Monday, July 2, 2007

The land of strikes

I have entered the land of discontent, it seems to me at times. For all the warmth and affection Argentines display on a personal level, they are major league complainers when you get them talking about: the government (number one), politics, economic situation, crime, unemployment, work conditions, the schools, the weather . . . Complaining, as Luis always says, is one of the national pastimes. More than a few people have explained to me that Argentines are chagrined to find themselves living in a messy, underdeveloped country; why aren´t they more like Europe, from which they are largely descended? Argentina, in the first part of the 20th century, showed great promise; economically it was well off, in its exportation of meat, wool, and grain. Argentines mournfully wonder what went wrong.

None of this is news to me. What hit me like a truck, this time around, is how this cultural idiosyncracy plays out on a larger scale. This is the land of the strike. The day we drove in to Neuquén, the local teachers had cut off the bridges entering the city, with their cars, tents, and signs demanding better pay. The alternative route took us an additional 45 minutes. The teachers strike kept the public school kids out of the classrooms for almost three months. Those months will not be made up, and, as part of the deal the union worked out with the government, the teachers would be paid for the months they were on strike. It turns out that the teachers do this almost every year all over the country, resulting in a huge loss of overall class time for students. Particularly shocking, this year, was when a policeman killed a teacher during one of the numerous demonstrations. Instant martyr. Teachers´strikes are one of the major reasons parents choose private schools, if they can afford it. Lucas´private preschool, consequently, was not affected by the strike

Demonstrations are so common here, that most people won’t park in front of the government administrative building, where most demonstrations start. Parking space, in this crowded city, is hard to find, so people must have a good reason not to park there. The last time we risked it, we later found our car mired deep in protesters unhappy with the local government. Another favorite of picketers is to cut off the bridge that connects Neuquen to its neighbor city, Cipoletti, as well the main route towards the the east, to Buenos Aires. This is a real pain for daily commuters, as well as the trucks who transport goods in and out of the city.

The maddening inconvenience of strikes and demonstrations really stung us in June: our telephone line, for some reason, was broken, and the workers of Telefonica Argentina (phone company) were on -you guessed it- strike. We were phone-less for 24 days. The repeated trips Luis made to the telephone company to talk with the head honchos didn´t do a lick of good. Finally, as of last week we can use the internet again, and my parents can call me at home.

July 9 was Argentine independence day, and there was a noticeable lack of fanfare, compared to American's 4th of July. "We're too cynical to be patriotic,", Luis commented. What Neuquen did have, a few days ago, was a 5,000 person demonstration as a call to justice for the death of the school teacher who was killed during a demonstration. Naturally, a lot of people left work to participate.

I don´t want to say that organizations don´t have good reasons to strike. It is unfortunate, however, how the frequency of strikes and demonstrations have dulled peoples´sympathies. I come from a long line of union workers, so I have always been sympathetic to the cause. Argentina, though, is in a whole different league. I had little empathy for the phone workers --I just wanted a phone! And if my child were out of school for several months due to a strike, I'd be spittin' mad --at the state AND the teachers.

I am not a complainer by nature, besides the fact that I've traveled enough in Africa to know how good I have it. But perhaps a year among the super critical Argentines will rub off on me a bit. Let me know if you notice it, when you see me a year from now.