More than Tango, Messi or Malbec: understanding Argentina

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Resource-rich Argentina derived its name from the Latin for silver, but its real wealth has come from agriculture, earning it the nickname "breadbasket of the world" at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Farm exports are still a driving force of Latin America's second biggest economy despite a grim economic crisis that threatens to end the presidency of Mauricio Macri in elections on Sunday.

The birthplace of Pope Francis, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona has long fascinated with its tango, its Messi and its Malbec.

- Tango -

Tango is a dance of passion, melancholy and nostalgia that emerged from poor immigrant districts of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th Century. Decried by the Catholic Church, it gained mainstream acceptance after it became popular in European society.

Stylish and elegant, tango is part of the social fabric of the nation, a link immortalized by lyricist Enrique Santos Discepolo in 1934.

"That the world was and always will be filth, I already know, in the year 506 and in the year 2000 too," go the lyrics of his most famous tango, the Cambalache.

Though Discepolo wasn't directly referring to the South American country, for many these tango lyrics sum up Argentina's history.

- Peronism -

The political movement, created during the 1940s by Juan Domingo Peron, is for some the root of all of Argentina's evils, while for others it provides a present-day solution to its problems.

"Peronists are like cats; it may seem like they are fighting, but they are really reproducing," Peron famously said.

And fight like cats they have. Yet the much-divided movement has come through recent divisions to unite behind opposition candidate Alberto Fernandez for the presidential election.

"Peronists are neither good nor bad, they are incorrigible," Argentine literary legend Jorge Luis Borges once wrote.

Since the movement's inception in 1946, Peronist candidates -- mixing centrist populism and nationalism -- have won nine of 12 presidential elections they have been allowed to contest.

Peronists have won five presidential elections since Argentina returned to democracy in 1983: Carlos Menem (1989-1999) twice, Nestor Kirchner 2003-2007) and Cristina Kirchner twice (2007-2015).

- Asado and Malbec -

Argentina's plummeting peso paved the way for a boost in meat and wine exports.

Exports of Argentine beef, renowned worldwide for its quality, jumped nearly 65 percent in a year.

But runaway inflation meant domestic consumption fell, leading to fewer traditional asados, where family and friends gather around a barbecue of grilled meat.

Wine has suffered too. Malbec wine from the Mendoza region is exported worldwide but with the economic crisis, spending at home is down.

The year 2018 was the worst in the history of wine consumption in Argentina, according to the National Institute of Viticulture. Most Argentines have switched to cheaper drinks like beer.

- Argentina power -

Argentina's gilded era still catches your eyes and imagination, especially in the architecture of Buenos Aires, the most visited city in Latin America.

It owes all that to the dominance of vast meat and grain exports at the end of the 19th Century, when a wave of European immigrants flooded in.

Argentina and Uruguay are Latin America's two countries that while settled by Spain, later drew many people from Italy, like the pope's family.

The Belle Epoque saw the emergence of buildings like the Colon Theater, the Cervantes Theater and the imposing Buenos Aires General Post Office building -- now the Kirchner Cultural Institute.

Repeated crises in the second half of the 20th Century brought devaluation, debt, inflation and poverty as Argentina experienced a succession of coups since 1930.

The last one, in 1976, put in power a military junta that lasted seven years, leaving tens of thousands of dead and missing.

- Boca vs River -

Football (soccer) is even more important than politics in Argentina, which has produced two World Cup winning teams. The dominant teams domestically are Buenos Aires clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate, historical archenemies.

But football divides people almost as much as it unites them.

Just ask anyone about Lionel Messi, who never quite delivers for the national team the way he does for Barcelona.

A triple winner of the World Footballer of the Year title, he arouses as much passion as the legendary Diego Maradona did before him.