and consequently not being able to provide food and financial security for your wife and young children is an undeniably desperate situation.

But it was in this situation that Freddy Espinoza, an Argentine factory worker, found himself. So, he and the other 29 former employees of Forja, an auto-parts factory in Buenos Aires, decided to do something drastic. They kept working anyway, filling orders and meeting the needs of the company’s existing clients while the owners of the factory were frantically scrambling to save their own personal assets.

And they actually found initial success. It was all part of a growing socioeconomic movement that was first implemented in Argentina in 2001 by workers for such companies as Zanon Ceramics (now called FaSinPat) and Brukman Textile Factory, who refused to continue working under the authority of the factory’s owners since they hadn’t been paid in over two weeks.

Work life and home life began to overlap for the workers at Forja. They started eating, sleeping, cooking and spending their free time in the factory. They just wanted to take care of themselves and their families with a steady income. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t as simple as making a declaration of ownership. Espinoza and his companions quickly found that they needed to win the legal right to continue operating their factory and enjoying its profits. In order to do this, they had to convince a battalion of law enforcement, politicians and judges that they were the ones who deserved to control the factory. These public officials seemed to teeter-totter on the fulcrum of unpredictability, able to either make or break the workers’ movement depending on a whim.

As if the capriciousness of the courts and elected officials wasn’t enough of a hurdle, the fábricas recuperadas ("recovered factories") movement also had to weather the storm of the upcoming presidential elections. Only a few months earlier, Argentina’s presidents during the crisis—the country went through five of them in two weeks!—had been the targets of massive disapproval. Argentines shouted “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“They all must go!”) But suddenly the very people who were unceremoniously booted out of leadership were back, vying for the country’s highest executive position. Inconceivably, the candidate leading the polling predictions was Carlos Menem, the maestro of the economic collapse. He had been president already twice before, and he had been disgracefully forced into exile after the end of his second term. The ringleader was back, and it looked as though he might win. If that happened, the desperate effort of the Forja workers would be sunk, as Menem would have almost certainly restored control of the factories to the owners.

Sometimes, though, desperate actions pay off. In a terrifically lucky break for Espinoza, his coworkers and the rest of the fábricas recuperadas movement, Menem pulled out of the race, and legislation was approved allowing occupied factories to continue operating under worker control.

For an American viewer of The Take (2004), the documentary that tells Espinoza´s story, the concept of worker-controlled factories has the potential to be abrasive. The socialist fábricas recuperadas movement is definitely not new to Argentina or South America, and its most recent manifestation has ties to a similar movement in Venezuela. Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, supports the movements, and he isn’t exactly the recipient of positive press coverage in the United States, so it may be understandable why an American viewer might be a little skeptical about the idea.

Regardless of any artificial connotations that may exist today, socialism at its heart is “a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange, should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Right now in the U.S., “socialism” is a something of a dirty word, hurled around by conservatives who accuse the country from departing from its roots of privatization and capitalism by electing Barack Obama as president.

However, maybe it’s time for Americans to take a break from denunciation and spend more time observing the attempts of other countries to find a profitable path in today’s economic turbulence. It is undeniable that this movement of worker-occupied factories has played an extremely important role in revolutionizing Argentina’s political and economic thinking. The struggle of Argentina’s heretofore well-to-do middle class to hoist itself out of the mire of the country’s 2001 economic collapse has meant that people are willing to experiment with new economic ideas after the failure of their previous system, which closely mirrored the methods of the United States and the rest of the “Western” world.

Instead, the workers at Forja, Brukman and other employee-controlled enterprises are trying a different kind of approach. Though each factory comes up with its own set of rules for self-governance, many take the same tack that Forja settled upon: One worker, one vote and one standard salary for everyone. Whatever the majority decides is what the factory does, and an individual worker must become accustomed to winning, losing, and carrying on anyway. It’s a strange mix of socialistic democracy on the small scale, and it appears to be working beautifully, at least so far.

The workers’ slogan of “Occupy, Resist and Produce” is a clear example of how Argentina is reinventing itself to become more viable in a world economy. What will be interesting to see is how the most recent global crisis will affect the country’s still nascent fábricas recuperadas movement. If it can survive this second wave of worldwide economic deterioration, it may demand more serious, open-minded scrutiny from its detractors who were too quick to condemn its inception. At the very least, Argentina ought to be respected for its “try-anything” mentality. As we have seen consistently throughout history (for example: the signing of the Magna Carta, or the revolution in Cuba, or now the struggle for democracy in Iran) desperation causes countries and individuals to examine other options and launch new experiments, many of which are often met with success—though that’s a word that admittedly means different things for different people.

Based on what’s happened so far, the fábricas recuperadas movement can neither be condemned as socialistic evil nor hailed as a solution to the world’s economic problems. For now, it seems that the rest of the world must sit back and watch the experiment.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gender roles in a machismo culture

For the last few weeks, I´ve been taking photos for Artemisa Noticias, an organization that dedicates itself to news and activism regarding gender issues in Argentina.

Artemisa recently released a documentary called "La Mujer Mediatizada" about how women are portrayed in Argentine media. (It can be seen in its entirety here, but you´ll need to understand Spanish.) Its major findings were that the death of a woman is not given the same media coverage as the death of a man, and that crimes committed by women are often written off as "crimes of passion." Additionally, despite the fact that the number of women pursuing a journalism education is higher than the number of men, this is not reflected in the amount of women who hold leadership positions in journalistic workplaces. (It may be of interest to note that the two editors I´m working for and the two teachers I´m studying under are all women, but that´s is just been my limited experience.)

There is no denying, however, that Argentina has a very heavy machismo culture--which is to say that life here can be very male-chauvanistic. So for that reason, it´s interesting to see a group of women (even if it is a localized one) fighting hard to propel their movement.

It´s been educating, even if a little disorienting at times--like the event I covered last night at La Casa del Encuentro, which was housed in the colorful upstairs of a rickety old building. It felt a lot like a clubhouse for women only, maybe because of the strongly-worded feminist literature tacked on the walls and the fact that both of its bathrooms were adorned with the female symbol.

In any event, the photo assignments have been challenging because the three events I´ve covered have featured people sitting around and talking. And the lighting has been extremely sketchy, which results in grainy images. But Artemisa wants pictures of the women presenting the material, so I guess they´re getting what they want.

Cierra Obioha, a recent graduate of Mizzou´s broadcasting sequence, has also been coming to Artemisa´s events. You can find her commentary here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

There's Spanish, and then there's Castellano

It´s one thing to speak Spanish in the context of an hour-long class a few times a week. It´s another to live in another language. It´s been said before, and I´ll repeat: The best (and perhaps the only) way to become fluent is to live immerse yourself in another language. And that means getting as far away from other languages as possible.

Once you´re cut off from what´s familiar, you reach a whole new level of communication. You can´t ask your teacher, "Como se dice 'county?' " You have to talk your way around it until what you mean becomes clear. And sometimes you just have settle for a shrug and a confused look.

And in Buenos Aires, it´s not quite the Spanish I learned in high school and college. The plethora of Italian, Spanish, German and other immigrants coalesced to create a weird manifestation of a language that is distinctly different from all other Spanish-speaking countries. From quirky pronunciation (the "ll" sound is more of a "zh" here) to slang words (it wouldn´t be uncommon in some places to hear the Lunfardo "morfar" instead of "comer"), it´s almost like its own language. And they call it Castellano.

The accent is incredible. It borrows some of its sounds from the Portuguese of Brazil, and for anyone who's seen "City of God," it's a treat to hear. And it's distinct; once you start speaking Castellano, it's clear to any Spanish-speaker that you learned in Argentina.

It´s difficult, but it´s rewarding I suppose. I haven´t noticed a night-and-day improvement in my speaking abilities since I got here. On the contrary, I often get frustrated because (obviously) I can´t express myself in Castellano as well I can in English. And despite the fact that people tell me I speak well, I´m noticing more mistakes than ever...a lot of them with things like gender agreement. But maybe the fact that I´m noticing is the improvement.

I´m lucky to have housemates that like to talk. There have been many nights so far where we´ve sat around with Vanesa, Liliana and Marcela making empanadas or tomando mate and talking about everything from politics to weekend vacation destinations to futbol (and the time everyone in Argentina shed tears and buried their faces in their soon-to-be-soaked pillows when they a lost game to the U.S.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

There's a shortage of fathers in the world, and there are even fewer good ones. That's why it blows my mind that I've got one of them. Unfortunately, fathers rarely get the credit they deserve. But this, Father's Day, is the weak attempt of us children to acknowledge all that they've done for us.

But maybe it's a good thing – experiencing such un-repayable service and sacrifice – because it teaches us what's required to be good fathers. I know that I'm exceptionally blessed to have my dad, who has given so much sweat, money, time, and counsel (and I'm sure he's experience much consternation) to provide me with all the opportunities he could. While it's important to express my gratitude often and sincerely, perhaps the only true way to repay what he's invested is by passing it on.

A good man is hard to find. I love you, Dad. Thanks for everything.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Google Maps

I'm obviously late on the scene, but Google Maps' "My Maps" feature is incredible. I've been playing with it continuously since I got here, creating customized placemarks to keep track of everything from restaurants to museums to Subte stations. The map I've designed for my Buenos Aires 2009 stay is designed to be a collection of places where I spend a lot of time or sites that I'm interested in visiting.

Beyond helping me realize how incredible modern cartography is, my first foray into personal map-making has helped me navigate and get to know the city much better than I would have if I had just looked at a hard copy. I think that if I approached Columbia or my hometown in the same way, I'd learn a lot more about the city...and maybe even have a keener eye for out-of-the-way dives that have so far gone unnoticed.

One of neatest aspects (for me) is that I can share the map with family and friends to give them a better picture of my environment, and I can even use it to make recommendations to those who might be planning to travel in the same area.

And the best part is that it's a living creation, always growing as I visit and hear about new places. If you're interested in taking a closer look at where I've been and where I'm going, ask me for a link.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Watch out, Buenos Aires!

I've been here for just over two weeks so far, getting comfortable with the area, learning the lay of the land. Buenos Aires is certainly an intriguing city. It's hard to know who is porteño (the term for BsAs residents, "people of the port") and who isn't because the city is such a melting pot. Everyone's from somewhere else, it seems. Before I got here, I heard it called the Paris of South America. I don't know if I would necessarily say that, but it's definitely got character.

We live in Palermo Soho, a middle class neigbhorhood. Not the richest, but certainly a far cry from blue-collar, sometimes ghetto-ish La Boca. It's an old house, and it's deceptively spacious for its modest grey stone exterior. We share the house with Liliana, the owner; Marcela, a student; Vanesa, a pediatrician; and until this previous Monday, Cliff, the host of Wild Outdoor Adventures.

And now, a walk-through. To read brief snippets explaining the layout, click the "captions" option in the lower right-hand corner.

One of the first things I noticed upon getting settled in was that Facebook had turned into Spanish. But the upside of that is that now I know how to say words like "tagged" or "wall-to-wall." Valuable information to know. The other most glaring difference about porteño culture is the schedule. It is laaaate. I read in Lonely Planet that it's best not to show up for nighttime activities before 2 to 3 a.m., but it took a couple of 1 a.m. walks by restaurants and seeing them full of people – even the more elderly citizens – to realize that LP's advice was no joke. Things really don't get off the ground here until the wee morning hours, which has meant that most of my interaction with the city has been under cover of darkness.

For the first couple of weeks, we were in language classes four hours a day preparing ourselves to be thrust without fanfare into the workplace. Our introduction to Argentinan journalism comes this week as we start our internships and jump into classes.