Yours truly has been a columnist in this newspaper since its very first edition (September 2, 2017) in four different incarnations – economic commentary in the form of the Dr Hale epistolary exchange, followed by series on the country’s provinces, international organisations in relation to Argentina and the various ministries of this administration – with gaps between each one of them. But this has been by far the longest: my ministerial series concluded last June 20, a date on which Argentina’s coronavirus deaths were still in three digits (979) with 39,750 confirmed cases – just turn to Page 3 and compare with the figures more than fortyfold higher there to see that the intervening period has been rather more than a lot of water flowing under the bridge since then, sadly enough.
And not just the loss of life (always the bottom line) but a whole range of disruptions at every level – one of which helps to explain this unduly long interval. My wife and I concluded the sale of our house on March 19, just the day before President Alberto Fernández announced lockdown, but were unable to move into our new flat overlooking the Botanical Gardens until November 23, almost 250 days later, due to various hassles (during that lengthy period we were technically squatters in our own home). At that late stage I needed every spare moment for the 2020 annual review which dominated last Saturday’s edition so no room for returning to a column – until now.
Anyway, a new year, a new column. The slug “And that reminds me…” should give the shrewd reader a pretty good clue as to the general concept – picking up a topic from current news and comparing it with past experience – but the authority for putting on this new mantle is far less clear and forces me into some self-importance which I would have preferred to avoid. The core basis for speaking from past experience with authority would be the 34 years I spent working for the late Buenos Aires Herald (27 of them in an editorial position) between 1983 and 2017, an entire generation – many readers will doubtless also have shared those years in Argentina and some might even have a better perspective since there is such a thing as being too close to the truth to see it, but the fact remains that my work involved following the news intensely on a day-by-day basis all that time.
Furthermore, for an informed comparison with yesteryear I am not limited to since 1983. I read history at the University of Cambridge (the best on the planet, according to the QS World University Rankings in some years) where I had tutors who gave me reading lists of at least 1,000 pages a week so my brain is crammed from youth with historical data and analysis which (like many people of advancing age) I remember much more clearly than many things which happened a short while ago.
Thus were the column topic of the week to be coronavirus, which it is almost bound to be sooner rather than later, I would not be limited to a comparison with swine flu, the A/H1N1 of 2009 (of which I actually do not have too many memories, because the current vice-president’s denialism was especially allergic when it came to nasty news like the 2012 Once rail tragedy on her watch, so she did a pretty good job in airbrushing swine flu out of the general news agenda) – I could write about the Black Death and Spanish Flu more knowledgeably than most.
Anyway enough in the way of introduction and definitely enough in the way of bragging. Time to get started, were it not for the fact that this presentation of the new column has already absorbed around two-thirds of the available space... today’s effort will have to serve as an appetiser for (hopefully) many more main courses to come.
Space, it should be underlined, is the only reason for not taking the plunge today because even though this early part of the year is often dubbed the “silly season,” there is no lack of topics where a comparison with the past would be highly instructive. Thus when it comes to the government’s budding conflict with the farming sector, it would be hard to find a pundit who does not mention at some point a feeling of déjà vu from the soy export duty showdown of 2008. And almost as frequent are the analysts who see Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as at it again with her 2013 “democratisation of justice” when it comes to the government’s insistent judicial reform initiatives which seem so out of sync with any normal pandemic priorities.
As for the “silly season,” this was overtaken by the pace of modern life long before lockdown. In my first few years at the Herald, everybody did seem to be away in Mar del Plata or Punta deI Este with nothing really happening all summer but this was already changing in 1988 with the Monte Caseros Army mutiny, followed by the La Tablada bloodbath the following January with the Bonex Plan at the other end of 1989. Political instability hit rock-bottom at this time of year with five presidents in the fortnight of the transition from 2001 to 2002 – not every summer has been eventful in the last three decades, but it can no longer be blocked out of the news calendar.
Finally, I’d like to close this column with a tribute to my old Oxbridge comrade Carlos Escudé, who died of Covid-19 at the tail-end of the annus horribilis of 2020. Argentina has more than its fair share of brilliant individuals and I met many of them in three decades of journalism, but I’d be stretched to come up with as truly an original mind as Carlos. His obituaries give him various labels such as international expert and foreign policy advisor but in the final analysis he was just Carlos Escudé (although in his last years he gave himself some Hebrew name in order to accompany the religion he embraced to honour his rabbinical beard). This would be the moment to extend condolences to his wife Mónica but she predeceased him by a few weeks. A real tragedy.