News

South America: A Study in Contrasts

July 15, 2010

By Craig Gilbert ’10

  • 2010 |
  • knight-wallace |
  • TRAVEL REPORT |

The addition of Brazil to the itinerary gave the Fellows’ annual South America trip a neat duality. Argentina: the continent’s most European nation. Brazil: its biggest melting pot. Argentina: mature but troubled economy. Brazil: rising powerhouse. Argentina: governed by the polarizing Kirchners. Brazil: governed by the popular Lula.

The list goes on. At a pre-trip briefing at Wallace House, two U-M professors used dance to contrast the two cultures. In the more Europeaninfluenced tango of Argentina, the tempo is deliberate, faces are largely impassive, footwork is highly synchronized, and the songs have a thematic tradition of deep, bitter melancholy.

In the more African influenced samba of Brazil, the dance is more rhythmic and pelvic, the attitude more celebratory and flirtatious. The tango/samba divide is real, our briefers suggested, but a lot less simple than it sounds (as we’d come to appreciate in our travels).

Our days in Buenos Aires had a rhythm familiar to past Fellows: regular immersions in beef, wine and flan, punctuated by seminars and explorations.

There was a neat duality in that, too: glimpses of a brilliant and seductive culture on the one hand, and a famously stormy, adversarial and sometimes dysfunctional political economy on the other. The combination — good at living, worse at politics — may be as Argentine as the tango.

We heard from an analyst who mused about the Argentine “paradox”: the unusual pairing in the same nation of high levelsof education and corruption. We met with a founding member of Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the protest movement of mothers whose children “were disappeared” during The Dirty War of the 1970s and early ’80s. We lunched with our hosts at the newspaper Clarín and discussed their bitter clash with the Kirchner government.

We met with a justice of the Supreme Court, Dr. Elena Highton de Nolasco, who has fought to put the issue of domestic violence on the national agenda.

We sat down with the smoothly charismatic head of the national bank – Martin Redrado, a kind of stylistic anti-Greenspan – for a long conversation about the Argentine economy, the global meltdown and managing his public’s longstanding nervousness about the peso and infatuation with the dollar.

The most remarkable thing about that meeting was what soon followed, when Redrado refused President Cristina Kirchner’s demand to transfer billions in reserves to pay down government debt. She fired him. He appealed to the courts before tendering his resignation, which Kirchner refused. (The Financial Times called this “another bizarre twist” in the Kirchner-Redrado “soap opera.”) Alas, Mr. Redrado was soon gone. He was a gracious host and a seemingly principled certain banker.

The trip to Brazil was a departure on many levels. Going to Brazil was a first for KWF. So was combining two countries in one trip.

What we found in Brazil was – carefree samba aside – a roaring engine of commerce and trade, a robust currency, a nation slated to host a World Cup and Summer Olympics, and in São Paulo, a city disorienting in its scale and sprawl.

Our guide was former Knight-Wallace Fellow Helio Schwartsman ’09, a writer with our host newspaper Folha de São Paulo, who led us with imperturbable informality from one day to the next. We went to the symphony and to samba school – a combination of fejoada, musical performance and group dance. (The two most memorable sights on the dance floor: a certain samba queen in a certain body-skimming white dress, and a certain mature member of the KWF party in a certain white hat.)

We discussed Brazil’s racial culture and social inequalities. For a nation that – South America, continued from page 1 prides itself on racial harmony, there is an almost limitless list of words and phrases for every variation in skin hue (blue, pink, white pink, even green). And racial identity is treated as an almost entirely subjective concept that has less to do with DNA or skin color than status or social context.

We visited a hospital for the well-todo in an affluent neighborhood, and another staffed by some of the same doctors paid more for serving the poor at a nearby favela. We discussed the Brazilian style of politics (far less confrontational than in Argentina) and how President Lula’s popularity has set the stage for the coming presidential election (he can’t run again). We attended detailed economic briefings full of elaborate charts in which the trend lines unfailingly pointed upward.

Then we danced our last samba, and headed home, to a place where the trend lines have been pointing in a different direction.