Wednesday, June 20, 2007

M-enemy of the State

Yep, we met Menem the other night. I am talking, of course, about Carlos Saul Menem, ex-Presidente de la Republica Argentina (1989-1999). Please see the most authoritative source on everything, Wikipedia, for more info: Or, you can visit Menem's official website, which I'm sure is very balanced and unbiased:

As I mentioned in a previous post, officials, ex-officials and other bigwigs in Argentina are apparently keen on meeting law students from Harvard and Yale, regardless of the fact that we are all students of human rights and tend to, um, have strong opinions about certain things. Anyway, the Yale kids (who are here on some sort of exchange program with la UBA) had this meeting set up with Menem and we Harvard mooches tagged along.

The meeting took place at el Hotel Presidente, a place which has apparently been stuck in a special, polyester-covered timewarp since 1976 or so. Menem received us in a little meeting room upstairs, and shook all of our hands as we entered the room. The entire encuentro with Menem was fascinating because the guy is such a politician (and a laywer, which also helps). He skillfully dodged or deflected all of the "pressing questions" we asked about human rights, development, economic reform, and so on. Also, he mixed in a healthy dose of unabashed campaign propaganda, since apparently, as I mentioned above, he is gearing up to run for President in the upcoming elections.

The first question, from one of the Yale kids, had to do with Menem's thoughts on why Kirchner (the current president of Argentina) refers to himself as a Peronist, even though Menem (also a Peronist) and Kirchner have such divergent political views. Menem's answer: "Kirchner NO ES un Peronista. Es un populista de la izquierda. NO es un Peronista." In other words, according to Menem, Kirchner is NOT a Peronist and just claims to be one in order to garner political support, while Menem is a TRUE Peronist. He then outlined some of the views of "real" Peronists, all of which revolved around Christianity (ex: anti-abortion, pro-peace, etc.).

When it was my turn to ask a question, I wanted to hear some of Menem's views on human rights, so I asked, "What are the biggest challenges in the field of human rights facing the current administration, compared to when you were President?" His answer, in a nutshell, was, "I believe in human rights for everyone." The end. Even though he completely side-stepped the question, I didn't feel like pressing him on it, and let Jim, our professor, ask about Menem's pardoning of the former military leaders who had tortured, killed, and disappeared people during the Dirty War. His response, as to whether in retrospect the pardons seemed like a good idea, was that he would absolutely do the same thing again, because the country needed peace and he did not want to re-open old wounds by allowing the on-going prosecutions of the military leaders. Of course, all of us human rights kids sat quietly gritting our teeth at this comment, since the idea that "peace" for Argentina couldn't co-exist with a process of justice is clearly untrue.* But Menem was unapologetic and unwavering in his defense of his own policies and decisions while in office.

During the rest of the encuentro, he also spoke about: immigration (he is all for it since his parents were Syrian immigrants), his political colleagues (he name-dropped a lot and referred to Bush I as "el Papa," which for a minute made me think he was talking about the Pope), and the economic crisis of 2001 (he said his administration didn't help usher in the economic crisis, they fulfilled their mandate and actually improved the Argentine economy though their neoliberal opening policy).

Finally, at the end of the meeting came the moment we had all been waiting for, the photo session! Please see below (and forgive my slightly demented facial expression/head tilt, I was just so excited to be standing next to CSM I couldn't help myself):

Check out Menem's dapper pocket square! Love it.

*Incidentally, the pardons that Menem granted to the junta were officially revoked at the end of April of this year.

Monday, June 18, 2007

We missed the boat.

This weekend had fiasco written all over it. Well, sort of. Como se dice "fiasco" en castellano? Oh, fiasco? Okay, yeah.

Actually only part of the weekend was fiasco-esque. Friday night, for example, was pretty normal. Ariella and I ate dinner at El Pobre Luis, which is supposedly Maradona's fave parrilla in Buenos Aires. He should know; the man is huge. We had Uruguayan steak, provoleta (grilled provolone cheese with diced tomatoes on top), salad, malbec, and an "alemendrado" (I think?) for dessert, which is ice cream crusted with almonds and covered with chocolate sauce. Um, yum. Afterwards we went to a party for this top-secret group that Ariella is a part of, Small World, which is a social networking site that is very exclusive, so much so that there was a password to get into the party. The party was held in a bar with an unmarked door in Chinatown ("Puerta 1"), which makes it sound way more top-secret than it actually was. We stayed for a while and then headed to a boliche, El Punto, which reminded me of a typical Sao Paulo night club - smoky and dark with techno music blaring at such a volume that your ears ring for hours after coming home.

El Punto served as an unpleasant reminder of why I was not overly impressed with Argentine guys last time I was in Buenos Aires. One word - grabby. Actually, two words - grabby and gross. They're so creepily aggressive in the clubs, it's off-putting. I, meanwhile, have no patience for being manhandled by strangers, but repeatedly telling these dudes "No me toques" didn't seem to have much of an effect. At around 4:30 in the morning I had had quite enough of the overhanging cloud of smoke, boring techno and date-rapists in training on the dance floor, so I headed home with Ariella, feeling a bit disillusioned. I love Argentina and everything but I really don't see how women here put up with the guys in clubs, yuck. Plus, what's up with the mullets? Honestly.

Saturday, I spent the day shopping in my neighborhood. I got some cheap going-out shirts (since my nice silk shirt that I wore to El Punto now permanently smells like smoker's lung), a pashmina, a bufanda (scarf), and some makeup from a little boutique, since I dropped my compact on the bathroom floor on Friday night and it shattered into a million pieces.

That night, A and I went to an alternative theater production called La Isla Desierta, in the Ciudad Cultural Konex. The space was very interesting (see - it has several rooms for shows, some outdoor artwork and a cafe/bar. We had to wait outside in the frigid cold for a while before we were allowed to enter the room where the show was taking place, because the idea behind La Isla Desierta is that it's "theater of the blind." This means that some of the actors are actually blind, but also that the audience is made to feel blind, because the show takes place in complete darkness.

When I say complete darkness, I'm not talking about the kind of darkness where you pull the blackout curtains and close the door, I'm talking the kind of darkness where you can't tell the difference between when your eyes are shut and when they're open, and your eyes start playing tricks on you, showing you colors that don't exist. It's very weird and discombobulating. To get into the theater, we had to stand in line and hold each other's shoulders while the actors led us into the room and helped us into seats. The show was interesting - it involved smells, sounds (obvz), even water. A and I were unsure of what was happening for the majority of the show but it was still enjoyable and interesting, even the part where we got wet (which I was dreading since A told me she has been to alternative theater productions before where her clothes were completely ruined by glue and other substances -- but having Elmer's thrown on me is not my idea of a nice night out at the theater, ya know?).

The theater ended at around 10:30 and we went to a sushi restaurant in Las Canitas, a neighborhood which reminds me of Jardins in Sao Paulo -- very chic, clean, aesthetically pleasing, perhaps a bit soulless. My kind of place. Sushi here is sort of funny because it's pretty much all salmon, all the time. I wondered why people were studying the menu so intensely ("Hmm, should we have salmon, salmon, salmon, or, wait, how do you feel about salmon? I hear the salmon here is good. Oh, but look, they have salmon, honey, let's get that"). We ordered something involving salmon and some drinks, and Spencer came and met us. After sushi we headed to a party nearby for some girl's birthday and randomly met the granddaughter of Jacobo Timerman.

For our HLS class, our professor gave us Timerman's memoir to read, which is about being held captive and tortured during the military dictatorship. A very powerful and disturbing book, but also quite inspiring. It was interesting to meet his granddaughter, who speaks unaccented American English since she apparently grew up in both Argentina and the US, and now works in human rights here in Buenos Aires.

So, the aforementioned Fiasco unfolded on Sunday, when A, Spencer, his friend John and I decided to go to Colonia, Uruguay for the day. We had tickets for the "fast boat" leaving at 2 pm and were supposed to be at the port at 1 pm. We left our house at around 12:30, and after a slight delay in which Spencer ran back to his house to get his passport, we began to look for a cab to take us to the puerto. Apparently, though, since it was Father's Day and there is a gas shortage in Argentina, cabs were in extremely short supply, and we ended up waiting in vain for almost an hour, then desperately taking a colectivo, attempting the subte, and finally getting into a cab at 1:40, at which point we knew we were too late. We got to the port and were greeted by intractable Argentine guards who told us in no uncertain terms that the gates were closed to the ferry and we would not be getting aboard. Punto. After attempts at negotiation (failed), we decided to sack it off and go eat lunch in Puerto Madero. After being turned away at several restuarants which were full (Father's Day, again), we ate at a place called Sorriento, which specialized in seafood. Guess what I had? SALMON.

After our big lunch, which ended at 5, we went to a big bookstore called El Ateneo, in a converted opera house on Avenida Santa Fe. I bought a book called El Anatomista, a popular novel by a contemporary Argentine author named Federico Andahazi, apparently about the discovery of the clitoris. Yeah, I don't know. Go Argentine literature.

The rest of the evening was spent relaxing at home, and then at around 10:30, going to a milonga, which is an event where people gather to dance tango. This milonga took place at a club called El Beso, which was more of a bar with a dance floor than an old-fashioned tango salon. Ariella dances tango so she was actually there to participate, but I was there to watch. It was really interesting -- lots of older gentleman (some of whom wore ascots, seriously) and ladies of all ages in skirts and special tango heels. The way it works is that the DJ (yeah, there was a DJ spinning Carlos Gardel) will play a song and people will dance, and then when the song is over, the couples chat, perhaps introduce themselves, and then everyone goes and sits down until the next song. The women have to wait for the men to invite them to dance so it's quite ritualized.

While I was watching, the lady sitting next to me struck up a conversation with Spencer and me. She was very sweet and very enthusiastic about the fact that we work in human rights NGO's here. She told us that during the 1970s she worked at the Fiat auto plant and most of her friends from work were disappeared by the government. It's pretty chilling to just talk to normal people in Argentina and realize that almost everyone that lived through the dictatorship has stories like this - as horrifying as the stories are, they're not unusual.

So, fiascos and all, this weekend was good and culturally satisfying. Stay tuned, because today I get to meet Carlos Menem. The adventures keep on coming!

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Paris of South America?

"People" always say that Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America. It's just one of those things that gets repeated, by foreigners and Argentines alike. I've never been to Paris so I can't attest to the veracity of the comparison, but what I can say is that people here really like scarves, and so do the French. People here also like coffee, wine, and cigarettes. So do the French. [Insert joke about how people here bathe, followed by deafening silence re: the French].

I was considering this Paris-Buenos Aires comparison as I rode the subway this morning and did the only thing that one can do when one is pressed like a sardine in a too-tight can against a bunch of strangers, 90% of whom have already smoked two cigarettes and had a cafe cortado before boarding the subte, which is of course to people-watch. Bonaerenses (residents of Bs As) on the D-line in the morning seem to fall into several categories:

1. Old people who probably don't really have anywhere to be at 9:30 in the morning but are participating in the morning commute anyway
2. Teenagers (both male and female) with mullets and Chuck Taylors
3. Businessmen in suits/ties with mullets and scraggly facial hair - apparently in the Argentinian business world it is okay to look homeless from the neck up as long as you are in a suit
4. Very well-turned-out older ladies with their nails and hair done, usually in long coats and heels
5. Americans like me who pretend to be Argentine by wearing scarves and carrying their backpacks on their stomachs instead of on their backs
6. Americans who don't pretend to be Argentine and talk loudly in English with each other
7. Women who appear to be approximately 14 years old with babies
8. Mexicans - seriously, there are Mexican immigrants in Argentina who apparently come here to work (or else just have a supremely bad sense of direction)

As I pondered all of these groups of people, I realized that Buenos Aires does have a certain air of sophistication in some way (see: the large scarf-wearing population), but it's also, in other ways, distinctly un-Parisian and un-cool, which I like. For example, a huge majority of people here have carefully-executed bad hair - not as bad as the hair in Chile but still pretty bad - and I think that makes Buenos Aires more approachable somehow. What I mean is that this city is not some imposing fashion capital where you have to dress like Carrie Bradshaw (that time she went to Paris, remember?) in order to fit in (i.e. you can leave your Manolos and YSL dresses at home in your Manhattan co-op).

I think it's this slightly skewed uncoolness that makes South American cities like Buenos Aires and Santiago seem more friendly to me. Sao Paulo, although I loved it dearly, was a different story because the women there tended to have more money to spend on fabulous (albeit cheaply-made) clothes, incredible shoes, and huge leather bags. Plus Brazilians aren't known for having bad hair, which was not a good thing for me since I only got one haircut the entire 9 months I lived there, which meant I was usually outshined in the cool hair department. It's true, I sometimes felt a bit frumpy when I went out in SP because most of the women there were so immaculately turned out. The worst part? Not wearing heels 24 hours a day is not an option for a true paulistana - they wear them to work, to the mall, to the disco, everywhere. Here, though, I see women wearing grubby sneakers and scuffed boots, which is refreshing. Women here also have thick eyebrows, don't wear a ton of makeup, and have a penchant for bobby-pins and other hair accessories (which is right up my alley). The point of all of this is that Buenos Aires doesn't need to be the new Paris to be attractive, at least not to me. I prefer a little dash of uncool with my big cities.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

La Corte Suprema

This morning I met the President of the Supreme Court of Argentina (like the Chief Justice), Ricardo Lorenzetti. Somehow, by virtue of being Harvard Law students, we get to meet these powerful governmental actors that want to talk to us, even though we don't actually know that much about, you know, the law. But whatever, yay Harvard. Oh yeah, and the Yale Law kids got to come too.

Here's how the morning unfolded. Ariella and I got up and put on our power suits, which also meant that I put my hair into a "conservative" style and forced my feet into my killer pointy-toe stilettos, because I suppose meeting the President of the Supreme Court warrants a little pain on my part. We went to eat breakfast and use the wifi connection at Bar Seis, a chic cafe near our house, because we wanted to look at Lorenzetti's CV before meeting him. It was 52 pages long so I skimmed. We ordered breakfast -- for me, the "desayuno americano," which for about USD $3 included several huge, thick slices of toast with jam, marmelade and creamy cheese, fruit salad (with a minimum of gross melon, bonus), scrambled eggs, and a cafe cortado doble. Ariella got the "desayuno porteno" which also had toast, plus little sandwiches with jamon y queso, cafe con leche, and orange juice. Can I just reiterate that this cost USD $3? Okay.

After breakfast we went to the Corte Suprema and stood around in our suits for a while, waiting for the Ministro to show. He eventually did, and received us in the room where the justices meet with ambassadors and other important visitors, and apparently, rising second year law students from Harvard and Yale. We all sat up very straight and smiled politely, and were given the opportunity to ask Lorenzetti some questions. The first few questions were sort of mild ones about the precedent system in Argentina (a better question -- WHAT precedent system?) and the reform of the Court, and stuff like that, but Ariella asked the Ministro if he could change one thing about the judicial system so that people would have more faith in the Court, what would he do. The Ministro got a little defensive and started talking about how the Argentine people have great respect for the Court, especially in the area of human rights, since the Court had prosecuted the former junta leaders, and after the 2001 crisis, everyone went to the courts, which shows the immense faith people have in the judicial system. Riiight. He didn't mention that many of these people are still waiting for their cases to be processed, and that most people accept that at a minimum, they'll be in court for a decade and will end up empty-handed. Pero bueno.

As students of human rights working at NGOs in Argentina, we all realize that Lorenzetti's view is completely disconnected from the reality of what most people in Argentina really think about the judicial system. The court system is seen as corrupt, bureaucratic and overloaded, and judges who take independent positions or defend human rights in their decisions are frequently removed from their posts. I wonder if Lorenzetti is aware of this reality or whether he's actually insulated from this type of criticism just by virtue of his post as President of the Corte Suprema? Something to ponder.

After the Q&A, we got a little tour of some of the other rooms, all of which were decorated with the obligatory oil portraits of former ministros, and, of course, Christ on the Cross. The actual room where the Ministros sit when announcing their decisions has 9 large wooden chairs (even though there are only 7 judges, and soon to be 5), and a huge crucifix hanging directly overhead. As an American, it's rather shocking to walk into a government building, especially the rooms where the Supreme Court deliberates and announces its decisions, and see Jesus front and center. Welcome to Latin America!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Club Stariella

So, apparently, Ariella and I are living in a boliche (club). Let me explain -- our apartment is this ridiculous, ultra-modern confection of exposed brick walls, red metal staircases, glass sinks with silver fixtures, floor to ceiling windows, and rooftop terrace, and we have decided that it needs to be employed as a club, otherwise it will be wasted. My friend John has appropriately named the boliche/departamento "Club Stariella," and we are planning on having our inaugural Stariella fiesta this weekend for my coworker's birthday party. It's the perfect place to have such a gathering because there are four floors (plus the terrace on the roof), and when you stand in the kitchen and look up, you can see into the bedrooms above since the floors are partially grilled. This is probably making no sense as I describe it, but I will post pictures soon and you'll all finally understand the glory that is Club S.

My coworker Spencer's depto, in contrast, which is only 3 blocks from our place, has no hot water, is decorated with old Kahlua bottles and ceramic puppies, and only has one level (not four). Ariella and I lucked out, apparently.

Friday, June 01, 2007

queso fresco

VERY important question: how can Buenos Aires be so cool in so many respects and NOT sell queso fresco in any of its supermarkets? Like Chilean supermarkets, the stores here sell mayonnaise you can squeeze out of a bag (why not dispense with the whole bothersome business of using a knife and just squeeze la mayonesa directly into your mouth, am I right?), a variety of powdered soups, and all the dulce de leche you can handle, but no queso fresco. Also I am noticing a distinct lack of palta, but maybe I just need to look harder. I know you´re on the edge of your seats. Don´t worry, I´ll keep you posted.

sin asunto

Here is the first email I wrote home from Bs. As. More to come, eager readers:

Hello precious ones -

I'm writing you from the computer (manufactured circa 1989) in my
apartment in BUENOS AIRES. I don't think all of the letters of the
alphabet were actually invented yet when this computer was produced so
please excuse any typos.

I got here yesterday morning and lived a mini-pesadilla (nightmare!)
when I realized the rental company expected my rent payment in cash
and would not accept my American check. They were very not happy with
me when they realized I had $120 in cash. This is a problem since
ATM's here only let you take out $300 a day. Stupid repeated economic

For a minute I had flashes of myself homeless in Buenos Aires, digging
through the trash for scraps of other people's leftover empanadas, and
inevitably, as desperation set in, spray painting myself bronze and
standing on a box and holding very still until I had enough pity pesos
to buy myself my OWN empanada. Luckily, though, I didn't have to
resort to performance art to get by -- it's no way to live, really --
because the rental people agreed to allow me to stay in my apartment
as long as I get $4000 in cash by Tuesday through a wire transfer. If
the transfer doesn't come through, though, then someone needs to wire
me a can of spray paint. And a box. And a hat. And maybe a boombox
with an Enya CD. Thanks.

Anyway today I spent my day joining a gym ("Megatlon!"), walking
around, buying groceries from a store that was impossibly far away
from my house and then passing like 8 more supermarkets on the way
home, and watching "Las Vegas" with Spanish subtitles. It's around 5
pm now, the witching hour, and I am debating whether to sit around
until meeting up with a couple of friends later, or attempting to find
a beauty salon to get my eyebrows done somewhere. I am leaning towards

Sorry this email is so short. Since I've only been here a day and a
half I haven't really had any adventures or anything. From what I can
tell, Buenos still seems frickin' sweet, although I am disappointed
that after being here 30-some hours, I have still not eaten any steak.
However, last night I met up with John and his Brazilian friend Rafael
and we had some malbec, so I am on the right track.

Hope this email finds you all well, wherever you are.

Hasta pronto