V.S. Naipaul first traveled to Argentina for The New York Review in 1972, and his essays written over the next five years were later published as The Return of Eva Perón. The article that follows was written after he recently returned to Argentina.
After fourteen years, I went again to Salta. I flew from Buenos Aires to La Rioja, and from there went on by bus, over two days, up and down the mountain passes through the wide sugar cane valleys.
In 1972 Borges, a man of Buenos Aires, had told me that when he was with Salta people he felt he was with foreigners. In the province of Buenos Aires, Borges said, a gaucho was a horseman of the flat pampas; in Salta a gaucho was a rider in the mountains (and Borges added, with his usual reflex of courtesy, “They were better horsemen, I suppose”). A different landscape, a different history: Buenos Aires lived by its Atlantic port, while Salta and all that northern part of Argentina had been colonized from Peru and the Pacific.
What distances—from Spain to the Caribbean, the portage to the Pacific, and from there to Peru and points south! Salta was at the end of an imperial route that Spain had protected and kept secure for more than two centuries. Spain felt unimaginably far away. Yet to be in the main square of Salta—laid out all at once, as the Spanish custom was, on a day in 1582—was to have a strong sense of Spain, the Spanish empire, the Spanish conquest. A government building was in the Paris style of Buenos Aires; the 1941 Hotel Salta, for holidaymakers, carefully “colonial,” spoke of the last days of old Argentina, just before Perón. But nearly everything else in that square, the great church, the bell-towers, the arcaded pavements, the tall and rich green garden, spoke of Spain. The monument that marked the four-hundredth anniversary of the city was not—as it might have been in Buenos Aires in its more confident days—a tribute to Argentina, but a bust of the Duke of Lerma who, all that distance away in Spain, had sent out orders for the founding of a city at that spot. Whatever course history had taken elsewhere, whatever the present condition of Spain itself, Spain here continued paramount.
It was Easter. Loudspeakers attached to poles in the central garden amplified the singing in the church, but not too loudly—a woman’s voice, alone, and pure, that seemed to add to the blessing of the green garden, a green so rich and deep it seemed to cast a cool green light all around. People sat on benches in that light, or walked, or sold or bought things. Some people stood on the steps of the church; some went and stood inside. The church, plain outside, glittered above the altar. You had to go quite far up, through the people standing, before you saw that the woman with the pure voice was a young Indian nun, short, her head covered, with the skirt of her modern habit falling not far below the knees of her bow legs. And with everything that one felt here about the wonder of Spain, and the Spanish civilities of Salta, from waiters and others, there came, at the sight of the young Indian nun, who had made peace with the world in her own way, a contrary judgment about the enduring cruelty of the Spanish conquest.
Of that cruelty of the sixteenth century, living on at the end of the twentieth, there was always an intimation in the north: in the sugar cane fields, the Indian faces, the Indian houses. Gold and slaves, encomiendas, “grants” of Indians from the Spanish crown—that was what drove the first Spaniards down from Peru.
And there was cruelty in the other Argentinas that came after. Cruelty is really the theme of the gaucho folk epic Martín Fierro (first part, 1872), which is the nearest thing Argentina has to a national poem. In Buenos Aires buckskin-covered editions of this book are sold as keepsakes. In the Argentine imagination the poem—by José Hernádez (1834–1886), known for nothing else—is a memorial of a better and purer time, when the gaucho, a free man, rode over the unfenced and limitless pampa, and the land was bright with possibility. But the Argentina of the poem, wild though it appears, is already corrupt, without justice. The gaucho hero is really a man on the run, caught between barbarisms, Indian and Argentine. He is in constant danger of being impressed—and robbed of his pay, and flogged for misdemeanors—to fight the Indians on the frontier, to win the land for others.
There is a similarity between Martín Fierro and a Russian novel of adventure, published just a few months later, Nikolai Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer (1873). Leskov (1831–1894) is almost the coeval of José Hernández; his tale, coming at a time of Russian expansion, is of a simple Russian caught between Russian and Tartar barbarisms. Leskov is at his best when he has a strong story to tell; and his best stories are his most painful ones; his underlying subject, pointed up by his religious obsession, is Russian cruelty. Leskov’s enchanted wanderer, when he becomes a prisoner of the Tartars, is like the gaucho Martín Fierro as a prisoner of the pampas Indians: they are both men in hell, and they both have little to run back to.
The true conquest of the Desert—desierto, “Desert,” in the Argentine phrase la Conquista de Desierto, standing not for sand but for a green and rich wilderness—came immediately after the publication of the second part of Martín Fierro (1879). There was no valor in this conquest; with the help of the railways and the Remington rifle, President Roca, in six campaigns, wiped out the pampas Indians. A vast new territory, flat and fertile and treeless, never used for cultivation, was shared out among a handful of people. It was as though, as with the first Spanish conquest, people who had been poor for generations, never knowing that human needs were assuageable, had, with opportunity, discovered in themselves only a boundless greed. Immigrants were brought over from Europe to service, but not to settle, this conquered Desert; and the new Parisian city of Buenos Aires was built. The “Paris” was not for everyone. In the dark and minute and shaming “maid’s rooms” of the new apartment buildings may still be seen an important idea of the new Argentine wealth: other people had to be poor, nothing was to be shared. People who required nothing less than the sky and the horizon of the conquered Desert for themselves, and their sheep and cattle, offered very little, offered nothing, to everybody else.
In 1972 the rage about this still flowed. A journalist who grew up in a small pampas town said, “I saw them cheating the workers who worked by the hour—they turned the clocks backward.” That was hard to believe, but it was the kind of story people told. I heard that in the old days, before Perón, the maids who lived in those tiny rooms never had a day off; that some worked only for their keep. And there were stories that working people and Indians were not allowed to walk in the Barrio Norte, the upper-class area.
They sounded like stories, legends to keep the rage up. But then sometimes I wondered; when, for example, in an important provincial town, in an oily shed of a factory, where the floor was of earth, I saw this sign—in 1972, twenty years after the death of Eva Perón, and with the guerrillas campaigning for Perón’s return—“If you work for a man, work for him. Speak well of him on every suitable occasion. Remember: an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of intelligence.” This statement was attributed to San Martín, honored in Argentina as the Liberator, the winner of the country’s independence from Spain.
The attitude, the simple obedience required (with very little offered in return), seemed to take one back very far, beyond the frontier cruelties of Martín Fierro to the tyrannies of the warlords like Rosas (Borges said he used to have executed people’s heads spiked and displayed, “to give the others fair warning”); and even beyond that back to the Spanish conquest. In the tracing of Argentine attitudes, of rage and counterrage, action and reaction, you go back always to the Spanish conquest, as to original sin.
It was Perón’s gift or genius to tap all that rage, the rage not only of the European immigrants and their children, most of them workers, some of them educated people, a few of them entrepreneurs—not only that European rage, but the rage also of the dispossessed Indians in the north, the dispossessed in the regions that were not serviced by the new wealth: the cabecitas negras, the “black heads” he brought into Buenos Aires to march and demonstrate. That rage he scratched into a national sore; and it still festers, though Perón and his court (with no other example in Argentina of wealth and style) were as plundering as any of the old oligarchy, and by nationalizations, gifts, and rewards, made money and endeavor worthless.
I talked this year to a man of the Anglo-Argentine community whom I had talked to in 1972. He had then, in the midst of the movement for Perón’s recall, said, “I’m beginning to feel completely at sea. Perón destroyed all my feeling that he stood for anything. Anything could be changed at any moment. And then here you really have no say in deciding who’s going to rule. So in the end here you do become sheep. You lose confidence in politics, you lose confidence in the military, and there’s nothing left.” Now—when they were no longer a threat—this man spoke of the guerrillas with something like sympathy. He said, “Most normal people in this country have wanted to shoot the lot at the top. You see, nobody here gets punished; once you’re at the top you’re safe. It was very easy for the guerrillas to cash in on this frustration.”
It was the trap of the situation, the Trojan ending Borges had prophesied four years before the dirty war began: the educated guerrilla generation, grandchildren of immigrants, could hold on to the good abstract ideas they had been educated into—the development of the human spirit, the New Man confronting injustice—only by adding the old Argentine-Spanish idea of blood, the enemy.
There are some stanzas in Martín Fierro where the gaucho overhears the local judge scheming with another man to make money by pushing the Indian frontier back. Impressed soldiers will do the actual fighting; and the gaucho’s heart “grows small” as he listens to this talk of “settlements and roads and raking in thousands,” proyetos/de colonias y carriles / y tirar plata a miles. If things go on like this, the gaucho thinks, the pampas might soon become “a desert, with nothing but the whitening bones of dead men.”
This has a parallel in the Joseph Conrad story Heart of Darkness (1902), which is about Belgian empire-building on the other side of the Atlantic, in the Congo, and refers to events which would have occurred only some twenty years after the events of the Argentine poem. The Conrad narrator, making his way inland to take charge of a river steamer, finds himself in a rough station on the Congo River with sixteen or twenty Belgians of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Unspeakable things are happening all around; men are wasting away and dying. But the Belgians don’t notice.
The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages. They intrigued and slandered and hated each other only on that account—but as to effectually lifting a little finger—oh, no…. Their talk…was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware that these things are wanted for the work of the world.
The narrator is led to reflect on the idea of work. It is the missing moral idea. “No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”
This is almost religious. It lies on the other side, as it were, of the colonial darkness. This high idea of human possibility can arise only in reasonably free and reasonably creative societies. It was the opposite of the idea behind the first Spanish conquest, the opposite of the idea behind the Conquest of the Desert. Such an idea might have driven some of the immigrants to Argentina, as it drove some to the United States; but Argentina would have frustrated the people it attracted.
In Argentina the missing moral idea has had other consequences. The great fortunes that came with the Conquest of the Desert haven’t all lasted. Argentines will tell you that in Argentina there has been constant change at the top. A man of old family said in 1972, “In Peru you have the real aristocracy. They have a tradition of two to three hundred years. If you mention the names of the Argentine aristocrats between 1850 and 1900, today no one in Argentina knows them. Their descendants were weak, and the whole thing began to crumble.” One of the few industrialists of old family put it like this: “Below the belle époque façade in Buenos Aires you must remember we had the tango man. Today the tango man has taken over.”
I went this year to an estancia in the south of the province of Buenos Aires. Beyond the eucalyptus and other roadside trees, and the roadside puddles, the flat, brown-green grass went back to the horizon and seemed to swallow up the heads and legs of cattle, reducing them to the black or dark-brown dashes of their backs. This large piece of the Conquered Desert had long ago passed out of the hands of the family who had first been granted it; and twice since then it had gone derelict, once in the Depression, and later, after the wartime boom, in the time of Perón. The man who inherited it in 1960 found there wasn’t even enough money for the upkeep of the homestead. He was an educated man; he decided to give his life to his estate, and he had brought it back. Not everyone was like him.
“We have next door an old Spanish family, friends. They are the biggest landowners in the district. They probably received the land way back, from Roca. They can’t afford to go to Europe very often now. They haven’t been able to adapt. They haven’t changed the structure of their business. They still have their house and social life in town, in B.A., and they try to run things from there. They survive by selling off bits of capital. I know a big house, forty rooms, which now has only one hundred and thirty hectares to keep it up. It can’t be done. But the old lady won’t sell, though she has no hot water. Yet there are beautiful bathrooms, with lovely taps, designed in the art-deco style by an English architect in the 1920s. Cobwebs in most of the rooms, and leaks in the roof.”
Susana came from a family like that, a family that had lost much of its money. She had married a professional, middle-class man, and still thought of herself as having done a bold thing. She still had the manners of her upbringing: the security, the pride, the curious innocence, the charm. She didn’t know exactly how her family had lost their land. She didn’t think Perón had anything to do with it; but her husband later told me that Susana’s family, panicking about the new taxes when Perón came in, had taken bad advice and sold up.
Susana said, “What happened to my family didn’t start with Perón. It goes back further. When Father was eighteen—this would have been in 1930 or thereabouts—he wanted to study. He wanted to be an architect. Father was charming, rather shy, extremely polite. A very weak character. He talked to his stepfather, and his stepfather advised him not to study, saying: ‘Why study?’ For his stepfather, if you had beautiful manners it was enough. Then a little bit later my father again felt he wanted to study. He wanted to study law this time, and again his stepfather said to him, ‘Why study?’ And so my father didn’t study.
“For my father, too, you know, if you had beautiful manners, it was enough. Money was important—that went without saying: it was assumed that you had money. But there had to be the manners. If you went to my father’s house and said hello beautifully, stood at the right moment, sat at the right moment, and said the right things, if you appreciated my father’s furniture and silver, it was enough for him. I must tell you that I myself can still feel dazzled by beautiful manners. Our manners were very formal. As children we would be called into the sitting room sometimes, and we went in and said hello. But we didn’t talk if we weren’t asked something directly. If we were sitting down we had to get up if someone came in. Sometimes we went to the dining room, to have dinner with Father and Mother and their guests, and I remember thinking on those occasions, ‘What beautiful people, what beautiful manners.’ But we weren’t so beautiful. None of the daughters learned to do anything. Even now, you know, they talk of the old days. Days of having, of going to Europe, traveling, bringing back lovely things. But not days of doing.”
This wasn’t the only flaw in this Argentine aristocracy based on new land. Its language was Spanish; so were its attitudes and its deeper culture. That ideal of not working, of not talking about money—that was Spanish. (As Spanish as the inch-long nail on the little finger of the middle-aged gentleman I met in a café in La Rioja in 1974. We both had time on our hands, and he drove me about the countryside for half a day. His fingernail proclaimed him a man of leisure: it was a half-cylinder in shape, hard and horny-looking, striated, gray-yellow, the color of a very dirty tooth, oddly disagreeable to look at.) But twentieth-century Spain was known to be backward, the source of the poor immigrants known collectively in Argentina as gallegos.
Susana said, “Those beautiful manners of my father were an aspiration toward the idea of the gentleman. They were thought to be English manners. Father, all his education was looking to England. When my mother and father went to Europe they never went to Spain. Spain was—“ and Susana made a gesture of disregard. The disregard for Spain contained a disregard for Spanish-speaking Argentina. “They had no pride in being Argentine. They thought they were English. They said este país, ‘this country,’ not my country. They would say, ‘The people here are awful,’ Not, ‘We are awful.’ My husband says a lot of the problems here have to do with the este país attitude.”
And perhaps, with a different idea of their aristocracy, the Argentine upper class might have sought to come to terms with Perón, a man of their country; and the country would not have started unraveling with the revolution.
I wondered whether, the formal manners of Susana’s parents didn’t also hold an element of stoicism or protecting ritual, enabling them to put up with the hard times that had come to them. I didn’t make myself clear. Susana thought I was asking about the attitude of her family to the hardship of others. And she said, “No. When November, our summer, came, and we were very hot, my mother would point to the tenement behind our apartment and say, ‘Think of them.’ But I never thought she really cared.”
When Susana understood the point about stoicism, she said, “Mother was very structured [estructurada]. They made her like that. I thought when I was young that Mama had the solution for everything. But when she had a grief in her family, Mother just collapsed. There was no substance in her.”
The Indian land, used prodigally, as though nothing had gone before and nothing was to come after, already has its ruins, of buildings and peoples. Like so many tracts of the New World, like the Guianas and the Caribbean islands, the Argentine pampas appears to have swallowed up its history; it is a place of disappearances. The pampas Indians have disappeared, and the gauchos. The Africans, descendants of slaves from the Spanish time, have disappeared. In Martín Fierro they are still very much there, in the Argentina of the 1860s, black and mulatto, men and women, stylish, not negligible, speaking the Spanish of the gauchos. And when Borges was a boy, in the first decade of the century, black people were still to be seen in Buenos Aires.
Borges said in 1972, “When I was a child if I saw a Negro I didn’t report it at home. I don’t know what happened to our black men. Our family wasn’t wealthy. We only had six slaves.” There is a reference in one poem to the slave quarters of the family house in the city. “They were quite unaware that their forefathers had come from Africa. They spoke a kind of singsong Spanish. They couldn’t manage the R: they made it an L. But they were not regarded as different. In fact a Negro was as much of a criollo“—someone of old colonial Argentina, before the immigrant rush—“as everybody else. Here they were cooks, maids. You thought of a Negro as being a townsman. Many fine infantry regiments were made up of Negroes. One of my great-uncles led a famous bayonet charge against the Spaniards in Montevideo—it would have been in 1815 or 1816—and all the soldiers were full-blooded Negroes from the south side of the town, near the National Library.” That was where we were talking. Borges in 1972 was director; his salary had dwindled with inflation to the equivalent of $70 a month.
So Africans had fought for Argentine independence. If Borges hadn’t told me I wouldn’t have guessed: a hundred years later their descendants had vanished like magic into the new European population, and there was now no living memory of them.
In the shuffling about of peoples, the Spaniards of the old colonial north also suffered. They had been economically dependent on Peru. Now—after independence, and after the destructive civil wars, “the sword and danger and hard proscriptions” of a Borges poem, la espada y el peligro/Las duras proscripciones—they had to look south. Once they had been at the end of a very long imperial route from Spain; now—at least until the railways came—they were at the end of a very long cart track from Buenos Aires. They had little to offer. The region ceased to have an economic point; the people had finally fallen off the rim of the world into wilderness.
They became pensioners of the government in the south. And so they have remained. It is said that the entire province of La Rioja (its chief town founded in 1591) now lives off the state. The money isn’t simply offered to people as a dole: they have to take government jobs. Politicians looking for public favor invariably offer to create more public jobs. Mr. Luna, a lawyer and local historian, told me that between 1983 (when military rule ended) and 1987 the number of government employees in La Rioja more than trebled, to 44,000. I thought the number quite high for a total provincial population of about 250,000; but Mr. Luna told me it had since risen even higher, to 55,000.
These government jobs are not really jobs. There is nothing or very little to do, and it might seem that to get regular money for doing nothing is a kind of old Spanish dream come true almost as good as the grant of Indians people once pined for. But this largesse comes with a touch of Spanish-Argentine cruelty. There is nothing to do, but people have to attend; they have to be present throughout the working day in the government office to which they are theoretically attached. At any moment a boss or head of department might order a spot check, might send out a planilla volante, a “flying roll call,” and then every man or women on the pay list has to answer up.
Mr. Luna said, “This is a very serious matter. It results in La Rioja in what I call the culture of tedium.” He was pleased with the words: la cultura del tedio. “Because these people are condemned to seven hours of desperation every day, pretending to do a job that doesn’t exist.” At the end of every day at the office these public employees, Mr. Luna said, are “tired, frustrated, fed up, full of agression”; and then the families as well felt the effects of the accumulated tedium of the day. “I don’t know what your own observations are, but this is a sad town, without heart, without initiative.”
Mr. Luna spoke with feeling. He was a man of La Rioja through and through, and was partly of Indian ancestry. To him La Rioja was a land of the nineteenth-century warlords and hardy, valiant men. Government jobs, the culture of tedium, had broken the spirit of the people; they didn’t even know their history now. Three attempts, Mr. Luna said, had been made to get the government employees into productive work in an industrial park; but the people who took those jobs invariably drifted back to the government offices, though the pay was lower. Mr. Luna said, “They prefer the illness.”
Within the large cruelty of compulsory attendance, and the constant terror of the planilla volante, there were subtler forms of torment and control: the politicians who gave the jobs always wished to make their power felt. There were twenty-four grades of public employee. Most people started at Grade Six; only people put on the post office rolls started, for some reason, at a lower grade. Thereafter you worked your way up. But since no one did anything there was no way of measuring merit. It all depended on the politicians. They had to be kept sweet. You could keep them sweet by daubing their names on walls or—going far out of town—on rock faces or tree trunks; you showed yourself energetic in their cause at election time, and generally grateful at other times. If you didn’t, if you thought you had got your government job and that was that, then you had to take the consequences.
There was a woman who had been seventeen years in government service. In that time she had moved only from Grade Six to Grade Nine, and that had happened only because one politician, on taking office, had—like a sovereign decreeing a general pardon to state prisoners—granted a promotion of three grades to all government employees. This Grade Nine lady was famous in La Rioja. I was even taken to see her one morning in her office: short and plump, unmarried, with a full and well-tended head of hair (which seemed to speak of long, empty hours at home, as well). She was perfectly ready—standing at her bare shoulder-high counter—to tell her story all over again. As a Grade Nine she got $120 a month. The difference in pay between Grade Six and Grade Eighteen was only about $30. The difference, she said, became important only at Grade Twenty. But still.
There was a Grade-Twenty-four lady present while the Grade-Nine lady complained. She was thin and small, and though deprived-looking, not at all defensive about her high grade. She had a degree, she said, and in her second job (which perhaps she did in the afternoon) she was a professor. As a Grade Twenty-four she got about $400 a month; but then she looked after her family of sixteen brothers and sisters.
There was a smiling boy in a flower-patterned shirt moving lightly in and out of the room while we talked. I asked about him. He was a special case. He had entered at Grade Twelve. How had he done that? Nobody could say; and the boy in the bright shirt just smiled, going out of the room and then coming back again, while the others talked of money and politicians and inflation and prices and at one stage in the competitive babble the Grade-Nine lady said (if I heard right) that she had never been to a restaurant. They were not allowed to leave their offices; they were as people hemmed in by an invisible fence: confined and complaining, but timid, like a group of shades waiting for religious burial in a Virgilian netherworld.
At dusk, after the heat, the tedium of the day exploded: on unsilenced motorbikes the young men and their girls rode round and round in the streets off the main square in a blue-brown smoke haze, like people now accustomed to doing nothing.
Argentina has consumed the people whom it has attracted; and the last twenty years have been particularly hard.
Jorge, an Anglo-Argentine, who worked as economic adviser to a large company, had said in 1972, “We could be on the verge of a real crisis.” Inflation, running at an average of 25 percent since the Perón years of the 1940s, had risen in that year to 60 percent; and the colonial agricultural economy of the country hadn’t really been altered. There was an industrial sector, but it ate up imports, which had to be paid for by agricultural exports.
Jorge said, “Perón precipitated this vicious circle. He didn’t start basic industries. He had to be popular, so he did the light stuff, and distorted the economy further. Industrialization was an emotional response; there was no industrial policy.” Argentine industrial goods were protected; they cost twice as much as equivalent goods abroad; and the average wage in 1972 was $50 a month. Perón had done much for the workers, but their wages could never keep up with the inflation that Perón’s policies, and policies like Perón’s, had produced.
The year before, Jorge had bought a flat. Prices were rising so fast that a week’s indecision had cost him $200—his salary at that time was $400 a month. But already—less than a year later—his flat had appreciated 80 percent. Nineteen years on, in 1991, that purchase seemed an even better bargain.
“I bought it with a twelve-year mortgage from the bank. A fixed price, the only variable thing being the interest payable on the balance. As from 1973, when John Sunday came back”—John Sunday: the Anglo-Argentine translation of Perón’s given names, Juan Domingo—“inflation rose even higher, and eroded the debt. So who paid? The rest of the community, the people were not in debt. The terrible thing is that for the last forty-five years inflation has been growing steadily, month by month, with oscillation. Very few countries have been able to withstand this sort of inflation over such a long time. This is like the German experience of the Twenties in slow motion.
“Things got really out of hand in 1974, after John Sunday’s death, when his widow Isabelita and her astrologer–witch doctor took over. An ex-corporal in the police. There was a sudden burst of inflation. I remember this: I had paid down for a suit—say $200 in pesos—and the tailor had taken my measurement. Such was the convulsion at the time, the peso lost half its value in a month. I didn’t feel I could hold the tailor to his price. And he preferred to forget about it. When we met we never talked about the suit. The stillborn suit: it was too embarrassing. He still owes me a suit—in today’s currency it would be about ten cents.
“One of the curious things about Argentina’s decline and fall—a decline without reaching the heights—is that much of the decline happened during the democratic period. The acceleration of the decline coincided with a return to democracy in 1983, after the Falklands. The irony is that both of the big parties, the Peronists, the Radicals, want to outdo one another in distributionism, and there is no longer John Bull or Uncle Sam to put in the pound sterling or the dollar.
“Things worked under the British, if you assume that we were informal members of the British Empire. In 1917 our GNP was about three quarters of the United States’s. We had the markets, we had the productivity. We had the methods—the systems, the technology. Today we have none of these things.
“You must always remember in Argentina that you’re only seeing the survivors. All the others are on Boot Hill or in mental homes. Inflation keeps you on your toes.
“Our company is in an industry where we can let you have only about four or five days’ credit. Otherwise, with the kind of inflation we have, working capital gets murdered. In our company at any time we have out about twelve million dollars’ working capital as credit to wholesalers. You want to keep that money turning over quick. If you can reduce the credit period by half a day, that’s important. Companies that have a slower turnover, like consumer durables—they probably have to give sixty days’ credit. If you’re building a ship, you have to give a lot of credit, and you may sell only one ship a year. So you’re really up shit creek, as the Americans say.
“Another negative aspect of inflation is that you cease to worry about productivity and even technology. Now, that is the secret of all progress: productivity. But you really can get no more than 3 or 4 percent per annum improvement in productivity anywhere in the world. With inflation like ours you can get 10 percent in one day, if you know when and where to invest. In our business we have on average to pay the government taxes every fifteen days. So in those fifteen days we have to invest that money as wisely as we can. It is much more important to protect your working capital than to think about long-term things like technology and productivity—though you try to do both.
“So capital investment in Argentina is not even covering capital wear and tear. In short, when the current plant reaches the end of its working life there won’t be a provision built up to purchase new capital equipment. This is the inevitable result of inflation, which is the monetary disease. Your money is disintegrating. It’s like a cancer.
“You live day by day. That’s all you can do when you have inflation of more than 1 percent a day. You cease to plan. You’re just happy to make it to the weekend. And then I stay in my flat in Belgrano and read about ancient cricket matches.
“We are now 25 percent poorer on a per capita basis than we were in 1975. The people who are really suffering are the people you won’t see—the poor, the old, the young. These people get washed up at the big railway termini that curiously resemble Victoria and Paddington stations, because they were built by the British. The flotsam and jetsam of Argentine life—like spray from the sea, these people. I’ve never seen such signs of poverty in B.A.”
What Jorge said about industry and business was also true of agriculture: you had to remember you were seeing only the survivors. In Argentina they were either very big or very dedicated.
The Indian land had encouraged an immense greed in the four hundred families who came to possess it. And then, just sixty years after the Conquest of the Desert, Perón had appeared, driven by that same idea of the limitless wealth of the land, to plunder and to punish. At that time the big landowners were livestock farmers. Tenant farmers did the crop rotation, renting the land for short periods; in between, the land was put back to alfalfa, for grazing. Perón, when he came in, froze the rents of the farmers. This was when Susana’s family, finding that their taxes were higher than their rents, panicked and sold. The people who held on endured some hard years. Foreign trade was nationalized; commodity prices were fixed by the state trade monopoly. The state looked for profit; it needed foreign exchange. So people had to sell at under world prices and sometimes under the cost of production. Agricultural production fell. In 1951 Argentina’s exports, which were mainly agricultural, were less than they had been in 1901. Argentina’s foreign reserves had been squandered on the nationalization of the railways and other utilities; and its imports now increased, to support such industrialization as had been got going. These imports could only be paid by agriculture, in which people had ceased to invest. So the inflation began, ensuring that the land could never be worked by the small farmer.
Julio farmed three thousand acres. He was not of one of the old landowning families. He had turned late to agriculture, and was a dedicated man. In the mid-1960s he took over an estate which—from being prosperous and go-ahead during the war, and among the first in Argentina to use tractors—had fallen into ruin in the Perón time. Julio got a loan from a state bank. Of course, the manager made him wait, made him come back a few times, asked for plans, statements; and the clerks drank coffee and maté and looked straight through him and then invariably told him to go and see somebody else.
“We were lucky. We started all this on credit. We couldn’t have done it otherwise. We got in at the very last stage when credit was subsidized: the interest rate was less than the inflation rate. The bank manager knew very well he was doing us a favor.”
The inflation that worked for Julio at the start then became, during the 1970s and 1980s, the tiger he had to ride.
“To survive, you have to do things that are unethical, strictly speaking. You have to be slow to pay your bills. Though now that all the bills are in dollars, you get no gain out of being late. You have to be diversified. And you have to be flexible. Under high inflation you start doing a lot of barter deals. You tend to leave the money economy. Say I did a deal with wheat—getting fuel and fertilizer in return. You work out that you have to give four kilos of wheat for every kilo of fertilizer. We spend a lot of time now working on these things. It’s a tricky business. You don’t want to lose. It’s important to be in a group with an adviser who would advise you on these barter deals.
“With reasonable inflation we get paid on time, and there’s no problem. It’s helped us a lot that our main product is milk. With milk we are reasonably protected. It’s paid for like this: 60 percent on a weekly basis, and 40 percent at the end of the following month. But once you get into hyper-inflation you’re in real trouble. In 1989, near the end of the Alfonsín government, we had a 100 percent inflation a month for four months, and we were being paid monthly for the milk—in short, we were getting practically nothing. Of course the same thing applied to the bills we had to pay, but the loss was still there. That’s something you can’t cope with. With milk you have to sell every day. If you are producing cattle or crops you can keep them in stock to sell on a cash basis.
“Alfonsín was doing nothing about hyperinflation. He was just waiting for the new president, Menem, to take over. And Menem had been elected on a populist platform—which always means wage increases for everybody.
“At this time the company we were selling our milk to went into receivership. That meant that we weren’t paid for the milk we had supplied for six weeks. From that stage on we asked to be paid on a weekly basis. And—even with the money we had lost—we did better than colleagues of ours who had always been paid, but on the old monthly basis. Because in hyperinflation what matters is when you’re paid.
“I was really worried that time. That was the only time. Once for ten days the banks were closed. Everyone wanted to take out his money to spend it.”
With inflation like this everyone becomes a gambler, everyone lives on his nerves. And even people who win in some ways can feel exhausted and damaged, like Gui, now over sixty, who, starting with no capital, and acting at every stage out of desperation, managed over ten years to turn a $5,000 gratuity into a $140,000 apartment.
In the 1960s rents were rising; Gui and his family moved five times, each time moving down. He decided to buy. He found a little $15,000 house in a suburb which he thought he could afford. But the company he worked for didn’t think so. They refused to give him a housing loan. Instead—as a favor—they offered him a gratuity if he left the firm. Gui was already committed to buying the house. So he left the company and took the gratuity—$5,000; borrowed a certain amount from his brother—$2,500; and with his brother’s help got a four-year loan from a bank for $7,500.
“Normally, at that time, a loan like that had to be repaid in installments over two years—which is no credit at all. Anyway. There we were. We had a house. It was a dreadful little house, and we were all ashamed of it. It was in one of those B.A. areas where literally in a space of a hundred yards you move from the nice area to the poor area, with people sitting out on the pavement in their pajamas at night. We were in the poorer area.
“And then we had a bit of luck. The bank we had borrowed the money from failed. That’s typical, in a way: a kind of Argentine windfall. So we didn’t have to pay back the $7,500 we had borrowed from the bank—though my brother got stuck for $150,000.
“We decided to leave the horrible little house. We rented a flat in a good area, and rented the house out—badly, to a person who turned out to be poor and couldn’t keep on paying the indexed rent. I should tell you also here that the district where the house was was famous for its bad administration. This was at the time of the military government that came in 1976—more criminal than the Peronist, if that’s possible. They would send you all the tax demands late, deliberately, so you had to pay a surcharge as well. That’s also typical of the Argentine. And you would stand all day in a queue a block long to pay.
“That was why we decided to sell the house. And then we had an even bigger piece of luck. In 1978 and 1979 in Argentina we had a period of ‘sweet money,’ plata dulce, easy money, when you could get 30 percent a month on Argentine money, and the dollar became worth nothing. This was the idea of the minister of the economy called José Martínez de Hoz. The factory car parks were full of workers’ cars, and people were traveling to Miami and coming back with trolleys of electronic appliances. Land values skyrocketed, and we sold the little house for $65,000, more than four times what we had paid for it—and you must remember that half the original price we didn’t even pay because of the bank crash.
“And then we thought we were caught. We had sold well, but—of course—we couldn’t buy. You couldn’t get anything in B.A. for $100,000—at that price they were laughing in your face and you were looking at two-bedroom flats with a refrigerator hanging on a bedroom wall because there wasn’t room in the kitchenette. My wife’s family’s house was on sale at $1,800,000.
“We had to invest our money. We invested it in Argentine money, to get the 30 percent a month. You couldn’t get a better rate anywhere in the world, and money was flooding in from abroad. The thing was to take your interest and get your money back into hard currency before the situation blew. I tell you, you were living on your nerves every minute. Every minute you were wondering whether you were doing the right thing—because at the first little whiff of insecurity or danger all that foreign money was going to leave. Within days the whole thing could blow, and you were running in to change money all the time.
“We timed it right. We got back into dollars ahead of the crash, which came in January or February 1981, when there was a 10 percent devaluation of Argentine money, followed a month later by a further 20 percent. The whole thing just collapsed then. This happened under a new minister of the economy called Lorenzo Siguat. In the time of Martínez de Hoz, in addition to the property boom, people had borrowed—or had been encouraged to borrow—to buy machinery to re-equip factories. When the thing collapsed, they collapsed. There was a story of someone having to sell his estancia to pay his debts.
“We invested our dollars and got a little more, and then we proceeded to lose a certain amount of what we had gained: our bank manager invested a third of our money in gold. We bought at $800, and got out at $680 an ounce. Still, at the end we had enough to buy this desirable flat in one of the best parts of the city. We bought in August 1982, when just for three weeks—because of the Malvinas war—prices were at their lowest for twenty years. At the end of those three weeks the prices rose again by more than 60 percent. If we had delayed we wouldn’t have been able to buy.
“In a place like Argentina you make money only by being lucky. There’s always a crisis in one direction or other. What happens is that you have no sense of the future. You don’t do anything for the future. The European idea of securing your future doesn’t exist. I often wonder how I’ve adapted to this sort of thing. The other thing is the sensation you have all the time of being robbed, if you’re an employee. If you don’t have to go through that experience, and you can live in your own area of happiness, shall we say, it can be a delightful place to live in. And this, I suppose, is what lulls everybody.”
In 1972 Borges said he never read the newspapers. “Those things sadden me. They are also trivial.” Borges could say that—of the daily acts of guerrilla or police violence, and the maneuvering of politicians and of military men, passing figures, who were far smaller than the moment—because for Borges Argentina was a country he had already lost.
What Borges said then others said now, in different ways. A woman I knew said, “We have become stupider.” She had been Peronist in 1972, full of expectation. Perhaps then or a little later she had also been “Marxist,” buoyant with her simplicities, ready to preach them. Now she had forgotten she had been either of those things, and—in the general enervation—was nothing; there were no political systems left to try. Women like her were turning now to “meditation”—every day the newspaper listed lectures and sessions.
Ricardo, who had known the guerrilla leaders at school and had felt some sympathy for the cause, grieved for that educated, destroyed generation. Those many thousands of New Men (and women), in whom religion and revolution had met, were the grandchildren of immigrants; they would now have been in their forties. As we were walking back after our meeting with the former guerrilla (who had presented himself as a defeated man), Ricardo said, with sadness, “Maybe we have to accept the idea that this country is not viable. The young people I meet take it for granted that Argentina will become a nation in the near future, and that might lead them to new adventures and false conclusions.”
Ricardo was talking, like Borges, out of his own grief, out of his own need for philosophical systems, his now outdated ideas of revolution and right action. Those ideas had gone with the Trojan ending Borges had prophesied; and in their place, out of the very enervation and fatigue of that ending, new and simpler ways of thinking had come to Argentina.
A businessman I met listed these new ways of thinking. Argentina no longer believed in the foreign enemy; no longer believed it was a European country; and had lost the idea of the limitless wealth of the land.
The three ideas were linked: together, they added up to an intellectual revolution. That idea of wealth—it had been part of the folk wisdom of the country. My 1972 notebooks are full of it. “This country can never sink.” “Still, you live better here.” “God undoes at night the mess the Argentines create by day.” That idea of wealth had come down from the Spanish time, and had been born again with the Conquest of the Desert. It had encouraged the great greed of the estancieros, who thought of the wealth of the country in the Spanish way, as something indivisible, which had to be denied to as many people as possible. This had in its turn encouraged the greed and plunder of Perón and his successors, and the claims of their supporters. It had destroyed the idea of the pioneer, the idea of self-fulfillment coming through work; it ennobled instead the idea of sharpness, la viveza criolla. It had encouraged the idea of blood and revolution, in unending sequence: just one more fresh start, the finding out and killing of just one more enemy, and—and as out of a pinball machine—the wealth of the country was going to cascade down.
All that had now gone. To continue, people would have to enter into a new contract with the land. This implied a new contract with other people, a new kind of political life.
Jorge, the economist, had said that an irony of Argentina was that both the main parties, the Radicals and the Peronists, remained “distributionist” when there was no longer wealth to distribute. Alfonsín, the Radical, elected president after the overthrow of the military in 1983, had been swamped by hyperinflation. He had voluntarily left office in July 1989, some months before his time; and his name was more associated now with economic calamity than with the democracy he had restored. He had been replaced as president by Carlos Menem, the Peronist.
Menem worried the Argentine middle class. He was unusual, descended of recent Arab immigrants, but he had become part of the colonial Argentine north. He ruled in the barrenness of La Rioja. His appearance was part of his appeal: his gray and white sideburns, wide and long and curling, made him look like a nineteenth-century Argentine caudillo or chieftain, a hard fighting man sprung out of the stony soil. To the middle class—to a farmer like Julio, for instance, already in some ways pushed out of the money economy—the populism of Menem’s election campaign only meant higher wages for the workers, more inflation, more chaos.
And then Menem, in office, surprised everyone. He turned away from “distributionism”—he didn’t follow Alfonsín down that road; and one by one he began to shed old and fundamental elements of Peronist doctrine. He kept the trade unions, the source of Peronist strength, at a distance. He began to denationalize. He looked—not always wisely—for private buyers for the very many failing state enterprises. (He sold off the telephones; there were newspaper reports that workers who had misused telephone lines were being sacked; so at last, after nearly half a century, there was a chance that the telephone line cobwebs above Buenos Aires might be taken down.) He made a start at cutting the number of state employees, the burden of the twenty-four grades. At the same time he lowered tariffs. At the beginning of 1991 his finance minister, Domingo Cavallo, tied the local currency to the dollar and kept it that way.
Attempts like this to right the Argentine economy, after the Perón period of the 1950s, had been made before, and sometimes by good men; but they had failed. They had been rejected by a country that believed in its great wealth and was still close to the idea of revolution. Argentina had now discovered its poverty; and though there was much cynicism about Menem, and much hardship as a result of his stringency, there was for the time being no revolt. Inflation fell in 1991 to 4 percent a month, and then to 2 percent. In Argentina this was like stability, and it turned out to be what people wanted. In the provincial elections in September 1991 the Peronists—insofar as the words still had a meaning—did very well.
Perhaps only a Peronist could have declared Peronism over, and put an end to that particular Argentine idea of revolution and justice. The revolution had consumed half a century: it had taken the country to depths. It was as though the greed and the cruelty, the ideas of blood and revenge, money and the enemy, ideas beginning with the Spanish conquest and made even more poisonous with the Conquest of the Desert and the European immigration—it was as though the many-stranded passions of the country had never been amenable to intellect, but had had to work themselves out.
Argentina had made people dream too much, Ricardo had said; and now the country wasn’t viable. But this kind of despair was as much of an abstraction as Father Mujica’s revolutionary wish to undo the enemies of the people and develop the human spirit. In Argentina people needed simpler gestures, a simpler morality.
Together with news about the Menem government’s attempt to stabilize the currency, and gossip about the new president’s family life, and conjecture about why the embalmed body of Perón had had its hands cut off, there were reports about the weekly March of Silence, la marcha del silencio, in the northern town of Catamarca. Catamarca, warlord country in the early nineteenth century, and now very poor, was controlled by a single powerful family. A young woman had been murdered in Catamarca. Local people were outraged by the way in which the matter had been hushed up; and in that town, where there had been an authoritarian tradition since the Spanish time, and where now most people (of the twenty-four grades) depended for their livelihood on the patronage of their local rulers, there had started this weekly protest March of Silence, led by a nun. The number of the marchers had grown; the effect had been overwhelming; the federal government had had to intervene. The powerful governor had resigned; someone else had gone to jail. Then the marches had stopped; the nun had returned to her convent. Father Mujica and the guerrillas, in their own eyes New Men confronting injustice, had never done anything as brave, or made a profounder political and moral point. Perhaps no such gesture had been made here in the north since the Spanish conquest.
Catamarca was a late seventeenth-century foundation. It was on the site of an older Andean settlement which the Spaniards had attempted in the early 1550s, just twenty years after the conquest of Peru. This first town or settlement had been destroyed very soon afterward by the local people, not yet abject. Its Spanish name—in honor of the marriage (1554–1558) of Phillip II of Spain to Mary Tudor—was Londres de la Nueva Inglaterra, London of New England.
—This is the second of two articles.
February 13, 1992