THE fervent welcome that greeted President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela during his visit to Argentina a week ago was inexplicable to some Argentines and left others indignant. Many here tend to mistrust populism and demagoguery, finding them redolent of Peronism. But even among the wary, a window of hope has opened, with Mr. Chávez as its symbol.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Juan Perón’s time. And it was the expansive waters of our own broad river that defined the vectors of force last weekend. For once, the tensions in the American hemisphere flowed on an east-west axis along the Río de la Plata — which means “River of Silver” and by extension, very appropriately in this case, “River of Money.”
The struggle was about energy, both concrete and metaphorical, and equally combustible in both forms. Across the river in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, the presence of President George W. Bush caused red-hot passions to flare, along with sizable protests like those he faced in Brazil. In Buenos Aires, my city, on the opposite bank of that river of money, red abounded as well, though in our case it had a very different connotation. Red was the color of President Chávez’s jacket and of many of the flags brought by the masses who flooded into a stadium to hear the president of Venezuela speak.
Unlike the homogenous rallies of Peronist times, the 30,000 people in this crowd came from very diverse backgrounds. In Argentina, the economic crisis of December 2001 significantly altered not only our social dynamic but our semantics. We no longer talk about the “pueblo” — which means town or village as well as people. Now we talk about the “gente,” which also means people, but with a different nuance, derived as it is from the Latin gens meaning race, clan or breed.
The new vocabulary transcends distinctions of class: the middle classes have now merged with the poor to demand their rights. Hence many students and professionals were in attendance that day, not necessarily attracted by the figure of President Chávez himself so much as by the anti-imperialist opportunity he symbolized. We Argentines, who once imagined ourselves more sophisticated, or more European, than the citizens of neighboring states, were brought closer to the rest of the continent by our impoverishment, and we find ourselves more open to the idea of pan-Latin American solidarity.
Perhaps last week’s crowd also recognized the part that President Chávez’s monetary aid played in our recuperation of that illusion known as “national identity.” For Argentina had virtually disappeared as an autonomous country during the presidency of Carlos Menem from 1989 to 1999, the era of our “carnal relations” with the United States, which took the form of spurious privatizations and a fictitious exchange rate.
While many in Argentina would, nevertheless, not hesitate to call the Venezuelan president a clown or a madman, it’s worth keeping in mind that a very heady dose of megalomania is a prerequisite for even dreaming of confronting a rival as overwhelmingly powerful as the United States — which is also led by a president viewed, in many quarters, as a clown and a madman.
President Chávez’s weapons of seduction are his superabundance of petrodollars and his obsession with a shared Latin American project. His plan is to realize the dream of Simón Bolívar, the old utopian vision of Latin American integration that today seems more viable than ever before.
It may be that President Bush chose to venture into these forgotten Southern latitudes to counter that vision. In Brazil, he tried to draw attention to the production of ethanol, an ecologically correct rival to petroleum that nonetheless depletes the earth. And in Uruguay, all Mr. Bush seemed to be trying to do was irritate the other governments of South America by promoting a Free Trade Area of the Americas project in opposition to Mercosur, the southern common market formed in 1991 by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and, somewhat later, Venezuela.
These things sometimes backfire. President Bush found himself repudiated on one bank of the Plata while President Chávez was getting ovations on the opposite one: each contender in his corner and the moral triumph to the last man left standing, as in a boxing ring.
Some Argentines severely criticized President Nestor Kirchner for providing his Venezuelan counterpart with such a platform, complaining that President Chávez bought and paid for his visit by showering Argentina with dollars and benefits. Not so. The bargain seems fair — oil in exchange for agricultural technology and experts — and since he came to power, President Kirchner has made his country the platform for several other presidents from the Americas: Fidel Castro, Michelle Bachelet, Evo Morales and President Chávez himself, on previous occasions.
Two major Argentine characteristics are in play here: intrinsic distrust and the need for immediate gratification. Mr. Chávez awakens both of these inclinations, and it’s interesting to see them balance each other out. The dream of a single-currency Latin American Union, modeled on the European Union, to create, insofar as possible, a buffer against the hegemony of the United States no longer seems so impossible.
I’m no political analyst; I have delved into politics only as a fiction writer. But I’m an optimist by nature, and the feeling of empowerment that President Chávez instills, and that various South American governments are endorsing, strikes me as a good engine for further progress — a means of upgrading ourselves from the status of someone’s backyard into that of a truly autonomous region, beyond Mr. Chávez, Mr. Bush and every other form of demagoguery.