March 9, 2014
A nation as seen from 1913
For the Herald
Awkward way of history repeating itself
The oft-repeated caution is that history in Argentina has an unnerving tendency to play itself again and we never heed our self-warnings. It is happening again, Sam, and the finger-prints of the past are being stuck all around us. In this special case it is not just the economists with their magic solutions who are auguring ill times — usually to reveal themselves to be incapable of putting into practice their own recommendatioins.
Today it is recommended that we review forecasts that have their roots right back in the twentieth century.
First came the good tidings: “In the mind of the foreign investor in 1913, there was perhaps one destination with more promise for the future than Canada, Australia, or even the United States: Argentina... In Capel Court, the home of the London Stock Exchange, the names of the Argentine railways are as familiar as those of India, and the stock of its towns vies in publicity with British municipal scrip.” So wrote Reginald Lloyd, British journalist and sometime editor of the Herald in the 800-pages he compiled and partly wrote, Twentieth Century Impressions of Argentina, published in 1911.
The flattering opinion is from Lloyd’s extended hagiography of a nation and quoted in, 1913: The World before the Great War, by Australian historian Charles Emmerson (published by the Bodley Head, London, a few months ago). Emmerson reconstructs the contemporary life and the atmosphere, imperial, colonial and neo-colonial, as in our case, from twenty-four of the world’s great cities in which nothing could really go wrong. British historian and Victorian expert, Kathryn Hughes, remarked on that year before the tragedy, “Over a coffee or beer, someone may mention the recent royal wedding attended by a full sweep of royal cousins: George of Britain, Nicholas of Russia and Wilhelm of Germany. Here is cosmopolitanism showing its sunniest face to the world: mild, pragmatic and touchingly convinced that it is doing its best by everyone.”
And then, in a very short time which were eight months into 1914, the world grew dark and tragic. It was the war to end all wars, but no pundit ventured for how long, and just twenty years after the end of the Great War, Europe was plunged into tragedy again.
So, great for the investors and wealthy of the world, but Argentina did not provide much for the underclasses.
Author Emmerson does not venture into what happens after 1913, which is at once the beauty and the challenge of his book. He is determined to describe global patterns in which half lived in what now seems complete fantasy and as dependents of greed, the rest in severe poverty.
That is just one reason for taking Emmerson’s book as an example of the uncertainty of forecast here, and elsewhere, much of the time. We seem to revel in the laceration of prognostications that warn of gloom and failure — take much of the critical press today in its appraisal of the government — which often come true, unfortunately, but quite often also are wide off the mark. And this is our weekly diet of reading. Reginald Lloyd is not alone in his prophesy of sudden greatness: he was competing with the perhaps better known “official” histories of W.H. Koebel, author and journalist for several papers and an analyst known for his books on South America, in this case such as Modern Argentina (Francis Griffiths, London 1907) and Argentina Past and Present (Kegan Paul, London 1910, a second edition printed with the blessings of the Sáenz Peña government and vice-president Victorino de la Plaza).
Emmerson opens his chapter on Argentina quoting the praises that suited foreign investors and especially the flattery of upper-crust audiences at the Colón Opera House delivered there by visiting US President Theodore Roosevelt, “Thunders of plaudits made the great theatre re-echo” wrote a reporter for the Buenos Aires Herald. Emmerson writes that, “the same forces which were at work around Winnipeg or Melbourne (two of the cities he describes in 1913) had been evident in the transformation of the hinterland of Buenos Aires from colonial subsistence backwater into industrial-scale farming...” The former prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, was one of the many prominent foreign visitors drawn to the allure of Buenos Aires’ success.
The author quotes the Herald frequently and, in lesser doses, The Standard. And true to style the Herald carried the apparently unlimited flattery, but also the voices of severe critics of a form of development which cast aside the less fortunate immigrants. One Harry Jenkings warned that “while it was important to keep Argentina shining in the minds of foreign investors so as to keep their money flowing in... to those of us who have lived in Argentina a few years it is irritating to read, for example, that the Lord So-and-so, after being whirled round the Port of Buenos Aires has expressed unbounded admiration of all that he has seen at a time when the mercantile community have been clamouring at the delays suffered by shipping through local mal-administration and when insurance companies have declined to accept responsibility for goods deposited in the Customs Houses owing to a succession of fires attributed to interested incendiaries.”
Jenkings, in another article, warned that “I believe that Argentina has reached its climax, that its “phenomenal progress” is a thing of the past... Perhaps Argentina’s destiny as a wealthy, powerful nation is to be delayed after all.”
A traveller in Latin America, John Foster Fraser, suggested that “many who lived in Argentina were struggling, unable to realize their dreams. The poor immigrant has an enormous struggle to raise himself above the condition of a serf.” An English engineer noted the same situation and blamed, “land monopoly, reckless finance... and the unscrupulous use of the country’s credit for promoting schemes for the benefit of monopolists or private companies, rather than the public.” It feels awkwardly as if the engineer were writing today.
Strange isn’t it? You feel that these expressions have all been heard before, and we keep on hearing them. And yet... and yet... in the most recent round of statements, it wasn’t that far in the past, was it now?