They say the only thing certain in life is change, and no one knows it like Argentinians do. A decade of political uncertainty and financial instability has left the country's inhabitants wondering what's next. For many, times are still very tough. But from the ashes of economic burnout, a vibrant, global Argentina is rising. The uncertainty can be both worrying and exciting.
Today's Argentina …
… is full of free speech. Forget writing to your representatives when you've got a gripe with the system—in Argentina, you take to the streets. Both city avenues and highways are regularly blocked by drum- and banner-toting crowds chanting in a tuneful unison that can come only from practice. Sometimes they're protesting low salaries or police repression; other times they're marking an event. It's not all on the streets, though. In 2009, independent journalists and media-watchers rejoiced when the congress and senate replaced the country's anachronistic TV and radio licensing laws, a legacy from the last military dictatorship. Previously, one media group controlled the majority of local TV and radio licenses, while the new law benefits educational, community, and non-profit programming.
… is going global. Locals can't get over the amount of out-of-towners flooding the country. And more and more of the 2.3 million annual foreign visitors are staying on. Tango enthusiasts are snapping up old apartments in Buenos Aires, wine aficionados are investing in vineyards, outdoors enthusiasts are buying chunks of Patagonia. The number of exchange students at universities in Buenos Aires and Córdoba has soared, and there's a thriving expat scene complete with how-to blogs and magazines. Comparatively low property prices and a favorable exchange rate mean many of these European and North American newcomers can afford not to work: would-be novelists, painters, musicians—and former investment bankers—abound. Quick to see the benefits of visitor dollars, the government is eager to improve Argentina's image. Popular tourist sites are getting the spit-and-polish treatment and tourist-friendly attitudes are being keenly promoted.
… is coming to terms with its past. The military juntas behind Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship called their reign the National Reorganization Process, a grim euphemism for six years of state-run terror during which 30,000 people "disappeared" and countless more were brutally tortured. Justice has been slow in coming: although some military officials were brought to trial in the 1980s, President Carlos Menem later pardoned them all. But after years of tireless campaigning by victims and human rights groups such as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo), these pardons have been revoked and military officers are slowly going on trial for crimes against humanity. Former clandestine detention centers have been transformed into cultural centers, and the anniversary of the start of the dictatorship, March 24, has been made a public day of remembrance marked by thousands each year.
Another organization, Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo), continues to search for their missing grandchildren, stolen at birth from kidnapped mothers and raised by the very people who killed the children's parents. The creation of a genetic information bank has meant that 97 children—now in their twenties and thirties—have been "found." It's not all progress, however. In 2006 Jorge Julio López, the 77-year-old key witness in the trial of a high-ranking former police officer, disappeared before he could testify and has never been found.
… is ever more divided. At first glance, Argentina seems to be on its feet. Largely thanks to soy and beef exports, the economy is growing; and unemployment and poverty levels have decreased. But it's a slow process and many people still live below the poverty line, and despite all those food exports, hunger remains a cruel reality in much of the country. The fact that Argentina had a middle class once made it unusual in Latin America. Today, however, Argentine society is beginning to polarize into very wealthy and very poor classes, like the rest of the region. The contrasting housing along the access roads to big cities is testimony to this widening gap: alongside exclusive country clubs and gated communities sit growing shantytowns.
What's Hot in Argentina Now
El Bicentenario. Argentineans have always been patriotic, but flags are flying higher and brighter than usual as the country's 2010 bicentenary of its independence approaches. Cultural events, competitions, and even a major new cultural center in Buenos Aires are being planned to mark the occasion.
Electric music. Listening to cumbia (a local tropical-style rhythm) was once as trashy as it got. But now Argentina's hottest club nights spin around electronic cumbia remixes. Some call it "electrotropical" or "electrocumbia," others "cumbiatrónica"; whatever its name, its trademark "shh-chicki-shh" beat has clubbers hooked. Itinerant Club Night Zizek (www.zzkclub.com) is the place to go: it even toured the United States in early 2008.
Being out. Being out has never been this in. "Friendly" is the latest Spanish buzzword: Argentina is keen to become Latin America's gay capital. It's not just bars and clubs, either: we're talking travel agencies, tango schools, milongas (tango dance halls), and now Axel, a swish gay hotel in Buenos Aires. The local community has plenty to cheer about, too: same-sex civil unions have been legal in the capital since 2003, and the annual Marcha del Orgullo Gay (Gay Pride March) attracts tens of thousands of revelers each November.
Food Culture. Time was when all Argentine diners cared about was how big their steak was. But serious foodie culture has definitely arrived, and locals are beginning to value quality over quantity. A new generation of celebrity chefs is busy evangelizing enthralled TV audiences, and former table-wine drinkers now vigorously debate grape varietals and name-drop boutique vineyards.
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