That was the disheartening verdict that I heard as a young journalist, more than half a century ago, from the Buenos Aires bureau chief of Time magazine, Piero Saporiti.
Count Saporiti was a colourful character, and I do mean colourful. He had a cape that flowed dramatically from his shoulders, carried a silver-knobbed walking stick and wore an operatic black trilby hat. By the way, he was a genuine count and spoke English with a wicked Italian accent.
The count drafted his reports in Italian. His wife, a brilliant Vassar College graduate, translated them into ‘Timeze’, the version of ‘journalize’ that Henry Luce invented and which was the hallmark of the world’s first news magazine.
What I found particularly fascinating about Count Saporiti was that he saw Argentina through the cynical eyes of a journalist, one who had lived through fascism in Italy, an experience he recorded in a book called From the Balcony. He saw its influence on Argentina through Peronism, which he discerned was a watered-down version of fascism.
This circular idea is persistent. I also found the idea that Argentina will not advance to become developed in a book by Eduardo Tiscornia, El destino circular de la Argentina 1810-1984, which nobody paid much attention to at its time of publication. The author himself memorably described it to me – with a broad grin – as a “worst-seller.” It hit the shelves at the time of the Argentine Spring marking the return to democracy, following the election of President Raúl Alfonsín in 1983.
Understanding why Argentina seems to be destined to go around in circles was a mission of great importance for Tiscornia over the last two decades of his life. I think he identified the cause too when he wrote that the struggle for power between equal factions, then (and now) had produced an undefined situation. The consequence of which, he wrote, was conflict and intolerance that prevented rational negotiation. That, in turn, led to uncertainty over the future on one hand and political and economic stagnation on the other.
A new metaphor for Argentina emerged a few years ago and it is still in vogue. We have gone from the calesita to the grieta – from the roundabout to the crevasse.
I have translated la grieta as crevasse, although most Spanish-to-English dictionaries give “crack” as the English equivalent. Other choices are fissure, chink and rift. Clearly “rift” is closer to what Jorge Lanata was referring to, when he introduced the term to the general public during the televised presentation of the Marin Fierro Awards in 2013.
Lanata was awarded four prizes that night. On his third appearance accepting a prize onstage, he was greeted with applause by most of the audience but he faced hostile silence from others. Reports covering his acceptance speech – in which he thanked, by name, the people he had probed in his investigations into alleged corruption (from former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on down) – described it as both “stinging” and “scandalous.” In his speech, he referred to an “irreconcilable rift” which he said was “the worst thing that has happened to us,” meaning of course Argentina and its citizens.
More recently, Lanata summed up la grieta again, saying: “It is what remains when fanatical discourse takes over political discourse.”
He said it had gone from being a political to cultural issue and he forecast, correctly, that it would remain in place after the conclusion of the mandate of the Fernández de Kirchner government.
I learned that Lanata’s concern about the rifts that have hindered Argentina’s progress date back many years and he has spoken about “the rift that began in 1950,” clearly meaning the division of the population into Peronists and anti-Peronists.
Nowadays, I think that most English speakers would translate “grieta” as the chasm that separates pro-Kirchnerites from anti-Kirchnerites. It is Peronism versus anti-Peronism all over again, but in new clothes.
Well, myself and all the people I know have lived with that divide for several generations, all the while riding the roundabout. Despite the claims, there was not an unbridgeable chasm before us. We all, every one of us, have a mix of friends. There have been a few tense moments over the years, but nothing to get really upset about.
What I have noticed, however, is that the level of hate and hostility associated with the “grieta” is stronger among journalists. And I believe that the bridge across the chasm – or the ladder to climb out of the crevasse, if you like – must be built by journalists, who have nothing to lose. Except their prejudices.