Thursday, August 25, 2005

Diego Armando Maradona

If Argentina can be symbolized by one person, then that figure has to be Diego Armando Maradona.

For those not too familiar with ‘El Diego’, here’s a brief recap (otherwise skip to the next section):

Diego is born in a Buenos Aires slum in 1960. At 3 he receives his first soccer ball. At 10 he begins flirting with fame. At 16 he is on the national soccer squad. At 18 he leads the national team to victory at the Football World Youth Championship.

At 21 he plays in his first World Cup; he is ejected for a violent retaliation. The team makes an early exit. He lands a $8 million contract with Barcelona. He discovers cocaine. He changes clubs and goes to Naples. He discovers more cocaine and the local mafia, the Camorra. He single handedly takes Naples to the top of Europe. He is deified in Naples.

At 25 he travels to his second World Cup. Single handedly carries Argentina to the cup. He is unanimously declared the best footballer in the world. Back in Naples he is busted for cocaine. Banned for 15 months.

At 29 he travels to his third World Cup. Single handedly carries an even weaker national side to the final. He plays with ankles swollen twice their size. I saw them in a magazine. This time they lose in the final. Diego cries. The nation cries. He is battered yet doesn’t quit.

At 33 he travels to a record tying fourth World Cup. I go to see him score his last goal in Foxborough, MA. Argentina beats Greece 4-0. A brilliant display. It turns out he cheats. This time he is taking a performance enhancing drug: ephedrine. Diego cries again. The nation cries again. The team is eliminated two games later.

In 1997 he retires from football. His career with cocaine carries on. In 2000, he suffers from an overdose induced heart attack. He turns to Fidel Castro’s health care system for help. He becomes quite obese during his therapy. Gastric bypass surgery in Colombia. At least 60 pounds are lost. He becomes Vice President of Boca Juniors Football Club. He starts his own talk show. He claims to have conquered his coke addiction. Argentina still loves him.


Now that I have summarized Diego’s career, let me get to the point I was making. Argentina’s rollercoaster ups-and-downs, its ever diverging qualities and defects, are curiously symbolized by Maradona’s chaotic career:

Argentina’s desire to be admired by the planet, was momentarily fulfilled when Maradona took center stage of the soccer world and became the greatest, if not second greatest, footballer ever.

In 1986 Maradona single handedly won the World Cup.

Argentina’s do-or-die, no-holds-barred attitude was epitomized by Maradona’s determination and sacrifice on the field.

Top: Maradona garnered the utmost attention of the synchronized Belgian defenders.
Bottom: the karate kicking Koreans figured out the best way to stop Maradona.

’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of the English in the battle over the Falkland’s was revenged by Maradona’s legendary performance at the 1986 World Cup.

Maradona is captured using what he calls the “Hand of God” to punch in the first goal against the English. His second goal, a stunning individual performance which is often recognized as the best goal of all time, sealed the victory. This past week Diego recognized that he punched the ball into the net and doesn’t regret it. He then referred to the English capturing Las Malvinas (Falkland Islands) and said: “el que roba a un ladrón, tiene 100 años de perdón.” Translation: he who robs a thief is pardoned for a 100 years.

Argentina’s bold, and often destructive, attempts to join the First World are comparable to Maradona’s narcissistic efforts to become a God among men.

The title of his autobiography, “I Am The Diego”, alludes to the unparalleled fame he has acquired. Maradona is so famous that he can refer to himself in the third person (Shucks! That means that my name is already taken). I found a great quote from a former teammate, and soccer great, Jorge Valdano: “Poor Diego. For so many years we have repeatedly told him, ‘You're a god’, ‘You're a star’ ... we forgot to tell him the most important thing: ‘You're a man’.”

Argentina’s indifference towards its impoverished and marginalized, makes it easy for Maradona to forget his humble origins.

Maradona (center) in his hometown of Villa Fiorita, a slum outside Buenos Aires, spending time with family shortly before moving to Europe and making millions.

’s bumpy boom-and-bust cycle has been mirrored by Maradona’s rapid rise from poverty to extreme wealth and then an even faster fall into financial trouble.

Maradona with his 1996 Ferrari F355 Spider. He eventually had to sell it. It is now be auctioned on the internet. Go here to bid on it. The highest bid so far is $670,550.

Argentina takes pride in its beauty. Both on and off the field Maradona is a proud show off.

No comment.

Argentina is a society replete with corruption and cheating. Maradona a poster boy for devious behaviour.

In the 1994 World Cup my dad and I drove down to Foxborough, MA, to watch Maradona score his last national goal, in a 4-0 victory over Greece. The following game he was busted for using a performance enhancing drug: ephedrine. I actually thought there was something suspicious about his psychotic celebration.

’s obsession with leisure and entertainment has been taken to danger levels by Maradona.

After almost 20 years of cocaine use, and several overdoses, Maradona had a near fatal heart attack. Enough was enough. He sought medical attention in Fidel Castro’s medical paradise. According to this Mexican newspaper, cocaine, sex and videotapes were readily available at the clinic.

’s ever expanding national debt has been replicated by the equal or greater extension of Maradona’s waistline.

During his rehab the 1.68 metre (5’6”) Maradona inflated to 121 Kgs (266 pounds)!

Argentina’s propensity to surgically alter one’s body was embodied by Maradona’s easy way out of obesity.

A post-stomach stapling Maradona on his new talk show, “La noche del diez”. During the first episode he received is eternal rival, Pele. They chatted, reminisced, laughed, sang, headed a ball back and forth, and talked about Pele’s son’s drug problems. Pele told Maradona that he is a role model to his son for having conquered his addiction.

’s complex love-hate relationship with politicians is exemplified by Maradona’s dubious choice of political friends.

Top: Maradona with new friend Hugo Chavez. Maradona later said: “The truth is I like women, but I fell in love with him (Chavez).”
Middle: Maradona showing his long time friend Castro, a tattoo of Fidel’s face on his leg.
Bottom: Maradona showing off his famous Che tattoo.

Maradona also spent time some time in Libya with Qadaffi and trained his son, the captain of the national soccer team, with his good friend Ben Johnson (yes, the scandal ridden, ex-fastest man in the world). A close source tells me Ben and Diego indulged in copious amounts of cocaine, while frequently complaining about the lack of prostitutes and alcohol in the Libya.

Argentina is proud of its twisted sense of humour, however when shots are taken at Maradona, reactions are quite mixed.

Top: Brazilian “Super Size Me” gag on Maradona’s cocaine diet.
Middle: A piggish Maradona using a straw to snort a cocaine laced field.

Bottom: Instead of playing soccer, “The Maradona’s Team” inhales the white powdered lines on the field.

is often quick to forgive and forget its corrupt and criminal leaders. Maradona enjoys this impunity as much as anyone else.

During his farewell match at Boca Junior’s stadium, Maradona was thanked for everything he has done for the country. When he recently recovered from his addiction, he was given the Vice President title at the club. I am sometimes taken back by how much his ass is kissed, but then I remember that I am in the land of fútbol, and El Diego es Dios.

is constantly searching for the next Maradona, could Messi be him?

Lionel Messi, 18, led Argentina’s under-20 team to the world championships. He is under contract with Barcelona FC through 2010, with a buyout fee of 150 million euros. Earlier this month, he debuted with the adult national team. He lasted less than two minutes as he got ejected for retaliating against a jersey hungry Hungarian.

Finally, in Argentina it doesn’t pay off to dislike Maradona. For this reason I have learnt to love Diego like everyone else. To prove it, I bought this T-shirt:

Che’s and El Diego’s mugs side-by-side. The caption reads: Fútbol Revolución.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Debt-for-Education Swaps: Part III

Monumental Palacio Sarmiento houses Argentina's Ministry of Education. It is named after the grandfather of the education system, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the nation's President from 1868 to 1874.

In my last two posts I summarized some of the research I have done over the past 6 months for my job at the OEI. I briefly explored Latin America’s cash starved education systems and the spiralling debt crisis.

In short, I argued that the region is caught in a development trap because it spends too little on education and far too much on servicing an unpayable, and in some cases illegitimate, debt.

Given this context, a couple of years ago at the UNESCO’s 32nd annual conference, Argentina’s and Brazil’s Ministers of Education proposed swapping debt for education investment. With support from Venezuela and Uruguay, they called upon rich countries to forgive a portion of the debt provided that the money goes to improving the quality and access to education.

Since then, a regional movement has emerged in support of debt-for-education swaps.

The rationale behind these swaps is two-fold. Firstly, by reducing the debt, developing countries are given breathing room to fund critical education projects. Secondly, by fuelling development in the long run, swaps should contribute to healthier economies that borrow more responsibly, thus preventing debt crises from recurring.

While debt-for-education swaps offer an innovative approach to some of Latin America’s greatest problems, debt swaps are not new nor are they the ultimate solution.

In the mid 1980s debt-for-equity swaps emerged as part of privatization programs that swept the region. In Argentina, Mexico and Chile, in particular, the debt governments owed to private creditors was bought by foreign investors on what’s called the secondary market. The debt was then converted by the government into an equity investment in a recently privatized enterprise in the developing country.

Debt-for-equity swaps, as many privatization programs, have been heavily criticized for various reasons. In some cases, public companies were sold off to foreigners or friends at far below their market price. In other situations, a state monopoly was simply replaced by a private one, providing little improvement in product quality and customer service. When privatization programs lost their popularity, so did debt-for-equity swaps.

During this period, debt-for-nature swaps became popular as well. In these transactions, development organizations (NGOS and IGOs) bought developing country debt on the secondary market. The development organization then negotiated with the developing country government to exchange the debt obligation at a discount for an environmental project approved by the country and implemented by the development organization. Conservation organizations, such as WWF, often used these funds to manage protected national parks, particularly rainforests.

Drawing upon the success of debt-for-nature swaps, other development organizations soon became interested in debt swaps. UNICEF began debt-for-child-survival swaps across the developing world. UNAIDS is now advocating debt-for-AIDS swaps.

After a couple of individual transactions in Indonesia and Pakistan, debt-for-education swaps emerged as a multilateral initiative in the aftermath of several recent economic crises in Latin America. Perhaps no other country was hit harder by recession than Argentina. I think this article, Despair in Once-Proud Argentina, starkly captures the crisis at its peak. While there has been significant macroeconomic progress made since the article was written (for instance, the country recently surpassed its all time high GDP level reached in 1998), job opportunities and wages of the poor and middle class remain dismal.

In the midst of constant protests, strikes and work stoppages, the current administration repeatedly reminds the public that rebuilding what was destroyed over the past three decades will be a slow process. For instance, the government’s commitment to education is seen in its pledge to increase education investment as a percentage of national wealth from its current 4% figure to 6% by 2010. This figure will place the country on par with the most advanced education systems in the world.

Promoting debt-for-education swaps as a regional initiative is a cornerstone of Argentine policy. Currently, Argentina is in the process of negotiating a $78 million debt swap with the Spanish government. This sum would be used to fund approximately 200,000 scholarships for children out of the school system in the country’s poorest regions - the northern provinces and the slums surrounding Buenos Aires. Ecuador recently ratified a $50 million debt swap with Spain which will be put towards education and other social spending.

In the past couple of months I travelled to Brazil to present the research I’ve done on the subject. I was pleased to find out that high ranking government officials, Lula included, UNESCO, people at BOVESPA (the Brazilian stock exchange), and high profile private sector leaders are behind the initiative.

Support from a regional giant like Brazil means that there is a growing recognition that calls to not pay the debt or demands for debt cancellation are not very productive.

What makes debt swaps more appealing than no-strings-attached debt cancellation?

While neither transaction injects new money into a country, the innovative and development-focus of debt-for-education swaps makes them more constructive and marketable. When debt is simply cancelled, there is no guarantee that the funds will be put to a worthwhile and ethical use.

Debt swaps are envisioned as a tool for directly reaching the country’s neediest population. The fund created by the swap is to be managed by an accountable committee composed of debtor and creditor government representatives, as well as civil society members. The funds are not to be injected in the general education budget. Instead, they are to be supervised through an extra-institutional mechanism that is both transparent and measurable.

Yes, the initiative sounds promising on paper. The Argentina-Spain swap will hopefully be finalized in October, barring complications Spain may have with its fellow Paris Club members (the group of the world’s main creditor governments) who generally have to agree upon who is eligible for debt relief. If this process goes well, I hope to one day meet some of the children who benefit from the project.