Santa Fe, Argentina.-- I try to return often to this town where I lived when I first came to Latin America nearly 30 years ago, for the perspective: It encourages me to re-examine some of the elements of my point of view.
There is a small plaza in Santa Fe with an aviary called the park of the pigeons. The park has benches, a statue of a mother and child, a garden in the shade of an immense tree. Now and then pigeons rise out of the aviary, circle the plaza then reascend. The sound of their wings is metronomic. I used to bring my two daughters here. I have pictures of them casting bread into the eager beaks.
During a visit some years back I saw workmen digging up the park of the pigeons. They were searching for the remains of victims of the Dirty War of 1976-1980 when some 9,000 people, mostly young, disappeared and were destroyed by agents of a homicidal military government.
After it had subsided, someone with authority in Santa Fe determined to expunge the stain of that criminal aberration by finding every bone, the whereabouts of every "disappeared" victim. They dug everywhere, even beneath the statue of motherhood. They found nothing.
Whatever expectations I once had about Argentina were diminished by the minor holocaust of the Dirty War. But you cannot turn your back on the people life sends your way, not without facing a solitary future. And the deepest wounds can heal, and sometimes things can be made the way they were, as the park was.
Just a few weeks ago I had my grandson on a swing in a square near the park of the pigeons. So it wasn't the same place exactly, it was close enough that I could feel the benign sense of symmetry I had hoped for. Life can get better, I realized. Sometimes all you have to do is wait.
The change that has come over Argentina in recent years has been described as the triumph of the free market ideal over a near-socialist, clearly statist, way of governance initiated in the early years of Juan Peron's tempestuous career.
The degree to which President Carlos Menem has embraced the strategy of privatization and deregulation is remarkable in view of this tradition. He sold the state telephone company. He privatized the metro in Buenos Aires and the railroads. He is in the process of selling the national airline and plans to sell off the national oil and gas monopoly.
He has even privatized the little parks of Buenos Aires, which over the years had become so bedraggled. Privatized might not be the right word there: What he has done is to assign responsibility for the parks' upkeep to various corporations, banks and such. For making sure the grass is trimmed, the
plants fertilized, they get tax breaks.
They do a good job. Buenos Aires has rarely looked so bright and scrubbed. A preservationist trend has taken hold. It's evident in the restoration of the Galeria Pacifica on the capital's glamorous pedestrian shopping mall. A decade ago they would have ripped down that old Second Empire structure with its beautiful murals and put up a square box. Also, they are painting and cleaning the turn-of-the century apartment buildings that lend Buenos Aires its Parisian tone.
Carlos Menem is the second civilian president to take office since the military was driven from power for leading the country into a disastrous war with Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982. Mr. Menem followed Radical Party leader Raul Alfonsin into the presidential palace for a six-year term. Mr. Menem is a Peronist, but only nominally so. A Peronist "por exterior," was the way Neli the barber in Santa Fe put it, an "outward Peronist." No political scientist has offered a more apt description.
Peronism has always been an authoritarian, nationalist and statist creed. Government bureaucrats ran all the major engines of the economy, invariably ineffectively. The featherbedding was immense, especially in the railroads and public works industries.
Mr. Menem is ready to sell everything, end any and all protection of weak industries. He would like Argentina to follow Chile, the most likely first candidate, into the North American Free Trade Agreement. He appointed an economics minister, Domingo Cavallo, who has given Argentina something it has not experienced for nearly 40 years: hard money. The inflation rate for the last half of 1993 was only 4 percent. In 1989, when Mr. Menem took office, it reached 5,000 percent.
"You have no idea what that means," said Judge Elias Guastavino, rapping his knuckles on the table. "It is the most important thing that has happened. It has changed everything."
He sat outside his century-old summer house on the bank of the Parana, in the feathery shade of a eucalyptus. It's summer in Argentina now; it's hot.
Judge Guastavino was on the Supreme Court during the "dictadura," and as such was near the center of things "in those very difficult times," as he recalled them. His reputation suffered for it, and he resigned when Mr. Alfonsin was elected. Now he writes law books and manages his estates, which are vast. He is very rich, and he knows the emollient effect hard money has on everyday life. When money is weak and increasingly losing its value, it foments political instability and steals from the people all hope for the future. It encourages cynicism toward politics, since most people blame politicians for debasing the currency for short-term purposes.
One might question his as an over-simplified view as to the cause for nearly half a century of coups, counter-coups, general strikes, guerrilla conflict, urban terror, bombs in the street, political murders, international war -- you name it. But inflation has always been a salient element of Argentina's malaise. In the past 30 years there have been five separate currencies that I can remember. Each one became so valueless that successive governments had to start again with a new denomination. The peso of the 1960s became the new peso, which gave way to the legal peso, which became the ill-fated austral. Now they are back again to the peso.
But it seems to be holding firm, as the inflation figure indicates. The peso is the equivalent of the dollar in the free currency exchange. There is no longer a black market. In fact, dollars and pesos trade so freely in Argentina today that you can use greenbacks in most stores.
More important is the evident change in the attitude of the average Argentine, or at least those spoken to during a three-week visit. Much of the cynicism, the self-pity that interlarded the conversations of Argentines through the years is not so evident as it was. People are cautiously confident. At least that's what they say.
And there's something else worth noting. Much of the ideological content of politics -- the harsh divisions between left and right -- seems to have dissipated.
Few countries in the world were so hyperpoliticized as Argentina. The seeds for this were planted in the early part of the century when waves of European immigrants came-- Italians, Spaniards, Russians, Germans -- and brought with them all the ** incendiary ideas that so agitated the Old World. There were anarchists, anarchosyndicalists, socialists, Communists, not to mention protofascists. It was a big, turbulent stew.
Juan Peron, after coming to power in the election of 1946, exploited it. He fused the labor unions into a militant shock corps, first as a weapon to keep his colleagues in the army at bay, then as an instrument to spread the considerable wealth held by Argentina's landed oligarchy.
As a consequence, a kind of exaggerated syndicalism came into being. Labor union leaders grew immensely powerful, and some of them corrupt. To keep their members in line, they stimulated a militant class consciousness. They encouraged an interpretation of the country as one divided between the exploited and downtrodden workers and the rich, greedy oligarchs, mostly cattle barons or industrialists. This was a distorted picture of a country which had -- and still has -- the largest middle class in Latin America.
Perhaps it was that kind of frenzied uncompromising politics decade after decade, that encouraged so many young people in the 1970s to form leftist armies such as the Montoneros, the People's Revolutionary Army, and go to war with the the real army, which had all the firepower and a psychotic inclination to use it.
It was a crazy thing to do. All they did was to wake up a beast which devoured so many of them. Having disposed of its internal opposition, and facing growing criticism for its brutality, that beast then tried to rally the country behind it by seizing the Falkland Islands, known to Argentines as the Malvinas, in the South Atlantic. The islands were held by Britain but long claimed by Argentina. This led to the national humiliation in the war that followed, and finally the expulsion of the generals from political life in Argentina.
There are those who believe that the violence of the 1970s was like a fever that burned away the diseases of militarism and nihilistic politics. That may be an over-optimistic expectation, though there are faint signs they are gone. You can discern their absence on the walls of Argentina's cities; the graffiti that once expressed violent social antagonisms now are about rock groups.
Most people don't expect Argentina to return to the politics of the past. The democracy is already into its 11th year. Major changes have been negotiated between the two parties that dominate political life here, the Radicals and Peronists. One was to alter the constitution to permit a president more than one term, while reducing the length of the terms from six to four years. Mr. Menem is very popular. Even though his reforms have raised the unemployment levels in many parts of the country, it is expected he will be re-elected in 1995 and govern the country until the end of the millennium.
People are coming to expect stability in Argentina. Even outbreaks of violence, such as that which occurred in December when public employees rioted in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, have not shaken that expectation.
There is a woman of our acquaintance who grew up in Argentina, in Santa Fe. Her father was German, and she was quite happy to find a German husband, a successful businessman in Munich, where she now lives. She thought she left all the turbulence of her native country behind.
But with the rise of the neo-Nazis in Germany, the violence that attended the reunification, the small wars burning in various parts of the old continent, she has been reconsidering. In fact, she and her husband have bought a small house in Cordoba, west of here. They see it as a place to go if things get out of hand in Europe.
Who would have ever thought it?
C7 Richard O'Mara is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.