Buenos Aires Times

That fracture called ‘La Grieta’ has been there a long and bloody time

The division has existed always. We do not have a national identity, so la grieta is in use as a name for a deeply split community.

Saturday 23 September, 2017
Formes president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Formes president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Foto:Pablo Temes.

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Divisions in Argentine society are regularly referred to as basic to the development of events on the political scene. But the more that the so-called ‘la grieta’ is mentioned, the less clear it becomes. In fact, a reasonable attempt at a definition of la grieta was made in a conversation the other day with a very young student at the UADE business university, who said: “The split hinges on conflict, not on ideas.” Both ends are intangible. The conflict cannot be defined, the ideas even less.

The search is on, at least in this space today if perhaps no further for lack of public interest, for a clear description of to what refers a split, a crack, a fracture, a gap, a chasm, or, in softer terms, a competition of rivals in the community, i.e. la grieta. This the previous government of Argentina tried to apply, a single word, as an unsubtle description of a dividing-line in society which hinges on an undefined outreach to part of the population, the underdog, roused for combat against the rich. In many ways, the word (which has an unpleasant ring to it, hence perhaps its political use) is dragged out as part of rabble-rousing. The word then comes as part of a nationalism which is not a political means in itself. Nationalism is a word usually used not by those who claim to be nationalists but by third parties with other aims. That word is applied in political discourse to a populism in which language never fully encompasses the circumstances. It is difficult to understand. Now, there’s a mouthful for you.

The present government, as against the previous, has preferred to use the word occasionally to deny the existence of a divide or reject its use as a description and an undesirable view of society, i.e. there is no grieta, in current government terms.

Much of this reflection is sparked by a paper read by the English television presenter, Jon Snow, in his 2017 James McTaggart memorial lecture given at the Edinburgh International Television Festival on August 23. Snow’s statement was part of an attempt to define la grieta in English, making the media responsible. “In fractured Britain the media are part of a distant elite,” he said. “It has filled neither the void left by the decimation of the local newspaper industry, nor connected us any more effectively with the ‘left behind,’ the disadvantaged, the excluded.” Jon Snow argued that the media were part of an elite that had helped split (British) society.

The political language used now refers to the present and the recent, and attempts to bring current conflicts into present-day rivalry. But how is la grieta to be faced and explained when a deep divide is part of Argentina’s history almost since the beginnings of the country? That was when the founding patriots were busy trying to build a state rather than create a nation. Hence we have a bureaucracy that deals with one catalogue of issues but which excludes the wider extent of current Argentine society.

And this situation has been there since our beginnings (even if different words were used) because we always have been a fractured society and the context of state excludes the wider sectors of the population. Thus Buenos Aires, historically, ignores the rest of the country. This requires going a little further than, say, the TN news channel owned by Grupo Clarín which claims each morning to be “federal” because it shows views of provincial capitals and reports the temperatures or the weather conditions there. That is not federalism and, if anything, emphasises la grieta. For example, TN spent a fortune covering Hurricane Irma (which was of interest to the part of society that can travel to Florida) and ignored the floods in Buenos Aires, Santa Fe and Córdoba.

The division has existed always. We do not have a national identity, so la grieta is in use as a name for a deeply split community. We choose to forget that civil war in Argentina raged through much of the 19th century. If the adjectival use of la grieta was not there in the clash between Manuel Dorrego and Juan Lavalle, both commanders did their level best to ensure that civil war was a better name. The federales and unitarios, the provinces versus Buenos Aires – at first a self-styled capital eventually so made by constitutional approval – were the next stage in Argentina’s maturing grieta. It is interesting to read Jorge Luis Borges on this, because despite recognising himself as an unitario by inheritance, he emphasised the need to try to understand this all-important divide which dug deep trenches in loyalties to break up Argentina in the 19th century.

I was educated to admire certain magnificent figures vital to the growth of Argentina as an incomplete nation. One of my heroes will remain Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. But in his essay Facundo: Civilisation and Barbarism (1845), he described the backwardness of the provinces as the Achilles heel of Argentina. The only way forward was to wipe out a whole class. Sarmiento’s emphasis on the need to defeat the “federales” is best illustrated when he wrote to Bartolomé Mitre: “Don’t skimp on gaucho blood, it is the only human thing they have.” And Mitre, another historical figure I was ordered to admire, decided in the final slaughter of the “federales” that the gauchos could be killed on capture, none kept alive. That was extensive to the treasonable murder of the rival (federal) commander in La Rioja (the other side of the grieta), Ángel “Chacho” Vicente Peñaloza (1796-1863).

All of this means that la grieta is part of us and no administration has tried to bring together this country.

“The split hinges on conflict, not on ideas.” Maybe the student was right.

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