Tag Archive | "Argentina"

Church and State in Argentina: The Long Road to Secularism

Anyone walking around Plaza de Mayo one morning last March would have been surprised by the sight of the flag of a foreign state hanging from the side of the Buenos Aires City Government building. Foreign flags adorned the streets and children got a day off school to celebrate the appointment of the head of a theocratic country half way around the world.

These were the first days of the pope-mania that swept the country. Blinded by the heady mix of patriotism and religious fervour that greeted the appointment of Jorge Bergoglio as head of the Catholic Church -and of the Vatican State- many seemed to forget that Argentina strongly proclaimed the division between Church and State well over 100 hundred years ago.

Many examples in everyday life show that, despite Argentina being a mostly secular country, the Roman Catholic Church still enjoys a number of privileges that constitute an unfair discrimination against people of other or no religion.

The Legal Status of the Church

Vatican flag on the Buenos Aires City Government building (photo: Celina Andreassi)

Vatican flag on the Buenos Aires City Government building (photo: Celina Andreassi)

The Catholic Church has a preferential legal status that puts it above not only other religious institutions, but any other organisation of civil society.

Article two of the 1853 Argentine Constitution proclaims that “The federal government supports the Roman catholic apostolic creed.” The ambiguity of the word ‘supports’ has spawned a debate over what the relationship between the government and the Church should be, and whether it can be considered that Catholicism is a state religion in Argentina. Lucas Arrimada, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Buenos Aires, explains that: “The legal and constitutional doctrine reached a consensus long ago that the word ‘supports’ is to be understood as ‘economic support’ and not as the concession of a preferential, or official, status to the catholic creed or any other religion or creed.”

A document by the Argentine Coalition for a Secular State (CAEL) points out that, despite the specific mentions to God and religion in the original constitution, the foundational years of the Argentine state were marked by a strong bias towards secularism. Between 1850 and 1920, many laws were passed that define the secular nature of the state, such as those that established free, mandatory, and secular public education, civil matrimony, civil registry, and the subordination of religious courts to civil courts, amongst others.

The development of a secular state, however, was stalled after 1930. In the following decades, every military government to take power introduced measures that slowly eroded the secular trend and established long-lasting privileges for the Catholic Church. The democratic governments during this period managed to, at best, maintain the status quo, but did very little to reverse the conservative policies of the de facto governments, which ranged from the establishment of religious education in public schools, to privileged special relations with the Vatican.

It is not surprising, then, that the legal development that cemented the privileged status of the Catholic Church occurred during a military government. In 1966, dictator Juan Carlos Onganía modified the civil code to award the Church its status as a ‘legal entity of a public nature’ -a status only enjoyed by the national, provincial, and municipal states. This means that the Church, unlike any other non-state institution, is governed by public, as opposed to private, law, and that, as a consequence enjoys a number of benefits, such as the guarantee that its properties cannot be seized.

A Matter of Influence

The pervasive presence of catholic rituals and symbols in public life is a constant reminder of the preferences awarded to the Church mainly during military governments, and which the democratic system has been unwilling or unable to abolish.

Crucifixes in hospitals, courts, and other public buildings, statues of the Virgin Mary in the national and provincial congresses, as well as on roads and public parks, are just the visible and conspicuous face of more troubling trends. In the northern provinces of Tucumán and Salta, public school students receive religious education -Catholic education, more precisely. The Supreme Court of Salta even supported the constitutionality of this practice after it was challenged by the parents of non-Catholic students -overturning a first instance sentence- despite it contradicting international treaties on the matter. The case now rests with the Supreme Court in Buenos Aires -the one with the massive crucifix overlooking the judges’ bench.

Argentina's Supreme Court (photo: Gustavo Amarelle/ archivoTélam/lz)

Argentina’s Supreme Court (photo: Gustavo Amarelle/ archivoTélam/lz)

Education is one of the areas in which religious influence is most sensitive. In practical terms, this has meant, for example, that according to a report by CAEL, the Church “carries out an arbitrary, explicit, and systematic obstruction of the implementation of the national plan for sex education for children and youths contemplated in law 26,150 (…) in some provinces they have even confiscated textbooks in the name of Catholic morals.” In a country where 15% of babies are born to teenage mothers (with peaks of up to 25% in poorer provinces) the Church has lobbied strongly, and quite successfully, to have high school children not learn about contraception.

What to do with unwanted pregnancies, then? The law has not offered a solution to this problem yet, as evidenced by the approximately 500,000 clandestine abortions per year. At least 100 (mainly poor) women die each year of complications brought about by clandestine abortions, though the actual number is thought to be considerably higher. Whilst Congress does not seem to be anywhere close to decriminalising abortion, religious interests have done quite well in blocking access to the few cases where the practice is already legal (rape or health risks to the mother).

Despite the existence of a Supreme Court ruling from 2012 which sought to clarify the terms under which non-punishable abortion should be carried out, restrictive legislation continues to be in place in staunchly Catholic provinces, such as Salta. Even in provinces where this is not the case, relentless campaigns continue to re-victimise and humiliate women who seek legal abortions. In October 2012, a woman victim of trafficking networks who had fallen pregnant after being raped had to endure a traumatic ordeal after the Buenos Aires City government illegally released information about her case, prompting a Catholic ‘pro-life’ group to seek an injunction keeping her from having an abortion at a public hospital. The hospital’s chaplain (chaplaincies are another form of encroachment by the Catholic Church in public institutions such as hospitals and the Armed Forces) led the charge, going as far as holding mass in front of the woman’s house. Unlike Salta, the City of Buenos Aires does a have protocol to treat these cases in line with the Supreme Court ruling, despite the City government’s efforts to veto it.

At What Cost?

The costs of straying from the foundations of a secular state are not just social and symbolic: the Argentine state spends an undefined but significant amount of money in honouring article two of the Constitution.

Rally in support of secular education. Buenos Aires, 1959 (photo: Wikipedia)

Rally in support of secular education. Buenos Aires, 1959 (photo: Wikipedia)

Fernando Lozada, from CAEL, says it is hard to know exactly how much public money flows towards the Catholic Church. The budget for the Secretariat of Worship shows a spending of $40m in wages and pensions for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, who earn 80% of a judge’s salary -a benefit awarded by the last military dictatorship. Catholic schools, in turn, receive a whooping $4.5bn in subsidies each year.

This, explains Lozada, does not include the money the state fails to collect on taxes on income and assets, of which the Church and the clergy are exempt, or the donations given to Caritas, whose accounts are “inscrutable.” It also does not include the donations given by individual municipalities -in his hometown of Mar del Plata, this amounts to $400,000 per year- or the money spent in restoration of churches and other buildings considered monuments.

Representing Who?

Much of the power and influence flaunted by the Catholic Church comes from its claim that it represents the majority of Argentines. Indeed, Argentina has a strong Catholic majority, something that is not at all incompatible with the idea of a secular state.

A survey conducted by Conicet researchers, led by sociologist Fortunato Mallimaci, in 2008 gives a good overview of the religious make up of the Argentine population.

The survey shows that 76.5% of Argentines consider themselves Catholic, whilst 11.3% are ‘indifferent’ (this group includes atheists and agnostics), 9% evangelic, and 3.3% ascribe to other religions. The northern provinces have the highest rates of Catholicism, whilst the lowest rates can be found amongst young people and those with higher education.

Despite these overwhelming numbers, over 75% of people “never” or “infrequently” go to church, and 61.1% claim to connect with good “personally”, rather than through an institution. Further, the survey shows that most Catholics in Argentina do not support the Church’s views on controversial issues such as abortion, sex education, contraception, and homosexuality.

The same research group conducted a study amongst members of Congress in 2011, in which they analysed the influence of religious convictions in their votes. Whilst 60% of lawmakers are Catholic, the majority would vote or have voted against the official Catholic stance on issues such as gender identity, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and medically-assisted reproduction. Despite this autonomy at the individual level, over 90% of legislators believe that, overall, religious convictions and the influence of the Church play an important role in their colleagues’ legislative activity (half of them think this is right, and half think it is wrong). The survey shows that lawmakers frequently meet with Catholic authorities -over half had met with a bishop and 45% with a priest in the year prior to the study- to discuss political and social issues.

Buenos Aires Cathedral (photo by Alexis González Molina on Wikipedia)

Buenos Aires Cathedral (photo by Alexis González Molina on Wikipedia)

Democratic Actions

Whilst there is much to be done to get back on the path towards a truly secular state, it is important to highlight that a number of laws passed in the last 30 years have directly challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and its alleged ‘moral leadership’.

In 1987, then-president Raúl Alfonsín earned himself the scorn of the Church when he pushed the Absolute Divorce Law through Congress. More recently, the Equal Marriage and Gender Identity laws awarded the LGBT community a wide range of rights, despite the intense catholic lobby.

In 1994, under the presidency of Muslim-turned-Catholic Carlos Menem, a constitutional reform did away with some of the most controversial references to Catholicism, namely the requirement for a president to be Catholic and to swear by God and the Bible upon taking office (a requirement that, inexplicably, is still present in the provincial constitution of Catamarca) and the mandate to promote the conversion of indigenous peoples to Catholicism. The reform, however, failed to abolish article two (about the economic support to the Church) and to remove two mentions of “God” in the preamble and the text of the Constitution.

Despite some set backs, there seems to be a general trend towards secularisation, and the extent of the influence of the Catholic Church is ambiguous. CAEL – formed by people and instititions from different creeds/religions, as well as atheists- and other organisations such as the Association for Civil Rights (ADC) are carrying out a number of initiatives to move the secular cause forward.

Campaign for apostasy (photo courtesy of Apostasía Colectiva on Facebook)

Campaign for apostasy (photo courtesy of Apostasía Colectiva on Facebook)

Under the slogan ‘Not in my name’, the Collective Apostasy campaign was launched in 2009, encouraging people who had been baptised at birth but who do not agree with the preaching of the Catholic Church to have their names removed from the Church’s records, as guaranteed by the Personal Data Protection law. Despite the many obstacles put forward by the different parishes, the campaign is ongoing.

CAEL has also introduced a bill in Congress which addresses many of the issues affecting the secularity of the state and has participated in the public audiences related to the reform of the civil code (their request to have article 33 -which grants the Church its status as a ‘public nature’ entity- amended has, however, fallen on deaf ears). There is also a petition underway to replace the public holiday of 8th December -which celebrates the ‘Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary’- with one on 10th December – International Human Rights Day-.

The main concern for secularist groups, however, is the recent wave of Catholic fervour brought about by the papacy of Jorge Bergoglio. In Lozada’s words, “those of us who work for a secular state knew we were going to receive a new onslaught of clericalism in Latin America and in Argentina” when the appointment was announced. Rather than diminishing their efforts, this should serve as a reminder of the importance of establishing, once and for all, a fully secular state that guarantees true diversity and equality for all beliefs.

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Bitcoins in Argentina: A New Safe Haven?

In October last year, when he first heard about the digital currency bitcoins, 23-year-old Colombian student Pedro Delgado knew he had to get involved in some way.

“To me the idea seemed really innovative and super interesting. I said to a friend from university: ‘let’s try to do something with this’, because for me it seemed like this was the moment,” says Delgado.

Bitcoin logoThey began looking for an avenue to use bitcoins and decided to set up a kind of currency exchange in Buenos Aires, buying and selling the digital currency in exchange for Argentine pesos or US dollars.

Delgado’s timing was fortuitous, buying his first bitcoins when they were valued at around US$170 three months ago. The price would peak at over US$1,147 in early December before dropping to US$694 a few days later. Today the price of one bitcoin (BTC) is around US$840.

The volatile price fluctuations demonstrate there is ‘real’ money behind Bitcoin, which first appeared in 2009, just one of the reasons more of the world have started paying attention to it. Once ridiculed as the currency of hackers and called “characteristic of a Ponzi scheme” by the European Central Bank, in 2013 bitcoin came into the mainstream.

Among early adopters of Bitcoin there is an unbridled enthusiasm and conviction that it could potentially change the world due to its decentralised structure. In Argentina, which has the largest community of bitcoin users in Latin America, the currency poses possible solutions to problems such as double-digit inflation, a devaluing peso, and strict currency restrictions, but is not without risk.

What are Bitcoins?

Bitcoin is the first digital currency (other types known as altcoins have popped up since), it is not controlled by a central body, and is traded peer-to-peer over the internet. Bitcoins are divisible by eight decimal places, meaning you can buy a cup of coffee for around 0.0036 BTC.

‘Miners’ use software programs that solve mathematical problems to mint bitcoins. There is a maximum of 21 million coins that will be created, the last expected to be mined in 2140. They are mined at a diminishing rate, meaning the algorithms become harder to solve and fewer bitcoins come into the market. Currently, a miner is rewarded with 25 bitcoins roughly every 10 minutes and 57% of all bitcoins have been mined. It is expected that by 2017, 75% will be in the market.

The other way to obtain bitcoins is to buy them: the first step is to set up a digital wallet to store the bitcoins and then find someone, like Pedro Delgado, to pay hard cash to transfer a bitcoin into your wallet. Tourists and locals alike can get in touch with Delgado or any trader using the website localbitcoins.com. Delgado said he normally meets with buyers, has a short friendly chat and transfers the bitcoins to or from his smartphone to theirs in exchange for cash. The whole process takes around 10 minutes.

Bitcoin exchanges have also been set up where units can be bought or sold on the open market at the going average rate. And, if you happen to be in Canada, you can buy bitcoins using a Bitcoin ATM. Every time a transaction is made it is registered on the Block Chain, a public ledger which doesn’t reveal the identity of traders but ensures each bitcoin can only be traded once.

It is unknown who is behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin. Satoshi, an individual or a group, published an academic paper in 2008 outlining Bitcoin and released a version of the software in 2009, creating the Bitcoin network and first bitcoins. Contact between Nakamoto and the community faded in 2010 – the open source software means the network is not controlled by anyone, rather the entire community of bitcoiners. His or her identity remains a mystery but one could assume Satoshi is living very comfortably if he was busy mining in the early days of his creation.

The Bitcoin Community in Argentina

It is estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 Argentines use bitcoins, making it the largest community in Latin America. According to the Fundación Bitcoin Argentina, around 50 to 60 local businesses accept the currency, and there are several hundred bitcoin miners.

Rodolfo Andragnes, vice-president of Fundación Bitcoin Argentina, says that the popularity of Bitcoin can be explained in part by the country’s economic past and present.

“Argentina is very attentive to all these kinds of things. As a country we, all Argentines, have suffered financial crises many times… They see in Bitcoin an opportunity to avoid the problems that we suffer here,” says Andragnes.

Bitcoin mining hardware (photo: Wikipedia)

Bitcoin mining hardware (photo: Wikipedia)

In December, Belgium investment advisor Tuur Demeester, who is closely connected to the Bitcoin scene in Argentina, fired up the audience at the first Latin American Bitcoin Conference in Buenos Aires declaring: “The true meaning of this Bitcoin revolution is actually that Bitcoin marks the end of monetary apartheid. Bitcoin is the end of financial discrimination and segregation based on nationality and political privilege.”

One advantage Bitcoin offers Argentina is that, due to the finite number of units available, it is a currency that will not inflate. Also, there are fewer regulations when it comes to buying and selling currency as the money does not pass through a central body.

“Argentines are very used to saving money under the mattress because many buy dollars and save in the dollar. There is a culture more prone to this situation,” explains Andragnes.

Last week the peso experienced its sharpest devaluation since 2002 followed by the easing of restrictions for residents wanting to buy dollars. Andragnes says it is too early to tell what impact these changes will have on the Bitcoin market in Argentina; in recent years the currency has been traded at the unofficial ‘blue dollar rate’ as Argentines have been unable to buy dollars from banks.

“To be honest, today I don’t know what kind of impact this will have on bitcoins but I think that Bitcoin is a great solution for most Argentines. People still don’t believe in pesos and are still moving away from them and changing them into dollars or another kind of currency,” says Andragnes.

According to Fundación Bitcoin Argentina, bitcoins are a completely legal and valid form of currency in the country, though so far the government has made no formal comment. Andragnes expects that this will change this year and the foundation is working to build a positive regulatory future for Bitcoin in Argentina.

Diego Gutierrez Zaldivar, President of Fundación Bitcoin Argentina, told the Latin American Bitcoin Conference that the little contact they have had with the government has been positive. “They see Bitcoin as innovation and something that can really improve people’s lives, not as the enemy… I don’t think we will have a problem,” he said.

Bitcoin and Governments

The world's first Bitcoin ATM in Vancouver, Canada (photo: Marc van der Chijs)

The world’s first Bitcoin ATM in Vancouver, Canada (photo: Marc van der Chijs)

Sergio Lerner, a Bitcoin authority, cryptographer, and computer security specialist from Argentina, has reported on several of Bitcoin’s vulnerabilities. Lerner, as well as the Fundación Bitcoin Argentina, doesn’t recommend anyone convert their life savings to bitcoins.

“I wouldn’t recommend that anyone invest all their savings in Bitcoins or any virtual currency… There are chapters in the Bitcoin story that haven’t been written yet – the storyline depends on governments, businesses, developers, and the strength of the Bitcoin community,” Lerner says.

While governments could prohibit bitcoins, forcing the network underground, its peer-to-peer structure would make it near impossible to completely shut down. However, the virtual currency can still be affected by political or regulatory developments: the price of Bitcoin suffered a major blow in December when China, a country with one of the largest communities of Bitcoin users in the world, ruled that Chinese financial institutions could not trade in bitcoins. The price of the currency has recovered and stabilised so far in 2014.

Lerner believes it unlikely that governments would choose this path. He cites the US Senate hearing in November where the general attitude towards Bitcoin was one of tolerance and acceptance of the innovations in the financial sector, “which was classified by the [Bitcoin] community as a Bitcoin Lovefest.”

Furthermore, the FBI has recently come into possession of nearly 30,000 bitcoins classified as the proceeds of crime after the closure of Silk Road, an online marketplace that used bitcoins to sell drugs. A court in the US has determined the coins, valued at almost US$25m and four times their value when they were seized in October, can be sold. As yet, how they will be sold is unclear, but a US government agency trading in the currency would be a clear endorsement.

The Silk Road website has been a source of bad press for Bitcoin, most recently with the arrests of two operators of Bitcoin exchanges in the US, charged with money laundering. Advocates defend Bitcoin arguing that by far the majority of drugs deals globally are conducted using US dollars. In fact, most criticisms of Bitcoin are defended using the logic that the same could be said for traditional forms of currency.

For some, Bitcoin security is a far more immediate concern than government intervention. Lerner explains that bitcoins allow the user to become their own bank, and with that freedom comes risks to security and information. Bitcoins can be extorted or stolen by hackers or be accidentally deleted or lost, like the British man who threw away a hard drive containing 7,500 bitcoins. Lerner raises the novel idea that although bitcoins do not need banks to be traded, their vaults and security procedures may become a useful place for the safekeeping of hard drives of bitcoins.

Another factor that could impact on the price of Bitcoin comes in the form of ‘second generation’ digital currencies such as QixCoin, Ethereum, Ripple, or Dogecoin.

A Platform for Innovation

The growing number of Bitcoiners in Argentina has created favourable conditions for start-up companies operating in Latin America.

“Bitcoin is, for me and for many others, not only a real and tangible financial innovation but also a release of a torrent of ideas about the future of the world. Further, socially, it is a powerful, transformative, and viral idea,” Lerner says.

Physical bitcoins (image: Wikipedia)

Physical bitcoins (image: Wikipedia)

Lerner’s fascination with Bitcoin came from years of working in information security, research in to peer-to-peer systems, and “an eternal interest in resolving everyday problems with innovation and changing paradigms, and a profound rejection of the way some governments enforce their monetary policies.”

Lerner is the creator of FirmCoin, a physical bitcoin token that operates in the same way a bank note does. Bitcoins, or other cryptocurrencies, can be loaded onto the reusable card, which can be used to make and accept payments offline using Near Field Communication, overcoming the problem of poor internet access that may prevent digital transactions. FirmCoins are the evolution of a bank note for Lerner, they include counterfeit prevention and protection against double-spending.

Another Argentine pioneering business in bitcoins is Martín Fernandez, founder of BTCTrips, which allows people to buy international flights with bitcoins, offering travel to India, Australia or Iceland from BTC3.

Bitcoins in 2014

Globally there is a loyal community of ‘Bitcoiners’ promoting an alternative to traditional currencies and a new way to think about money. Entire businesses have already begun paying wages and overheads solely with bitcoins and there are plans to launch Bitcoin satellites to serve as a nodes for the bitcoin network, keeping the system running if it ever came under attack.

It is a complicated universe that divides opinion, concludes Lerner. “Everyone must come to their own conclusions. They must evaluate what their government is doing to protect their savings, and what are the risks and benefits of using a currency without a government.”

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Argentina News Roundup: 26th December 2013

Pomfret Fish (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Pomfret Fish (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Seventy Injured in Fish Attack: More than 70 people have been injured after a shoal of pomfret fish attacked bathers who had taken to the waters of the Río Paraná in Rosario. The injured included seven children, among them a young girl who had part of her little finger amputated in the incident. The attack by the pomfret, which are similar to piranhas, was deemed to be extremely rare by the city’s Undersecretary of Health, Gabriela Quintanilla, who said they only come towards the shore in very specific climatic conditions, and that the last time such an invasion of the fish took place was in the 1970s.

Man Killed in Blackout Protest: A 40-year-old man has been killed after being shot by an off-duty police officer during a protest over blackouts in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Flores. Ángel Duarte was part of a group of protestors who were gathered on the corner of Avs. Directorio and Quirno on Tuesday night, stopping the cars from passing, when a man pulled out a gun and shot at the group. The aggressor, who was later detained, was identified as a off-duty federal police officer who was working in the transit section of the police at the time of the incident.

The country’s energy crisis continues as some homes see their ninth consecutive day without electricity, leading many to spend Christmas without power. Some local resident, furious at the lack of power in temperatures topping 38ºC (100ºF), have cut roads around the capital in protest, with blockades reported in Av. Corrientes and Serrano in Villa Crespo, and a section of Autopista Dellepiane, the highway to Ezeiza airport. Parts of the country are on red alert as a result of the temperatures, with the Health Ministry advising people to stay hydrated, avoid drinking too much alcohol or sugary drinks, and use sunblock and hats if undertaking any outdoor activity.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Argentina, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (1)

Barrick Gold To Reduce Staff at Pascua-Lama Site

Pascua-Lama project site over the Chile-Argentina border (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Pascua-Lama project site over the Chile-Argentina border (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Canadian gold-mining giant Barrick Gold announced over the weekend their decision to significantly reduce personnel at their temporarily suspended Pascua-Lama project site.

The decision was reached after negotiations took place between the corporation and the provincial government of San Juan. According to their agreement, until the last day of this month the company will still employ the 5,000 people working for them. As of January, staff will be reduced to around 3,500 workers. The move will mean the plant, on the border between Chile and Argentina, will see a reduction of 30% in production capacity.

Barrick has agreed to not fully suspend their work in the mines. At the end of October, the company announced plans to temporarily suspend construction activities on their controversial US$8.5bn project due to financial reasons. The company had faced several economic problems such as overspending their budget. Furthermore, a Chilean court demanded they change their water management system after it was deemed not environmentally safe. Adding to this were a series of high profile protests against the project due to the company’s effects on the environment and indigenous communities living nearby.

Their decision to temporarily halt construction meant they could face their mounting economic woes, although the company did claim they would still finish the project in a “phased manner.”

According to their new strategy, reduction of personnel will allow Barrick to decrease their costs. The negotiations between the company and the provincial government were monitored by Mining Secretary Jorge Mayoral. According to sources working on the project: “The new scenario will allow us to plan the rest of the construction work through a phased approach with specific programmes of tasks, budgets, and objectives.” The new approach, they claim, will facilitate planning and execution of the work within a cost-effective model of implementation.

The gold giant also reiterated their priorities in employing and contracting “local employees” and stated they would continue to do so in the future if need be. The company did not discuss which roles would be made redundant and if a pay-out plan was guaranteed to the workers.

Barrick Gold has been reducing staff across the board in their headquarters and mining plants in a bid to cut costs. The company has been facing mounting operational and regulatory issues both at the Pascua-Lama project and abroad, including in Zambia and Saudia Arabia.

Barrick faces a significant long-term debt of US$15bn.

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Ten Ideas to Improve Argentina

(En español aquí)

Argentina is the greatest country in the world and Buenos Aires is the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. This much we’re all agreed on. So how come everyone moans so much? Because that greatness is still a few minor tweaks away from perfection. Simply apply these ten foolproof ideas and a perfect country will be ours.

1. Whisky

Argentines love whisky. Paradoxically, Argentina makes loathsome whisky. Argentine whisky is not so much whisky as whisky-flavoured gut-rot. This is baffling, as Argentina is so good at making wine, craft beer, and hipster aperitifs. While Argentina certainly has the raw ingredients by the barrel-load, the problem is that to make a quality whisky, you need at least ten years of capital investment before you have a saleable product. That kind of long-termism just isn’t going to cut the Savora in the land of “if we can’t fix it within one electoral term we’re probably not interested” carpe diem politics (slogan: “Because tomorrow’s a long way away”™).

The world's largest whisky collection -something to aspire to (photo: Danny Nicholson)

The world’s largest whisky collection -something to aspire to (photo: Danny Nicholson)

However, there is one little pocket of Argentina with a more stable economy, a longer-term business vision, and people who know their whisky. Yes, I’m talking about the Islas Malvinas, or as we Brits like to call them, “The Islands we Stole from Argentina”. By forging peace-loving trade and transport ties, we could bring together British investors, Falklands climate and infrastructure, and young and enthusiastic Argentine entrepreneurs and cereals, and hey presto: “Goodwill Whisky” (slogan: “Make Whisky, Not War”™).

2. Pointless Travellators

There is at present only one pointless moving walkway in all of Buenos Aires, just outside the entrance to Retiro coach station. A travellator that gently conveys you the last 30 metres of that long hike from Mitre station, when it isn’t out of order (it is usually out of order). It is a travellator whose uselessness is made all the more comical by the presence of a potentially useful escalator going up into Retiro coach station (which is usually out of order). Critics claim this horizontalator’s presence is due to escalator-building business interests close to the opaque Macri administration. It is in fact a surrealist-situationist installation symbolising the futility of technological progress, and the hippest thing to happen to Argentina since Susana Giménez bought the rights to Million Dollar Drop.

3. Move Christmas to June

Can you blame him? It's like 40 degrees outside (photo: Piazza del Popolo)

Can you blame him? It’s like 40 degrees outside (photo: Piazza del Popolo)

Don’t get me wrong, I love the way Argentines do Christmas: flip-flops, fireworks and family, a complete lack of TV or crippling expenditure, and an asado by the swimming pool. But let’s face facts: it’s pretty similar to the following week’s New Year’s Eve, isn’t it? And it also means you have to suffer that long, cold short, mild winter without so much as a fairy light or a day off work midweek getting drunk, given that both the 25 de mayo and the 9 de julio celebrations are about as thrilling as pulling a cracker with your gran.

Switch Christmas Eve to 24th June, give the economy a middle-of-the-year boost, and take the rest of the month off. In an act of penance, Justin Bieber will be the first to turn on the June 2014 Christmas Lights on the Plaza de Mayo Christmas tree, before being crucified on a makeshift cross, making Beliebers of us all.

4. A Music Festival

Not a “music” “festival” where a few bands play on two stages over the course of two evenings, the only beer is overpriced Quilmes that you have to drink in a sealed-off, adults-only section, accompanied by a $25 hotdog, and the people are all shitty, pushy city types. That is not a musical festival. That is a weekend-long advert for a mobile phone/beverage company, and not a particularly good advert. I mean a “Music Festival”, one that takes place in an entrepreneurial farmer’s field 200 miles from Buenos Aires, with camping and asados and mud, craft beer and organic food stands, an atmosphere of love, peace and cooperation and lots of middle-class families sitting around in fancy tents, looking smug. That kind of music festival. A kind of Glastonbury-cum-Burning Man thing, you mean? Yeah, something like that. Anything like that.

5. Ban Cars from Buenos Aires.

You heard. Ban cars from Buenos Aires. Replace with trams made from old trains, like the much-missed Brujitas from subte line A, and various other wooden railway carriages discarded all over the country. If you think Buenos Aires is pretty now, imagine how pretty it would be with old trams! Failing that, ban car horns and replace with WhatsApp, using the offending car’s number plate as the PIN (NB The author has never used WhatsApp in his life and doesn’t know how it works. Something to do with phones, apparently.) Failing that, introduce driving tests so that Argentines are given a slightly sterner test than slaloming around traffic cones before being allowed out on the roads to slalom among slow-moving traffic. Probably easiest just to ban cars, though.

6. Guerrilla Gardening


That’s right, the freedom to plant seeds on every grass verge and underused park in the city, the conurbano and anywhere else you want. You can already get free seeds from the government (at least my auntie in Entre Ríos does; I couldn’t find a link. Yay, journalism. [editor's note: we found a link. Yay, journalism.]).

Now you have a space to plant them. “Yeah, but” say the cynics, “you’ll just get dogs pissing and shitting on them”. Easy. Ban dogs. They bark all the time. They shit everywhere. They don’t “get” fireworks. It’s time to put a stop to this foolish “urban dog” experiment.

7. A Steamship Nightclub

Something like this (Auguste Renoir - Luncheon of the Boating Party, in case you were wondering)

Something like this (Auguste Renoir – Luncheon of the Boating Party, in case you were wondering)

A tip for the enterprising nightclub owner looking to offer something a little different. You get an old steamship or sailing boat. You refurbish it with a casino, bandstand, catering facilities. You hire a 20-piece orchestra. You lord it up like you’re Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, minus the religious cult. You impose a formal dress code (tuxedos for the chaps, Great Gatsby threads for the ladies) and charge a pretty penny to anyone who wants to cruise from Puerto Madero to Tigre, from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning, dining on fine cuisine and champagne, dancing tango, foxtrot and Charleston. They’ll have to get the Mitre train or the 60 home from Tigre, of course, but you can only have so much glamour.

8. Civic Pride

You know when you go to Japan, say, or Germany, and you get the impression that people care for their city and make an effort to make it look pretty and clean? And then you think “Ah that could never happen in Buenos Aires because people just wouldn’t respect it and it’d get vandalised blah blah?” Here’s the plan. Walk down your block and pick up every piece of litter, faecal matter, building site debris. Report loose and missing paving stones to the council. Then leave a letter at every building in your block, telling your neighbours what you’ve done, and asking just one of them to do the same thing tomorrow. Someone might copy you. If they don’t, just keep doing it until they do. It’s only one block, it’s not like it’s going to take you forever.

Eventually, goes my naive theory, most of your neighbours will see that there are about 200 of them in any built-up block, and that if each person gives one hour every six months to tidying up, you’ll all live in a pleasant, tidy, well-maintained street. And people are far less likely to litter or sully a tidy, well-maintained street, so after a year it becomes self-perpetuating. “Ah, but” say the cynics, “the council should be doing that kind of thing.” Ah, but they aren’t, are they? And they won’t, will they? Porteños, and foreigners who like to think of themselves as porteños, will get the city they deserve when they put their long-standing cynicism aside and stop waiting for the city government to get round to doing stuff.

9. A restaurant called ‘Azafata’.

A restaurant that recreates the limited joys of in-flight dining. The interior consists of seats salvaged from old aeroplanes. Everyone “boards” at the same appointed time and is offered a choice of just beef or pasta, then wishes they’d ordered the other option. The main course is served at the same time as the salad starter and dessert, a brown blob with some kind of cream sauce. Plastic cutlery and cups are naturally de rigeur – we don’t want any trouble. After dining, passengers are served weak coffee and the lights go out for twenty minutes while the restaurant’s flight simulator simulates extreme turbulence. Sick bags are passed round and the next sitting of passengers take their places. An unforgettable dining experience.

10. A national rail network befitting a country as great as Argentina

A map of the Argentine rail network before and after the '90s (image: APFDA)

A map of the Argentine rail network before and after the ’90s (image: APFDA)

A return to the luxury travel standards of the 1960s. Local trains with impeccable safety and punctuality standards. A national high speed rail network, including the return of the long-distance trains from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, Mendoza and Posadas, and the complete overhaul of the current lines so that you can go from Buenos Aires to Rosario in an hour and cover the 1,200km to Tucumán in just four hours, instead of the current journey time of thirty-something. And with the help of our Brazilian brothers, a trans-continental high speed rail network, making it possible to travel the 2,680km from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro overnight on the world’s chic-est sleeper train. You could catch the 9pm train at Retiro, dine on steak and caipirinhas, and wake up in Rio the following morning. So instead of Argentines going abroad and saying “Qué bárbaro, ¿eh? Esto en Argentina no pasa” the rest of the world comes to Argentina and says “Now, why can’t we do this back home?”

While Christmas is still in December, why not give all your loved ones the gift of laughter and give them the funniest book of the year: Colectivaizeishon, el ingles que tomó todos los colectivos de Buenos Aires. Available in all the bookshops and Mercadolibre.

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Latin America: UN Report Shows Decrease in Hunger, Increase in Obesity

Latin America and the Caribbean

Latin America and the Caribbean

A study published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reveals that whilst hunger is almost eradicated in Argentina, the country has the third highest rate of obesity in Latin America. The study was released this morning in the FAO office in Santiago de Chile.

According to the report, a general decrease in hunger and chronic infant malnutrition has taken place in Latin America and the Caribbean, with 3m people fewer than in the last survey suffering from hunger. Despite this, hunger still affects 47m people in the region.

Of the Latin American countries suffering from the worse levels of malnutrition, Haiti is the most affected, with 49.8% of its population suffering from it. It is followed by Guatemala with 30.5% and Paraguay with 22.3%.

The report says that Argentina, along with Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Barbados, Cuba, Dominica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have already eradicated hunger -defined as a food intake insufficient to cover someone’s minimum energy needs- with 5% or less of the population living in hunger.

The number of those suffering from hunger has halved since the last survey in Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and the Dominican Republic.

The report cites the lower rates of hunger across Latin America as a result of ”economic growth, political compromise and determined public action.”

Regional FAO representative Raúl Benítez spoke during the presentation of the report. He described Latin America and the Caribbean as ”the region that has achieved the biggest advances in eliminating hunger on a global level.”

Despite Argentina’s success in eradicating hunger, the report highlights its rising obesity problem – 29.4% of its population is obese. It is behind Mexico, which has a 32.8% obesity rate and Venezuela, with a 30.8% obesity rate.

Obesity affects 23% of adults and 7% of children in Argentina. Infant obesity has grown by 9.9% in the country in the last 20 years. In Latin America as a whole, a total of 3.8m children under five years of age are obese.

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Violent Clashes in Chacarita as Community Kitchen is Seized

Police Clash in Fraga (Photo: Juan Roleri/Télam/aa)

Police clash in Fraga (Photo: Juan Roleri/Télam/aa)

Residents and police clashed after La Esperanza, a Chacarita community ktichen, which feeds hundreds of children, was occupied by a group of 25 people yesterday.

The violence broke out in a shantytown known as Pabellón Urquiza – or Villa Fraga – as the police tried to evict those occupying the building. Five policemen were taken to the Churruca hospital as a result.

There has been widespread confusion over the group involved in the takeover of the community kitchen in regards to their motives and their origins.

Security Secretary, Sergio Berni, said: “It was a group of people and families who were extremely vulnerable, a group that needed social assistance,” stating that “because of this, we have all been working all day, including with the city government”.

One of those involved in the takeover said yesterday that they occupied the space because “we want a place to live” noting that “there’s loads of land” available. Refuting some rumours, he reiterated that the reasons for the takeover had nothing do to with drug trafficking: “There isn’t a single drug trafficker amongst us.”

Contrary to this, Julia Rosales, head of La Esperanza, said: “They are drug traffickers from here, we know them all. It’s people who live here, who have tried to get rid of the building to make room for houses and sell them.”

Berni confirmed that at around 9pm officials “completed the eviction of the space… and returned the area to calm” thus concluding the disturbances although the group involved threatened to occupy the space again if a solution is not met.

These clashes come at the same time as the publication of a study into the populations living in slums throughout Buenos Aires and six other provinces that make up 60% of the country’s population.

The report details how more than 2.5m people are living in 1,834 villas and settlements in the areas of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Rosario, Río Negro’s Alto Valle, Neuquén, Misiones, and Salta.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Argentina, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (0)

Supreme Court Orders Immediate Action Against Drug Trafficking

Residents of Rosario marched in June against the violence and impunity associated with drug trafficking (photo: José Granata/Télam/aa)

Residents of Rosario marched in June against the violence and impunity associated with drug trafficking (photo: José Granata/Télam/aa)

The Supreme Court has ordered that “urgent measures” be taken in order to stop the drug trafficking problem in northern Argentina.

Ricardo Lorenzetti, Elena Highton de Nolasco, Carlos Fayt, Enrique Petracchi, Juan Carlos Maqueda, Carmen Argibay, and Raúl Zaffaroni unanimously signed the petition for immediate action to be taken to combat the problem.

The statement comes days after the church expressed its concern over the worrying growth of drug trafficking in the country.

The court demanded the Magistrates Council and the Ministers of Justice, Human Rights, and Security to put measures into place, suggested by judges from the north of the country, to combat the “serious problem of drug trafficking”.

The president of the Court, Ricardo Lorenzetti, chaired a meeting on 18th September with government officials and provincial magistrates from northern Argentina, the zone most affected by the trafficking of illegal substances.

As a result of this meeting the tribunal received a report on 24th October detailing the scale of the problem in the Salta-Jujuy region. The following day the tribunal received a report for the Tucumán region.

Various other sectors have expressed grave concern with the issue in the last few days, above all as a result of the tens of deaths and threats against the governor in Rosario.

Security Secretary, Sergio Berni, defended the current measures in place against drug trafficking, stating, “It is efficient”, and that the borders “are well looked after”.

In recent days, various members of the opposition party have pushed the government to strengthen the control measures in force at borders and improve radar systems.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Argentina, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (0)

Know Your BA Expats

¿Te da paja leer en ingles? Leelo acá.
¿Te da paja leer en general y querés la versión audiovisual? Jodete.

There are six basic types of expat* that you will come across in Buenos Aires. They are, in decreasing order of how likely you are to meet them:

(*Disclaimer: The characters described below are entirely fictional and not based on any real-life expats. Except number 4. And number 6.)

expats english teacher1. The “artist/musician/actor/photographer/yeah, I teach English, basically” expat.

Buenos Aires was meant to be the launchpad for her momentous ascent on the global arts world, lauded as the multi-talented human epicentre of a vibrant cultural scene of her own making in the dog shit capital ‘Paris of the South’. But her indie-cumbia-gospel quintet succumbed to local indifference, her acting career highlight was as a 200-pesos-a-day extra in a sexist Quilmes ad, and her paintings resemble angry sheep revisiting their breakfasts. Which is more than you can say for her photography.

All she’s got to show for the last five years is a dog-eared pile of phrasal verb list and TOEFL practice tests, although she’s long lost any enthusiasm for teaching English, instead using her classes to watch Mad Men and chat to her better-looking students about their love lives. Likes to think of herself as more psychoanalyst than English teacher, which is fine because she isn’t really qualified to do either. Eventually moves back to the UK to teach Spanish in high schools and, understandably, commit suicide.

2. The ex-banker frat-boy expat

The fresh-out-of-Harvard, one-time Bright White Hope of the business world, he was the first in the firing line when the credit crunch came a-crunching in 2008. Landing in Buenos Aires with self-important dreams of founding some entrepreneurial-creative-philanthropy money pit, he soon realised that a far better investment was to shoot his huge bank-job pay-off load on five years of unrepentant partaying. His days are spent in his designer hammock or doing something unconventional with a Frisbee, and his nights alternate between Sugar and Magdalena’s Party (he’s been banned from The Alamo). Can’t stop talking about how awesome Creamfields is gonna be this year.

Speaks next to no Spanish, his one attempt at conventional learning coming to an abrupt end when he had sex with his teacher. After the first class. On the desk. But because he’s two feet taller than you, has the most perfect handshake, is always impeccably dressed, and seems at times to perspire money, you know you’d probably marry him if you were younger and dumber and the right gender. Instead, you just resent and despise him and his amazing Palermo loft, as you take the bus home to your damp hovel in Almagro.

(photo via Wikipedia)

(photo via Wikipedia)

3. The yoga vegan enlightened world traveller expat

Hasn’t washed her hair or shaved since she arrived at Ezeiza and writes ferocious blog posts no one reads about the importance of natural beauty, always neglecting to mention that discreet plastic surgery she had on a skiing trip to Mendoza. Pushing 60 but looking early 40s, when she isn’t meditating or whipping up an impromptu lunch of avocado, quinoa and arugula, she’s telling you on Facebook about how she just meditated and whipped up an impromptu etc. and so on. For such an apparently zen-like figure, she gets into an awful lot of fights on Facebook, resulting in major defriendings and midday openings of gin bottles.

Kind of wound up in Buenos Aires by accident, back before she renounced men forever, and now can’t find her way out, so every new day here is a struggle to fight the resentment bubbling just below the surface and keep her chi in check. Has no idea what’s going on in the country she lives in and hence is constantly asking angry questions on Facebook like “Why are all my neighbours shouting?” and “What are all these fireworks for?!?!?” and “Why is X so expensive/hard to find in this damn town?”, to which the answers are 1, Argentina just won the World Cup in a minority sport; 2, it’s New Years Eve; 3, because, well, Argentina.
4. The “actually I prefer to think of myself as an immigrant” expat.

Been here so long, he refuses to mix with any Johnny-come-lately who doesn’t have a DNI and an expired passport with at least 15 Uruguayan stamps. Lives somewhere you’ve never heard of like Villa General Mitre and when you ask him where that is, he snorts “You know Palermo? Yeah, nowhere near there.” Ostentatiously supports an obscure football team in the B Metropolitana which had a brief flirtation with success back in the mid-90s. 

The worst kind of pedantic linguist, he hauls Argentines up on matters of minor grammatical import in their own language, speaks Spanish with a comical cordobés accent because his wife’s family’s from there and having a porteño accent would be, like, so BA “newby”. Insists on speaking Spanish to native English-speakers, with the excuse that “yeah, I don’t really speak that much English these days, actually”. Twat.

(Photo via Wikipedia)

(Photo via Wikipedia)

5. The Pilar/Hurlingham expat

You suspect this one may actually just be an Argentine with a really good English accent, if it wasn’t for that shock of red hair, the cricket whites, and that quintessentially Anglo-Saxon trait of functional alcoholism. Dig a little deeper and it turns out he has distant blood ties with some genocidal Irish-Argentine folk hero and can trace his family tree to Sarah Ferguson and Chris de Burgh. His Argentine wife speaks English with one of those near-perfect RP (River Plate, rather than Received Pronunciation) accents that are the hallmark of an expensive Lenguas Vivas/Joaquín González education, and is incapable of speaking her native Spanish without dropping in and out of English entirely unnecessarily, as in “Deberíamos ir a tomar un nice cup of tea algún día”.  

6. The blogger expat

The massed ranks of the world’s English-speaking press never got back to him about that “Laugh-out-loud column about daily life in Buenos Aires” pitch, but that hasn’t put him off churning out weekly lists of lazy stereotypes of both his expat social group and his gracious Argentine hosts that invariably cause more offence than laughter. Fancies himself as a foodie/wine expert, if only so that he can have a boozy three-hour, five-course lunch without feeling guilty about the path his life has taken. Believes anything that cannot be reduced to a convenient list is not worth writing or reading, and that all forms of humanity and culture can be whittled down to six essential “types”. Spends half his week spamming his own industrious drivel-ridden output on Twitter, since everyone on Facebook except his mum long since blocked the annoying little twerp’s updates.

Additional bitchy stereotyping reporting by Marc Rogers.

Tunnard’s book ‘Colectivaizeishon, el ingles que tomó todos los colectivos de Buenos Aires‘ is out now.

More Tunnard at www.danieltunnard.com

More of Tunnard’s questionable humour at Gringo Standup, Argentina’s finest English-language standup comedy show.

More Tunnard in the Indy:
13 reasons you’ll never truly be an Argentine
How to handle your Argentine in-laws
12 ways to kiss an Argentine
What to expect on holiday in Argentina

(For more Rogers, ask Tunnard).

Posted in Expat, TOP STORYComments (4)

Environmentalists Continue to Protest As Uruguay Renews Pulp Mill Permit

Protestors arrive at the international bridge in October (photo: Julián Alvarez/Télam/dsl)

Protestors arrive at the international bridge in October (photo: Julián Alvarez/Télam/dsl)

Sunday saw further protests from Argentine environmentalists against a controversial decision by the Uruguayan government to allow for an increase in production at the UPM (ex-Botnia) pulp mill.

The protest took place both land and by water. A convoy of 25 vehicles drove to the Uruguayan border from Gualeguaychú whilst a convoy of boats arrived at the plant on the River Uruguay.

The members of the Citizens’ Environmental Assembly of Gualeguaychú, which just two weeks ago declared an environmental “red alert”, marched against both increased production at the plant and against “the silence of Argentine officials.”

In the same weekend, one month after conflict erupted between Argentina and Uruguay over increased production at the pulp mill, Uruguayan president José Mujica renewed the environmental authorisation of operations (AAO) at UPM pulp mill. This came just hours before the deadline extending its validity for a further three years, until November 2016.

As reported by La República of Montevideo, Uruguayan minister of Housing, Land Use and Environment (MVOTMA), Francisco Beltrame, announced that the “ UPM firm is compliant with requirements to reduce its environmental impact, set out by the government for the authorisation of increased annual production by 100,000 tonnes”.

Increased production met strong opposition from Argentine Foreign Affairs Minister Héctor Timerman in early October as well as the threat of taking Uruguay to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

The permit remains conditional on the Finnish firm’s compliance with a series of works relating to the release of phosphorus into the River Uruguay and with the reduction of the temperature of the plant’s effluents. Additionally, further conditions relating to the plant and the disposal of waste were set in place.

The Uruguayan Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, Tabaré Aguerre, stated: “As UPM complied before with all the parameters, the fact that there will now be more in place must be seen by the Argentine government as something positive”.

Posted in Current Affairs, News From Argentina, Round Ups ArgentinaComments (0)

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Five years on from the death of ex president Raúl Alfonsín, we look back at those emotional days in 2009 and reflect on the legacy left by 'the father of democracy'

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