Final Tales from Valparaiso

It was half-way through our stay in Paraguay, in a hotel in Iguazu, that we first heard the news of the train crash in Buenos Aires. By the time we got to Buenos Aires on our way home to Chile a couple of days later, the Argentine papers were angry from cover to cover and violent demonstrations in Buenos Aires were being dispersed with water canon and tear gas. It turned out that the brakes on the train had been defective for some time (according to various reports, all of which were ignored), and on that particular fateful journey the driver had phoned in several times from stops along the way to say that the brakes were really problematic. Each time he had been told to “keep going”. The train finally hit the buffers at Once Station at full speed, killing 51 people and injuring another 600 or so. The Secretary of Transport, Juan Pablo Schiavi, had made two extraordinarily callous public statements – firstly criticising passengers for crowding into the first two coaches – where most of the fatalities occurred – and, secondly, saying that it was a pity that the crash hadn't happened a day earlier, which would have been a public holiday, so there would have been fewer people on the train. Cristina Kirchner, the president, had not made an appearance, being, as she was, on holiday at her country retreat with various cronies, including Lugo, the president of Paraguay, in Santa Cruz down in Patagonia. There were shouts of “Where is Cristina?” from the angry crowd.

The train company belongs to one of Argentina's richest families, the Corigliano brothers. Previous president, Carlos Menem, first handed Trenes de Buenos Aires over to them, but Nestor and Cristina Kirchner have consolidated the relationship, throwing a great deal of public money into the enterprise with little scrutiny as to where the funds end up. Certainly they have not been used to maintain the rolling stock, which, I remember being told last time we were in BA, is in terrible shape. A previous Secretary of Transport is still facing trial for accepting holidays and presents from TBA; but this kind of behaviour appears to be commonplace in Argentina - especially within the current president's favoured circle of outrageously rich friends.

A few weeks ago, while staying on the blueberry farm near Chillán, Ricardo's friend Mario came to stay. He is Argentinian, though, like Ricardo, from a German family background. Moving back to South America after living for a number of years in Europe (which he found “too crowded”) he opted to live in Chile. The reason for this, he told us, was that he couldn't stomach the political corruption in his native Argentina. The Italian element there, he told us, has led to much mafia activity, much of it directly related to organisations within Italy itself. He gave an example of political misdemeanour: while governor of Santa Cruz, Nestor Kirchner had taken a large sum from the state budget, with the agreement of his colleagues, and had banked it safely in Switzerland – it was the time when the banks were collapsing. This money had never been returned. I asked Mario if there was the will in Argentina to deal with this corruption and he said no, that was what he found unacceptable – it was like Italy in that respect.

Elsewhere in the same newspaper mentioned above there was a report on the fact that the Economist has now stopped quoting Argentine's own official published economic statistics because they are so heavily doctored by the government. The Economist, under the headline “Don't Lie to me, Argentina”, explained that they have now started to use statistics put together by outside observers instead. Roque Corigliani, one of the two Corigliani brothers, was also busy lying after the crash, claiming that the train was in good order and that the crash must have been caused by human error. A mechanic who was on board will eventually be giving evidence, but is currently in intensive care.

While waiting in a queue during that day of amazing confusion at Buenos Aires airport on our way home to Chile (Aerolineas Argentinas' computers all went down and the very small number of young staff were unable to cope – we finally got to Santiago about twelve hours late and by the skin of our teeth) – as I was saying, while we were in that interminable queue a Chilean man said to us: “Just look at this - this is a microcosm of Argentine society”, which didn't go down too well with his Argentine wife. The suited representative of Aerolineas Argentinas who – eventually – came along to negotiate with a whole plane-load of angry Chileans (including us) whose flight had mysteriously disappeared from the timetable as if it had never existed, stood there telling lie after lie – each of which someone in the crowd had the know-how to disprove. He blamed the airline's internet service provider (one of the passengers worked in that field and was able to affirm that the ISP in question had been up and running normally all day); he then blamed the airport; for some reason he appeared to find it easier to spin lies than to explain the simple, and perfectly understandable truth, that the airline's own computer system had crashed for much of the day.

Of course, this murky world of lies has nothing to do with the many wonderful Argentines we met on our trip, and I'd like to finish this posting with a little scene from a few weeks ago:

On the final evening of our three-day ferry trip from Puerto Natales to Puerto Mont there was a bingo session organised in the bar – with a twist, in that anyone who shouted “bingo”, whether correctly or not, had to do a little dance. A young French couple we'd written off as impossibly stiff-and-starchy and self-absorbed amazed us all with a rock-and-roll routine of multiple twirls, including a tour-de-force in which she fell backwards into his arms to be vigorously re-launched and re-twirled. The high point of the evening, however, was when a very distinguished-looking Argentine in his sixties or seventies completed his card. They put on a Gardel song for him to tango to, but, with a gentle but decisive gesture, he declined, instead taking up the microphone and singing - word-perfect. Cueing to disembark the following morning I asked him for the name of the song that he had sung:

“Oh, I forget...what's it called?...I really don't remember...oh, yes, it's called Por Una Cabeza - that's the one”. And yet, vague though he might have been about the title, once the tune had struck up the previous evening he had been able to pitch straight in and sing it all the way through. How many of us could do that with Burns or the Beatles without the help of a karaoke screen? I think we'd quite quickly revert to tum-te-tum. The Argentine musical inheritance is indeed awe-inspiring and I'm enormously looking forward to re-engaging with it in a week's time or so for our tango event at Greyfriars Kirk and at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh with Victor, Cyril and Valentina.

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