Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rio de Janeiro

A week ago I returned from a 6-day trip to Rio de Janeiro. After visits to Brasilia and Sao Paolo last year, Rio left me with fresh insights into Brazilian culture.

Chaos and Order

Chaotic is a fitting word to begin describing Rio. I’ve heard many visitors describe Buenos Aires as a chaotic city; definitely an accurate statement when compared to cities from the North.

But Rio takes chaos to another level. I couldn’t fully appreciate Rio’s disorder until I returned to Buenos Aires and for the first time ever considered the city to be relatively calm.

Rio’s traffic, noise, crime, pollution, poverty and general disarray make Buenos Aires look like Geneva. Strangely enough, Cariocas seem happier and more laidback than their neurotic Porteño counterparts. I imagine the relaxing backdrop of beautiful beaches, tropical climate, and urban peaks covered in lush jungle have something to do with this paradox. Just take a look at Copacabana beach:

Rio is a unique blend of natural paradise and urban sprawl. The constant influx of tourists demonstrates the city’s continuing charm. Here’s a view from atop the hill where the famous Cristo Redentor is located:

Given my generalization that Rio is far more chaotic a city than Baires, I must qualify that I found peace and order in two places I thought I never would: in two favelas and in the Maracanã, Rio’s famed futebol stadium.

Favelas and Villas Miserias

The Brazilian favela (slum) has achieved international infamy for being a hotbed of violence and drugs. Argentina’s villa miserias have a similar reputation domestically but are barely known abroad.

One of my favourite movies, Cidade de Deus, portrays several decades of a government housing project and the evolution of a turf war between rival narco gangs. When trying to imagine a favela, gripping scenes from Cidade de Deus inevitably come to mind.

Given this preconception, I was curious to visit and learn more about Rio’s favelas first-hand. After asking around, it seemed that Favela Tour would be an educational, socially conscious, and non-voyeuristic option.

The tour was perhaps the highlight of the trip. Our guide, an Argentine who has been living in a favela for several years, was very informative and open about discussing favela life. Also, some of the proceeds from the tour were donated to an after-school program for kids in the Vila Canoa favela.

The tour started in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, and possibly the largest in all of South America, with an estimated 200,000 inhabitants. I was surprised by its level of urbanization and infrastructure. Houses are made of brick, many streets are paved, and a wide variety of services and businesses are available in the center. View from atop a house in Rocinha:

The government, along with the Inter-American development Bank played an important role in providing basic infrastructure. However, it is the narco gangs that are the ultimate authority in the neighbourhood. Police rarely enter the favela, and if they do, they almost certainly provoke attacks from the drug lords.

This excerpt explains the role of the gangs in much the same way our tour guide presented them:

Rocinha, like many of Rio’s favelas, was under the control of a criminal faction known as the ADA (Amigos dos Amigos), until the recent death of leader Bem-Te-Vi in October of 2005 at the hands of the police. Typically, Rio’s favelas fall under the control of one of three main factions, the CV (Comando Vermelho), the TC (Terceiro Comando), and the ADA. These groups are famous for providing much needed resources such as support for day care, medicine for the sick, and money for the poor. They also have been known to asphalt roads, host huge community parties, and even sponsor other recreational spaces and activities, such as soccer courts. These groups normally maintain a very high level of control over social behavior, strictly prohibiting street crimes such as rape, muggings, and break-ins within the favela. Even so, Rio’s criminal factions should not be glorified or romanticized as some sort of modern day Robin Hoods. Besides drug trafficking, such organizations in Rio have historically been involved in arms smuggling, bank robberies, kidnapping, and murder.

Given the zero tolerance for delinquency within the favela, our guide explained that Rocinha is a relatively calm and peaceful place. Indeed, I felt more at ease walking around Rocinha than strolling around seedy Avenida Copacabana, the main strip located a block away from the world’s most famous beach.

Our guide emphasized that favelados are generally happy with their neighbourhood and ever since basic services and infrastructure arrived, few have a desire to leave. I found this hard to believe considering the stark differences between the favelas and wealthy neighbourhoods only footsteps away.

For instance, as can be seen in this photo above, at about 200 meters away from Rocinha, lies the residence of a private American school. Monthly tuition at the school runs $3000 reales per month (~$1400 US), while the average family’s salary in the neighbouring favela is 1/10 that amount, at around $350 reales (~$160 US)!

Furthermore, if a family has to subsist on $350 reales, I wondered why the government didn’t lower the high public transportation costs. For instance, the subway costs $2.30 reales (US $1.00) per trip while bus fares usually run between $1.80-$2.15 reales. If someone travels to work twice per day, twenty times per month, that’s $92 reales – one quarter of the average salary spent traveling!

In Buenos Aires, the public transportation remains very cheap, especially when compared to Rio; between $.70 to $.80 pesos (~US $0.25) per trip. By using the same calculation as the one above, estimating that the average salary in a villa is about $500 pesos, or US $160, the transportation costs would amount to $28 pesos, or 6% of the monthly salary.

While I am making quick generalizations and calculations, I can’t help but think there’s a link between the widespread poverty and stark inequality, and the power of the drug lords. In Argentina, the relatively better economic situation of the villas must have something to do with the fact that narcos don’t hold anywhere near as much authority as their Rio counterparts.

It later occurred to me that a statement I heard from an Argentine artisan along Copacabana’s beach, underlies my hypothesis: “Acá hay pocos caciques pero muchos indios. En Buenos Aires hay muchos caciques, pero pocos indios.” (Here there are few chiefs, but lots of Indians. In Buenos Aires, there are lots of chiefs, but few Indians).

He went on to explain that the Argentine disregard for rules and their innate craftiness, contrasted by the deference and laidback attitude of Brazilians, is the reason why villas in Argentina are more dangerous than favelas despite being relatively better off. Similarly, as he smiled, he told me that this cunningness is why Argentines are doing so well in Rio’s tourism sector.

Futebol and Fútbol

Hours upon arriving in Rio, I was treated to another Argentine football humiliation at the hands of the Brazilians. The latest derby, albeit a ‘friendly’ in England, ended 3-0 for the samba squad.

When observing the surprisingly indifferent carioca reaction in the bars and on the streets, as well as reading newspaper headlines the next day, I could tell that this rivalry continues to mean more to Argentines than it does to Brazilians. Brazil continues to be a laidback football superpower, while Argentina remains an obsessed great power.

A few hours after Brazil’s victory, I crossed Rio to the Maracanã to watch a local derby between Vasco da Gama and Fluminense. I was curious in seeing how a carioca clasico would compare to a similar rivalry in Buenos Aires, say a San Lorenzo-Velez match up.

While I was pleasantly surprised to observe the relative calm and order of the favelas, I was utterly disappointed by the relative calm and order at the futebol match.

I might as well enjoyed the Maracanã on my own (with a Brahma, of course):

Once the world’s largest stadium, having held over 200,000 fans for the 1950 World Cup Final, and can now can hold around 80,000, the Maracanã was only a third full! The tour guide explained that the Fluminense fans are a wealthier bunch and not all that passionate. They don’t make the trip to the Maracanã since they would rather watch the games in the comfort of their upper class homes. Below is the Fluminense stadium section:

Vasco’s torcida (hardcore fans) managed to make a decent showing (pictured below), but still paled in comparison to the craziness of Argentina’s barra bravas. In Argentina, a match between two teams of Vasco and Fluminense’s stature would almost certainly sell out a 40,000 stadium, and the atmosphere would be far more intense.

Exemplifying that this wasn’t an off-night for the torcidas, were two stadium regulations which would never be permitted in Argentina.

First, fans were allowed to buy beer during the match. In Argentina, this would be a recipe for a riot. Secondly, the seats along the lateral parts of the field, where the middle and upper priced seats are, do not segregate opposing team’s fans. Once again, down here this would be a disaster waiting to happen.

As I began to draw these conclusions regarding the relative calm of Rio’s favelas and futebol, I was thrown a curveball.

In the midst of the jogo bonito, the laidback beer drinking, and the melodic chanting and cheering at a Botafogo-Fluminense match that same week, a torcedero was killed.

At that point, I realized that a lot more joins Rio and Buenos Aires than what sets them apart.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

World Cup 2006: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As the dust settles, it seems Zidane’s flagrant foul has captured more headlines than the Italian championship team. This bizarre distraction seems to be linked to the sensation that the World Cup is increasingly anti-climactic and unjust.

The head-butt heard round the world upstaged the most popular sporting final because millions of die hard fans have been let down by some or all of the following: controversial rules, inconsistent officiating, creativity crushing defensive strategies, frustrating under-achieving, and rampant unsportsmanlike behaviour.

Zizou’s split-second decision to spearhead Materazzi has managed to symbolize that which is the good, the bad and, the ugly of this World Cup. Given how the good has been overshadowed by the bad (and the ugly), I’ll save the best for last.

The Bad.

Anti-climax. Too much hype, too little football, and too popular a head-butt.

Like most fanatics, I twiddle my thumbs anxiously for the four years between each tournament to pass. In Canada, I’ve always been disappointed by the poor media coverage and general apathy towards the tournament (beyond certain immigrant groups).

After watching my first World Cup in Argentina, I have discovered what is to suffer from a severe mundial overdose, and consequent hangover.

The media coverage is insane. One TV channel, TyC Sports, offered 24-hour month-long broadcasting. This was complemented by at least four or five other channels doing their best to compete with the TyC stranglehold.

Given the endless air time dedicated to the tournament, every imaginable, trivial news item was reported. From cultural tours of the town hosting the national team’s pre-tournament training grounds, to what the players ate at each meal, what they did in their spare time, which family members paid them visits, what time they went to bed, and when Carlos Tevez had diarrhea - all 38 million Argentines were injected senselessly with information.

During these 30 days, the entire country, myself included, was in a state of intoxicated patriotic hypnosis. I tried to sober up and ask myself: “Is this drunken passion good for Argentina?” Part of the answer was a clear, yes. It brings people from all walks of life together, unites them in the name of a fantastic sport, and fills them with pride and hope.

On the other hand, people invest so much emotionally and physically, that they detach themselves from everything else that matters and should matter to them. Drug addiction has a similar effect. The submission is so deep, that Argentines are destined to suffer immensely (something which has been happening consistently for the past 20 years). Anything short of a World Cup championship is by definition anti-climactic and unjust.

Stepping outside of the Argentine do-or-die mind frame, any football fan will tell you that it is not just the sore losers who are suffering.

The sport is suffering. Beckham's pretty boy circus act epitomizes this decadence.

The highly touted tournament has been failing to deliver the best football for quite some time now. As such, each tournament leaves its die hard fans wanting a lot more, or having to settle for a spectacular head-butt.

The Ugly.

Football injustice. This collective let-down I am trying to describe is underpinned by a sense of injustice which football purists have been complaining about for some time now.

This unfairness is a combination of some or all of the following: controversial rules, inconsistent officiating, overpowering defensive strategies, frustrating under-achieving, and rampant unsportsmanlike behaviour.

Unfortunately my humble call for reform needs to be undertaken by one of the slowest evolving, highly secretive, all-powerful corporations of the world: FIFA. Instead of improving the tournament, it appears that the organizers are more preoccupied with finding ways to spend the €1.9bn earned in marketing revenue, the €700m raised from tournament sponsorship, not to mention the ticket sales.

Here are my proposed reforms:

1. Rule changes

Teams generally spend two years trying to qualify for an event which lasts a mere month. This is disproportionate. Anti-climax is almost an inherent outcome of the World Cup.

To ensure a more competitive and balanced tournament, I would double the amount of games and extend the duration of the tournament to two months. The format remains the same. As done in the qualifiers and other popular tournaments (such as the Champions League), each match-up would be played out in two games instead of one.

Having teams play each other twice would minimize the chances of a team going on a hot streak and making the World Cup by fluke (as they will have to play 14 games instead of 7 to win the tournament).

This would also would increase rivalry and excitement. Perhaps this would even encourage less experienced, but very skilled squads, particularly those from Africa to overcome first game jitters against more experienced teams and have a chance to redeem themselves after a poor start.

As it is, losing two games and having to say goodbye after such a long journey is too harsh.

Secondly, penalty kicks have to be scrapped. It’s unfair to decide a game with a one-on-one roll-of-a-die situation in a sport which prides itself on teamwork, tactics and creativity.

One solution would be to play endlessly until the sudden death golden goal is scored. The substitution of all 11 players would have to be allowed as players begin to drop like flies after two hours of play. This wouldn’t entail any serious changes, as there already are 23 players on each roster (some of whom never get playing time as it is).

Thirdly, the introduction of video replay. While I am not convinced of the need for video replay during matches (as it would bring time stoppage to a free flowing game), I am all for the retroactive penalization of dirty fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct (particularly diving). It would be great to see Cristiano Ronaldo get publicly fined and/or booked for his Greg Louganis impersonations. And if it can be proven that Materazzi taunted Zidane with racist insults than he should be punished as well.

Finally, having to sit a player out a game for having accumulated two yellows in separate matches is ridiculous in such a short tournament. Especially when yellows are handed out for dumb offences such as taking of your jersey to celebrate a goal. The number should be upped to three or four yellows.

2. Consistent officiating

I generally come to the defence of referees. It’s is so easy to blame everything on them, from Italy’s victory over Australia to Global Warming.

The World Cup is supposed to feature the best officials in the world, yet several matches, as in past tournaments, were decided by critical errors. The referees sent off a record number of players, yet glaring mistakes were rampant, and divers constantly went unnoticed. I wont list the controversies, but luckily someone over at Wikipedia has already.

With such a large pitch and 22 players to follow, one referee is simply not enough. A second referee needs to be added to ensure that they are close enough to the tackles to decipher legitimate fouls from dives.

3. Defense first strategies

World Cup 2006 was the second lowest scoring tournament in history (only after the even more abysmal 1990 championship). This is nothing new, as teams have been far more concerned with preventing goals than scoring them for quite some time.

This is a calculated strategy by most coaches. Some, such as Italy and France, have adopted a very conservative 4-4-1-1 arrangement, enabling their teams to defend with 8 players (leaving only one creative midfielder behind a lone striker).

Unfortunately, offensive minded teams, such as Brazil, did not do well in Germany. Their 4-2-2-2 formation is one of a kind. Defending with only a maximum of 6 players, Brazil took a calculated risk in putting their faith in the unparalleled talent of their stars. A risk most fans of the game want Brazil to take. Unfortunately, the Brazilian players that we all know did not show up to this tournament (something I address in the next point).

Then there is the schizophrenic case of Argentina. A creative, offensive minded team which gains a lead but then ends up emulating defensive European squads. Teams like Brazil and Argentina defend best when they maintain ball possession and continue attacking. Unfortunately, in tight games coach Pekerman was reluctant to play the team’s most feared offensive weapons. Against Germany he paid dearly for sitting on a 1-0 lead, instead of opting for Messi and going for the kill.

4. Underachieving stars. The likes of Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo have disappointed in more ways than one.

What happened to the stars? The world’s best player, Ronaldinho, disappeared. Robinho, Adriano, Kaka and company barely showed up. Ronaldo, despite all of the fat and criticism, was Brazil’s biggest threat.

Rooney, disappointing. Lampard, nothing. Owen, injured. Ballack, the best we saw of him was a dive. Messi, more time on the bench than on the pitch.. Schevhenko, surrounded by the most mediocre of team mates. Totti, nice haircut.

Figo, Cristiano and Deco had their moments, but were distracted by their other hobbies: acting, diving and whining.

Are these disappointing performances due to these things I’ve been ranting about? Is too much pressure created a hyped-up, unjustly short tournament? Is relaxed refereeing failing to protect the stars? Or is strict officiating encouraging the stars to dive? Does anyone have a solution to overcome these stifling defensive strategies?

Since the stars couldn’t shine by heading the ball past defenders, they might as well end up learning how to head-butt defenders.

5. Unsportsmanlike behaviour.

I’ve already touched upon this already. Diving needs to be disciplined retroactively and severely. Ironically, FIFA could learn how to handle the problem by following in the footsteps of the violent National Hockey League. Last year the NHL began publicizing, fining and eventually suspending players for diving.

This being said, FIFA should be very careful in identifying what is acceptable and what is unacceptable when it comes to simulation. This article does a good job describing which simulations should be considered cheating and which ones are actually necessary in order to protect the star players (although I disagree with the author’s point regarding the penalty awarded at the end of the Italy-Australia game).

The Good.

Tevez and Ribery, unlike pretty boys Beckham and Ronaldo, exceeded expectations. Clearly, it's what's on the inside that counts.

Despite my endless ramblings on the bad and the ugly, a few good things can be salvaged from the mediocre tournament.

Best team. Given how tight and competitive each game was, particularly in the second round, there was no clear-cut ‘best’ team of the tournament.

Italy did what it had to do to win and that was defend for around 89 minutes and attack for the rest. They relied on the best defense in the world tostifle France’s creative players. Unfortunately they won in the most dubious of circumstances: penalty kicks, following the sending off of the World Cup’s star player.

Italy deserves more credit for how they beat Germany. It was probably the match of the tournament. When penalties were imminent Lippi made some bold changes, bringing on three forwards to win the game in regulation time. Something Argentina should have attempted instead of defending like a frightened turtle.

Best offensive display. Argentina put on a goal scoring clinic against Serbia and Montenegro, a team that during qualifications only conceded one goal. The 25-touches before Cambiasso’s finish and Tevez’s solo charge ranked as the second and third best goals of the tournament.

Best goal of the tournament. Maxi’s game-winning outside-the-area off-the-chest into-the-top-corner volley was almost as surprising and exciting as Zidane’s head-butt.

The best player. Tough call. Zidane’s performance against Brazil was jaw dropping. A Frenchman playing like a Brazilian against Brazil. Unbelievable. However, he was non-existent the first two games, got himself suspended for the third game, and we all know what he did with only 10 ten minutes left in the tournament.

Cannavaro was far more consistent than ZZ, but less spectacular since he is a defender. It would have been nice to see a defender get the prize for once. But then again, people are entertained by goals and not by tackles.

In a tournament in which taunts, dives, tackles, saves, penalties, bookings, and slurs ruled supreme it is no surprise that Zidane was sent off for a gross violation and yet still received the best player of the tournament.

Given all of this, Zizou’s head-butt, stands out as an almost dignified rebellion against those things which attempted to destroy the World Cup. When he apologized to all the kids of the world for his retaliation, he should have also said sorry for the sad state of soccer.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Salta and Jujuy

I finally took a break from work and World Cup watching to write about a recent trip.

My father and I ventured off to the north-western provinces of Salta and Jujuy. Located on the Chilean and Bolivian borders, the region is not only geographically far removed from Buenos Aires (1500 km away), but is also culturally and politically isolated.

We flew into the city of Salta. At around 500,000 habitants, it is the largest city in the region.

Like many Latin American colonial cities,
Salta breathes beauty and backwardness with the same breath.

Salta’s well conserved customs (staunch Catholicism and daily siestas), its postcard colonial architecture, combined with its feudal political and economic structures, sets the city centuries apart from bustling Buenos Aires.

One of the city’s most remarkable structures is the Church of San Francisco:

The northwest is known as one of the poorest regions in the country, however upon first glance one is oblivious to this reality.

The slums are carefully tucked away, the homeless are swept off the streets, and the infrastructure is surprisingly modern.

Locals are happy to express their support of the current provincial governor, Juan Carlos Romero. Presiding over his third term, Romero has achieved nationwide infamy for being an oligarch, repressing labour and indigenous movements, and having run as Carlos Menem’s Vicepresident during his failed 2003 election comeback attempt.

What is certain, is that the city is growing rapidly. Construction sites abound and tourism explodes. Population grew by 25% between 1991 and 2001. A guide told us that tourism has overtaken agriculture as the most important sector of the economy (I couldn’t find any evidence confirming this).

Our Movitrack excursion, called Nubes con Humahuaca, started off on the well known, but currently out-of-service path called el tren a las nubes (a very popular tourist train which travels through the Andes mountain range from Salta to Chile).

From Salta, we headed westwards, until we reached San Antonio de los Cobres at over 4000m above sea level. Upon entering the town, I felt an indescribable lightness. The unthinkable had happened - the only person under the age of forty on the trip, got altitude sickness.

I immediately asked the driver for some coca leaves; the regional breathing aid. The controversial substance is used by people in the Andean region to suppress hunger and fatigue, among other cultural and religious purposes. While trying to fight my dizziness, I began chewing on a wad of 15 leaves.

Soon enough the light-headedness became bearable. However, my hunger for exotic meats (such as llama beef), traditional empanadas, and stew remained as strong as ever. Given the success of the coca, I continued chewing for the rest of the trip and made sure to purchase coca tea to take back to Buenos Aires.

Our tour guide, who had a constant coca bulge in one of his cheeks, told us about the government hypocrisy regarding coca criminalization. It was illegal to produce, import and sell coca plant/leaves. Yet it was perfectly legal to have your personal amount and chew it wherever you wished. It seemed that just about every male in the region was chewing (sorry equal opportunists, it is considered unladylike for women to chew).

He told us that there is no scientific evidence demonstrating harmful effects of coca leaf chewing. I didn’t fully believe him, but when I started researching the issue, I couldn’t find any evidence arguing otherwise. I did, however, find further evidence of the ‘hypocrisy’ he was arguing against.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s President, who is taking on the world in his battle to legalize coca but keep cocaine illegal, has said: "Coca is not cocaine..." How can it be possible, "that coca is legal for Coca-Cola but it isn't for native peoples and peasants?" Under a special exception in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the use of coca leaves as a flavouring agent without their alkaloid component is permissible, an exception that Coca-Cola continues to take advantage of.

The irony of Coca-Cola being a popular drink in an impoverished indigenous town, such as San Antonio de los Cobres, makes one wonder if this region could prosper if they were allowed to grow and commercialize popular coca products, such as coca tea.

After walking around the arid, desolate town, I came upon a school. Curious kids gathered around me and started asking me to take their pictures, so they could see their images on the tiny digital display. Still recovering from the dizziness, I then said my goodbyes and we headed off on the dry, altiplano trail.

At the next stop I surprisingly awoke to the sight of what appeared to be a never-ending snow plain. I felt like I had been transported back to a frozen lake in the dead of Canadian winter. White as far as the eyes could see, with a backdrop of the Andean mountain range.

We were now in the middle of the Salinas grandes, salt basin, located over 4000m of altitute, in the province of Jujuy.

Given the sheer size of the basin, it would appear that is an important source of income for the province. However, given the feudal relationship between land owners and peasants, the worker showed in this picture makes around $3 pesos (or US$1.00!) per day to work in the unhealthiest of conditions:

When I gave this man 2 pesos for allowing me to take his picture, I had no idea that I had just given him 2/3 of his daily salary, and therefore I couldn’t appreciate why he remained in his pose for a good five minutes after I had taken the picture.

We continued eastward, descending until we reached the Quebrada de Humahuaca valley, at around 2000m above sea level. Declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, the valley is not only visually stunning, but of critical importance as a trade route dating back to 10,000 years ago.

Our first stop in the valley was the picturesque town of Pumamarca, set against the backdrop of a mountain called “seven colours” (the picture doesn’t do the real thing justice as the purples, greens, blues, oranges, and reds don’t really come through):

We then visited the Pucará ruins in an ancient fortress city which was used to watch over and protect the valley:

The northernmost point of the journey was the town of Humahuaca. Very calm, almost frozen in time (if it weren’t for the tourism). We strolled for an hour or so to observe people go about their daily errands:

On our way back to Jujuy we drove past the town of Maimará and the mountain behind it known as the “painter’s palette”:

When was time to return to our original destination, we took the long-winded scenic route. The dry, semi-desert landscapes rapidly transformed into humid, jungle-like slopes, known as the yunga:

For the first time in two days I was finally able to fill my lungs with the oxygen they had been deprived of. Soon enough I was back in the polluted streets of Buenos Aires, contemplating if my next adventure would take me to the even denser jungles of Misiones and the majestic Iguazu falls.

Actually, I was really thinking about how Argentina would fare against the largely unknown Ivory Coast squad.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Argentina's Beef

Argentina’s relationship with red meat is a bloody one.

The fertile Pampas region provides for some of the tastiest grass-fed cows in the world. The average Argentine eats almost 150 pounds of beef per year. The average American eats less than half this amount.

After living 20 years in Canada and constantly hearing about how red meat consumption is linked to soaring obesity rates, I’ve always wondered how Argentines stay so slim.

Is the meat down here leaner than the beef up north? Is this carnivorous consumption tempered with a healthy diet? Do the people here walk and exercise more?

I have a feeling it’s combination of all three: leaner meat, better overall diet, and more exercise.

So when people go off about the dangers of red meat, I generally reach for the mute button (until my heart tells me otherwise).

The best part about Argentine road trips: the asado pit stops.

Since arriving in Argentina over a year ago, I have gone on a beef eating binge.

I eat steak about three times a week (sometimes more). Add: meat empanadas, salsa bolognesa on my pasta, and the occasional hamburger, I end up eating red meat almost every day.

Given my multinational beef eating experiences, I am the first to promote the superior quality of
Argentina’s meat.

A good slab rarely requires any condiments beyond salt. The soft-as-a-baby’s bottom tenderness usually calls for a butter knife and minimal chewing. The reasonable prices make my habit affordable - depending on the cut, a kilo of steak at my supermarket runs from $8 to $12 pesos or $2.50 to $4.00 US. Also, the timeliness in which a chunk of cow flesh becomes my meal (about two minutes) makes my habit extremely convenient.

A typical Argentine dish: flank steak with grilled potatoes and vegetables.

However, this past month my addiction has come under attack.

In an effort to control double digit inflation (12% last year), Argentina’s President has asked citizens to do the unthinkable: to stop consuming red meat until prices drop. Last year, beef prices rose 28.8%!

When Kirchner realized that his 6-month ban on beef exports wasn’t doing enough to lower prices, he called upon Argentines to take a stand against meat producers. He urged people to boycott the national dish, and eat chicken and fish instead.

The demand for beef is so strong that the President’s calls for the boycott were largely ignored, and prices have remained more or less the same. The ban on exports, however, has forced producers to sign an agreement with the government to reduce the price on 11 cuts of beef by 20%, pictured below:

(borrowed from Clarin)

Translation of the cuts:

Cuadril = Rump
Bife con lomo = Sirloin
Bife de costilla = T-bone
Bife Ancho = Rib eye
Nalga = Round
Vacío = Flank
Asado = Short ribs
Matambre = Flank cut unique to Argentina
Entraña = Skirt
Falda = Ribs steak
Paleta = Shoulder roast
Osobuco = Shin
Garrón = Shank
Carnaza = Stewing beef
Roast beef = Roast beef
Carne Picada = Ground beef
Hueso con carne = Bone with meat
Azotillo = no translation found

Even though the best steaks (lomo and cuadril) are excluded from the price controlled list, I am sure the general population will welcome the lowered prices on the most popular and accessible cuts (asado and vacío).

This move should prove to be a popular one for Kirchner, who faces elections in 2007.

But given Argentina’s accelerated economic growth, mounting inflation and the inelastic demand for beef, one wonders how much longer price controls like these can last.

Monday, March 27, 2006

March 24, 1976.

March 24, 1976, will be remembered as one of the darkest days in Argentina’s history.

On that day, a military junta overthrew a democratically elected government. Over the next 8 years, up to 30,000 ‘dissidents’ were disappeared.

In what was officially labelled the National Reorganization Process, the dictatorship systematically terrorized its citizenry on ideological grounds. The government closed congress, banned political parties, abolished freedom of speech and freedom of press.

In what was claimed to be a war against terrorist and communist groups, the military government persecuted, tortured, and killed citizens who opposed or questioned the dictatorship, expressed leftist views, or simply appeared in the address books of people considered subversive.

According to the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP): among the victims still missing and those who were subsequently released from secret detention centres are people from all walks of life:

Blue-collar workers 30.2 %
Students 21.0 %
White-collar workers 17.9 %
Professionals 10.7 %
Teachers 5.7 %
Self-employed and others 5.0 %
Housewives 3.8 %
Military conscripts and members of the security forces 2.5 %
Journalists 1.6 %
Actors, performers, etc. 1.3 %
Nuns, priests, etc 0.3 %

CONADEP, established by the democratic government which followed the dictatorship, produced a harrowing document entitled Nunca Más. The torture testimonies are deeply disturbing, yet vital to understanding what truly happened during this so-called ‘reorganization process’. These testimonies are essential for constructing a collective memory that forces the country to learn from its past and help build a different future.

This past week I was impressed by the national and international efforts to remember what happened thirty years ago, on March 26.

In Washington, the National Security Archive declassified several key U.S. government documents: “The documents record Washington's initial reaction to the military takeover. I do want to encourage them. I don't want to give the sense that they're harassed by the United States,’ Secretary of State Kissinger ordered his staff after his assistants warned him that the junta would initiate a bloodbath following the coup.”

In Toronto, my parents, along with several other Argentines and Canadians, took part in the organization of the 30th Anniversary Committee, which featured several films, a play, a concert, an art exhibit, and a roundtable discussion.

On Thursday I attended an event in which Ernesto Sábato, the famous author and former President of CONADEP, led a remembrance ceremony at the Ministry of Education (pictured above). Over 200 students attended the event. They watched a remarkable documentary by Roman Lejtman, titled “The 24th of March, 1976-2006. From horror to hope”. The students then were able to ask questions to those adults on the panel who lived through the dictatorship.

The following day I traveled to the
Military School, in the Buenos Aires suburbs (picture on the left). President Nestor Kirchner, in the presence of his cabinet and high ranking military officials, gave a powerful speech. He expressed his disapproval with the impunity enjoyed by many of those responsible for state terrorism. He said that he expected that the judiciary would soon rule that the amnesty granted to these suspects will be deemed unconstitutional.

Earlier in the month, Kirchner succeeded in making March 24 a permanent holiday, to be called the "National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice." While the move is undoubtedly well-intentioned, I worry that Argentine society, particularly its children, will not take it upon themselves to remember the meaning of this date when on holiday.

Considering how dedicated this government, particularly the President and the Ministry of Education, were in organizing the numerous events and commemorations throughout the week, I hope I am proved wrong in the years to come.