The Coastal Post - April, 1998

Letter from Buenos Aires

By Jim Scanlon

Getting Around the Problem

Two days before I was due to leave on a sentimental journey to Germany where I once lived for three years during very troubled times, I got a telephone call from a friend in Philadelphia asking me if I would accompany him to a scientific meeting in Argentina. He doesn't speak Spanish and makes scientific instruments, two of which I use in connection with my interest in the environmental effects of ozone depletion (with which regular readers of the Coastal Post will be familiar).

I left Germany three weeks after John Kennedy was shot and was in Berlin the year before that, during the doomsday Cuba missile crisis, and didn't think I had a future back then. It had been a relief to pass 1964 in the historical time warp of Franco's Spain where it was unbelievably cheap to live. I now had a great excuse not to go back to Germany-for me nostalgia is painful.

Five days later I was in hot and humid Buenos Aires. This immense city looks much better than when I just happened to arrive here in 1992 on the 500th Anniversary of the Discovery. No one seemed to be paying much attention to the event except editorial writers and a few protesters focusing on the genocidal side effects of the Western European intrusion into the New World. (Then it was the Conquistadores, now its the IMF.)

Although there are now many more autos on the streets due to easier credit, the traffic seems to move more smoothly and the pedestrian is in somewhat less danger of death and dismemberment while crossing the street. People seem less jittery and don't minutely examine the money you give them. That made me feel like a criminal. The days of insane hyper-inflation are long gone and almost forgotten.

Dr. Carlos Menem, the president under whose government the stabilization took place, hinted that he would like to run again for a third term and this has caused an uproar of protest, since he can't do that without amending the constitution. Something like this is always going on in South America. There are violent demonstrations over General Pinochet's retirement in Chile, a serious conflict in Paraguay between presidential candidates, floods and landslides in Peru, fires in Northern Brazil. The usual.

I was glad to get out of the United States for a while and get a break from Monica Lewinski. But the Bimbo Eruption was so powerful that it regularly made headlines and TV news clips on the half hour, showing a miserable Bill Clinton, Paula Jones and the 60 Minutes sex expose .

The Argentineans don't seem to know what to make of this. When I picked up a copy of the New York Times at a news stand, I shook my head at the latest presidential sex headline. The young man taking my money said somewhat defiantly, perhaps believing not terribly erroneously that all Americans are homophobes, said sarcastically, "You should be glad it wasn't a boy!"

I don't believe there is a Spanish word for "womanizer." Carlos Menem had a terrible time trying to evict his estranged wife Zulema from the Presidential Palace a few year ago and Alberto Fujimori of Peru had the same problem. Although he is getting up there in age, Menem regularly gets photographed with beautiful women.

He met in the Casa Rosada, (The Pink House) with Claudia Shiffer, the German top model, and had a long interview with Louise Chiccone, (Madonna), when she was here making a musical film about Eva Duarte, who married another womanizer. In 1964, Peron and his bodyguards used to hang out in a cafe on the Gran Via in Madrid. I went in once, but the atmosphere seemed hostile.

People here don't seem to get what's going on in the U.S. Maybe it's the Italian influence on the culture. Sex seems to pervade everything. Women dress very well, much better, I'd say, than in the U.S. They dress much more seductively, short skirts, snug clothing, bare legs. As I was walking around the impressive Recolletos Cemetery, four groups of women asked me, three in Spanish, one in English, "Do you know where Eva's tomb is?" Looking for a role model perhaps? Nobody seems to care where Peron is buried, but then he is really still alive to an extent.

The men here dress well, too, in business suits and casual clothing, and you don't see the out-of-control obesity and sloppy dress you see in large American cities. Basically, old and young look good here, although perhaps the air pollution, cigarette smoking and arsenic in the water contribute to bad skin and thinning hair.

The newspapers and magazines regularly feature the latest woman's fashions from Europe, and television news devotes long interviews and reports with models flouncing around the runways of Milan and London. In fact, TV ads and program introductions never miss an opportunity to show off attractive and scantily-clad young women in quick MTV camera cuts.

A recent revision of the misdemeanor criminal code removed prostitution, effectively decriminalizing it. I was surprised, since there never seemed to have been any impediment before. What got a lot of people upset was not that sex might be bought and sold to mutual advantage and agreement, but that it would spill onto the streets and "las chicas" would cause more congestion and create a spectacle and bad example.

Every news report I saw featured short cuts of street sex workers in strange, unusually revealing clothing. Included with "las chicas" on the streets, without any special stigma, were transvestites or "trasvestis." I had never seen this before, so it was obvious that prostitution, like the city itself, is huge-immense-more than I could know or comprehend.

As I said, the city seems to have collectively lowered its level of stress, but sore spots remain. Police brutality, unemployment, crime. Business people are very cautious about letting strangers into their offices. It is very irritating to have to explain yourself talking to a tinny, squawking intercom by the doorbell. A police officer jumped out of hiding to stop me from photographing my friend in front of a synagogue in Paracas. Six years ago, the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish Cultural Center were bombed, killing over a hundred people, and so far no one has been caught. "No photos without permission!"

Punishing those responsible for the disappearance of the disappeared during the military dictatorship is still a sore spot which is continually being rubbed by a judicial investigation in Spain concerned only with the Spanish disappeared. Menem, who spent several years in prison under the military, and is, therefore, a kind of mini-Mandela, doesn't want to provoke the military. He keeps trying to get the disappeared behind him and the country, but the disappeared won't go away. It is spooky and ominous.

I almost forgot about the scientific meeting! It was called "Understanding Ultraviolet and Ozone." Nothing spectacular took place. The U.S. National Science Foundation and NASA would like South American scientists to focus on more on ground-based monitoring. (My favorite subject!) The South Americans want and need money. (Nobody's favorite subject.)

Increased ultraviolet radiation is a concern. I heard it stated with scientific accuracy once again that in the springtime, Ushuaia, a city 55 south, near Cape Horn, increasingly receives similar ultraviolet radiation levels as summertime Buenos Aires, 21 of latitude to the north. Unexpectedly high levels occur throughout Patagonia and even up to Southern Brazil!

What does this mean? It is hard to say. It is the same old unsatisfying story of "certain individuals because of their heredity and occupation will face increased risk of this, that, and the other thing." Individuals, of course, can respond and protect themselves if they have knowledge. It's a public health problem which is not being dealt with very effectively anywhere in the world.

The thought occurred to me that now that an Arctic ozone hole seems to be developing each spring, and Alaska and Norway might soon be facing "summertime ultraviolet levels of Buenos Aires," the north and south are getting together.

I heard the first casual, almost hushed mention that the Montreal Protocol might not be enough. That everything might not be OK. Enough to get one branded an eco-terrorist. Who wants to worry about sickness and death and that we are changing the light that comes from our sun?

I have heard that foxes, when hunted to the point of extermination, will breed more often and produce more pups. That is, they get sexier. Nature's mechanism of dealing with stress, by getting around the problem.

Stay tuned.

Coastal Post Home Page