Movie Review: The Fall of Fujimori

I find them curious figures, the Latin American caudillos, the strongmen leaders and dictators who are so common in the region’s history. Recently I listened to an interview with Enrique Krauze, author of the latest edition to my Amazon wishlist, Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America. Some of Latin America’s most iconic figures have been revolutionary strongmen (and women), and he described them, in this interview, as almost Christ-like figures, blinded by their passion, devoted to revolution at all cost, seeking redemption not just for themselves, but for their people.

The non-revolutionary dictators have interested writers as well: Mario Vargas Llosa found the small and grotesque in the final days of the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo in the The Feast of the Goat: A Novel; Gabriel García Márquez, fascinated by the solitude of power, wrote about the tragedy of Latin America’s first homegrown caudillo, Simón Bolívar, in the The General in His Labyrinth. (García Márquez is also a steadfast supporter and admirer of Castro).

The Fall of Fujimori is a compelling and balanced look at Peru’s most recent strongman, Alberto Fujimori, president from 1990 – 2000. This son of Japanese migrants was an agricultural engineer and maths professor – a surprise entrant in the 1990 elections at a time when Peru was suffering from hyperinflation and terrorism. Once installed in the Presidential Palace he stabilised the economy and with an iron fist brought years of bloody terrorism to an end*. By 1992, Abimael Guzman, leader of terrorist group Sendero Luminoso, was being paraded before the press in the black-and-white stripes of comic-strip convicts.

Fifteen years later Fujimori also faced charges in Peru, and is currently serving sentences for murder, bodily harm, kidnapping, illegal search and seizure, embezzlement and bribery. His (unconstitutional) third-term government fell just months after winning the 2000 elections, following the leaking of hundreds of videotapes. They show the shadowy right-hand man of the president, Montesinos, the country’s spy-master, committing bribery on a huge scale.

Director Ellen Perry finds the tragedy in this lonely figure: the opening sequence shows Fujimori alone, rolling a suitcase down a hallway in Japan and applying powder for the cameras. It is a powerful contrast to the scenes of adulation and the crowded family breakfasts shown later.

The stock footage used is well-chosen, capturing the horror of Peru’s political violence without resorting to melodrama. The tension between the fight against terrorism and the preservation of democracy is drawn out, and more questions are posed than answered. Against it all a portrait of Fujimori emerges, hazy but fascinating.

Perhaps the most inexplicable of Fujimori’s decisions is his return to Latin America, determined to win the presidency once again, despite international warrants for his arrest. This extraordinary display of hubris reminded me of something I once read about limeño politics: in Peru, you can kill, steal, bribe and still be reelected, but for heaven’s sake, don’t make yourself an object of ridicule: that’s the only thing voters can’t forgive.

* Terrorism is ongoing in a few remote areas of Peru, but on a much smaller scale than previously.


A Moveable Fiesta: Kant on Expat Life. Also, Bikinis.

I was preparing a whole different post. A cop-out post. A round-up of useful or just plain cool Buenos Aires blogs and websites for new expats, like me, who have yet to get a serious grip on the social or cultural life of the city. Like me.

Google had other ideas.

It led me to a New York Magazine article from 2006, A Moveable Fiesta. Its description intrigued me:

Buenos Aires has become an expat haven like Paris in the twenties – except with girls in bikinis.

I think my brain stopped taking in information after it hit the hyphen because I read “Paris in the twenties” and immediately started thinking about what an incredibly fertile ground it was for all kinds of art and literature and romantically alcoholic madmen (and madwomen). And I got really excited about living in a city approaching that level of historic awesomeness, and of course I clicked through.

But this was not the thrust of the article. It’s perfectly well written, and being placed in the Change Your Life section of NY Magazine Guides should have been a hint. So this is not a criticism of the article itself, but of the attitude it discusses. At a time when I’m (still? always?) trying to wrap my head around what it means to be an expat this article summed up what, for me, it definitely doesn’t mean.

We meet Dominic LoTempio, an expat in Buenos Aires:

“I came to live life as a rich guy,” he says. In fact, he lives like a Master of the Universe—not like some Wall Streeter who checked out with enough to be technically, barely, a millionaire, but like the young, loaded Hollywood version.

The article discusses the economic benefits of living in Argentina, but stresses that:

Life in B.A. isn’t perfect by any means. The litany of expat complaints includes one-ply toilet paper; slow restaurant service; strikes that shut down subways, airlines, or highways nearly once a week; and, as LoTempio puts it, an “embargo on cool shit” like plasma TVs, which arrive six months late and cost twice as much.

At this point I was already gnashing my teeth a little. It all felt like a much more articulate version of the Craigslist posting that had me up in arms a month or so ago. This attitude that, if we have the cash, we can head anywhere in the world and make it our personal Disneyland – even if this particular theme park has yet to discover the joys of two-ply toilet paper.

Steven Blackman knows all about making sure people in New York are aware of How Great His Life Is in Buenos Aires. He visits the city every six weeks to tell them about the dinners at Sucre, the drinks at Gran Bar Danzon, the fashion events in Punta. Not to mention the fact that he pays $800 a month to rent two adjacent apartments from the son-in-law of Susana Giménez, Argentina’s surgically enhanced version of Oprah. Or that his maid comes five days a week: “She cleans over the same places every day, even though nobody’s been there. It’s insanity. But it’s something like 10 pesos a day. I’ll deal with it.”

Sometimes I wonder if I over-think this whole expat thing. I grapple with notions of otherness and whether I should vote back home and where I belong and whether nationalism is healthy or not and how people like me, drifting across borders, fit into that greater philosophical and political debate. (This run on sentence touches on what I originally wanted to post about today, before I utterly failed to organise my thoughts and fell back on the round-up post idea which turned into this – witness incoherence of this paragraph).

But this article left a bad taste in my mouth. The prevailing attitude seemed to be a total lack of respect for the host country’s culture, people and economy. They were simply a means to the expat’s end: of feeling like a ‘big fish’, of living the high life, of hanging out with sexy Argentine women in bikinis. Kant would definitely not approve.

Read the full article here. I’d love to hear what you think. Am I just being a stick-in-the-mud?

Article image: Nora via flickr

Painting in broad strokes

I was painting in broad strokes in Cusco and didn’t realise it.

I stuck toes my toes first, then wallowed luxuriously in the shallow end. I lived and worked in a backpackers. It was a holiday that blended into expat life. Sure, things got crappy and stressful and overwhelming and I made a lot of mistakes (including suddenly diving into the deep end instead of continue to inch my way further out bit by bit), but looking back on it I marvel at how easy it was, not to live there, but to make the small decisions that, together, led me to spend two years in Peru. And I marvel at my bright-eyed naivety in the first few days, weeks, months.

Moving to Buenos Aires, I had my eyes open very, very wide.

And the transition was… less dramatic. There was less theatrical tearing of hair and wringing of hands as I weighed up university options and looked for reasons to stay. I felt less heroic, I guess, less like a girl standing on top of a bridge with a bungee cord wrapped around her waist, winking extravagantly at those to follow before pushing all doubts down inside her belly and flinging herself into empty air.

(Not that I know what that feels like, because my fear of heights is quite happy to remain unconfronted, thank you very much).

I arrived in Buenos Aires around the same time of year as I’d arrived in Cusco two years earlier (the 22nd and 24th of December, respectively). I didn’t, as I did in Cusco, fall into a bottle of Pisco only to emerge a week later. I spent Christmas quietly at home enjoying a few luxuries I didn’t regularly enjoy in Cusco: imported cheeses, affordably delicious Malbec, and peace and quiet.

It was nothing dramatic or exciting. But over time I realised I was painting with a finer brush and wider palette.

Arriving in Cusco with rudimentary Spanish, I was flattered by people’s patience with my stammering and abysmal pronunciation and would gleefully wade in to any conversation without worrying too much about my language skills. This was that glorious stage in the language learning process when one is past the fear of speaking but not really conscious of how much remains to be worked on.

In Buenos Aires, even as a fluent speaker who was perfectly at home in Peruvian Spanish, I got a bit of a shock.

In Peru I would open my mouth and, warned by green eyes and pale skin, everybody would be bracing themselves for my accent before a single word came out. Here, I can pass as Argentine. Until I open my mouth, that is, when a very Peruvian form of Spanish sallies forth in broad Australian accent (I still can’t pronounce my Rs correctly).

I spent a week as a waitress, before deciding that 6 am knock-offs for an abysmal wage were no longer for me. I would waltz up to my customers, smile my patented tip-inducing smile, and launch into my welcome spiel. Entire tables of customers would stare at me and say, “eh?”

So despite swearing to Peruvian friends that I would never, never lose the very limeño way of speaking I learned from them, I’m rapidly training myself: vos instead of tu, como andás instead of que tal, che instead of amigo. I’m suddenly a bit uncomfortable again, hearing clearly the striking differences between my manner of speaking and everybody else’s.

Peruvians, and especially the young Lima crowd I hung out with in Cusco, are very frank. They don’t mince words and tend to “take the piss out of each other” in a way very familiar to this Aussie. I fit in quickly and well.

That doesn’t fly here. I’ve had to make a couple of very sincere apologies to friends who didn’t see the funny. Not their fault, or mine, but a cultural adjustment I need to make before I offend half of Buenos Aires.

Public spaces are more widely occupied: the park on my corner is a broad and bustling cross-spectrum of the city in all its glory. In Cusco I never noticed so many people sitting down, socialising, interacting with the open places of their city.

These and a million other tiny differences. The weird part is its not even the differences in themselves that really grabbed my attention: rather, sitting on the subte (subway) or talking to friends, riding buses or reading the paper, I feel like everything’s in sharper focus than it was on arrival to Cusco.

It’s a very cool feeling, because it means I’ve learnt a lot, and shows me I’ve still got a lot to learn.

How have your expat experiences varied? Have you grown and learned?

Renting an Apartment in Buenos Aires

Would you like skip my rambling and just find out how to rent an apartment in BA? You don’t know what you’re missing, but OK. Click here. This is some quality rambling, though. Just sayin’.

I signed the rental contract on my new Buenos Aires apartment yesterday, and then I went to look at it again. To pace out the measurements, shoot photos, and see if there was wifi to steal borrow (there’s not).

It’s entirely possible that when I originally went to see the place I was so relieved to have not spent an hour on the subte to get there, or be standing in an airless space with no natural light, or have to imagine myself showering while standing on top of the toilet, that the walls actually receded as I stood, giddy and delusional, by the balcony door.

When I got there yesterday (having first spent a good ten minutes trying to open the wrong door, scaring my neighbour and thus getting off to a really good start) it was smaller than I’d remembered. Much smaller.

My park. Through the rather distracting grill of my balcony. But still.I’d imagined some kind of day-bed type thing – double, of course – facing the balcony and serving for sleeping and lounging. Yes, I would lounge. I would lounge the hell out of that apartment.

This would leave more than adequate space for a tall bookshelf and a spacious desk by the window where I would sip glasses of chilled white wine while turning out witty articles and insightful blog posts. My gauzy, rich orange drapes would blow gently in the breeze throughout this entire process.

Now I find myself wondering if beds come in a size smaller than “single”, and if the noise of the street would really preclude me from putting the desk on the balcony.

I also don’t have drapes yet. This is a problem, because my apartment is so small it can basically be seen in its entirety from the street.

But hey, its not that bad. See that? That’s my local park giant back garden. A giant back garden that comes with cute doggy friends for Manu, attractive boys on guitar or playing soccer football for my viewing pleasure, and lots of sunshine and trees. Parque Las Heras justifies at least 50% of my monthly rent.

Apartment Rentals in Buenos Aires 

1. Type of Rental

Apartments in BsAs come in alquileres, your stock-standard long-term rentals and alquileres temporales, or temporary rentals. This may be my rental market naïveté, as I can’t remember the last time I actually rented a place in an actual city, but I read “temporary rentals” as being a couple of months, and definitely not what I wanted.

Not so. Rentals in Buenos Aires are, by law, for a contract of two years. Anything less than that is a temporary rental, and is noticeably more expensive. I get the impression the latter is the option most foreigners take. Guarantee (bond) requirements may be looser, and you are way more likely to find a furnished property. If this is the option you choose, your life will be simpler. Flick through the following points, just in case, then cruise on over to the links at the bottom of the article and start looking for your dream home.

2. Guarantee

I like to make life hard on myself. I also objected to the higher prices for temporary rentals, and decided that really, furniture wasn’t expensive enough to justify paying extra month after month. Goddamnit, I would have a proper rental and decorate it as I saw fit!

This is where I ran up against problems.

Most agencies require ownership of property in Argentina (sometimes it has to be in the capital) to act as guarantee for the rental. Maybe you have a really amazingly trusting friend here to volunteer, but nobody I know in Argentina owes me a favour that enormous. So I spent days calling up about properties, asking if there would be an alternative means – a cash bond of x months rent? – and crossing out address after address. It did save a huge amount of travelling time by cutting my list of potential apartments into about a tenth of its original size.

I’ve put down a 12 month deposit in cash on my new apartment. This is why point 3 is really important.

3. Contract

This is a lot of cash. This is also a long time – two years – to commit to an apartment. That’s quite a long time for me to commit to an entire country, come to think of it.

It is, therefore, hugely important to vet the agency you will be dealing with, as well as the contract you sign with them. Check out their certificates and offices. Ask around. Google them. They should be registered and have a government-issued number. Make sure there is a reasonable exit clause in the contract in case you don’t make it the full two years.

Do not sign the contract without reading it carefully (I shouldn’t really have to tell you that, should I?). I was given mine to review in peace and quiet several days before we actually signed it, which is always for the best. No matter how good your Spanish is, legalese in any language is tricksy, so have a local look it over for you as well, if you can.

4. Assorted money stuff

Like apartments all over the world, you will be responsible for costs, building fees, and so forth. Figure out what these are before you sign, and keep in mind that the government is considering reducing the subsidies on services. Inflation being what it is here your water bill might go up, considerably, in the next few years.

To my surprise, agent fees are paid by the tenant here. Be clear on what these are.

5. Finding a place

I was dying to live alone, plus its a little difficult to rent a room in a shared apartment with a dog in tow.

But if you want to skip all the aforementioned dramas, head over to MercadoLibre or Craigslist Buenos Aires and click on their “share” sections (both also advertise rentals for one person). Both entail the obvious risk of dealing with strangers in an unregulated online marketplace, so be careful. MercadoLibre is in Spanish, Craigslist a mix of Spanish and English. The latter is on the whole oriented to tourists or expats so the prices tend to be in dollars and rather more expensive than you would find elsewhere.

The quality seems to be quite high though, so for a comfortable, short-term rental with all the amenities and in a posh part of town, this may be the best place to look.

ZonaProp have both alquileres and alquileres temporales. Everything is in Spanish and it is a portal used primarily by real estate agencies. I found my apartment here.

Above all, and especially if you’re looking to share, ask around in hostels and restaurants. Some owners rent directly and leave signs up around the neighbourhood. Obviously this brings its own collection of risks and complications, but shouldn’t automatically be discounted. A group of Colombians – friends of a friend – met some guy on the street who rented them an apartment to share for a great price and with a tiny deposit. Lucky sons of bitches.

Provided he doesn’t kick them to the curb in a few months.

Live Music in Buenos Aires: La Bomba de Tiempo

Article image: Sarah Twitchell via flickr

It’s 8 pm on a Monday night in Buenos Aires: the summer heat has finally receded and night is slowly beginning to fall. Enjoy that gentle breeze while it lasts, because the seventeen percussionists that make up La Bomba de Tiempo [sp] (Time Bomb) are just kicking off their two hour set and the crowd is about to, as we Australians say, go off like a frog in a sock (see Note 1).

Which means your hips will wiggle, and you’ll be grateful to have worn comfortable shoes.

Beyond the rave atmosphere, with its buena onda and affordable beer (25 Argentine pesos gets you 1L of Quilmes), the music is a revelation. These hugely talented musicians – and their weekly guest artists – play a different show every week: unrehearsed, and carried out through “directed improvisation”. The communication within the band is held together through the slightest of hand signals and some highly gymnastic leaps on the part of the director, and who-knows-what psychic forces. It’s a really cool way to start the week.

Note 1: Or at least as we used to say back when I was in high school. Is that still a thing? Because it should be.


The details…

Where? Ciudad Cultural Konex [sp], Sarmiento 3131, Buenos Aires. (If you’re using ComoViajo [sp] to find the right bus, be sure not to confuse Sarmiento with with Avenida Sarmiento.) Konex is about four blocks from Subte B, Carlos Gardel.

When? Every Monday 8-10 pm. Doors open at 7 pm – get there early to mark your territory. They play rain or shine.

How much? Konex’s website lists prices as “from” 40 pesos; last night they were charging 50 pesos.


The (hateful) ties that bind: Expats and cultural criticism

I was on Craigslist Buenos Aires today looking for a job and I came across this little gem:

“Argentinean are just at the bottom of the bottom out of all the scumbags you can find in this world… THIRD WORLD COUNTRY like it or not… There are not jobs like in the US other than that enjoy the beauty of the people, the cheap meals, THE COIMAS the cheap drugs and also don´t forget


I’ll ignore the incorrect use of Argentinian instead of Argentine (which OK, I’ve been guilty of as well, probably on this very blog. Let’s all ignore the search box over there, shall we?).

Let’s also forget that he – she? – forgot to pluralise that same word, and forgive the slight overuse of capitalisation and explanation marks. This is the Internet, and at least its far more articulate than 90% of YouTube comments.

There is, and I think most of my readers will agree, something far more troubling: the content. To my judgement, this single paragraph is the perfect example of something that’s been bothering me for the last couple of days as I lurk on expat forums for tips on life in my new city.

Why are some of these people still here? Why do so many expats remain in a place they clearly feel deeply unhappy in, and towards which they harbour active resentment and disdain?

I’ve broadly laid out some of my concerns with the payment of coimas (bribes) before: corruption is a cancer that seriously undermines democracy and development in “third world countries” (by the way, my Craigslist friend, that term became obsolete with the end of the cold war – see Note 1). While I’ve never hidden the fact that I’ve paid bribes before and advised others on how to do it, it remains, for me, a morally grey area about which I have many conflicts and I would never – ever – list it among one of the awesome, bestest things about Latin America, worth putting up with everything else for.

If some of the more detailed posts I’ve come across in the forums these last few days (in threads such as: What’s wrong with Argentina?) can be considered representative of the opinions and experiences of that minority of unhappy expats here, no doubt corruption is a contributing factor to some of the things that piss our correspondent off some much. I wonder if she – he? – recognises the irony of celebrating one of the most toxic aspects of this society, before proceeding to complain bitterly about the consequences.

Cheap drugs. Um… controversial, and well beyond the scope of a blog post. I don’t condemn the consumption of drugs by consenting, adults who control their behaviour and intake. I do condemn glorifying an industry that is responsible for so much death and violence. Enjoy your cheap drugs, anonymous writer, while the high demand for the significantly more expensive product back in your country, along with your politicians’ misguided “War on Drugs”, devastates entire lives, economies, and societies “down here”… where you are the “FUCKING STAR!!!!!”

Sorry buddy. I’m not fucking impressed. And I don’t think too many others are, either.

Note 1. OK, I admit it. It’s totally passed into common usage, which even flies with the Oxford Dictionary, but “Third World” was technically used to differentiate the democratic US and its allies (First World), the communist Soviet Union (Second World), and those countries who were not firmly aligned with either great power or ideology during the Cold War. The Third World was the scene of many devastating proxy wars. Due in part to these proxy wars, many of these countries were kept, and remain, very poor, with significant social divisions and wobbly democracies. Cold War over, “First”, “Second”, and “Third” as terms to divide the world kind of lost their meaning.

So, what do you think?

I’m sending the link to this post to the person who left the comments on Craigslist. It seems like the right thing to do, and one of the things that made me so irritated with these comments was that they were made anonymously. If you can’t put your name on it, don’t throw it out there into cyberspace. You’re not a Syrian protestor, for God’s sake. If you read this, I would welcome a constructive response in the comments section. I reserve the right to delete abusive comments.

As for the rest of you, I’d love to hear what you think as well (please don’t flame the original poster). I was really shocked to read this, and, as an expat, ashamed. I was called out in the comments section once for complaining about Peru, but I stand by that post and maintain that it was a reasoned, considered criticism about a country I loved, but had a complicated relationship with, as I have a complicated relationship with my home, Australia, and will no doubt have with Argentina. I think we, as expats, have the right to comment on the societies we live in, as long as that criticism is presented in a reasoned manner that is sensitive to the political, historical, and cultural context. And as long as we are prepared to turn an equally critical eye on our home country.

Would you stay somewhere you were unhappy? What is an expat’s place in their adopted country? Is it OK to criticise as a guest in the country? To what point? And what responsibility do we have to understand the context, and impact, of our presence?

Manu, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Cusco anymore….

 … we’re in Buenos Aires, Argentina!

I’ve found an apartment, and should be signing the contracts this week. Manu, my dog, will have to adjust to city life in a shoebox size studio apartment; I’m just thrilled it’s mine, all mine, and after months – years – of living in hostels or out of a combi I’ll be able to leave my toothbrush in the bathroom and the dishes in the sink overnight, if I so desire.

I may also plant herbs on my balcony. And tomatoes! And become a domestic goddess overnight: baking, preparing elaborate roasts, making my own pasta!

… Except I don’t have a stove, or even a fridge at this point. Or bed.

But life post-Yamanyá is slowly coming together. I need a job, or possibly jobs, or maybe just a donate button… right? I’ve been studying a lot to get myself caught back up with university work after the stressful months finalising the sale and packing my life up in boxes.

And here I am, at last, in Buenos Aires. Even taking the subte (subway) in searing summer heat makes me smile. Hi city life, I missed you!

We will be turning to our regularly scheduled (HA!) programming later this week. This blog post is pretty much just going up to cure me of my fear of WordPress’s “New Post” and “Publish” buttons after such a long hiatus. And to see if anyone’s still reading…. hello? Are you guys still out there….?

Article image: elNico via flickr