God Is Argentinian

We have ail felt the edge of Argentina’s animosity, but few of us know why she carries that chip on her shoulder. Here for the first time is an Argentinian who tells us the candid and indignant truth.

by RAMON LAVALLE

1

BEHIND Argentina’s move to be the first government to recognize the new Bolivian rule there was something more than a step to consolidate a similar regime. It was also far from being, as some sections of the press reported, a proNazi gesture — as the subsequent diplomatic break with the Axis has shown. Argentina is very sensitive lest she give the world the impression that her actions have been influenced from outside. Both of these actions are typical examples of the present Argentinian policy of asserting an independent international position as the logical national aftermath to a stubborn neutrality.

Some weeks ago there came to the United States the foremost Argentinian lady writer, kindly invited by one of those institutions entrusted with good will between the Americas. She came and went all over the country. In San Francisco she frankly admitted to some friends, in a tête-à-tête, that she could not understand the Americans, that they were plainly “barbarians” to her. Her term at its face value is shocking enough, though it is almost a compliment when compared to what Argentinians in general feel and say about the norteamericanos.

She is, like any other Argentinian (including myself), a product of a European atmosphere, nurtured in a mixture of Spanish domestic patterns, intellectual French molds, some Italian factors, and elements from other European cultures. Thus, the Argentinian is a European sub-product born in America, a being who grows up in a continent which does not possess any spiritual meaning for him, and who keeps looking all the time to Europe for support. In a world like Latin America, of overwhelming Indian and Negro blood, he feels he is an isolated European product with no traces of either.

When he talks about “sister republics” — toward whom he does not feel any attachment — he does so for reasons of political expediency. As a matter of fact, from his deep-rooted pride of European stock (no worse mistake can be made than to suspect Argentinians of having Indian or Negro blood: the film Down Argentina Way infuriated them because of such an assumption), the Argentinian looks down on other Latin Americans with contempt. Whenever American papers, magazines, films, or books depict the lands south of the Rio Grande as an entity named “South America” — with a suggestion of mockery for their periodica! military revolutions and other typical diseases — the Argentinians cry their protests loudly, and all classes contrive to abuse the norteamericanos with their peculiar gift for nicknames.

Decades in advance of the Nazi theory of Aryan racial superiority, the Argentinians were well accustomed to calling themselves a “white-stock nation” as a mark of distinction and in contrast to their less fortunate sister republics. I recall very well that this feeling was impressed upon us from our first steps in the primary schools, even being part of the textbooks.

Notwithstanding strong similarities in culture on account of the same language and religion and a similar colonial origin, the Argentinians feel themselves a kind of European aristocracy forced to live by a trick of fate in wild surroundings. In a way they are as isolated from the rest of the continent as England was from Europe. Only Uruguay and Chile are granted any slight concession, inasmuch as they also possess a predominantly European stock. But Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and the rest are just exotic names with less appeal to the imagination of the Argentinians than to a New Yorker.

Argentinians show no interest whatsoever in learning about the ways and manners of the other Latin Americans, since they classify the others a step lower in human society. Argentinian eyes, naturally, have never turned downward, and Europe remains the only place from which Argentinians can decently draw any lesson in life. Years ago the Buenos Aires daily, Critica, was the paper with the largest circulation. It was a somewhat liberal newspaper, though of very doubtful morals; its official cartoonist, Diogenes Taborda, always used to depict the Brazilians as monkeys or barefooted Negroes. And he was the artist who achieved the greatest popularity in Argentina.

Yet, in spite of her cultural isolation from the rest of Latin America, and with no understanding of the “sister republics,” Argentina’s growing imperialistic diplomacy still made the continent her natural field of political and even economic expansion. Buenos Aires strove to obtain continental leadership, feeling that the position belonged to Argentina’s higher rank. For generations Argentinian diplomacy has recognized but one aim: to control Latin America. Against the Monroe Doctrine (always disliked in Argentina) Buenos Aires somewhat tardily came out with Drago’s “America for Humanity,” a doctrine put forward with all the lyric and melodramatic emphasis Drago could command.

Since the days of Drago, there has been increasing talk about Argentina’s taking charge of Latin American interests, on the basis of her rights of elder sister — though no one in the continent outside Buenos Aires knew who had granted such rights or even what those rights were. The origin of these rights did not matter in Argentina, where already they were proudly planning to patronize the less prominent republics and to lead them along the path of power politics.

At international conferences and congresses, Argentina expressed views of a continental character and went to great pains to dramatize within Latin America her role of savior. She had prominence on account of greater wealth, better cultural development, and a slightly higher political education; her prosperous state allowed her to approach the smaller republics with diplomatic offers of guidance and help. Plainly speaking, these were just rhetorical gestures from which no material benefit could be derived — but rhetoric is of paramount importance in Latin America, and no one seemed displeased but Mexico. Mexico had her own ideas about continental leadership.

2

I WAS born and grew up in Buenos Aires. At home, at school, in the street, and on the several newspapers where I worked, I learned that all America was divided between two powers, Argentina and the United States. They were rival powers, disliking each other very much; ours was an idealistic one, earnestly endeavoring to protect the “sister republics” from the rapacity of the other, who was always depicted as a black soul ready to back his diplomacy with cash, and able, on account of it, to trick away from Argentina’s care some poor republics very much in need of loans. I learned not to discriminate between Republicans and Democrats, not to differentiate Wall Street from Washington — if the labels were of different colors, the content was the same.

“Dollar diplomacy” became a matter of common talk and grievance. Rich Buenos Aires could afford to give shelter to the headquarters of several anti-imperialist movements, political and intellectual ones, which had at hand a popular press ready to back them. In the dark days of the occupation of Nicaragua we heard extensively about Sandino’s epic, and soon it reached the proportions of a saga. The anti-American feeling was intense and widespread among all classes. The conditions were such then that a malicious rumor accusing the newspaper La Nación of being bought by an American syndicate (apparently the A.P.) was enough to lower its circulation. Its prestige was seriously affected and the alienating power of the rumor so strong as to damage a well-rooted and long-admired daily.

An experience of my own is also illustrative of the strength of the anti-American feeling. I was editor of El Suplemento, in those days Buenos Aires’s magazine with the largest circulation, when I made up my mind to turn out an “All-American” issue for July 4, 1930. It came out all right, and it was the biggest contribution ever made by a single Argentinian magazine toward the understanding of American life. But right away a similar rumor went around about us and we suffered a substantial drop in subscriptions, circulation, and even advertising. Three prominent Argentinian commercial firms and one advertising agency called us to let it be known that they were not willing to patronize an American-controlled magazine! I was unable to carry out my plan of editing such a special number yearly.

Silly as all that may appear, it was a serious matter down in Argentina and a typical sign of the widespread nature of the anti-American feeling to be found glowingly alive in Buenos Aires as well as in the hinterland. It was a feeling of rivalry, played up in disguise in the editorial policy of many papers, plainly in some educational centers and intellectual circles, and inherent in the inhabitants at large. With the exception of motorcars and Hollywood films, there was a total absence of sympathy for anything American.

This situation unhappily did not much bother the Americans living there, who, isolated in the quarters of the American Club in the top floor of the National City Bank of New York, did nothing to nail the rumors. Neither did they try to explain matters. They remained aloof, or otherwise reacted wrongly.

Every Pan American Conference could safely be counted on to provide pyrotechnics between the Argentinian and American delegations across the bewildered representatives of the other countries, who seldom dared to take sides, and who mostly confined themselves to putting forward proposals of conciliation.

The first in a row of incidents happened at Havana during the Pan American Conference of 1928. Dr. Pueyrredó, the chief of the Argentinian delegation and the ambassador in Washington at the time, took the field ready to wage a mortal duel with Charles Evans Hughes, the American chief of delegation. On the basis of the Nicaraguan situation, Pueyrredó pressed a daring condemnation of interference in the sovereignty of any country. Without calling names, but clearly enough to make his point understood by all America, his speeches were nevertheless so outspoken and his proposal so naked that the Argentinian government felt somewhat embarrassed.

Pueyrredón was apparently going beyond his instructions and Buenos Aires tried to stop him, with the American Ambassador, Robert Woods Bliss, doing his utmost to urge the Argentinian government to soften the attack. Finally Pueyrredón was forced to resign, but on his return to Buenos Aires he found himself a national hero with parades, bands, public demonstrations, and a large section of the press supporting his stand.

That incident was the opening shot for the rabid policy of anti-Americanism being carried out by the Argentinian government, though it cannot be said that Pueyrredón was a diplomat who disliked the United States. On the contrary, he sincerely admired American democracy and understood its values and did a good job at Washington for many years. His position at Havana was nothing but an outspoken defense of national sovereignty which is nowadays one of the essential points of our struggle against Nazism.

3

AT ITS beginning the Argentinians discounted the Good Neighbor policy as a mood that — they thought — would revert soon to the old big-stick policy under pressure of certain financial and commercial interests. Later, Buenos Aires statesmen were at a loss to understand the hold of the Good Neighbor policy on the other republics. They thought they smelled something fishy, were reluctant to give it credit, and remained skeptical of its long-run success. There was something to it. It was the pathetic discovery that decades of diplomatic subterfuges and underground diplomacy striving for a continental leadership (like the one France had held over Europe in spite of England) were suddenly lost at the hands of the worst enemy. The dearest dream was flying away and the awakening, for such a sensitive people, was pretty painful.

Against the growing popularity of the United States, Argentinian diplomacy planned moves to counterattack the Good Neighbor policy and so to retain its leadership. They were watching one republic after another being won over to Washington by the simple device of a Pan-American policy founded on sincerity. The change called for serious consideration — all the more so because it was the first time that the Latin American masses (not the upper classes) had shown a desire to understand the United States and to reach a spiritual agreement with it.

Herbert Hoover’s trip to Latin America a few years before had gone unnoticed: notwithstanding elaborate official receptions and arrangements, it was from a popular angle a complete fiasco. President Roosevelt’s trip was tumultuous and the masses, directly appealed to by his renown and charm, went in their enthusiasm farther than the governments expected, up to the point that sometimes the local authorities felt embarrassed. It was a spontaneous turning out to the streets. Even in Argentina (where Hoover was welcomed at the Estación Retiro with anti-imperialistic posters and bands of students who fought against the police in their efforts to show their anti-American feelings), Roosevelt was a manifest success; his magnetism — so particularly appealing to the Latin Americans — was too serious a challenge to let pass, and it was plain to the makers of Argentina’s diplomacy that a drastic move was imperative lest their years of hard work in Latin America be lost for good. They went in search of an issue and Washington gave them an unexpected one: the growing danger of fascism.

At Lima, in 1939, the guns had yet to talk, but already, nevertheless, universal war was in progress. After Spain’s drama only the blind or the stupid could not see that democracy was at stake.

For the first time since it had passed the mischievous Neutrality Act, the United States government was coming to the fore, accepting its responsibilities in international affairs inherent to the security of the national ones, and with alert instead of blank eyes was calling for effective measures of safety. Down in Buenos Aires they got wind of this change and planned a counteroffensive founded on the issue of fascism versus democracy.

Argentinian ideas ran something like this: Latin American governments are fascist by nature. All the leaders concerned are in power as result of fraudulent elections or revolutions devoid of popular support. Their reaction to the Spanish situation gives a clue to their true feelings. Mexico aside, it can be safely assumed that Latin America is far more afraid of a progressive democracy than of fascism. It would be foolish for us to support an outspoken denouncement of fascism because that would mean to give wings to our masses and to dig our own graves. Any acceptance of progressive democracy might result in being swept out of power. We do not hold any brief for Nazism, because our sacred Catholic religion is against it. We do not like fascism either— the way Mussolini behaves is alien to our interpretation of fascism at home. The only “ism” we accept besides Catholicism is paternalism. It is a problem of survival for our ruling classes, beneath which the Indian masses and the Socialists are waiting to jump. And the norteamericanos, with their amazing ignorance of the psychology of the Latin Americans, are sure to err.

But Argentina was the one to err, and I saw at Lima in 1939 the frantic efforts of the Argentinian delegation to sabotage the conference and to get away with at least a draw decision. The continental security belt against Axis penetrations came into being, although the conference was not a clear-cut American victory. It was left to the next ones — at Panama, and at Rio especially — to checkmate Buenos Aires. The American delegates at Rio came with a bagful of punches — and through an able display of jabs, hooks, swings, and uppercuts, they sent the Argentinian dream of continental leadership to take the count.

At Rio, born of sheer embarrassment, out of a defeat extremely painful for a sensitive people who had chosen to play all their cards in a desperate move to win, the neutrality policy was declared. It was not because of the established Argentinian principle of remaining neutral, nor from a wish to remain isolated, but as an attitude of spite and a cocky challenge to the United States in order to show that Argentina could get along, alone and well, in spite of Washington. It was the atavistic self-pride inherited from Spain coming in full to the surface, hurt and calling for any kind of pay-off. For me, anxiously following the events on my short-wave set while the Japanese were prostituting Hong Kong, it was the classical Argentinian inferiority complex asserting itself.

4

SMILARITIES between peoples, though often graphic, are seldom right. I cannot help thinking, however, of the striking likeness of the inferiority complex of Japanese and Argentinians, so alike in their reaction toward others and in the analogous way of deluding themselves, or saving face, behind a haughty attitude.

Japan is powerful in a sense, and Argentina owns that great city of Buenos Aires. But when Japanese and Argentinians start to look into their might, they find out, much to their displeasure, that it is the result of foreign technique, alien enterprise, genius from abroad mixed with minor native ingenuity. Japan’s strength, industrial or otherwise, is the result of foreign patents, foreign machinery and engineers, foreign teaching and technique. They are so proud today about the deeds of their pilots, but I found them in 1932 at the naval base of Yokosuka learning from British officers of the RAF.

Buenos Aires’s greatness, as well as anything else of material value within Argentina, is the result of a similar “made overseas” effort. While the Japanese were unable to create by themselves and were forced to learn from foreigners from A to Z, reaching their present position because they were taught how to progress, the Argentinians were unable and unwilling to manage their country by themselves, and left to the fresh blood and the ambition which came from abroad the achieving of their present position. The Creole spirit of the Spanish colonial times was nomadic and to a large extent lazy. The pampas were too limitless, the task too great, the hardships too many to build a nation.

The foremost Argentinian folklore hero is a gaucho nomad, Martin Fierro, a useless being unaware of laws or morals, cocky, sensitive, quarrelsome. His ethical standards were those of another typical hero, El Viejo Vizcacha, again a gaucho rootless and undignified, who founded a philosophy of mockery and sarcasm as an escape from duty. There are no pioneering heroes, no enterprising sagas.

Argentina’s only genius, Sarmiento, an amazing statesman and a man who knew his country inside out, is still being very much discussed and is considered by the nationalists as a traitor to the soil’s spirit because he pitilessly wrote and fought during the last century against these vices of inertia, barbarism, cockiness, and wrong sense of pride. While his piercing eye is even today criticized, his enemy, Rosas, a prototype of the gaucho sanguinary who wanted to be thought barbarian, is slowly being revived and pushed up to a height above Sarmiento.

The Argentinians were men of the soil, but they found the task of plowing it too much for them. They chose to be ranchers instead of farmers and let the immigrants from the Mediterranean raise Argentina’s present wealth in wheat, corn, and linseed crops. It was, yes, a problem of underpopulation, but at its core was also unwillingness to do it. To raise cattle is to get away with a minimum of effort. And they took that course.

The Argentinians were raising cattle in their latifundia. Nevertheless the ingleses who came from London and some Americans who stepped down from Chicago were the ones who made cattle-raising the first industry of the country, improving the breeding and establishing the meat packing plants which are now the pride of Argentina. In the remote districts the majordomos were English, Scotch, or Welsh in particular, able and reliable managers who made the estancias run with profits. The Scotch, too, introduced into the pampas some specimens of Aberdeen Angus that flooded the pastures later on by a most amazing phenomenon of reproduction.

Argentina went up and up. Her pastures became famous, her farming zone one of the best in the world; wheat or meat, corn or beef, all these proved great sources of wealth. The country was becoming rich and marching ahead. Yet that progress, that wealth, was the result of foreign enterprise fighting against native inertia; alien ambitions versus local inefficiency. The Argentinians knew it, did not like it, but let things move forward without daring to talk about it. They kept their fortunes in the banks — the foreign banks — in order to draw annual interest without risk or effort.

The upper classes made their living managing their estancias at leisure with the help of foreign majordomos; the middle class jumped into the professions or went to fish for administrative jobs in the muddy waters of local politics. Soon it became known, even among themselves, that an Argentinian’s greatest ambition in life was to obtain a government job which involved little or no work and which guaranteed safe pay.

Their spiritual life was imported from Paris. French painters, sculptors, architects, and musicians came to Buenos Aires or taught Argentinians at Paris. Although written in Spanish, Argentinian literature became a ludicrous copy of French moods. They begun to have too many Cocteaus, too many Rambeaus, too many Picassos, too many Le Corbusiers, too many Bourdelles. But these were weak decalcomanias of French patterns, without anything creative, fresh, native. Then the intellectual circles one day discovered deep in their inner being a hidden, subdued feeling; and in the subconscious a sense of inhibition, a feeling of fiasco in life, became an obsession.

They found that their spiritual life was devoid of substance and purpose. They could not get rid of it, however; neither could they afford to switch to something else more real, for fear that nothing would come of their efforts. They felt jailed in foreign molds and yet they did not dare to step out of them. That conflict developed an inferiority complex that poisoned the Argentinian intelligentsia and was passed on to the public at large as a feeling of inadequate juice for getting along in life by themselves. It was a sense of frustration and worthlessness, nothing less than a discovery of emptiness, which became pathological.

Consequently it is not a casual accident to find that many of the foremost Argentinian intellectual leaders commit suicide, the rate being the highest among intellectual circles the world over. Finding themselves at a dead-end, and lacking courage to admit their inhibitions and to start anew, in spite of their Catholicism they find in death the only way out. This is a most grave psychological problem which affects all Argentinian society. During my last stay in Buenos Aires, January, 1939, Lisandro de la Torre, the foremost statesman and since Sarmiento the greatest Argentinian figure, a true democrat and a most honest politician, committed suicide. He left for his closest friends a political testament in which he said that the civic prostitution of the country had reached such a height that only in death could one forget about it.

That feeling made the Argentinians resentful of those who came to help and who achieved their purposes over themselves, naturally well set as they were for success but lacking discipline and courage to reach it. They call all Spaniards gallegos and all Italians gringos, in contempt and looking down on them. Spaniards and Italians, however, are the architects of Argentina’s agricultural economy. They call the British ingleses ladrones on the pretext of their capture of the Falkland Islands, but actually because they resent the railways being British, the utilities companies being British, the soundest banks and concerns being British, and because for nearly a hundred years British genius, capital, and enterprise have pushed Argentina up.

The Americans they call “sausage makers” or “Jewish capitalists” or plainly “robbers,” trying to persuade themselves of some congenital faults of the norteamericanos in order to satisfy their desire of feeling superior. It’s the old escapism through mockery to be found in the advices of El Viejo Vizcacha; a hurt pride looking for scapegoats to cure that most serious Argentinian ailment — their inferiority complex.

Jealousy has poisoned Argentina’s political relations with the United States. Argentinians have never accepted as historical logic that this country is bound by inexorable historical forces to become a world leader. They cannot see outside Buenos Aires; they cannot grasp realities of a universal meaning. They live victims of a narcissism, enjoying their own beauty. They have found satisfaction in cockiness, because behind arrogance they feel at ease. Argentina’s neutrality yesterday and Argentina’s international position today are merely a by-product of her inferiority complex.

5

GOD is Argentinian!” is the answer whenever you ask anybody in Argentina about tomorrow. Everyone is profoundly convinced that no ill effects can ever be felt in Argentina, a country which does not know unemployment or hunger.

They say, “We have wheat, meat, corn, hides, flour, fruits, leather, and linseed products, and whoever wins and whatever happens, one or the other must come to us for supplies.” This is the short-range wisdom of El Viejo Vizcacha and Sancho, depicting only too well the lack of moral principles in the country. The worst of it is that even those who profess sympathy for the Allies share such a view. A booming financial and economic situation helps that belly-philosophy. They are exporting to England all their meat at higher prices than ever; millions and millions of marks, pounds, and francs that flew to Argentina from Europe at the eve of war are being gradually invested. There is a lot of ready money, and from an economic standpoint no one complains. Neutrality is paying good dividends. Narcotized by the boom, no one raises his eyes and dares to look forward; ready cash kills all foresight.

It is wrong to assume, as many do in the United States, that the Ramírez regime is unpopular. It is unpopular in so far as it interferes with local civil rights and internal affairs. But its international position, I am quite sure, is supported by great numbers of Argentinians, especially in the hinterland. It is wrong to try to understand Argentina through Buenos Aires, where there are always liberals and persons who take the trouble to think, but who do not represent the majority. It is wrong to assume that the press, even La Prensa, can change matters by editorials. Since 1930 the country has been living amid an incredible civic corruption, which now the generals have intensified. The people are bewildered and tired, emptier than ever.

The country is undergoing an ultra-nationalistic revolution, reactionary to the core. Since the armed forces are in power, there is no way to stop it but through a complete international boycott that will force the generals to accept defeat and a loss of face instead of catastrophe. At the beginning there will be a reaction toward supporting the government; later on, that move will die down. We are running against a strong belief that “God is Argentinian,” and to win Argentina back to democracy we need to discredit the government in the eyes of the country and show the people that God is universal.

There is only one way to handle cockiness, whether Argentinian or Japanese. And it is to play a strong hand in order to show that nowadays the world is moving in the direction of coöperation and rationalism.

There is an increasing danger of the military regime’s coming back for the lost diplomatic prestige and looking for alliances with neighboring countries. There is danger that the Argentinian generals will go to any extent in planning revolts. Their only hope is for a possible mistake of the Good Neighbor policy so that they can cash in immediately with a powerful diplomatic thrust.

The fate of democracy in the Americas is at stake. The poison which is dying in Europe is working in Latin America. Nothing short of a complete moral and material blockade can stop such danger. Down at Buenos Aires the only hope left is free elections. If they come, Argentina can start anew. Through an intelligent policy Argentinians can be taught to overcome psychological inhibitions so that they can enter world society with a real desire to help. After all, at the bottom of the Argentinian character lie dormant virtues inherited from Spain, and there is a potential nobility of behavior which requires only free air to grow.