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Argentina: Living With Cruelty

The revolt had a religious side. I wanted to know more about that, and early one morning Ricardo took me to see a survivor of the 1970s. We met in the man’s office in central Buenos Aires, before it opened for business. The lift didn’t work; the turn-of-the century paneling was dim and tarnished. Like Ricardo’s apartment, this business suite from a grander time seemed to be a place that was being camped in.

The man we had come to meet was biggish, in his forties, plump now. He was in a brown suit. Just as Ricardo gave off melancholy, so this man suggested heaviness and dullness. He did a dull job in his dim office; he had a white, expressionless face. It was hard to imagine him as a man with a gun.

His talk was abstract from the start.

He said, “The idea of bearing witness, of organizing a way of life [un proyecto de vida] around one’s concern for others, that doesn’t come only from a Catholic source. It also comes from the tradition of the left.”

The Catholicism was in his background. At his public school, where there were nationalist and fascist and leftist ideas, he found his Catholic instincts coinciding with the ideas of the left. What ideas, especially?

The idea of the New Man, the idea of the revolutionary as an identity, the revolutionary confronting injustice. If in the Judeo-Christian culture it’s one of the commandments to love your neighbor—which also means that God is in the other man—then I cannot be indifferent to the miseries of this man, and I mean not only his material miseries, but also his cultural and spiritual miseries. That’s part of the Gospel. It coincided at that moment with left-wing ideology—Che Guevara, the New Man, the Cuban revolutionary tradition, the Marxist revolutionary tradition. The New Man is a cultural attitude. It detects, opposes, and denounces the prevailing culture”—the words came out like that: the musical sounds of Spanish can beguile people into using more words than they need, and more and more musical words—“when that culture is seen as a mechanism of domination.”

I wanted to know the stages by which his Catholic and New Man faith, so large and abstract, had narrowed down to guerrilla actions. These actions were specific; they could sometimes appear—even to someone like Ricardo—to be a matter of mysterious enmities.

He didn’t give the kind of answer I was hoping for. He said, “It’s like a process of conversion, conversion in a political way. And it goes very fast. You arrive at a vision that you can alter history, that history doesn’t follow its own fixed course. And I made my commitment. I gave up my career, my family, my social life, and began doing what I had to do. You also develop the clear sense of belonging to a group, a new group, different from the one you were given by your parents. Though my family were tolerant and very supportive.

The idea of commitment contained the idea of physical risk. It’s simple. If you are doing what is correct, you think that you are being correct, and you have a regard for what you do. At a certain level of action you are trying to cope with your own anguish and solitude. But in my case what was most important was not the action itself, but the self-esteem that came to me from the action. The self-esteem came to me from doing the correct thing.”

I said, “This is a religious attitude. It’s almost priestly.”

The man in the brown suit said, “It was.”

Ricardo said to me, “You find it strange? That’s because you are not a Christian. The psychological scenario had links with this cultural tradition.”

Footsteps sounded on the solid marble steps, and a woman came into the outer office: a secretary, getting ready to start the working day.

The man in the brown suit said, “Our Catholic upbringing made us militant. That’s where it started, in the idea of service and discipline.” And then—someone else coming into the office, and Ricardo and I getting ready to leave—he stood up and said, “What resulted was sometimes a perversion.” It was, at last, like an acknowledgment of the confusion, and the calamity, that had befallen his cause.

When we were in the street Ricardo said, “The guy”—Ricardo used the word neutrally—“was presenting himself to you as a defeated man, part of a defeated generation.”

I wish, though, I could have got him to talk in a more concrete way. Perhaps, because his cause had failed so completely, he didn’t want to talk of real people and real events. But it was also possible that his abstractions represented the way he thought. The principles by which he had tried to live were his own and were what he had to hold on to. The action (protagonismo, protagonism, was the word he used) into which those principles had led him had been worked out by others, to whom he had entrusted himself, and was incidental to his higher cause.

Ricardo and I had coffee in a students’ café.

Ricardo said, “I am seduced by rigorous ideas when I can reach them. The lack of rigor is something we have paid heavily for.”

The avenue we came out into was very wide: the turn-of-the century city had been planned for great things. Black smoke poured out of the exhausts of small and noisy Argentine-built buses, grating away between traffic lights. Above, the belle époque buildings were extravagantly cob-webbed—with the black telephone lines of a system that had been nationalized by Perón in 1945, at the start of his revolution, at great cost, a system that ever since then had been less of a public utility than a telephone workers’ racket: the big black webs spun, as it were, out of the entrails of the city and hanging over it like an emblem of nearly half a century of revolutionary plunder and waste.

The guerrillas of the 1970s, educated men and women, grandchildren of immigrants, had carried on Perón’s revolution. Twenty years on, they (with the repression they had provoked, and everything that had followed the repression) could be seen to have further impoverished and stultified the country.

Nearly everyone in that avenue would have been obsessed with money: not just with earning a living, but with maintaining the value of money. To ignore your money for a week was to lose it. The inflation that had started in Perón’s time had raced away in the last twenty years. In 1972 I had been excited by bank advertisements offering 24 percent a year; since then inflation had sometimes reached 100 percent a month; now, with the new stringency, it was, officially, about 4 percent a month.

Ricardo said, speaking of the guerrillas of the 1970s, “Only a part of the intelligentsia was involved, but they were all massively attacked. Being an intellectual was risky at the time. The repression became massive.” Just as in Argentina there was good torture and bad torture, depending on your side, so, still to Ricardo, there had been the good war, fought by the guerrillas, and the bad war, the “repression” by the army. “A good part of the intelligentsia had to flee, and this is something the country is paying for even now.”

He began to project his own melancholy on to his vision of the future. There would be more guerrillas one day, he said. They would be without the “elegance” of the guerrillas of the Seventies; they would be more like the Sendero Luminoso of Peru, animated by blood and rage.

The guerrillas of the Seventies tried to have some ethical attitude, some ethical advantage over their enemies. Sendero has given that up. They don’t play the good guys any more. That could happen here. You go out to the suburbs by train now, and you get into contact with people you wouldn’t know how to reintegrate into the society of the future. They are not conceivable to us as human beings. They are mestizos.” People of the old Indian north. “They are appearing like mushrooms in those suburbs.”

What Ricardo said was true: in those suburbs the Parisian city seemed to be reverting to its South American earth.

The feudal system of their origins, the system their parents came from, no longer wants them. It doesn’t include them, or content them, any more. And the capitalist system of the city has no place for them. So they are born outlaws. The Sendero-style guerrilla has some kind of appeal for that kind of person. So do some religious groups. That’s an important new phenomenon, by the way: those American preachers on TV, they have begun to come here.”

2.

When I met Father Mujica in 1972 I didn’t know that he was one of the patrons of the guerrillas. I am sure now that Daniel, who took me to meet him, knew. Daniel very much wanted me to meet Mujica; but he told me only that Mujica was one of the “Priests for the Third World,” and that Mujica was of the Argentine upper class. Daniel was a respectable middle-class businessman; and even at the time I thought his interest in what he had given as Mujica’s cause a little strange. It showed to what extent in 1972, before Perón came back, and before things got really nasty, the guerrillas were operating from within the society and—in spite of the police dogs on the streets and the policemen with machine guns at street corners—were really protected people.

Mujica was running a church in a villa miseria, an Indian shanty town, in the Palermo district. Palermo is to Buenos Aires what Kensington Gardens are to London, or the Bois de Boulogne to Paris. Palermo has a great park. (And a fair amount of patriotic public statuary: too Paris-like for the local history: the park itself was laid out on the Buenos Aires estate of the rancher-warlord Rosas, who came to power some years after independence and then ran Argentina in his very rough way for nearly a quarter of a century, until 1852.)

The Palermo villa miseria, which was about fifteen years old, was hidden away. You could drive through on the wide, roaring avenues without seeing it. It was just next to the river, and it was unexpectedly large and solid and settled-looking. As soon as you came to it you felt you had left Palermo and Buenos Aires. The people were Indians from the far north, from Salta and Jujuy; Daniel said that some would even have been from Bolivia. The lanes were unpaved and muddy. The small buildings were low and cramped, but they were of brick, with here and there an upper story. With its early-evening busyness and the softness of its electric lights, dim here as elsewhere in the city, it didn’t look at all bad; in India this Argentine villa miseria might have passed as the well-off bazaar area of a small town.

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