National Geographic : 1994 Dec
I TOOK A TABLE in La Biela cafe, in the fashionable Barrio Norte. As lunchtime approaches, the cafe earns its name, "the connecting rod," spinning with the com ing and going of politicians and businessmen on the make, beautiful women, schemers and plotters, shoeshine men, and gaunt beggars. But now at midmorning it was quiet. I opened the morning paper, turning to the shipping pages. There is a special pleasure in being in a port city and reading that yesterday arrived the Prosperity, Liberian flag, from New York, and the Jan Dlugosz, Polish flag, from Japan, and departed the same day the S. Caboto, Italian flag, for Genoa. The notices hold the scent ofthe sea, a hundred miles down the broad estuary known as the Rio de la Plata, the "river of silver," which can also be trans lated "river of money." The first Spanish settlement here was attempted in 1536; besieged by Indians, the settlers were reduced to eating snakes, rats, their shoes, even the flesh of dead companions, before abandoning the place. In 1580 the Spanish tried again; this time the port of Nues tra Sefiora Santa Maria del Buen Aire-Our Lady Holy Mary of the Good Air- was firmly rooted, the Indians subjugated. "Ifeelit tobe aseter nal as air and water," Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina's poet laureate, wrote of Buenos Aires. The metropolis is home to 11 million people -- one-third of the Argentine population. A bulge in the Ria chuelo, lower left, became part of the region'sfirst port and inspired the name residents use for themselves: portefios. But Spain fixed its gaze on the riches of Peru and Mexico rather than on this remote back water. The portenos, port dwellers, of Buenos Aires dabbled in contraband; a taste for the illegal, it is said, became a characteristic. In time, with independence and commercial links with Britain, Buenos Aires flourished. From 1880 to the 1930s the port sent out the bounty of the vast Pampas that stretch to the west: hides, beef, wool, wheat, corn, grains. The money flowed in. "Rich as an Argen tine" became a saying. Portefios visiting Europe brought back architects to create for them great houses and streets as in Paris, an opera house like Vienna's; they ordered English tweeds and French silks. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Spanish and Italian immigrants poured in seeking their for tunes. The great city swelled and swelled until, Argentines said, it was like a monster - a head too great for the size of the nation-body. The metropolitan area now sprawls over 1,500 square miles and holds 11 million people-a third of the country's population. The central city bespeaks the golden age: Paris-like streets, sidewalk cafes, thousands of shops-simple and elegant-schoolgirls dressed in plaid skirts and dark blue sweaters and stockings, porteros minding the entrances to countless apartment houses. Only the occasional ombu tree, its branches spreading over 50 yards and its huge roots twisting and writhing across the surface, reminds you that you are in South America. In such a splendid city, drawing on the bounty of such a productive land, it is diffi cult to imagine things going bad, but they did. "The problems came," said Professor Roberto Cortes Conde of the Universidad de San Andres in suburban Victoria, "after the Second World War. Argentina, under Per6n, adopted policies to close our economy to the world, to protect our industries from foreign competition, and to enable the government to intervene strongly in the economy. The idea was to isolate Argentina from world shocks such as depression and the two World Wars. Per6n believed there would be a third. "And so, while in the 1950s and '60s much of the world moved ahead, we lagged behind. Our infant industries remained infant indus tries, subsidized by the government. Inflation began its climb. In a way the government began to cheat the people, and the people to cheat the government."