When I returned to Buenos Aires in December 2004 for the first time in three decades, I found a city transformed almost out of recognition. The most striking impression was of an urban space that had multiplied and diversified: where once there appeared to be only one city, now several grow and overlap. A journey into my own past became an encounter with a contradictory, globalised present.
The first Buenos Aires is a typically poor Latin American city of shabby streets fronted by strident advertisements offering cheap phone calls, branded clothes and electronic goods. But look above and behind, and a second city appears. Here, the garish billboards do not quite conceal ornate European buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their graceful Doric columns, art deco doorframes and angels with vacant eyes.
Also by Mariano Aguirre in openDemocracy, “America underneath New York” (November 2004)
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The “dirty war” of the Argentinean state against the political left of the mid-1970s drove me into an adulthood of exile. I can no longer call Buenos Aires “home”. But close my eyes, and thirty years fall away. Then, we walked along Calle Corrientes visiting bookstores that never closed and European-style cafes for endless discussions about culture and politics.
A few steps away is Calle Lavalle, once home to dozens of cinemas where we devoured the films of Gilles Pontecorvo and Bernardo Bertolucci that the 1966-1973 dictatorship had censored. Many of these are now sites of evangelical churches and sects. The restaurants we frequented late into the night have also disappeared, but one cinema on nearby Avenida Santa Fe has been converted into the El Ateneo bookstore-café. The intellectual life – lively theatre, creative films and constant publication of fiction and essays – remains intense.
Most of us who walked along these streets in the 1970s wanted radical political change. We debated which path the coming social revolution would follow: the indirect route of national anti-imperialism through Argentina’s own Peronism, a traditional insurrection as mapped by Lenin and implemented by Che Guevara, or the peaceful path that Salvador Allende had initiated in Chile. Some supported a violent approach while others of us disagreed, questioning the similarities between Hanoi and Buenos Aires.
The future golpistas who were already planning the next, even more brutal dictatorship had no such doubts about violence. From 1974, an escalating military conflict involved two guerrilla groups, the Peronist Montoneros and the Revolutionary Army of the People, and the paramilitary Argentinean Anti-Communist Alliance (AAA). A pervasive image of 1974 remains in my mind: a Ford Falcon whose AAA occupants, in black sunglasses, brandish sawn-off shotguns through the windows. Today, I feel uneasy seeing the same cars, now privately owned, passing by on Calle Córdoba, reminders of past deaths.
The military regime that seized power in 1976 went on to assassinate and “disappear” around 30,000 people – students, workers, activists – and drove many more into exile, until its own implosion in 1983. Some of its targets went underground inside the country, becoming moles to survive a regime that called itself el proceso (“the process”). Even amidst the repression, they sought to defend labour and human rights.
Not far from Calle Lavalle, the deeper social consequences of Argentina’s recent political experiment become apparent. Lavalle Plaza stands beside the impressive Colon Theatre that once housed Argentina’s most renowned opera singers and conductors. There, hundreds of homeless people now sleep, and workers from a bankrupt company live in tents in front of the nearby courthouse.
Walking eastwards, you descend to the port where generations of immigrants – Italian, Spanish, Jewish, Irish, British, Turkish, Lebanese, German and Japanese – once arrived in the “new world”. Here, the port’s cranes have been transformed into beautiful, illuminated decorations and the docks into luxury homes, expensive restaurants and fashionable shops. This is Puerto Madero, a wealthy neighbourhood where the young beneficiaries of the speculative capitalism of the Carlos Saúl Menem years (1989-99) anchor their yachts and flaunt their expensive cars.
Menemism dismantled and sold the most advanced welfare state in Latin America, accelerating the liberalisation that had begun in the 1960s. The fate of the railway stations built by British companies in the Victorian era is emblematic: Menem privatised these stations and the neo-colonial buildings sunk into a state of filth and abandonment. Now, they are “hot zones”, private rather than public spaces, and people are discouraged from entering.
President Menem privatised everything that he could and charged for each transaction (Argentinean justice is investigating him on arms-sales corruption during the wars of ex-Yugoslavia). In this proceso a new elite made themselves rich. “They even sold the racecourse and the zoo”, a taxi-driver told me. “Menem even privatised the monkeys.”
If the brutal militarism of the 1970s shattered Argentinean civic politics, the pitiless capitalism of the 1990s – designed to project the country into the forefront of globalisation – polarised its society. Poverty, previously far less widespread than in other Latin American countries, emerged as a structural condition. The extended middle class, a social element that distinguished Argentina from the rest of the continent, was crushed in a miasma of hyperinflation and currency collapse in December 2001.
The corrosive effects of Argentina’s crisis are visible in the dirty, worn condition of the majestic buildings in La Ciudad, the financial district near the presidential residence. Many banks are still covered in graffiti demanding the return of money owed to ordinary people whose savings were wiped out in the crash.
The arrival of new immigrants is a sign that Buenos Aires is crawling out of the pit and transforming itself at the same time. In the last generation, economics and geopolitics have propelled people from South Korea, Russia and Ukraine, Iran and the Arab world to the city. In almost every street, school, and neighbourhood, they render obsolete the still-common misperception of a white, European populace.
In the busy southeastern district of Once, Koreans have mostly replaced the Jewish shopkeepers who once sold clothing wholesale. They employ Bolivians and Paraguayans to work in their workshops and small factories. Shopkeepers from across Argentina and neighbouring countries come here to buy clothing in bulk to resell.
If work has become internationalised in Argentina, so too has poverty. The impact is palpable in Lower Flores, thirty years ago a lower-middle-class area, now a depressed zone where already dilapidated homes are being swallowed up by the encroaching shantytown. On this frontier between decadence and new poverty, South Koreans, Bolivians and Paraguayans live side by side. Signs in Korean announce beauty salons, convenience stores, churches and religious sects. I pass three middle-aged Koreans sitting on chairs along the pavement. I imagine myself to be a global citizen, but they think I’m now the foreigner in this city.
New rich, new poor, new city
In northern areas like Palermo Chico, Libertador Avenue and Calle Alvear, patrician families continue to occupy mansions by French and Italian architects. Before 2001, many of them supported Menem despite the aristocracy’s ingrained hostility to the Peronist populism that held power from 1946-1955 and 1973-1976. A waiter explained to me that Argentina’s recent economic collapse“…didn’t touch them. Those in power warned them about the coming closure of the banks and those who still held funds in Argentina withdrew their money, saving everything. Their only experience of the crisis was the distant murmur of people protesting in front of the banks and the president’s house.”
Even further north, the new rich from the Menem decade have planted condominiums, country homes and apartment duplexes on the city’s periphery. Many are within luxurious gated communities or urban villages, surrounded by security guards and electronic surveillance systems. While sections of the depleted middle class call for more stringent policing, the new elite responds to increasing criminality and police corruption by seeking to isolate and protect themselves from the rest of society.
The sociologist Maristella Svampa writes in La brecha urbana (Capital Intelectual, 2004) that Buenos Aires has been transformed from an “open city” founded on a European model into one of social exclusion. The new model is defined by inequalities, restricted citizenship and inherited privilege. The rich can satisfy their needs through private service providers while the majority of citizens can only demand security and welfare from a dismantled state.
The route from the city centre to the Ezeiza airport follows an elevated highway. As I passed along it, I looked down on the roofs of the city’s traditional neighbourhoods. From here, Buenos Aires appears both unpopulated and infinite; it looks like one place but it is many. On every street corner there are invisible borders of class and identity. I hear sirens and the echoes of those Ford Falcons that carried away so many people who will never return. Once again I am leaving this “city of many cities” that Jorge Luis Borges could not imagine was once “created” because, despite everything it was “eternal, like the air and the water”.
This article was translated from Spanish by Megan Burke