‘Bienvenido al tercer mundo’

Is Argentina a third world country?

I can’t remember where I first heard it. There are many contenders, although one of them is definitely not MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires).

Last night I accompanied my better half to a talk at the uptown spot in Recoleta, and home of some of the finest private art collections in the continent. In-keeping with her International Trade Relations course, this particular charla was about economic development in India and the opportunity it presents from the perspective of international commerce.

Typical of these things, there was a panel of talking heads on hand to dissect the brilliantly informative presentation that the visiting Professor from Uruguay had just delivered with animated enthusiasm and a telling histogram or two.

Since 2004, there has been a Preferential Trade Agreement between India and the MERCOSUR countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) which together form a trading bloc within Lat-Am. Yet there is something tragicomic about the reality that this fantastic trade relations opportunity will probably continue to never be capitalised upon. This was the subtext of a pre-death post-mortem that rounded off the slideshow anyway.

Bureaucracy to the point of lunacy, and with mouths to feed at every step of the way, conducting business here can be a wholly unrewarding experience. Despite its much-heralded evolution in recent times, with all due respect, India is unquestionably still a third world country. Live here for long enough however, and you’ll see that many locals impede their own potential economic growth by resigning themselves to a belief that Argentina belongs now and always in that bracket too. This is what I would call: adopting a third world mentality.

It’s no coincidence that the verb you’ll hear banded about with most regularity in the sphere of trade here is esperar. Meaning both ‘to hope’ and ‘to wait’, usually conditioned by context, they come as a pair when there are important business transactions due to take place. As I’m finding out first-hand through my job, seemingly pointless paperwork and the like seems to take an inordinate amount of time to bypass every man and his dog (of which there are many in Buenos Aires) before anything actually happens.

Amidst all this, getting to the truth of the matter is often another story in itself. Many of my colleagues find it funny how offended I am when I am lied to by the people with whom we are doing daily business. ‘It’s not lying, it’s part of the culture here’, they tell me. Something the rest of us might call rotten, the name for it here is viveza criolla.

Although they are very close in meaning, in English the word ‘cunning’ denotes intelligence and therefore elicits admiration, whereas ‘sly’ is more allied to deceitfulness. There is no such distinction with viveza criolla though. An unfair advantage gained through one’s own creative means, dishonestly but undetected, such behaviour is to be celebrated apparently. Look no further than Maradona’s infamous Hand of God as perhaps the most textbook of examples.

Last week I was walking to my bus stop in Belgrano on the way home from work when the heavens opened. Such was my unpreparedness, I didn’t have an umbrella to hand but luckily spotted a place in Chinatown that had a bucket full of them on an outside stall. Quickly registering the respective colours of canopy and handle, I settled for one and promptly handed over the 50 Pesos to the assistant thinking I’d got myself a nice little bargain there too. Or at least I thought he was the assistant…

Only when I saw him confidently pocket the cash and stride away, navigating the overflowing drains in the opposite direction of the same street, did I realise that this guy was nothing more than a chancer who had seen – and duly taken – his chance. Hooray for viveza criolla, right?!

Shortly afterwards, the bemused shopkeeper came out. Again, I handed over a different 50 Peso note for the same umbrella. Not quite the bargain it seemed at first, after all. I wasn’t angry though, far from it in fact, as I immediately saw the funny side of it given the net loss incurred of only roughly £1.50. Disappointed was the word.

Clearly incredulous about the event, I felt compelled to recount the anecdote on two separate occasions to a couple of visibly unfazed porteños. It turns out that there was a punchline that I had neglected to insert, but one that both recipients of my story knew already and indeed obligingly delivered far better than I ever could, with a deep sigh and deadpan flourish – ‘Bienvenido al tercer mundo’.

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