March 31, 2013

Argentina's disappeared: never forgotten

The terrible events of Argentina's dirty war remain close to everyday life. Criminal proceedings continue to this day. Mothers continue to seek the truth about what happened to their children. The stolen children are being sought, and in some cases, found.

Pagina|12, a  daily newspaper, runs memorial adverts that regularly appear in its pages. Placed by friends and family on the day their son or daughter, or uncle, or mother... disappeared, they are memorials and warnings both; that this will not be forgotten, justice will prevail.

Young men and women, often students, or workers, or teachers, or ...

Sometimes grandmothers, whose only crime might have been to rent a room to someone under suspicion.

The ads, usually in the lower left hand corner of an inside page, remind us, almost everyday.

In this advert, the young couple are Silvina and Daniel, detained in Cordoba in 1976. Silvana was six and one half months pregnant at the time of the arrest. In all likelihood, she was kept alive until giving birth when her child was then adopted, and she was dumped from a plane into the ocean.

Memoria, verdad y justicia
Memory, truth and justice

March 30, 2013

It's Canada, eh?

Sadly, it had to come to an end. Three winter months in the Yukon at the end of 2012 (see the Dawson  City Journal) followed by almost three summer months in Argentina. Two extremes:
in temperature and in lifestyle, as typified in the photos to the right and below, both taken at "high noon."

We arrived in Buenos Aires at the height of summer and watched as the season slowly changed to autumn. Returning to Vancouver we were met by the last elements of winter. Across Canada late spring snow storms caused travel problems and even here in Vancouver we awoke one morning to a light dusting of snow.

But it is spring on the west coast and it's a beautiful place. The trees are beginning to bloom, the flowers are coming up, the kites are flying in Steveston and we are at the beginning of a provincial election campaign! It's about time.

As for The Murray Chronicles: watch this space for more photos and stories of Argentina, Australia and closer to home! It's Canada, eh?

March 29, 2013

Film Review: No

There is a great deal of irony in this entertaining film from director Pablo Larrain. Based on the unpublished play El Plebiscito by Antonio Skarmeta, No follows our hero, the young marketing and advertising whiz kid  Rene, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, as he works his madmen magic. His magic is needed to help the No campaign in the historic plebiscite held in Chile in 1988.

Under international pressure, Augusto Pinochet, who came to power on September 11, 1973 in a CIA sponsored coup, decided to have a referendum to decide whether or not he should rule for another eight years. Democracy, planned and managed, is promised. The ballot choice is simple: Yes to eight more years of Pinochet, or... No.

Both sides in the campaign are allowed fifteen minutes of television time each night to present their case. Chile has been under a repressive regime for fifteen years; the opposition is fragmented, and the generals and the elite otherwise hold all media power. Except for fifteen minutes each night for twenty-seven nights.

In the film, the veterans of the anti-Pinochet movement want to focus on the brutality of the past fifteen years, the disappeared and state-sponsored terrorism. Our hero is unmoved. He proposes something "a little nicer." His solution: singing, dancing, comedy, sunshine, rainbows and a contagious little jingle. Rene is selling a product, like any soft drink, and that product is happiness.

The film is produced in beautiful Low-Def using two centimetre Sony U-Matic video tape, the same system widely used by television news in Chile during the 1980s, and it meshes brilliantly with the real circa 1988 video of protests and repression. The movie is visually appealing and the hand-held camera scenes add to this travel-back-in-time film. The documentary feel created by the low-def production values only enhances the artistic magic of the film.

The film  has received mixed reviews in Chile. Genaro Arriagado Herrera directed the No campaign and accused the film's director of simplifying history and focusing exclusively on the television ad campaign while ignoring the critical role grass roots voter registration played in actually getting out the No vote. The director responded by saying that yes, the film is a fiction, based on real events, including the brilliant ad campaign, complete with rainbows as in the poster from 1988.

There is great truth to Arriagado's accusation; in some ways the movie, though clearly showing the brutal nature of the Pinochet's junta, trivializes the dictatorship and its power. Chile at the time was not an open society where people could criticize the government. To vote in a plebiscite took great courage, and significant organisation to get out the vote regardless of the presence of international observers. The television ad campaign was certainly helpful, and important, but the courage and determination of both organisers and the citizenry was paramount in winning the vote.

Still, the movie is fun and highly entertaining. By the end of the movie we want to clap our hands together in time to that infectious little jingle, the same one used in 1988. The film celebrates the victory of the No side and so do we.

And in brilliant irony, the movie's final scene, after the massive celebration, takes us to another place, an advertising pitch for a new campaign, a new product, and we are forced to wonder if we should be celebrating the moment when political activism turns into marketing - rather than an open discussion of values and principles.

Lift yourself up. Watch No. 

See the movie trailer 
and learn more about the film at the following link:

Copyright 2013 by Jim Murray.

March 27, 2013

A final walk through el Rosedal

It was our final day in Buenos Aires and a beautiful autumn day indeed with a morning temperature approaching twenty and, as usual in BA, a clear sky. It was a great day for a walk through our favourite park.

The park is relatively quiet now. Summer is over and portenos are back to work and the kids are in school. The dog walkers are still busy of course, and one can hear the voices of tourists from Brasil and Chile, though less often than before.

This is a large urban park system covering many hectares and it's right in our neighbourhood. Since we arrived in January, it became a wonderful place to stroll in the evenings as the sun went down and the air cooled, or to take an early morning walk before the heat of the day.

The park changed with the season. The colours are different now, as are the floral scents. Jardin de Rosedal is still beautiful and we always spend time in this part of the park.

Rosedal is a relaxing oasis in this busy city, and though I have been tempted, I never climbing the tree.

March 26, 2013

Papa Francisco si ~ Palace no!

Pope Francis, the humble priest from Argentina, has announced he will not be moving into the vast Vatican palace normally used as the official papal residence. Instead he will stay in two rooms at the Vatican's guesthouse. While Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he refused to move into the Bishop's Palace, and with this action, Francis breaks a tradition over a century old.

Today the Vatican advised that the new pontiff will remain in the 120 room guesthouse, which isn't all that shabby either apparently, and stay among other members of the clergy and Vatican staff "until further notice."

The Pope will continue to take his meals in the common dining room and celebrate 7:00 a.m. mass with his employees in the guesthouse's main chapel.

The new pope is the son of working class immigrants to Argentina and has long maintained a preferential option for the poor. The option was first expressed by the Spanish priest Pedro Arrupe in 1968 in his letter to the Jesuits of Latin America. The concept is connected with the liberation theology movement of the mid 20th century which was first articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez, from Peru, in the landmark book: A Theology of Liberation (1971).

Recently Pope Francis shunned church protocol and tradition,and quite possibly stunned Vatican insiders, by choosing simpler and less costly alternatives to clothes and accessories in his role as pontiff.

Had he not been elected pope on March 13, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, would be leading Easter services at the Cathedral in downtown BA, as shown in photos above and right. His message, whether in Roma or Buenos Aires,  will likely be the same.

Pope walking photo by Antonello Nusca/Polaris

A word about garbage - and cartoneros

Garbage is a problem for urban areas around the world. City governments burn the stuff or haul it many kilometres away (it's always better in someone else's backyard). Many cities encourage composting and recycling and Canadian cities are often seen as star players in that field. In BA, they tried recycling a few years ago. It didn't work.

In some areas of this city there exists wealthy neighbourhoods where garbage is not a factor. By that I mean that there is some level of discreet removal of garbage from the neighbourhood.

Throughout most of this wonderful city however garbage collects on the streets. Usually at intersections, but not always. In front of cafes, restaurants, apartments, churches and businesses; it doesn't matter. Some areas have large dumpsters which eliminates some of the unsightliness of the whole thing, except for the dumpster itself of course.

In other areas, like our neighbourhood for example, and ours is not a poor barrio by any means, refuse is usually left at corners, or along the street. Portenos are not unruly or messy with their garbage; most often it is deposited neatly kerbside in plastic bags.

Garbage trucks seem to roam the city at all hours of the day and night, picking up garbage left by individuals and businesses alike. But for much of the day, and this goes on nearly every day, the garbage collects.

As the sun sets thousands of cartoneros (literally: cardboard persons) descend on the city, from poorer barrios in the Province, and sift through the garbage. These cartoneros are displaced from the economic life of the nation. In some instances they were middle class and educated people, perhaps former teachers, factory workers or business people, who have fallen into a desperate poverty. Cartoneros look for anything of value. They open the garbage bags and sift through them, sorting the garbage into categories: plastic drink boxes for example, glass and cardboard for another. They work at night, quietly and efficiently, filtering the garbage, taking what they can use or sell, and, for the most part, neatly leaving the rest in the original plastic bags for the official garbage trucks.

The large canvas bags are used by cartoneros to haul their stuff to various middlemen or depots to be sold. The canvas bags are placed on carros (wagons on wheels).

Cartoneros exist around the world and are known by different names. In Canada we have binners, dumpster divers and bottle collectors (which seems a gentler and less offensive term, though the work is the same).

Here in Buenos Aires, their numbers have been estimated to be as high as 40,000. Recent estimates suggest a number nearer 10,000 but no one knows for certain. In BA cartoneros usually work in family groups, including young children, which is a serious concern for the government. Efforts have been made by Federal and City governments to formalize the process and improve conditions for the collectors, but progress has been slow. Some now work in a cooperative and that has improved situations remarkably. No one doubts the value cartoneros provide the city through their recycling efforts, and residents in my neighbourhood certainly seem respectful, but this is dangerous and difficult work, and it is disturbing to witness. No one should have to sift through my garbage.

March 25, 2013

Honouring writers

Throughout Buenos Aires, and indeed across Argentina, there are many statues of important persons. Some are famous leaders of a military, political or religious background. Some are quite large and imposing.

In el Rosedal, the famous and wonderful rose garden in Palermo, there are fifteen busts honouring writers: poets, authors and playwrights from around the world.

There are a number, including, Casona and Shakespeare, among others.

And she isn't even dead yet.

March 24, 2013

Pope Francis is a hands-on kind of guy

According to La Nacion, the Pope cancelled his newspaper subscription, personally.

Archbishop Bergoglio was a regular patron of a newspaper kiosk in central Buenos Aires. Six days a week he picked up his copy of La Nacion early every morning, usually before six.

Around 1:30 p.m. on March 18, Daniel Del Regno, the kiosk owner’s son, answered the phone and heard a voice say, “Hi Daniel, it’s Cardinal Jorge.” He thought that maybe a friend who knew that the former archbishop of Buenos Aires bought the newspaper from them every day was pulling a prank on him. He reprimanded the caller.

“Seriously, it’s Jorge Bergoglio, I’m calling you from Rome,” the pope insisted.

“I was in shock, I broke down in tears and didn’t know what to say,” Del Regno told La Nacion. “He thanked me for delivering the paper all this time and sent best wishes to my family.”

Daniel Del Regno said he had asked Cardinal Bergoglio before he left for Rome if he thought he would be elected in the secret conclave.

"He answered me: 'That is too hot to touch. See you in 20 days, keep delivering the paper.'

The former archbishop had booked a return ticket to Buenos Aires where he was expecting to lead Easter services next weekend.

The Pope is also reported to have demanded he pay his Rome hotel room in person, rather than have Vatican staff do it for him. It's a nice touch, this humble man-of-the-people, hands-on thing, and great imaging. Future book sales will be fantastic.

Photos from La Nacion 

The junta takes control: March 24, 1976

On this day in 1976, a military coup took place in Argentina. The democratically elected Peronist government headed by Isabel Peron was deposed and a military junta installed. The coup had been in the planning for about six months and American agencies had advance knowledge of the event.

At one in the morning, on this day, the President was arrested. By three in the morning all broadcast media were under the junta's control and marching music was played until the official communique was read:
People are advised that from this date, the country is under the operational control of the Joint Chiefs General of the Armed Forces. We recommend to all citizens the strict compliance to the provisions and directives emanating from the military, security or police authorities, and to avoid all individual or group activities that will precipitate drastic intervention from the operating staff.
 (signed) General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier Orlando Ramon Agosti.
People awoke to the news later in the morning. On the front page of Clarin, Argentina's most popular newspaper, people were advised that everything is totally normal. The banner headline reads: The military has taken the government.
Although political repression began before the coup, it gained momentum in the months and years following. At the end of the dictatorship in 1982, over 30,000 citizens were disappeared. In addition, perhaps as many as five hundred children, born to disappeared women, who were kept alive only for the purpose of giving birth, were adopted by members and friends of the military junta.    

In 2002 the federal government declared March 24 the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice. The day  became a national public holiday in 2006 and is marked by major official events and massive demonstrations throughout the country.                                                   

March 23, 2013

Policia - always nearby

Many years ago I visited Colombia. In fairness it was a different time and Colombia was a different place, then. In Colombia I came to fear the police. They were young and arrogant and always fingering the triggers on their sub-machine guns. And they liked to hassle young gringos, like me, then. That fact and witnessing a bunch of uniformed police storm into a bar and take a man into the street and beat him senseless, turned me off South American police for a while.

Here in Buenos Aires, the presence of the police is now comforting to me. To have a police officer walking the beat every block or two throughout this large city is refreshing and appreciated. In Buenos Aires there is almost always an officer nearby. There are problems, and indeed I have heard stories of corruption and brutality, but I have also seen the almost-friendly face of the same officer on my street corner for nearly three months. There is a comfort in that consistency. Once in a while we greet each other, and sometimes he smiles. When there is a problem of some sort, usually for a local shopkeeper, he is involved, and as near as I can tell, in a helpful manner. He was not keen to have his photo taken. Nor was the Riot Squad, but that's another story.

Policing in Buenos Aires is in transition, from a Federal force, to that of what we would call a municipal or regional force. The Policia Federal Argentina, or PFA, operates throughout the entire country, but mainly in the Federal Capital. Its ranks include over 25,000 officers. The Policia Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, was created in 2010 after lengthy political discussion and argument between the Federal and  City Governments. It is slowly taking over the policing responsibility for Buenos Aires Ciuadad. Today there are about 1900 in its ranks, and that number will reach about 17,000 when the transition is complete. The model for this new force is Britain's Metropolitan Police, and it is expected to be, if the funding is available, a well trained force using the latest in technology and adopting a zero tolerance policy for abuses within its ranks. The PFA will apparently continue as a national force, albeit a reduced force, possibly along the lines of the American FBI.

While there are many officers, both male and female, walking the beat in Buenos Aires, others sometimes appear on horses, some on bicycles or motorcycles, and of course, in cars. For reasons unfathomable to me, and to my queries unanswered, police cars always have their blue lights flashing. It seems to be standard police procedure in Argentina. They aren't in a hurry and they don't seem to be going anywhere in particular. There certainly aren't any donut shops in this city. It's as if they want to warn people, perhaps even the very people they might actually want to apprehend or catch in some kind of illegal activity, of their approach. Or maybe this is another example of walking the beat; showing a presence, being accountable and available. And if that's the case, it's a good thing. It might even be good policing.

March 21, 2013

Book Review: The Purchase by Linda Spalding

Why do we have such a fondness for the past when it is so damn horrible? That is one of my thoughts on reading The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

Spalding has crafted a wonderful read with this book. There is great attention to historical detail and the story is truly mesmerizing, yet the past of this story is a dark and unforgiving place indeed.

The story begins in 1798 when Daniel Dickinson and his young family are exiled from their Quaker community in Pennsylvania. Daniel's wife has died and he has married their fifteen year old servant, which doesn't go over too well with the leaders of the community. He moves his young family to Virginia with hopes  for a new life and an attempt to master his pride. Despite his hard work, humanity and compassion, he struggles with what seems to be a never ending set of failures.

The book's title comes from an incident early in the story, when Daniel accidentally, though purposefully, breaks with his Quaker tradition and faith, and buys a young slave boy. As the story unfolds, his eldest daughter Mary claims more of the narrative, her life becoming entwined with a slave woman.

Recalling Cormac McCarthy's The Road, there is much darkness, brutality and tragedy in this story. However, unlike McCarthy's spartan writing style, Spalding's prose is rich and full, biblical and lyrical. While hard to put down, this is not a comfortable book to read; there is a sense of recognition that forces the reader to note, not only the injustice of the past, but with great unease, the injustice of the present.

Rich, raw and powerful in its exploration of faith, family, loss and freedom, The Purchase is a terrific book and not to be missed.

Published in September 2012 by McClelland & Stewart, The Purchase was the 2012 winner of the Governor General's Literary Awards for Fiction.

las Malvinas ~ The Falklands ~ always good for diverting attention

In Argentina every child learns that those islands off the Atlantic coast are called las Malvinas and not The Falklands. They learn that these islands belong to Argentina and that the United Kingdom stole the islands during a war of aggression in the early 1980s.

April 2 is a public holiday in Argentina: Dia de los Caides en la Guerra de las Malivinas, a day to pay tribute to their fallen soldiers in a war that started on the same day in 1982. It began with a simple military occupation and ended 74 days later with over 900 dead (649 Argentines, 255 British and 3 islanders).

The disaster of the war led to massive demonstrations against the military throughout Argentina and ultimately hastened the junta's downfall and a return to democracy in 1983.

Throughout the country there are monuments to the fallen Argentine heroes of the war, and plaques in public buildings and shopping centres alike. Street art often addresses the Malvinas too, usually in highly patriotic fashion.

The issue of the Malvinas often comes up in the politics of Argentina. The nationalism invoked is seen by some as a diversion from more important issues facing the country. Lately President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has been trumpeting the Malvinas line, including asking the new Pope for some sort of holy intervention.

While Argentine citizens would probably agree the islands do belong to Argentina, nobody would charge off to another war, or expend energy of any kind to get the islands back. There are more important issues facing this country. Including the rate of inflation.

This morning what is called here the blue dollar, or the black market price for the American dollar, hit 8.75 pesos. When we arrived in early January it was about 6 pesos to the dollar. The official government exchange rate is just over 5 pesos to the US dollar, as it has been since January. As Argentina's inflation rate increases and the savings of its ordinary citizens disappear, the Malvinas rhetoric only seems to increase too, with or without holy intervention.

CFK and Pope Francis photo from AFP/Getty

March 20, 2013

Our favourite coffee shop ~ Esquina Sinclair

At the corner of our street is a coffee shop. For some reason it doesn't have a sign, nor much of any indication that it is a coffee shop. But this cafe is a favourite for many of our neighbours, and for us too.

Its corner location is also a drop-off for garbage from all the apartments in the area. Garbage in Buenos Aires is another topic altogether, but as you can see, garbage is already collecting.

On our very first morning in Buenos Aires we went to Esquina Sinclair for coffee. It became an almost daily ritual. Fresh facturas, great coffee, friendly smiles. It was our place. Cafe solo for me, cafe macchiato for Sherry, y dos medialunas por favor.

When we first started going to our coffee shop, the weather was hot; ideally we found seating outside and in the shade. By the time we were getting ready to leave BA, autumn had arrived and sadly, on our last day we moved inside for our last cafe in Buenos Aires.

Tamara and Johanna were with us when we stumbled through our first ordering process, now famous by the line I ended up using, "Why don't you just bring us what you want to bring us." We improved over time and our friends at Esquina Sinclair were always gracious.

Great coffee. Great people.

We will miss our coffee shop.