Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Don`t worry - sagas of Paddington`s adventures in Latinoamerica are on their way, though to be honest he has been taking it pretty easy over the festive period. But here, for your delectation, are five idioms which do not quite translate from English to Spanish (though number 4 is rather a nice play on words) :

English : Look before you leap.
Spanish : Antes que te casas, mira lo que haces.
Literally : Before you get married, look at what you`re doing.

English : There`s more than one way to skin a cat.
Spanish : Cada quien tiene su manera de matar pulgas.
Literally : Everybody has their own way of killing fleas.

English : By pure luck...
Spanish : Como el burro tocó la flauta.
Literally : As the donkey played the flute.

English : Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
Spanish : Salir de Guatemala y meterse en guatepeor.
Literally : Leave from Guatemala and arrive in an even worse cornfield.

...and my personal favourite...

English : What`s that got to do with it?
Spanish : Tengo una tía que toca la guitarra.
Literally : I have an aunt who plays the guitar.

NB : this lady is not really my aunt.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


A little while back, a few left-wing blogs (including this one, kinda) revealed how the rules on treating suspected terrorists change depending on whether or not the suspect has white skin. A number of very tenuous claims of a terrorist threat have attracted screaming tabloid headlines and provoked chin-stroking looks and liberty-snatching measures from politicians when said tenuous claims are about Muslims. A very real terrorist threat was overlooked by the same media and political establishment because it was planned by a caucasian Nazi.

Just in case British readers feel that they, as a nation, are unique, cast your eye over this essential article about a very similar situation in the US.

Monday, December 18, 2006


I haven´t really had a conversation with anybody today, apart from an extremely irritating chat with an Australian about the Ashes.

"Well," he said, "it took you 16 years to win them back, and only 16 months to lose them again." I saw exactly the same quotation on Guardian Unlimited today, so I award him nul points for originality. "Still," he continued, "you did a great thing for world cricket last summer - good on you." Fuck that - what does he think we are, some sort of charity case? He then proceeded to expound his view that England were more or less lucky to win the Ashes in 2005 anyway, at which point I pushed him out of a third-storey window.

After that bad start, I have turned my attention to animals today. Argentina claims to be a nation of animal-lovers. Well, for a country that loves its dogs, there are a hell of a lot of stray ones about. There are hundreds of reasons to love Buenos Aires, but streets strewn with dog shit is not one of them, especially if you are wearing flip-flops.

But although I would never touch one of the flea-ridden beasts, there are the source of some amusement. In the park outside the Congresa today, I watched a medium-sized poodle chase a terrified Alsatian across a lawn. It was obviously all in good humour though - the poodle concluded its pursuit by dry-humping the Alsatian in a flower-bed.


And as I ate my mixed salad in San Telmo this lunch, another mutt chased a flock of pigeons which some annoying bint was feeding with bits of ham and cheese sandwich. I mean really - would you toss your lunch to a plague of rats? Of course not. Anyway, the dog managed to catch one of the pigeons and was conscientiously chewing its wing off before the woman noticed what was going on. The look on her face was priceless.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


"You cannot even start."

"That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal." (Aristotle Physics VI:9, 239b10)

Suppose Homer wants to catch a stationary bus. Before he can get there, he must get halfway there. Before he can get halfway there, he must get a quarter of the way there. Before traveling a quarter, he must travel one-eighth; before an eighth, one-sixteenth; and so on.
The resulting sequence can be represented as:

This description requires one to complete an infinite number of steps, which Zeno maintains is an impossibility. A more simple way of looking at it is to appreciate that any number divided by 2 can never be 0, and any number that is not 0 can be divided by 2. As such, if one considers that arriving at some destination point means 0 segments of distance left to travel, we would thus be faced with contending with a mathematically impossible x/2=0, where x is that remaining distance to the point of destination.

As long as there is some measurable distance left to travel, and dividing that remaining distance results in a number that is not 0, and given that any measure of distance divided by two cannot result in a 0 distance remaining, Xeno has argued that one must thus never reach 0, never reach the destination.

This sequence also presents a second problem in that it contains no first distance to run (no "x"), for any possible first distance could be divided in half, and hence would not be first after all. Hence, the trip cannot even begin. The paradoxical conclusion then would be that travel over any finite distance can neither be completed nor begun, and so all motion must be an illusion. Again, back to the mathematics of it, x/0="undefined". The answer to x/0 is that there is no answer. As such, part of the semantic problem is to discuss travel over a finite ("defined") distance using language devoid of a finite ("defined") definition. x/0 is undefined, and thus not useable when discussing travel of a finite (defined) distance.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


Click here for a perspicacious (yes! I`ve finally got to use that word! I can die a satisfied man!) analysis of Latin-left politics from Counterpoint´s Vijay Prashad :

"Every country gets the left political force that it deserves. Each social formation has a different class composition, a different relation of ethnic minorities to a majority population, has a separate colonial history with differential capitalist development, and has very distinct progressive political traditions. A broth of Anarchism, Anarcho-Syndicalism, Marxism, Communism, agrarian Populism, social Catholicism alongside messianic great leaders (from Bolivar to Peron) and indigenous communitarianism created a stew of ideas, traditions and resources for the political struggles across the region.

In 1959, Silvio Frondizi, who founded Argentina's Revolutionary Left Movement, put the notion of the "left" plainly, "Although the word 'left' does not have much scientific value, its use has conferred on it the meaning of a critical revolutionary position vis-à-vis the current capitalist society, aiming at its transformation into a future socialist society." Frondizi's impatience with reform belied his own catholic understanding of the left tradition, whose parties had to tread a fine line between the alleviation of immediate grievances and the creation of a collective will decisive enough to risk total social transformation. Brazil has its own history, as does Venezuela.

In one place, revolutionary time moves faster than the other. That does not mean that the leadership is to be exculpated for its own failures: Lula's regime, for example, has smothered any state and non-state institutional forms that might have kept his delegates honest. Nevertheless, those who carry around a litmus paper to gauge the acidity of a regime will surely always be disappointed."

Friday, December 15, 2006


Saint Jerome (347-420) :

As the merchant adds nothing to the merchandise he sells, if he gets more than what he paid for it, his gain implies the other`s loss ; and in any case, commerce is bad for his soul, as it is past belief that, given the opportunity, a merchant won`t cheat.

Saint Ambrose (340-397) :

Whatever above your necessities you get, through violence you take. Was God unfair enough to unequally distribute the means, to have you wallowing in abundance while others pine in need? Whatever bread you hoard, to the hungry belongs ; whatever cloth, to the naked, what money you hide away would have rescued the unfortunate.

Pancho Villa (1878 - 1923) in conversation with a captured Mexican businessman :

Villa : (handing businessman a blank piece of paper) Here, sign this.

Businessman : I am not signing a blank piece of paper for you! Whatever do you want me to do?

Villa : I want you to sign your name here as your word that you will give your money to the poor.

Businessman : But how much do you want me to give?

Villa : You will give as much as it takes for you to become one of them.

Friday, December 08, 2006


It might seem odd to begin an account of my trip so far by discussing dance. I am not much of a dancer really. I enjoy the dirty dog as much as the next man and I do not move with the lumpen wobbliness that proved so amusing to my friends at university. But nevertheless, when Buenos Aires welcomed me at immigration last week, it did so safe in the knowledge that I was not about to set the world of tango alight.

My only previous experience at dancing the tango, this time last year, was truly traumatic. The lesson was in Spanish, and so I did not even realise that I, the man, am required to lead every step. Consequently, I was dancing with experienced middle-aged women who expected me to lead and were sadly disappointed when I remained frozen to the ground. This emasculating experience was compounded by the presence at the class of a girl who I fancied like mad. So I spent the evening neurotically searching the room for her, checking that she was not being charmed by someone rather more proficient on his feet than myself. Ah, the curse of the male ego...

But two things have warmed me to the tango in the last week or so. The first was a truly wonderful show in the San Telmo barrio of Buenos Aires. Usually tango shows play a lot of very old music, weeping with melodrama and sentiment and devoid of any sensual tension. After ten minutes of this, I generally lose the will to live. But this show centred around the music of Astor Piazzolla, one of the great musical interpreters of sex and seduction. Piazzolla revolutionised tango, partly by adding new instruments and scales, but also by adding two integral sexual elements : conflict and deferral. When a couple dances to Piazzolla´s music, they engage in a theatre whereby both interact with each other, facilitate each other´s virtuoso performances, but spend little time actually dancing in union. There is a certain
masturbatory violence to this sort of tango ; it treats sex as a necessary farce. If western bump-n-grind is a porn flick, and traditional tango is a romantic melodrama, then Piazzolla´s tango is Lynch´s Blue Velvet.

The second thing to have fired my enthusiasm for tango is that last night, in my second ever tango lesson, my partner and I were judged the best couple in the hostel and were awarded a litre bottle of Quilmes. To be honest, we won in spite of my performance, which was described by the American Idol-style as "inexperienced, yet faintly folkloric". My partner had danced tango before and she devised a clever way in which she would lead the step but make it appear that I was in charge. And it was these archaic gender values which won the day.

I am now in Bariloche, a tourist mecca in the heart of the Argentine Lake District. The scenery is beautiful, though its chocolate-boxiness does very little for me personally. It is Alpine (specifically Swiss) in feel but Andean in scale. I plan to do very little here except read, write and do a spot of trekking. My original plan was to spend Christmas in Santiago, but I have heard little positive about Chile´s capital. From what I can make out, it is an LA-style concrete jungle. Besides, whenever I leave Buenos Aires I always feel like a virtual magnet is pulling me back. I must spend another two weeks there before moving north-westwards to Bolivia, so that is where I will spend Christmas and New Year. Other countries are like playgrounds for neurotic foreigners, perenially searching for the pure travelling experience. Such an idea is an example of the petit objet a - it does not exist in any form other than a western desire to engage with the Other. No doubt I shall seek it out once I reach Bolivia (where I plan to couch-surf and do some voluntary work in a women´s refuge), but for now I am very happy sipping coffee and watching the world go by.

Ciao for now amigos - hasta luego...

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Snowball´s readers may remember that last time I was in Argentina, I attempted a brief history of this wonderful country. At the time I gave the caveat that this brief history was based largely on the Lonely Planet guidebooks, so this time I will go into rather more depth to see how its early history might impact on present-day Argentina. There is a feeling here, as elsewhere, that history has been depoliticized and filled with mythical clichés of grand liberators and evil despots. Felipe Pigna, in his excellent The Myths of Argentine History, writes:

This particular historical and political pedagogy has resulted in the idea that history and politics is what "the others" do, and that the common people lack the courage, the skills, the ability and - ultimately - the bravery to make history. During the last dictatorship, ideas such as these prompted many to shrug off every victim of abduction or murder committed by state forces with the phrase "Well, they must have been up to something." In a country whose history has largely been one of dictatorships or bogus democracies, political commitment is hardly ever regarded in a positive light.

The dictatorship of the late 70s and early 80s caused many people to literally lose the identity (via "disappearances"). Perhaps something similar is still happening to the Argentinian identity. As Pigna states, "power offers no truce and never forgives those who oppose it, knowing as well that if nobody opposes it, everything will be much worse."


America was discovered in 1492. At least, this is what orthodox history will have you believe. Of course, such a theory depends on the idea that the continent did not exist before Europeans got there : this is synonymous with the idea that colonial victims are merely primitive people waiting for great men to discover their lands and convert them into civilised people.

Actually, in sailing west European explorers never banked on reaching America. They did not even realise it existed. The reason for sailing west was to find Asia. The rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century meant that moving east from Europe for commerce or exploration was more difficult. Routes through Turkey were blocked to Westerners by the Ottomans, who invaded Constantinople in 1453. To reach Asia, the Europeans had to cross the Atlantic. Enter Christopher Columbus.

Columbus, no Galileo he, had a particular vision of the world as being shaped like a woman´s breast, and this is what led him to create a plan to sail west to reach China. He set sail in 1493, and on 13 October (not the 12th as is usually claimed) he and his crew of 33 hit what they believed to be Asia.

Subsequent accounts have, as ever, portrayed the native people of this "Asia" (actually Latin America) as being primitive, blackguardly and sexually immoral. Polygamy was, they said, commonplace, and every marriage was preceded by the men of the area sampling the bride. Women walked around naked, and this inevitably provoked the men into nefarious ways. The truth is that the Mayas were highly civilised, with an impressive artistic and scientific culture. It is they who had discovered the 365-day solar calendar. Columbus liked the natives at first, though only because he felt their gentle, moral and jocular nature would make them good servants. Almost immediately, the natives were enslaved and made to dig for gold. Such was Spain´s desperation to extract gold from the colonised land that any native who failed to find a nugget of gold was tortured. The Mexican historian Carlo Cipolla describes the scene:

The gold appropriated by the conquerors was exclusively the product of robbery, looting and booties. The drawback to every parasitical activity is that it can´t go on forever. Sooner or later, depending on the reserves of treasure or the efficiency of the despoilers, the victims are bereft of all their goods and the thieves have nothing left to steal.

It is interesting to note how contemporary and subsequent generations of conservative commentators attempted to justify this exploitation. The needs of capital, they said, required that Spain expand in order to compete with its European rivals. No doubt we have all heard this line of reasoning recently to justify Western drives for oil. The bourgeois sine qua non of "private property" is the key here. Gold (and, currently, oil) enables the purchase of provate property - except, of course, that this depends on the resource in question being a priori public property. This was not the case in 15th century Latin America, just as it is not the case today.


In September 1493, Columbus launched his second invasion of Latin America. He had returned to Spain with a fleet full of slaves - the beginning of the evil of slavery, which cost Africa 30m people between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. On this second invasion, Columbus met heavy resistance. A contemporary anti-imperial campaigner, Bartolomé de las Casas, describes why:

The Christians, with their horses and swords and lances started massacring (the Indians) and committing all sorts of cruelties. They would storm their villages and neither young nor old, nor women pregnant, or delivered, they would shrink from disembowelling. They would set up grill broilers of stakes on forks, over which they would barbecue their captives. And this is why the Indians began looking around for ways to expel the Christians from their lands and strongholds.

Chief Caonabó was one of the resistance leaders. After Christopher Columbus´s brother Bartholomew, had invaded Caonabó´s village and enslaved its inhabitants, he and his wife prepared their troops and invaded imperial settlements for a full two years, becoming a feared leader among Europeans. Such violence helped the Europeans to portray the native as barbarians, but we should note that Caonabó and his tribe had led a peaceful life before the Spanish arrived. It was only after several years of Spanish tyranny that they turned to violence. There are parallels here with the Nazi portrayal of Jews as filthy, subhuman creatures and justifying this view with pictures of Jews in poverty which the Nazis had themselves created. Another native chieftain, Hathuci, refused to covert to Christianity and was told that all non-believers would face eternal damnation. "Do Spaniards go to Heaven?" he asked his captors. On being told that they do, Hathuci replied, "Then I´d rather go to hell."

Columbus died in 1506, but not before two further invasions (to Venezuela, Jamaica, Honduras and Costa Rica).


In May 2006, some people commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus´s death. So how do his activities have an impact on today´s Argentina?

Well, firstly an ambiguous relationship between Argentina (and other Latin American countries) and Spain remains. Pigna points out that irony of the mid 70s, when Spain became a democracy once again and Argentina slipped into a military dictatorship:

History had decreed that just when Argentina was entering its darkest night Spain would recover its freedom, its poetry, its vitality, after forty years of obscurantism under a regime that bethought itself the heir of the imperial and conquering Spain of yore.

In modern-day Argentina, the imperial pattern continues. Slavery and torture are long gone, but economic inequality remains, caused by the neoliberal economic model. In the 1990s, during the Presidency of the little-missed Carlos Menem, business remained in the hands of the few, and profits were quickly exported abroad to the American and Spanish companies who had expropriated them. During the 90s, for every 1 dollar of profit that Spanish companies made in Argentina, only 20 cents was invested back into Argentina. "Dollars poured into Madrid," says Pigna, "just as gold and silver had done in the old colonial days. Once again South America was feeding the Motherland which had exhibited its opulence while hiding the corpses of the Potosi miners that made it possible, and now looked away from the misery of a continent that was once again making her rich."


After the death of Columbus, the Spanish crown needed a new imperial figurehead. They went for Magellan, a nobleman from the rival imperial power of Portugal. He entered Southern Argentina in 1520. In 1526, the first Spanish settlement in Argentina was founded at the intersection of the Paraná and Carcaraiá rivers. We see here a further example of the past being constructed to justify the present. The Spanish borrowed a story from Greek mythology that two natives had fallen in love with Lucía, the wife of an invader who had been killed. The story suggests that one of the natives had raped Lucía, leading to the two of them being killed. Historians now agree that this story is utter fiction.

In 1533, Spain benefitted from the looting of Peru, which earned the "Motherland" much-needed reference. (Considering the fate of all colonised nations in South America was similar in the days of Empire, we might remember here Ernesto Guevara´s suggestion that the Latin American continent should find a common identity as mestizos.) Peruvian gold was especially crucial to the 16th century Spanish economy, since Spain had lost much of its American revenue in the so-called Wars of Religion between European Catholics and Protestants. As always with conflicts which purport to be religious, these had little to do with faith, and more to do with expansionist rivalries. But Spain´s losses meant that further expansion in the Americas became necessary ; such are the demands of capital, which pays little heed to spiritual or human interests.

Enter Don Pedro de Mendoza.


Mendoza left Spain on 24 August 1535 and reached what is now Buenos Aires early the following year. As in earlier expeditions, the Spanish treated this land as public property : a kind of tabula rasa, open for European exploitation. In fact, the land belonged to the Querandíes tribe, a group of hunters and farmers who had developed a complex and stable social system. At first, the Querandíes welcomed the Spanish with open arms, but the Europeans soon took advantage. Ulrico Schmidl, who oversaw the 1535 expedition, describes the Indians´reaction:

The said Querandi Indians fight with bows and darts shaped like short spears with a flint edge. They also whirl a long cord with a stone ball tied to its end, such as the lead ones which in Germany are used. The horse´s or deer´s legs hit by this ball are entangled by the cord, making them stumble and fall, and with such a ball they also caused the death of our captain and hidalgos, and our infantrymen with the aforementioned darts have been killed as well.

The Spanish invasion had radically disrupted the social system which the Querandíes had enjoyed, and which had served them so well. The consequence was a new city which failed to function. Mass poverty and starvation followed, and Mendoza himself died at sea in June 1537. The conservative 18th century Argentine ideologue Dean Funes said of him, "Mendoza´s age-long credit has been due more to the goods of fortune than those of nature. When the former abandoned him, the hero vanished as well, and only his weaknesses were left. Without any genius, talent or valor worthy of the name, and even worse, prey to that pettiness of passions that soil the reputations of the ultimate people of earth, he had not been born for great exploits."

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Should have a couple of decent, meaty posts about my travels and other thoughts for y´all in the next few days. But for now, just a wee story which could easily turn out to be the most exciting event of my trip : today I met Sigmund Freud´s great-great-granddaughter.

I shall be emailing her in the next day or so to suggest a drinkipoo or two, so if I unearth any juicy goss on the great man, Homo Ludens readers will be the first to know. Also, Buenas Aires has more psychoanalysts per capita than any other city in the world, so it seems like a good time to write something on my own experience of psychoanalysis. As I say, this should appear in the next two or three days (probably disguised as a review of The Birds.

Suerte for now...