When President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner initiated the nationalization and expropriation of the Argentine assets of YPF, an oil company owned mostly by Spanish interests, it came as no surprise to anyone who has visited the country recently or watched it closely. The theft, a consistent manifestation of the Kirchner personality and the mercurial character of the Argentine political class, was more a return to business as usual for the country than a shock — and goes a long way toward explaining why Argentina is poor.
In January 1912, an impartial observer of Argentina and the United States would have had trouble guessing which had a more promising future. Both enjoyed the low-hanging fruit of abundant, underpopulated land. The Argentine pampas were as fecund, tillable, and flat as the American Midwest. Argentina had a long coastline ideal for exporting the agricultural products that were grown inland. Immigrants from all over the world were rushing in. Argentina had one major advantage over the States: It had never relied so heavily on slavery for agriculture. So it had never experienced such a wrenching civil war, nor was it destined for the racial strife and inequality that would be the major blot on America’s future. By 1912, Argentina had even started to enjoy some soft power: The tango — which had originated in Buenos Aires’ slums — had just hit Paris and would soon be the rage in New York and Finland. The capital was marketing itself as a fully European city transplanted directly into the Americas.
In January 2012, I caught a flight to Buenos Aires with a cheap Air Canada ticket, a psychological desperation for more sunlight than Boston would enjoy until April, and a vague curiosity about why Argentina, which had once so resembled the United States, was now so different. What had happened in the intervening 100 years?
When I showed up at the apartment whose guest room I had rented on Airbnb, the first things I noticed were the gold stud glimmering from my host’s right earlobe and, displayed on his desk, a framed, autographed picture of him hugging Ann Coulter. My host (call him Jake), I soon confirmed, was a gay, right-wing American expatriate, who telecommuted daily to his New York marketing firm.
I’m a runner, and running is how I get to know a new city. Usually the best way to do this is to wind inward from the main body of water around which the city is based. So after small talk, I laced my New Balances and asked Jake to point me in the direction of the Rio de la Plata. “The Rio de la Plata?” he asked. “You don’t want to go there. There’s nothing to see,” he continued, his tone flat and casual, with barely a hint of mischief. “It’s just where the helicopters go to dump the bodies whenever we have a coup.”
(This kind of black non-humor is something a visitor must get used to. The next day, on a tour of the Teatro Colón, the major opera house, my group’s guide led us from the main theater into a gilded hall just outside the choicest boxes. “Now this is where the really important stuff, what everyone really came to the opera for, would happen during the intermissions,” she said, her tone flat and casual — “the planning of assassinations, and so forth, among the Buenos Aires elite.”)