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Swagger Gone Argentina*

Once-Haughty Nation's Swagger Loses Its Currency

By Anthony Faiola

Washington Post Foreign Service

Wednesday, March 13, 2002; Page C01

BUENOS AIRES -- Not too long ago, you could belly up to a bar almost anywhere in Latin America, mention Argentina and the jokes would start to fly. One old favorite: How does an Argentine commit suicide? He climbs to the top of his ego, then jumps.

The implication: Argentines -- notorious for looking down on their Latin American neighbors and fancying themselves a European nation, never mind the geography -- have not been known as the humblest of folk.

Even their harshest critics would admit they once had good reason. In a region largely populated by poor masses and tiny groups of privileged elites, Argentina boasted a huge and cultured middle class. Early in the 20th century, Argentina was richer than France and had more cars than Japan. And even after decades of gradual decline, the country's embrace of free-market reforms in the 1990s briefly gave it a per capita income twice as high as Poland's and three times that of Mexico.

But that was then.

As Argentina has collapsed in financial meltdown, one of the casualties of the crisis has been pride. It is easy to see why. Amid a deepening four-year recession, the middle class has largely disappeared; one in every two Argentines now lives in poverty. Formerly dubbed the "Paris of Latin America," Buenos Aires suddenly seems more like New York during the Great Depression, blighted by homelessness, unemployment lines and violent crime.

Before a devaluation of the peso in January, Argentines bragged about their currency being equal to the U.S. dollar. Now the peso is struggling to keep pace with the Brazilian real.

"We always saw ourselves apart from the rest of Latin America, and truth is, we always were," says Graciela Romer, a Buenos Aires-based social commentator. "But all that has changed with this crisis. In terms of poverty, crime and the lack of upward mobility, we have now become like the rest of Latin America -- and that has dealt a fatal blow to Argentine narcissism."

The humbling of the nation is comparable to the aftermath of the stinging defeat by England after Argentina's 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands itself an example, some observers note, of an overblown sense of grandeur. Yet to those who knew the swaggering country Argentina once was, the current humility is almost disconcerting.

Perhaps most demoralizing is the tut-tutting from Brazil, this country's eternal rival for economic and political dominance in South America. Argentines used to look down their noses at their larger neighbor. Now, political ads in Brazil's presidential campaign show scenes of crisis-plagued Buenos Aires accompanied with slogans such as, "Vote for me if you don't want this to happen to you."

Hermenegildo Sabat, revered political cartoonist at the country's largest newspaper, Clarin, recently drew "Destiny of Greatness" -- a powerful satire showing a sad, frail artist representing Argentina, painting her self-portrait as a mighty, larger-than-life woman.

A book called "The Atrocious Charm of Being Argentine," filled with harsh criticism of the nation's inflated ego, has become a bestseller. "A few years ago, I would have been attacked on the street just for writing that book," says author Marcos Aguinis. "But the days of the prideful Argentine are over."

President Eduardo Duhalde, meanwhile, has switched from a diet of hearty Argentine steak to humble pie. To the shock of many, he recently said Argentina should "be more like Chile," with which his nation almost went to war in the 1970s but is now considered the economic success story of South America.

Some Argentines have gone to extremes, from being self-promoters to self-loathers. This is a country that has lost faith in itself, fueling a swelling exodus. Populated largely by the descendants of Italians, Spaniards, British, French, Germans and European Jews, Argentina is seeing tens of thousands of its citizens return to the lands of their forefathers.

Argentines are as notorious for their neuroses as their arrogance, which is why Buenos Aires is said to have more psychoanalysts per capita than any city on Earth. But even by its high standards, the communal breakdown now is anything but normal. Psychiatric hospitals and suicide hot lines are overloaded by the distraught and confused, questioning how they could find themselves jobless and hungry in a nation that, as every Argentine child is taught, was the fertile breadbasket of Europe during two world wars. (And that profited -- or profiteered -- greatly from its neutrality.)

"We can say that Argentines are realizing that we are not everything we thought we were, and as the reality sinks in, it is a tough, tough thing to accept," says Carlos Boronat, coordinator for the Center for Suicide Assistance in Buenos Aires, where calls from people with money problems have doubled in the past six months.

"We Argentines always believed we were a very important country, a rich country," Boronat says. "Suddenly our reality, our worldview, has shattered."

So-called Argentine arrogance, sociologists here say, really was the product of insecurity. This is a country whose culture is more European than Latin American, but whose economy is more Latin American than European. Suffering an inferiority complex with regard to Europe and the United States, Argentines have compensated through haughty treatment of their Latin American neighbors.

Yet many insist that Argentines have gotten a bum rap. Most critics refer to "Argentines" in general when they really mean Porteños -- the blunt, fast-talking, aggressive residents of Buenos Aires. Judging Argentines by this group, many here argue, is like judging all Americans by New Yorkers.

Perhaps more important, however, is that Argentine cultural norms are different from those elsewhere in Latin America, where the privileged and the wealthy often expect deference from the underclasses. Argentines, who long enjoyed a tradition of relative economic equality, are far less tolerant of classism.

"Wealthy Brazilians are often shocked by Argentina because they walk into a store in Buenos Aires and expect the clerk to act subservient," says Ariel Palacios, Buenos Aires correspondent for Estado de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil's largest newspapers. "Because in Brazil, a store clerk would be someone from a poor neighborhood, and rich Brazilians would expect deferential treatment. But here, a store clerk is usually middle class and insists on being treated like an equal. Rich Brazilians find that jolting, and it is sometimes taken as arrogance."

Others maintain the arrogance is real, and as evidence point to the current woes. The nation blindly took on piles of foreign debt during the 1990s, with its leaders insisting that an ever-expanding economy would allow Argentina to meet its obligations well into the future. The peso was pegged at an unrealistically high value, when a devaluation -- and a little humility -- might have provided a softer landing when the economy inevitably cooled. Argentines were blindsided by the recession that began in 1999, and many refused to admit that a ruinous debt default was looming until just before the country ceased paying its creditors in January.

Now, most Argentines are blaming corrupt politicians and foreign devils for their ills. But few are looking inward, at mainstream societal concepts such as viveza criolla, an Argentine cultural quirk that applauds anyone sly enough to get away with a fast one. It is one reason behind massive tax evasion here: One of every three Argentines does so -- and many like to brag about it.

"We still reject the idea that we are the cause of our own difficulties," says Mariano Grondona, a noted author, political commentator and television journalist. "We spend our time looking for scapegoats. We say, 'Oh, we were so rich, so who stole the money? It must have been the foreign banks, or it's the politicians, they must have robbed us.' But where is the self-blame? Where is the soul-searching about why we don't have a competitive economy, why we don't pay our taxes, why we have so many people living on government jobs? No Argentine wants to look at the blame we hold inside each of us. That is the worst arrogance of all."

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