The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Thursday, June 27, 2013


On 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.  The United Kingdom sent an expeditionary force to retake the islands. After naval and air battles, the British forces landed on The Falklands May 21st, and had surrounded Stanley by June 11th. The Argentine forces surrendered on Monday, June 14, 1982.  To celebrate the 31st anniversary of the occasion, I give you Episode IV of this series.

When I first lived in Montevideo in 1982, military dictatorships ruled both Uruguay and Argentina.  They were very different places than they are now.   The small colony of Fulbrighters in Uruguay did a lot of things together, so we got to know one another pretty well despite our many differences.  Several quirky things happened when a couple of us spent June 15-16th visiting Buenos Aires, almost directly across the Rio de la Plata from Montevideo.   

My traveling companion from Montevideo to Buenos Aires was a fellow Fulbrighter, a Professor from a large University in Florida named Terry.  She had several attributes that recommended her to travel with---fluency in Spanish (she had dual citizenship, USA and Panama), knew Buenos Aires (B.A.) a little bit from a previous visit there, and the Panamanian passport to smooth our way past immigration at the border since Argentina didn't like the USA at all that week.   Today was one day after the end of the Falkland Islands War.   We had shared satellite intelligence with our NATO ally England during the naval war, and Argentina’s government blamed us for their military defeat.  

We took the high-speed ferry from Colonia across the Rio de la Plata, which also helped smooth our entry into B.A., and headed directly to our hotel by taxi to check in and get rid of the suitcases that screamed "tourist" to all who saw us.   The taxi driver handed us a piece of paper that listed the conversion factor for the fares on the taxi’s meter to the actual cost of the trip in pesos for today.   These conversion sheets were changed daily as Argentina’s currency inflated to less and less value.  The recorded meter fare for the trip was multiplied by about 1,000 that day to get the actual cost for the passengers.   The peso was dropping in value daily, by huge amounts.  If you were paid in pesos their value was less and less every day, and they had little to no value for exchange into more stable currencies.  Nor were Argentine citizens allowed to exchange currency legally.  If you were paid in dollars (and we Fulbrighters were), you were rich in local terms.  With a nominal rate of a few pesos to the dollar, and an actual rate of a few thousand, you can see the problem. 

At the hotel we were given another sheet of paper with the day’s cost for our rooms.  The rates were very expensive in pesos, very cheap in dollars.  We were to pay by the day because of the instability of the currency.  Terry's room was on the third floor. Mine was on the fourth.  I picked her up in her room half an hour later so we could explore the city before it got dark.  June 21st is the shortest day of the year and begins winter in the Southern hemisphere, so it was getting dark very early in the afternoon when we visited.  My entire room was the size of a large bathroom, with a short single bed and a chest of drawers.   In a separate room was a sink and a toilet in a tiny bathroom shared with the next room.  Terry’s room was huge by comparison, a large double bed, a good-sized bathroom, and the normal furniture you’d expect in a 4-star hotel in a big city.  I asked Terry why she had such a nicer room than mine and asked what it cost her.  She explained to me how the system worked. 

I had actually paid for both rooms when we checked-in, at a ridiculously low rate in dollars.  The clerk assumed that a male and female traveling together asking for separate rooms were a married man and his mistress.  Terry got “our room” with its large double bed assigned to her, which the clerk assumed we’d share.  My oversized closet was for appearances sake to protect her reputation, not intended for my use overnight.  The dual standard was still flourishing in Latin American culture 30 years ago!

A military junta headed by General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri Castelli ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1982.  During the junta's rule, Congress was suspended, unions, political parties, and provincial governments were banned, and in what became known as the Dirty War, between 9,000 and 30,000 people deemed left-wing "subversives" disappeared from society.  These were the “disaparicios”.  A death squad called Intelligence Battalion 601 directly reported to Galtieri.  Torture and mass executions were commonplace.  

During our walk, one of the quirky things that happened on this trip was that we got to see a couple of "disaparicios" disappear.   We were on one of the broad avenues in downtown B.A. when a military truck roared to a halt at the curb half a city block in front of us.  Several soldiers in full uniform armed with machine guns jumped out of the truck, beat two men to the ground with their gun butts, and carried the senseless civilians into the back of the truck, which was covered with canvas.  The street was crowded; everybody watched, but nobody got involved. The truck roared off, and just that quickly the entire episode was over for us.  I have no idea what happened to the two men, but the odds are good that they didn’t survive their experience.

That night featured dinner starting at 10:30 PM, tango music at a local club until 2 or 3 AM, and too few hours of sleep on my tiny bed in my tiny room.  Terry reported a lot more sleep on her huge bed in her large room.  Life isn’t always fair!

The British victory in the Falkland Islands War, coupled with a ruinous inflation, spelled Galtieri's downfall, which actually occurred on June 18th, 1982, just a few days after we returned on a commuter flight to Uruguay from this visit.  The Argentine economy had been in dire condition prior to the military coup in 1976.   It deteriorated further under the junta during the Dirty War.  Argentina was not a happy place during our visit.  Not only had they just lost a war with The United Kingdom and were in the middle of a civil war, but the economy was suffering from a ruinous inflation and nobody but the richest of the rich could afford the essentials of life.  The fall of Galtieri signaled the eventual end of all of the military dictatorships in South America and the eventual return to democracies in the region.  By the time I returned in 1999, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile all boasted flourishing democracies and a much better quality of life for all.

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