The bus left highway AU14 at Ceibas to run on number 12 north to Gualeguay. Only a short distance after the crossroads, behold: the billiard table flat of the land which, barring the wire fences, spreads without a bump into the horizon. It must have been like that for centuries or much more. There are some grazing cattle among the clusters of espinillo, the thorny woods that the beasts avoid except for the shade in the worst heat of summer. They, the cattle, don’t belong there but have run free since the Jesuits introduced them in the littoral and the River Plate region in the 18th century. The herds look small. What they once were you can’t see now. The huge numbers that once were part of the landscape and of the European fantasy of Argentina in the 19th century are no more. Somehow, perhaps wrongly I feel I remember these herds as remnants of an imagined scene from my early years. I remember travelling up and down the country with my father, admiring the beasts in their huge numbers time and time again.
Was Argentina always like that?
In the beginning was it as pristine as that miraculous flatland I enjoyed revisiting just a few days ago? Or did we think, from the beginning, that we must have been so good we really believed we were “the granary of the world” or the “city with the best steak on the planet”?
Hard to know what happened to the herds in those pictures of European travel writers and artists. It is true that much of the cattle that once grazed on the soil of the Pampa húmeda has thinned out as more provinces go in for a greater mixed grain farming and quasi cash crops.
But still, the cattle look insufficient now. And yet the numbers are not. The cattle population is growing every year, sometimes. People say that changes in meat production, thanks to mechanisation and computerisation, have made way for greater grain harvesting. So why are we in recurrent crises?
I prefer the idea (not mine) that Argentina alters much but never really changes, and always will be like that, except… that there have been three, yes, three, major crises in the course of these first 19 years, less than one fifth of this century. First came December 2001 and the country was about to collapse in a financial inferno that followed the years of Carlos Menem’s false parity and preca - r i o u s stability. More than 30 people were killed in the environs of Plaza de Mayo in 2001.
Then there was the 2008 farm strike, 129 days, against the increase of taxes proposed by a young minister, Martín Lousteau (born, December 1970), perhaps socially the least likely to impose such a levy. The country again broke up, but the government obeyed the vote in Congress, a tie-break vote of one against the taxes. The ‘grieta’ or social and political crack seemed to close briefly, when the likes of a Maoist party with a membership of three joined forces with the landowners in the Sociedad Rural Argentina and most of the Radical party as well. And there were several other strange alliances or statements of support in that revolt against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government.
And the third crash is now, dated as starting in mid2018. The opposition parties see the only way forward as the replacement of this government in the October elections. But no group wants to be seen pushing to be Mauricio Macri over the cliff before his time is up.
The fascinating aspect of this Argentina, now, is that so far the aforementioned three upheavals – ignore those of the last century – have been overcome through the constitutional process. Forget about calling this a democratic system by no more than a glance at our rotten Judiciary, corrupt functionaries and mafia-style management in the provincial political system, but the process has been constitutional. And so you come to an unfortunate conclusion:
Argentines got a country, but they didn’t get an education.
Hence our social surroundings have been made up of deeply prejudiced amateur politicians who have grown in wealth and power fast. And when we were on the starting-line two centuries ago we did not know how to begin a process. The only model we had was a resentful sovereign, Ferdinand VII, who ruled by whimsy, got himself locked up by Napoleon and who, after losing most of his colonies, thought he could have them back. A promising failure.
And yet the country is producing enough for all to prosper, while we gloss over our urban poverty and blame others for our failure. Who is in charge here and might be responsible?
The grain surface, meaning soy, sunflower and wheat, for the current season has been forecast at 20 million hectares. It sounds impressive. But in what sometimes feels like a different country, politically and financially, the grain area grew from 16 million hectares in 1956, to 21.4 million in 1966.
In search of the super steak (“Bife de chorizo bien, pero bien jugoso!”) I came back to Buenos Aires in 1994. Prior to 1976, you could ask for that steak at any parrilla. From time to time I kept my own record of changes in the national herd, but the quality of the great steak had declined.
Hard to know why. But I’ll show you figures: 1958, 41.3 million head of cattle, 1966, 52 million head (a figure that rings in my mind for no reason when I stare at that wide open flatland with a few head wandering) with a human population of around 20 million. The population now is 44.3 million. 1977, 61.1 million (then the highest levels in Argentine history), 1988, 75 million head (a figure that I could not check), then in 2017, 53.4 million head, and last year, 2018, March, the count was 54,816,050 head. Isn’t there anybody around here to plan all these historic figures?
My next best step was sheep farming, which has sort of vanished since the days it was run by many from the Irish community in Buenos Aires province. The sheep numbers let me down. Still, I had hoped for my best bit of lamb since my adolescence. According to Perfil’s Super Campo supplement. It was not wholly encouraging, the sheep population. In the one score years from 1955 to 1977 the sheep-breeding fell from 50 million head to 35 million, then to 15 million now.
Why does so much seem so out of reach now?