Page last updated at 16:28 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

Argentina through the looking glass

After a three-year stint as BBC South America correspondent, Daniel Schweimler reflects on his impressions of the country as he prepares to leave Buenos Aries.

Cattle in Argentina (Photo: DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Cattle and agriculture are a large part of the Argentinian economy

I am tempted to write about some of the Argentine cliches, the passion for football or the sensual tango. How this country of great meat, fertile plains and unfulfilled potential somehow manages to leap from one crisis to another.

But generations of analysts, better qualified than I, have failed to come up with any convincing answers. So instead, I am going to talk about two people I met in Argentina who, for me, represent two different sides of this beautiful, friendly but often frustrating country.

Argentina is a land of immigrants, mostly Spanish and Italian but with a large number of British, French, Russian, German and more.

They have seemingly moulded themselves a homogenous Argentine identity - but the society is still one of extremes.

Pedro Eddy is the grandson of an English immigrant who, like many, came to build what was once a well-run and comprehensive railway system.

Fertile land

The railway workers brought with them football which, as we know, has remained and thrived. The evidence of the British roots can be seen in club names such as Boca Juniors, Newells Old Boys and Chaco Forever.

Today, there is not much left of the railways - but Pedro Eddy remains, speaking fluent Spanish and English and farming a huge expanse of land, several hundred kilometres south of Buenos Aires.

Argentina has some of the most fertile land in the world and is one of the leading producers of wheat, corn, soya and, of course, prime beef.

Cowboy on horse in Argentina
Gauchos are a common sight on Argentina's many cattle farms

You cannot really understand Argentina without getting to grips with the vast expanses of countryside and learning something of the spirit, the generosity and sometimes the ruthlessness of those who tamed this inhospitable land.

Pedro Eddy is of the land. He speaks with well-contained resentment about the long-term devastation being caused by his neighbours' irresponsible farming methods and about national governments that now, and in the past, the countryside has never seen eye-to-eye with.

Huge inequalities

One of his workers, a gaucho dressed in traditional baggy trousers with a wide-brimmed hat and a moustache straight out of the 1930's, cooked us a cow, a traditional Argentine asado or barbeque washed down with fine local red wine.

With no other human beings within an hour's drive, the birds singing in the trees and those cows still not fat enough for the barbeque, mooing in the background, this was the best this country gets.

But Argentina, like the rest of Latin America, suffers from huge inequalities in the distribution of wealth.

Residents move in the shadows, collecting and recycling our rubbish, their children beg or juggle at traffic lights in the city centres

It is perfectly possible to live in the tree-lined and well-guarded middle and upper-class neighbourhoods and never visit one of the burgeoning shanty-towns or villas that surround all of Argentina's major cities.

Yet their residents move in the shadows, collecting and recycling our rubbish, their children beg or juggle at traffic lights in the city centres and the newspapers sensationalise the robberies, car thefts and occasional murders carried out by this underclass when it dares to breach our defences.

While the rest of the world is struggling to come to grips with the global economic crisis, Argentines were there only too recently.

Shanty town

Just seven years ago its economy imploded, thousands lost their savings and half the population dropped below the poverty line.

Julio Arieta
Julio Arieta runs a production company which trains local actors

'Welcome to the middle-classes' read one much-photographed banner outside the entrance to a Buenos Aires shanty-town.

Julio Arieta lives in one such settlement, in a well-appointed brick house with all the appliances - fridge, cooker and television - you would find anywhere else.

"I expected it to be much poorer," said my 10-year-old son who I took with me to interview Julio, simply because the kids from the wealthier half of Buenos Aires never get to enter these demonised areas.

They battle against the odds to maintain their dignity, armed only with a sense of humour and a selflessness I've rarely come across elsewhere

And usually with good reason. But on this occasion, with the protection of Julio and several of his hefty grown up sons, I felt safe. Also, Julio is respected both inside and outside the shanty-town.

He runs a production company, training and hiring out local actors to both national and international film makers.

Real-life poor people with all the suffering, anger, frustration and bad diet that being poor entails and that no-amount of make-up or method acting could be reproduced in Hollywood.

He also provides security and catering facilities for those who want to film in a real shanty town. When he is not doing that, he writes and produces plays and films and even organises a film festival for the local residents.

Economic crisis

One movie is about aliens landing in the shanty town. "Why do they always crash in middle-class neighbourhoods in the United States?" he asked. "Scared we'll steal their hubcaps?"

Map of Argentina showing the capital Buenos Aires

I met many people like Julio in poor neighbourhoods, in indigenous communities and workers-controlled factories throughout Argentina.

They battle against the odds to maintain their dignity, armed only with a sense of humour and a selflessness I have rarely come across elsewhere.

As I pack my souvenir Boca Juniors shirt and gaucho paraphernalia, Argentina is in the grip of the global economic crisis.

Many here, with the experience of their home grown crises, fear the worst.

But they also have more practice than most in dealing with and overcoming them. Those qualities are epitomised for me in two very different Argentines - Pedro and Julio.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 5 March 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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