September 17, 2014
Columbus and an exercise in political wisdom
For the Herald
At the París Book Fair a fortnight ago, during the brief minute in which I greeted her, the president surprised me (and various colleagues were witness) by saying: “I know you often criticize me, Mempo, but you always do so in good faith, don’t stop.” Apart from feeling myself honoured, I considered it a display of political good sense.
But it is worth evoking this episode now because in the face of an issue which was viewed by some citizens as an apparently minor error (but which has been growing in importance and now threatens to take on highly negative consequences) another display of wisdom would be advisable. This issue is none other than the buffeted monument to Christopher Columbus, now dismantled and suffering the rigours of the weather and the always sordid and malicious coverage of the dominant media.
This monument, about which I wrote in this same space last year, was a donation to the Argentine nation made by the Italian immigrant community (the most numerous of our history) on the occasion of our centenary in 1810. That alone justifies its place but we should also remember that Arnoldo Zocchi’s creation is one of the most beautiful sculptures of the Argentine capital.
Exquisite from any standpoint, the sculpture has impacted various generations of Argentines and millions of immigrants and tourists, coming to be one of the most important icons of the city of Buenos Aires for its beauty and size. That’s why it hurts that its almost 25 metres of height and 600 tons of Carrara marble are at this moment in a sort of legal and political limbo while what can be seen through the railings behind the Pink House is a jumble of marble bits and pieces indescribably painful to view.
Such mistreatment stems from a miscalculated subconscious drive from the national government with a clumsy and cynical response from the municipal authorities with the opportunism which characterizes them.
For that reason the conflict must end once and for all and that would not be so very hard. The solution is actually simple — it just takes a decision at the highest level to transform a clumsy political move into an act of political wisdom and grandeur of vision.
It is true that the matter is complex from various viewpoints (historic, economic and legal) but for that reason it should rise above the judicial morass in which it is now immersed and which only succeeds in making both the monument and the confidence and support of the citizenry deteriorate yet further.
It simply requires restoring the work at once, replacing it on the same sport where it has been for a century, accepting as puerile the revisionist arguments which seek to condemn the Genoese admiral. The contrary would be to insist, with more folly than intelligence, on an absurdity akin to Paris knocking down the Arc de Triomphe in Paris because it waved Nazi banners after 1940 or as if on Richmond’s Monumental Avenue in the capital of Virginia, they removed the statues of Generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson or the Confederate president Jefferson Davis because they supported slavery and sustained a bloody civil war for four years.
You don’t make history by knocking down and covering up. But above all, and thinking of this case, the national government would be well-advised in such a delicate matter to avoid playing City Mayor Mauricio Macri’s game since he has been pushing a “defence” of the Columbus monument for some time. The truth is that he could not care a hoot, as is shown by the passion he puts into keeping our public heritage run down, Lezama Park and dozens of valuable statues, just as he is capable of destroying the Borda Hospital and historic houses like that of Ricardo Güiraldes, or cutting down trees by the dozen in order to serve his blatant real estate deals or construction projects of dubious utility.
That old sailor, who reached a continent which does not even bear his name and who was no more than a man of his times and his immensely stubborn head, does not deserve this affront. Would it not be a way of making good the damage to urgently replace the monument, fix up its decay and wind up this unhappy episode? Would it not be good if the president displayed her political flair by taking a step in a more politically correct direction and ending all this?
And then invest all her energy in placing the absolutely necessary monument to General Juana Azurduy on the Palermo polo fields which belong to the Argentine Army.