There can be no turning 200 without regrets. Even so, the element of wistfulness was bound to be especially prominent in the Argentine case. The surprise for me as a yanqui spectator auto-marooned these past few years in Buenos Aires, while I wandered up and down the Avenida 9 de Julio, picking my way through the throngs of Argentines out celebrating the May Revolution of 1810, was that the experience of the bicentennial should at once look so joyous (as polls of the huge numbers who took part later confirmed) and that the official commemoration of two centuries of Argentine history should at the same time concentrate on the darkest passages in the country’s history. On the occasion of the big parade, fighter jets flew overhead and gauchos rode by on horseback, just as you might expect. But there were also actors depicting militant workers cut down by paramilitary gangs in the “tragic week” of 1919; a gigantic installation, suspended on guy-wires, of the constitution in flames; a float portraying the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who campaigned to know their missing children’s whereabouts during the ruling junta’s frenzy of state terrorism in the late ’70s; and another troupe of actors, in business suits, tossing funny money to the crowd in much the way — this was the idea — that the Argentina of the ’90s had plunged into a delirium, soon punctured, of fictitious prosperity. Still, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me to see raucousness and grief consorting. To pretend that the country’s history had been a happier one would no doubt have been to repress emotion more generally, including joy at being Argentine, whatever such argentinidad may mean: Argentines seem to find it significant about themselves that they can’t say.
Argentina is hardly the saddest country in the world, but it has often been felt to be the most tragic. The sentiment derives in part from an envious glance at other large settler colonialist countries — the US, Canada, Australia — that secured measures of peace and prosperity unknown here for generations. A vast country, eighth largest in the world, endowed with a long Atlantic coastline, the endless fertile plains of the pampas, a deep trove of mineral wealth, and torrents of fresh if muddy water, its bounty prompted the rather blasphemous fin-de-siècle boast Dios es argentino — God is Argentine — and for much of its earlier history the republic struck natives and new arrivals alike as teeming with potential wealth. That such a country could only prosper in the hands of a relatively small population of overwhelmingly European extraction appeared a near certainty to many observers, well into the 20th century. And for a while the figures did look good. Argentina’s economy was by 1910 the ninth largest, with a per capita GDP superior to Germany’s. The French expression riche comme un Argentin dates from this time. Today it could only sound sarcastic.
Of course the riches of the belle époque were not very evenly distributed. Often prophesied to one day resemble the US, Argentina at its first centennial was no less guilty than the rest of Latin America of the region’s original and abiding sin: the monopolization of the land by an oligarchy. So immigrants who in the American Midwest might have joined the yeomanry became, in Argentina, peons and sharecroppers. For the more numerous urban masses, little existed in the way of an industrial economy to absorb them into decently paid work. Property qualifications meanwhile restricted the vote to those with whom it could be trusted; and the government of 1910, the better to celebrate Argentina’s first “cien años de libertad,” suspended the constitution, imprisoned thousands of trade unionists, shuttered the anarchist press, and deported a hundred more undesirables. These tactics would come to seem both modest and premonitory in light of subsequent bouts of repression, culminating in 1976 — after a sixth military coup since the Depression — in the Proceso de Reorganizatión Nacional. The dictatorship disappeared, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of citizens suspected of leftist activity, before expiring ignominiously after defeat in the Falklands War with Britain (a conflict which Borges memorably compared to two bald men fighting over a comb).
Borges himself finally quit “that bad habit, Buenos Aires,” in 1986, and went abroad to die, in Geneva. Belated disgust at the dictatorship, which surrendered to free elections in 1983 after having run up a foreign debt almost as extravagant as its body count, seems to have influenced his choice of an exile’s death. Two decades earlier, he had still been able to imagine, patriotically, an oath sworn by the country’s founders “to be something unknown to them, to be Argentines.” “No one is the homeland — but we all are,” had been the refrain of his ode to Argentine blankness and potential. By the ’80s and after, the ringing emptiness of the country, of its land and national identity, had come to tell more of devastation than of promise. Nor did prosperity return with democracy. In the southern summer of 2001 – 02, Argentina suffered one of the world’s worst economic collapses since the Depression. In a country that had been a byword for economic calamity for decades, this tended to suggest, in the way of an addict’s relapse, a hopeless case.
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