Saturday, November 01, 2008

Living Democratically: 25 Years to Life?

Some personal values become even clearer when living in a different culture.

Take democracy, for instance.

Living in a democracy was something I took more or less for granted growing up in the United States. Seeing military coups, dictators, and juntas come and go seemed less likely than happening upon purple cows and flying pigs.

The former were things that happened in other people's countries (and alas, as I was to discover, often aided and abetted by the United States). Now I live in one of those countries.

Yesterday Argentina celebrated 25 years of continuous democracy. Hurray!

Although established as a democratic republic in 1810, elected leaders have only managed to hold the reins of government for about 158 years during two centuries, and even some of those elections were considered outright fraudulent. (Signicant election fraud was also something I never expected to see in the U.S.)

My 59-year-old husband observes that he has lived under democratic rule for only about two-thirds of his entire life. He gets misty-eyed every time the subject comes up of Raul Alfonsin's election in 1983, after seven years of brutal rule by a military junta that kidnapped and murdered as many as 30,000 citizens for daring to espouse more liberal ideas (or being suspected of espousing those ideas or being suspected of associating with those who espoused such ideas) . With shock and sadness, I absorb accounts of the last junta and the Dirty War and the continuing revelation of gravesites and "recovered" children who were born of mothers detained in torture centers. I am left speechless by the horror.

What it might be like for me to live under tyranny remains impossible to imagine--although the current high-handed government which cares little for Congress or divergent views gives me a taste of its ugliness. Diversity of opinion is not welcome under dictators or under Peronism. (Some of my neighbors here tell me that the problem with Cristina is that she imagines that she was Queen with absolute rule, rather than merely President, with a need to develop a shared vision and consensus. But she has had to give in to public opinion and sheer intransigence on farm policy and may have to make concessions in her nationalization of pensions.)

Had there still been a dictatorship here, I would never ever have moved here. I'll be on the next plane if I ever sense that one is on the way, which seems very unlikely for now. All the same, I will never ask for Argentine citizenship. I will always be a U.S. American. I still value my US citizenship, visit regularly, own property, and pay taxes there. I get to vote absentee for Federal offices, so I did just cast my ballot for President and Vice President. I will always remain loyal to the shared ideals of my culture, of democracy, liberty, justice, and equality for all. Those stand as our cultural ideals despite violations by any sitting President and or Congress.

Those cultural beliefs permeate my life 24:7, not just on voting day. It colors how I think most social institutions should be run, including the family, state and church. As far as I can tell, these views are NOT shared by the typical Argentinian, whose formative experiences as a child, student, citizen, and Catholic result in an acceptance of hierarchies and one's general powerlessness. There is no Attorney General to call when the insurance company delays payment for damages for four years. There is no legislator to call when the residential streets have more potholes than pavement, unlike New York, where Alfonse D'Amato was proud to be known as "Senator Pothole" for his responsiveness. Parishioners do not choose their priests or elect governing officials. The provincial Ministries of Education determine school budgets, books, and rules.

From my observations in this small provincial city, feminism has not made a dent here. Women unquestioningly continue to do the bulk of domestic duties even while holding outside jobs as well. Nor do they rise often to powerful corporate posts. Finally, don't be fooled by the visibility of women in government: Many of those with high government posts are escorted there on the arm of a husband or brother, including the current President (whose husband preceded her) and the Minister of Social Action.

At times the differences in our experiences of "living democratically" even show up in our intercultural marriage. Most notably, I expect that we will talk through major issues (finance, vacation, car purchase, job changes) and aim for consensus before acting, whereas Roberto, who consciously is very egalitarian, slips into a mode of acting without consulting and then getting shocked when I express disapproval afterwards. Offering various opinions, brainstorming until we find a mutually acceptable one is simply not a habit with him as it was for me in my prior roles in my family, university career, and civic and church volunteering.

Words like "assertiveness" and "consensus" are not common here. In fact, I attended a business seminar in which the trainer spent fifteen minutes introducing the concept of "assertiveness" to a mystified audience. While Argentinians are delightfully sociable and have intense meaningful friendships, they have not yet transformed that kind of relational magic into the realms of business, church, and state. One can easily be equals here when love, but not money or power or salvation, is at stake, it seems.

Dialogue is missing. Assertiveness is missing. To believe in those one must first believe one has some power to influence. And that too is missing. So instead of dialogue and reasoned opposition, Argentina ends up with general apathy about politics, lots of suspicion about corrupt politicians, and endless street protests and encampments in front of government offices. As I recall, Elizabeth Janeway in analyzing the power of the weak found that a principal tool is passive aggression: When you don't have the power to do, you use the only power you have, which is to block the doings of others.

I love living here in Argentina. I love my Argentine husband and my Argentine friends, the vast Pampa, Buenos Aires, the mountains, the glaciers, the desert, the forests.. . . and yet I keep wondering:

How wonderful would it be if democracy ran truly deep and strong and permanently here in Argentina. What kind of political, entrepreneurial, spiritual, social, and personal energy would be liberated to create a really great country? I wonder. . . and I hope.


TangoSpam said...

I truly understand what you are saying especially after living here for 4 years. Your perspective is interesting. I never saw the power as passive aggressive, but I guess in many ways it is.

Wanda said...

I have always lived in the states. This is the first time, however, that I am excited to be voting. I think about what I would do if our government became a "regime" and where I would go. I have no answer. I just know that at this point, even though the politics sometimes get ugly, I can't think of anywhere I would rather live full time.

Now travel...that's another matter!

Fabricio said...

Hi... I hope you having a good time living in Argentina. I was born and raised in Rosario and have been living in Los Angeles for the last 10 years. Argentine democracy is still young and your wish may one day come true. Living in Argentina made me realize that the fear of a right-only government will always remain. I also believe that there is no one government that fits all countries and of course Argentina is no exception. I am glad you visited Rosario. It was an amazing city to grow up in...

Gayle said...

Thanks for the feedback, readers. And Fabricio, may I assert that I LOVE your native city, the wonderful port city of Rosario. . . and it has had a progressive, socialist government for almost 20 years. You should see the economic development in tandem with improved infrastructure and even more public parks!!

It makes me long for the same here in San Nicolas. Most of my living kin would be shocked to hear me support a socialist government, but then again, they don't live here...except for my grandpa Jack--who would buy me a drink!

Wanda said...

I'd buy you a drink, too. Democratic socialism has a lot to recommend it, I think.

Fabricio said...

Tell me about it Gayle... I remember voting for Binner when he went for city mayor