Don't Cry for Argentina
To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is immortal.
~ Jorge Luis Borges
Everything is illuminated against its opposite; truth against fallacy; light against darkness; life against death. And who would have it any other way, even if they could? What would life, for instance, be without the eternity of its terminally mysterious counterpoint?
If there exists a perfect setting for these and associated meditations, it must surely be the magnificent Recoleta Cemetery, located right here in Buenos Aires. On any given weekend, this sacred resting place for thousands of the city’s most famous – and infamous – people is found to be one of the liveliest places in town. Notable internments include a who’s who list of Argentine writers, painters, poets, musicians, scientists and luminaries from other noble fields of interest. And, because nothing, including death, is beyond the law of equilibrium, a handful of politicians also rot underfoot.
Tourists pour in to adorn Maria Eva Duarte de Perón’s grave with flowers, bypassing the resting place of a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and a dozen honest writers to do so. Other, temporary attendees pose with bright smiles to have their picture taken beside the weeping cement angels, frozen, as they are, in a state of perpetual sorrow. Young boys give the “peace” symbol next to the resting places of generals whose armies laid waste to tens of thousands of men, the bodies of whom are long forgotten, their own graves unmarked.
Nowhere does irony live a fuller life than in a cemetery.
Walking around the grounds, reading the dates on the tombs, one is reminded of the finite nature of all things; organisms, currencies, political regimes, class structures. When the cemetery was constructed, in 1822, it must have been a good ride from the exclusive barrios of San Telmo and Montserrat. The rich probably wouldn’t have been caught dead around the grounds of the Monks of the Order of the Recoletos, nor near the shabby, patchwork graveyard that was built there the same year the group disbanded.
Half a century later – and with Argentina still reeling from the War of the Triple Alliance and it’s own, subsequent civil war – a yellow fever epidemic tore through the capital city. Its wealthier, southern quarters were among the worst hit areas. Death toll estimates range from thirteen to twenty-five thousand. The clase alta packed up and moved north, largely into and around the Recoleta barrio. As such, the marbled vaults came to be populated with members of this same aristocracia, who, though they escaped the fever, came to rest here eventually just the same.
Today, you could buy an entire building in San Telmo for the same price as some of the finely appointed homes in Recoleta. An entire block in Montserrat might go for half that much.
And so it goes. People die…cities and empires crumble to the ground…and time, indifferent to the fleeting anguishes and triumphs of men, presses on.
At the turn of the 20th century, Argentina was ranked as the 8th most prosperous nation on earth. Only Belgium, Switzerland, Britain and a handful of former English colonies – including the United States – were more favorably positioned, economically. In 1913, Argentina’s bustling, cosmopolitan capital, Buenos Aires, had the thirteenth highest per capita telephone penetration rate in the world. Her per capita income was, around this time, 50% higher than in Italy, almost twice that of Japan and five times greater than its northern neighbor, Brazil. Argentina’s industry churned out quality textiles and frigorificos (refrigerated ships) carried her prized beef, first introduced in 1536 by the Spanish Conquistadors, from the fertile plains of the pampas to the farthest reaches of the known world.
As the century wore on, protectionist policies at home and increased competition from the post-WWII, export-led economies abroad colluded to undermine Argentina’s international edge. From 1900 through to the beginning of the new millennium, Argentina’s real GDP per person grew at a rate of 1.88% per year. Brazil outpaced her handily, clocking a 2.39% annualized growth rate. Japan, starting with a real GDP per person of just over $1,500 (2006 dollars) at the turn of the twentieth century, grew an average of 2.76% per year. By the middle of this decade, Japan’s real GDP per person was double that of Argentina.
War, currency debasement, civil unrest, military rule and the usual catalyst of politicians, equally corrupt and inept, all conspired to stultify Argentina’s vast potential. The great Argentine poet and essayist, Jorge Luis Borges, described one such retarding factor with characteristic flare and wit: “The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb.”
On a comfortable Sunday afternoon, late in the spring of 2010, an elderly group of men met at their favorite restaurant, right by the gate to La Recoleta Cemetery, for lunch. They took a table outside, one in the shade and with a view of the passing foot traffic. The waiters, having brought the men the same thing, more or less, every Sunday for as long as they could remember, immediately set about filling their table. There was bife de lomo with achuras and chorizo sausages, mozzarella and buffalo tomatoes and papas fritas by the pile. Rich, Argentine Malbecs and Carbenets flowed freely and the merriment of the group soon became infectious. They flirted with the pretty waitresses and joked with patrons at the nearby tables.
After more than a few bottles, one of the gentlemen got chatting with an Australian editor of no particular importance.
“I am a judge here,” he eventually told the younger man. “My friends and I have seen it all in this city…riots, economic crises, war, people’s entire life savings wiped out overnight.”
One of his friends lent over and placed a knowing hand on the judge’s shoulder. “Today, we enjoy the moment,” he said to his lifelong friend, before adding, with a hearty laugh, “because tomorrow…ha ha…well, you know our next stop old man.”
In the background, the sun had already begun to fade from the domes atop La Recoleta Cemetery.