(Enrique Santos Discépolo)
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Enrique Santos Discépolo, supreme poet and lyricist of the tango, once penned these words:
Don’t you see, you poor fool
That whoever’s got the most dough is right?
That honor’s sold for cash, and morals for pennies?
That no truth can withstand two bucks?
The tango is more than a dance. “Nostalgic and forlorn, viewing time present as a misfortune, the tango reflected a total style of life,” writes author Robert D. Crassweller in his sweeping Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina, “a psychology, a creative sensibility that nevertheless expressed the viewpoint of the loser with a fatalism recalling the Moorish strain in the Creole heritage.”
(To the right, tango in the Confitería Ideal)
I thought about such things as I recently wandered Calle Florida and the other streets, boulevards and plazas of this fascinating city, listened to tango in the ancient Café Tortoni, and danced it in the century-old Confitería Ideal.
(To the left, tango in the Café Tortoni)
I thought about them while reading the newspapers, too, with voters lining up to choose between the Peronist Daniel Scioli and the neo-liberal Mauricio Macri for president. Twelve years of Kirchnerismo—the pro-worker, neo-Peronism of the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina—were coming to an end, and the question was whether Argentina’s fragile economy will continue to march forward from the disastrous bankruptcy and depression of 2001 or turn back the clock to those bad old days.
Macri, the well-do-do former businessman-turned-mayor of Buenos Aires, won the election, but the ghosts and legacies of Juan Peron and the Kirchners will haunt him if he attempts to implement the “austerity” politics that helped get Argentina into trouble in the first place.
I talked to workers along Calle Florida who were passing out anti-Macri literature. Hernan Pose and Rodolfo Olmos, both members of the CTA (Central de trabajadores de la Argentina) workers organization, told me they worried about the conservative Macri’s policies on public education, immigration, debt and credit issues.
(To the right, Argentine workers Hernan Pose on the left and Rodolfo Olmos on the right)
Argentina was an early victim of global neo-liberal business practices that take productive companies and run them into bankruptcy by saddling them with huge, unpayable debt while enriching the corporate pirates who ran them and as well as those who buy and sell them and blame the workers for their problems.
This story is eloquently told in Sin Patrón, a book by the Lavaca Collective (a worker-run collective of journalists in Argentina) about how workers themselves took over approximately 170 such companies in the early 2000s and brought them back to life.
Argentina was once one of the six richest countries in the world. Vast with its own “Wild West” history that includes the elimination of native cultures as a cost of the land’s Europeanization, this is a country that saw itself as a potential global leader, not an economic basket case.
There is a sense of unfulfilled mission in Argentina. Its most famous politicians, Juan Perón and his wife Evita, created hope in many of a glorious future, but in their wake came a brutal dictatorship and ongoing divisions between Perónists and anti-Perónists.
The tango can be heard everywhere in Buenos Aires. It’s in the streets as well as the old halls where the great tango king Carlos Gardel, “El Zorzal Criollo” (“The Creole Thrush”), used to sing. Nostalgic and fatalistic, indeed, but glorious, too, and mysterious with the potential of all mysteries for either good or bad.
I’ll return soon to Argentina in another column that will look at the country’s open-door policies toward immigration.