Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Celebrating the Bicentennial. . . Sort Of

Yesterday Argentina celebrated a Bicentennial of sorts, commemorating its first government independent of Spain, at least in Buenos Aires.

No doubt we’ll see additional festivities celebrating the Declaration of Independence (July 9, 1816), which marked the beginning independence for the whole country. In fact, a lot of South American countries will be doing the same, remembering the epoch of their freedom fighters, led by Generals Bolivar and San Martin.

But what is there to celebrate, really?
It seems to me to be kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we can honor those who had the courage and vision to change the world by liberating these lands of the tyranny of foreign kings and queens. On the other hand, the last two centuries have seen plenty of home-grown tyrants, whether they assumed the post through "elections” or by force. (And yes, I know that some of these were aided and abetted by foreign powers,
 including the U.S., but that is for another discussion.)

I’ve asked locals what the Bicentennial means to them. . . and the answers revolve around family barbecues, parades, exhibitions, and the re-opening of the magnificently restored Colon Theater. No one mentions any great pride in the way Argentina has governed itself for the last 200 years or any hope for a better future.

And some are unaware of the holiday. When I gave our housekeeper the day off with pay, she had no idea what it was for. At the same time that she was pleased at being offered a paid holiday, I saw she was a bit puzzled about my enthusiasm for an historical event about which she knew nothing. (Growing up in the remote province of Chaco, she had to quit school at age 8 to pick cotton. What does that say about education and equal opportunity?)

"National independence" has little value, in my opinion, if it is not followed by an appreciation for the interdependence and well being of all its residents. What good is an independent country that does translate its power and resources into a better life at every level?
Alas, very little happens here that promotes the development of individuals and communities. Just drive through most any place far from Buenos Aires and you’ll think you traveled back in time. The view most people offer me of politics: the typical leader quickly tries to reap as much personal profit and strengthen his or her hold on the reins of government in order to keep dipping his/her hands in the till. Sadly, many just accept as “the way things are.”

You won’t be seeing any so-called Tea Parties here! At the grass roots level, I sense that ordinary people feel rather disempowered by the “system.” When things go wrong, they cannot call a "senador" or "diputado" and complain, as voters do in the U.S. (Remember Alfonse D'Amato, the "pothole Senator" from NY known for his constituent services?).
From the legislative and justice systems to schools and mail, things just do not work well here, and complaining or organizing is seen as pointless. Most residents just quietly accept the status quo, and others organize street protests that snarl traffic endlessly in "grand Buenos Aires." While this may seem a rather passive aggressive approach to citizen action, if these groups had money, they’d be wheeling and dealing with federal or local officials, making deals and bribes, as that is how things are frequently done.)

So what is there to celebrate, really?

Political independence ought to be tied to the notion of greater personal control (as celebrated in new cinematic version of Robin Hood, which shows the English barons attempting to wrest control from King John, which eventually lead to the signing of the Magna Carta.)
In today’s Argentina, the sense of personal agency seems much diminished, certainly in comparison to the US, and I can see why. People do have less control. (This constant experience of no power does have a benefit: My Argentinian friends are better than I am at acknowledging that and then moving on to focus on other sources of meaning and pleasure. I admire that, though at times I wonder if they don’t then give up some control that they might have since they expect so little.)

As Transparency International regularly notes, political corruption is seen as rampant here, about on a par with central African countries. The rules of the game can change overnight with a few well-placed phone calls, as the recent bizarre import prohibitions show. The country is always for sale to those who are willing to play those games. Sometimes Argentina reminds me of the island in Lord of the Flies. My heart breaks for the honest, good people I know who lose in a system where power is openly used for personal profit rather than national development.

Where are the San Martins of today? Where are the real leaders with a vision of a better future for all citizens? There are no signs of anyone or any group emerging who could ignite the kind of passion and hope that would unite this country.

If I could give Argentina a real birthday present, it would be this:

A shared vision of a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I have no idea where that might be found, but I do know that it is not for sale anywhere.

1 comment:

Katie said...

Thank you for this very thoughtful post, Gayle. Over at Seashells and Sunflowers, we've gotten into a debate about whether the Argentines are, on the whole, patriotic. I quoted your post here to support my argument that there is a lack of patriotic spirit in this country. Take a look and chime in with your thoughts if you have a moment.