It was an exceptionally hot day. In the Plaza de Mayo, women were sunbathing and the fringe parties were out in force, looking for votes in next Sunday’s presidential elections.
Just steps away from a Burger King, the United Left was decrying the trend of “globalization,” the code word for U.S. economic and cultural domination. An apocalyptic loudspeaker warned that globalization would replace cultural differences with a dangerous uniformity. I thought that rather unfair to Burger King, which is, after all, famously receptive to special orders.
Of all the third-party candidates (i.e., those other than the ruling Peronists or the opposition Alliance), only Domingo Cavallo, of Action for the Republic, gets taken seriously. A former economy minister, Cavallo guided Argentina’s opening up to foreign trade and investment. Given that record, he is about the only candidate who cannot engage in anti-globalization rhetoric–it would be tantamount to saying, “Whoops, sorry!” Cavallo’s poll ratings have rarely touched double digits.
When I arrived today at the offices of the Buenos Aires Herald, I learned that, with four days to go before the election, Cavallo has conceded defeat. He predicted that the Alliance candidate Fernando De la Rúa would win. As I saw last night, the Alliance has been critical of globalization. De la Rúa has declared that “the era of carnal relations with the U.S. is over.” That is what Argentines want to hear in 1999.
It was not always so. The Herald, for example, grew out of Argentina’s last great globalization in the late 19th century. Back then, the British controlled the railroads, the banks, and the wool industry. Thousands of Englishmen from that era decided to stay in Argentina. Their descendants make up the somewhat bizarre Anglo-Argentine community, a group with its own country club (Hurlingham), private schools (St. Andrew’s and St. George’s), and, of course, the Herald.
Jimmy, an old-school Anglo-Argentine, was at the Herald today to deliver advertising copy. He has a David Niven mustache and was wearing a linen suit. Like many of his generation, he speaks English with the earnest, throaty accent that one associates with cinematic RAF commanders delivering lines like “Come on, chaps, let’s give Jerry what-for.”
Jimmy has family in Patagonia. I made the mistake of the mentioning my fondness for Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. “That book?” said Jimmy. “Why, it’s, it’s … it’s a lot of rot, that’s what it is.”
The British heyday in Argentina ended when Juan Perón came to power in 1946. Perón expropriated the railways and other foreign interests. He also began a policy of protectionism that was only reversed, ironically, by another Peronist–the current president, Carlos Menem, together with his former economy minister, Cavallo. Now, the tide is turning against Menem’s “carnal relations with the U.S.”
Which brings me to Eduardo Duhalde, the Peronist candidate to succeed Menem. Duhalde is closing his campaign with a rally tomorrow. Since De la Rúa has already closed his campaign, this will be the last big event before the election. I plan to cover it for the Herald.
That meant I had to face Duhalde’s press office. Peronists hate the press; they all seem to yearn for the days when Perón and Evita could shut down newspapers that displeased them. Last Sunday, after the Loyalty Day rally, an unlucky reporter was beaten up, for no apparent reason, by a gang of Peronist thugs.
In the late afternoon, I took a break from training my replacement at the Sunday supplement and went to Duhalde’s campaign office on Corrientes Street. I approached a woman sitting under a picture of Evita and announced myself as a reporter for the Herald. She looked up in panic, as though a bomb were ticking away and she couldn’t figure out whether to cut the green wire or the red wire.
After examining my passport and a copy of the Herald with my name in it, she reluctantly gave me a press credential. I asked her when the press bus would be leaving.
“Bus?” she said.
“Big long thing with wheels.” Actually, I said, “Yes, to go to the rally.”
This annoyed her. “Don’t you have some other way to get there?”
She picked up the phone and, after a sharp conversation, handed the receiver to me. An unidentified man conspiratorially said, “OK, OK, here’s what you do,” and then gave me directions to catch the bus. I can’t shake the feeling that he is expecting me to arrive with a wad of bills or a kilo of hashish.
One more day and the campaign will be over.