The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of the memoir I’m currently writing about my early days as a journalist in Buenos Aires. I hope you enjoy it and would appreciate any and all comments you might wish to share.
The Best of Times and the Worst of Times
|Downtown Buenos Aires - Avenida 9 de Julio|
I was excited about my decision to move to Buenos Aires just six months after I finished a three-year hitch in the US Army. I’d had a long time to think about it and the Ohio I had returned to—what with the start of a two-year-long American retreat from Vietnam and the corresponding initiation of an economic decline back home that was to turn the northern part of the state from industrial belt into rust belt practically overnight—was little like the one I’d left in 1970. Still, I wasn’t burning any bridges, really. The plan was to go to Buenos Aires with my native Argentine wife “for a year” to see what we could see. In the end, I could always come back to the United States. For now, however, this was the plan, and the start of a new adventure.
|Perón was back.|
But if the Ohio of my pre-Army life had changed a lot in the last three years, so too had Argentina. The Buenos Aires of 1973 was nothing like the one I had known on my first visits, in 1968 and 1971. Oh, the porteños were still themselves—colorful, roguish, warm and generous to a fault—and the city was still as fascinating a metropolis as ever, but something in the climate had changed. The once impeccable walls of the city were covered with political graffiti and posters, cryptic phrases and open threats that suggested severe internal conflict. The police no longer walked their beats but were sandbagged inside their precincts. Something long covert was now boiling to the surface. And the cause of it all was clear: General Juan Domingo Perón was back.But if the Ohio of my pre-Army life had changed a lot in the last three years, so too had Argentina. The Buenos Aires of 1973 was nothing like the one I had known on my first visits, in 1968 and 1971. Oh, the porteños were still themselves—colorful, roguish, warm and generous to a fault—and the city was still as fascinating a metropolis as ever, but something in the climate had changed. The once impeccable walls of the city were covered with political graffiti and posters, cryptic phrases and open threats that suggested severe internal conflict. The police no longer walked their beats but were sandbagged inside their precincts. Something long covert was now boiling to the surface. And the cause of it all was clear: General Juan Domingo Perón was back.
There can be no doubt that during his decade-long reign in the 1940s and '50s—and especially up until the untimely death of his charismatic wife and co-leader, Eva Duarte (Evita), in 1952—Perón was the most popular president in Argentine history. But there can be little doubt either that he was also one of its most hated. While Juan Domingo and Evita enjoyed overwhelming popular support, Perón took ample advantage of that backing to create a popular dictatorship in the guise of a democracy. His government systematically persecuted its opponents, banned dissent, compiled and enforced blacklists and used brownshirt tactics to impose its will and dogma on the country. For a few brief years between the mid-forties and mid-fifties, Perón and Eva were the absolute monarchs of Argentina—with all of the beneficial and detrimental effects that this signified. But in 1955, the West's anti-communist/anti-fascist psychosis made Perón and his labor-based movement exceedingly suspect—as did his rather too obviously fascist-leaning "neutrality" during the Second World War. This, combined with his alienation of multi-national business interests, his imprudent clashes with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and his reckless nationalization of big business holdings of all kinds, provided his rivals in the armed forces with the political artillery they needed to revolt and overthrow him. Hundreds of his most loyal and humble followers died in the short but bloody revolution of 1955. Still others were executed in the anti-Peronist witch-hunt that followed.
Perón, for his part, escaped to the dictatorial haven of his colleague, General Alfredo Stroessner, in Paraguay, later spent some time touring other parts of Latin America, where he met—and subsequently married—María Estela Martínez, an exotic dancer thirty-six years his junior, whose stage name was 'Isabelita', and then retired from politics, in the lap of luxury, in Generalissimo Francisco Franco's Spain. There Perón was venerated not only as a great leader but also as a very wealthy man (a financial position he almost magically attained from the Spartan lifestyle of a career soldier and the relatively austere post of president, without ever having had any other visible means of support).
For over seventeen years, Perón lived in Spanish exile, puttering among his memoirs, his personal interpretations of military history and his reorganization of Peronist dogma. He probably could have lived happily ever after in semi-reclusion in Europe, except that his movement marched on in Argentina without him, thanks, ironically, to the Armed Forces' Revolución Libertadora, which proposed to abolish Peronism and inadvertently perpetuated it in the process.
The abolition was carried out with no apparent knowledge of human psychology. Childishly vindictive and almost ludicrously strict, the ban on all things Peronist literally defeated its own purpose. It wasn’t simply a matter of banning the Peronist Party (and all other party politics) 'for the duration', but was, rather, an attempt to make Perón and Evita non-persons. Busts, posters, books and pictures alluding to the two were removed, broken, burned and banned. The Peróns could not be publicly referred to by name. You could be reported to the police by a nosy neighbor for singing the Marcha Peronista in your own patio, and you could be arrested for daring to hum or whistle it in the street. Declaring yourself to be a follower of Perón or even an ex-Peronist could get you fired from your post and blacklisted from any new job opportunities. (This last was payback, since under Perón's government, in prime sectors of industry and trade, you were either a card-carrying Peronist or you were unemployed).
Ironically, the leaders of the also staunchly anti-communist Revolución Libertadora were applying methods of de-personification that were classically typical of Soviet domination. But as the intellectual defectors of the Soviet Union had long-since proven, a system of government that had to resort to brainwashing and historical lobotomy to preserve its power was not only tyrannical but also intrinsically weak and anemically supported. If a given personality was worthy of collective amnesia by executive decree, then that person must have sufficient power to be mortally feared by the regime. So it was that Perón's more than seventeen-year absence turned him into a national hero and a figure as charged with mystical power as El Cid. The obstinate ignorance of the anti-Peronist regime helped the myth of a Peronist workers' heaven spread among the country's proletariat and especially among laborers too young to actually remember the final period of Perón's "popular" dictatorship, when the general shut down Congress and ruled by decree. Suddenly, Juan Domingo Perón became the figure around whom thousands of rash young leftist students and extremist intellectuals also rallied. And in some cases, they armed themselves to overthrow "military oppression at the service of the oligarchy". These misguided scholars were precisely the type of educated ultra-liberals that Perón despised—a preference he would make clear once he returned and broke with what he called the "beardless idiots" who demanded he keep his long-distance promises of shared power with the left.
Still, the simple fact that Perón was the symbolic arch-enemy of the regime was sufficient for leftist rebels to take him as their leader in exile. So great was this political dichotomy and so meticulously misleading was the rhetoric of Peronism in exile, that the bold brushstrokes of underground revolutionary poster art often pictured Perón not only with the revered ghost of his beloved Evita, but also with that of Argentine-born Marxist martyr, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, at his side, when the truth was that, from the very outset, Peronist philosophy had been steeped in fascism, not Marxism.
Plan and Reality
It was to this Argentina that I, like Perón, had returned and about which I planned to write. It didn't take me long, however, to realize that I had highly over-romanticized my idea of what life was going to be like in Argentina. I figured any of the major US-based multi-nationals would be more than happy to have a native-English-speaking American working for them. I would quickly get a job to support my wife and myself, get down to work on my first novel by night and within a year or so, I would surely be an up-and-coming published writer with no need to do anything but that, write. In reality, however, when I showed up in the personnel offices of the multi-nationals that I had found in the listings of the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina, they all looked at me as if I were a Martian.
"Haven't you heard, son?" They invariably said. "Perón's back. All the Yankees are going home."
|Downtown Buenos Aires - Calle Florida|
I finally got a job as a graveyard shift bellhop in a downtown four-star hotel. They needed somebody on nights, other than the concierge, who could speak English. Heaven only knew they weren't hiring me for my Spanish, which was like the dubbed version of Tarzan on the Latino channel. Even in a big city hotel like that one, there was not a lot to do on the shift that ran from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., except make sure the late-night drunks got safely to bed, check in the occasional straggler, check out the early risers, polish the brass on the lobby doors and elevators, wash to windowpanes on the double front doors, and make sure not to get caught napping by either of the managers should they decide to pay a surprise visit. And that was a distinct possibility because they were brothers and each had an apartment in the hotel.
That left me a lot of time to sit and talk to the concierge when I wasn't trying to look busy. He told me his name was George, then immediately told me that wasn't his real name. He also told me his last name but said that too was phoney. He had assumed the name when he had come to Argentina back in the mid-1950s. George spoke seven languages, including perfect French, perfect German and perfect Spanish as well as good English. We traded off. He helped me improve my Spanish and I helped him practice his English. Beyond this entirely practical aspect, the conversations were, for me, extraordinary and fascinating.
George was a small man, not more than five-feet-six, with fair, neatly cropped, thinning hair gone to sandy gray. He was trim and wore his blue and gray hotel uniform with military correctitude. His eyes were an icy blue, but with a leprechaun twinkle that reflected intelligence and a sharp sense of humor. He was formally serious with customers and management, but when he talked to the bellhops, his face almost always bore a sardonic grin as he thought of new ways to poke good-natured fun at us. It struck me from the start that he had, on the one hand, the prim and proper look of the perfect little clerk, but on the other, an air of self-confidence and rigid bearing that made him look somehow self-assertive and even dangerous.
My instinct was apparently not wrong. As our nightly talks unfolded, I learned that George had been born in the mountains of Central Europe to parents who lived an isolated life in abject poverty and spoke a dialect that few people elsewhere in Europe would have understood. Suffice it to say that they were less than model parents and that George was brought up in a house where love and understanding were luxuries used sparingly. He ran away to Germany when he was sixteen, lied about his age and joined the German Army.
Smart, unobtrusive and extraordinarily gutsy, besides having a natural gift for languages, George eventually found his way into undercover work, where, under orders of the Third Reich during World War II, his job was to feed false information to the French, while collecting sound information for his handlers in the Gestapo. He once told me a horror story of how, on orders from the Nazis, he had slit the throat of a Frenchman who had been his contact and his friend for several years. Captured later by the French Resistance, he was given the choice of taking a bullet in the head or acting as their double agent, feeding lies to the Nazis and gathering intelligence for de Gaulle.
|Calle Florida by night|
That was how he had survived World War II. But after the war, fearing the vengeance of either side at any time, he had assumed a false name and joined the French Foreign Legion. By now a chameleon by nature, he served with the Legion for a number of years, first in Indo-China and then, for a year or so, in Algeria. He hated Algeria, hated the desert, with its broiling days and freezing nights, and began to have a very bad feeling about intense fighting against the National Liberation Front in which he frequently had to take part. After a firefight in which a bullet went clean through his thigh and killed his mule, he decided to escape at the earliest opportunity.
Once recovered from his wound, he eventually saw his chance to get away and ended up gravitating, almost by accident, to Buenos Aires—long known as a city that harbored anonymous exiles—where he took the first job he could get, as a bellhop, and faded, like many other former Nazis, into the urban landscape, changing his name once more and becoming a naturalized Argentine citizen.
Whenever I complained about the oppressive humidity of summer in Buenos Aires, he scoffed and said he loved the humidity. “Anything,” he said, “but the desert, thank you.”
George’s Spanish-teaching methods were, to my young mind, extreme. When he asked me to answer a call on the switchboard one night after the operator had gone home, I made the mistake of saying that my Spanish wasn't good enough to answer the telephone. George laughed and said, "Ah, well then, Newland, we've found a new job for you," and turning to the other three bellhops, he said, "From now on, after the operator goes home, no one answers the phone but Newland, understood?"
I begged him to reconsider, arguing that the hardest thing about Spanish for me was understanding what people said over the phone. He said, "Look, Newland, the telephones in Argentina are notoriously bad. There's nothing uncommon about a bad connection. So if you don't understand what the caller is saying, all you have to do is say, 'Disculpe, no le escucho,' (Sorry, I can't hear you), and get them to repeat until you understand what they want."
Obviously, I quite often found myself saying, "Sorry I can't hear you," over and over again, while the poor callers shouted their business until they were hoarse on the other end of the line. But my Spanish quickly began to improve. It was George, too, who first introduced me to the Buenos Aires Herald. I saw him reading the English-language daily early one morning, when the fellow from the newsstand up the street brought us the day's papers, and asked him about it. He suggested that it should form part of my Spanish training. "Read the Herald first each day to familiarize yourself with the news and then read the same stories in one of the Spanish-language papers and see how much you can understand." I started doing as he said and found that my Spanish vocabulary expanded by leaps and bounds.
I only worked a few months at the hotel before I landed myself a slightly better-paying job as a rental agent for Avis Rent-a-Car. But my pal George had provided me with invaluable help, not only with the local language but also by presenting me to the Herald. By the time I went to work for Avis, I was already planning to find a way to start writing for the city's only English-language paper.