I've visited Argentina twice, the first trip in 1982 and the second, with Linda, two years ago. Both trips were great and gave me the opportunity to learn a great deal about the culture. The 1982 trip was in many respects a unique opportunity. I traveled as a member of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange team which, at that time, meant I'd spend six weeks in Argentina with other young professionals. We would be hosted by families in Argentina and have the opportunity to meet professional counterparts in that country. Because of my one semester of college Spanish, I was the third 'best' Spanish speaker which meant I stayed in homes that spoke little or no English. To this day, I can fumble through in Spanish because of the nights spent with kind people who encouraged my efforts to communicate. Those efforts were facilitated, I might add, by generous portions of fine Argentine wines--and more on that later. To top off what was an extraordinary trip by any measure, Argentina declared war on England over the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas) only three weeks into our journey.
By way of background, Argentina is the eighth largest country, by land mass, in the world and stretches from the frigid Patagonian realm of glaciers and tundra in the south to a subtropical northern climate. Around the turn of the century, Argentina had one of the world's most powerful economies--probably in the top five--and was attractive to immigrants from around the world, but particularly Europe. Indeed, more than 86% of the population is of European descent. The largest ethnic group in the country are the Italians, and Buenos Aires is often referred to as the Paris of South American due to the European flavor of its architecture.
The economy, however, sputtered after World War II and remains problematic even today. During our 1982 visit, inflation was over 1,000%. No one saved money because it made much more sense to buy something, anything, before the currency further declined. Today, Argentines will gaze wistfully at the stunning buildings in Buenos Aires and observe that they "built monuments for the empire that never arrived."
The stalled economy is what really gave rise to the Falklands War. Although Argentina has long claimed the islands--tiny, windswept islands that, at the time, were home to sheep farmers of British descent--the controversy had remained diplomatic. However, labor strikes were held nationwide in 1982 and became violent, with over 12 deaths nationally. We witnessed a strike in Rosario, one of the largest cities in the country, and observed a tense confrontation between the strikers and a military force armed with submachine guns. Not my idea of a pleasant afternoon.
Three days later, the military junta announced that they had ordered an invasion of the Falklands. Everyone knew, and our hosts privately admitted, that the invasion was done to distract the nation's attention from the disastrous state of the economy. Initial euphoria over the invasion soon disappeared when ill-prepared young Argentine soldiers, some with only weeks of training, faced combat against crack British troops, including a regiment of Gurka warriors. The end result was a humiliating defeat for Argentina. The silver lining, however, was the resignation of the military the very next year and, since then, the country has enjoyed a series of democratic elections.
One other note before I close this post. There was a significant guerrilla movement in Argentina in the 70's and 80's and the military government cracked down. Many perceived leftists were arrested and simply disappeared. We spoke with one man who had lived with his wife, their son, and daughter-in-law. His son and daughter-in-law had just had their first child. One night, masked men broke in and led his son and daughter-in-law away. He never saw them again. He pointed across the ground at his granddaughter, now being raised by the gentleman and his wife, and said, "She's all we have to remember them by."
The so-called 'Dirty War' was viewed, at the time, by many Argentines as necessary. Subsequently, however, when the extent of the atrocities committed by the government came to light--torture, throwing live captives from helicopters hovering over the Atlantic--the people were outraged. The days of military rule are not fondly remembered.
Under the circumstances--including the fact that America sided with England during the war--we were treated royally by our Argentine hosts. I hope in coming posts to share what I can of a fascinating culture, the bond of drinking mate, and the sensual movements of the dance called the Tango.
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