Argentina Sketches: Steal Spike

Corina, a forty-seven year old teacher, was walking home when a beaten-up burgundy car pulled up beside her. Two men got out, grabbed Corina, forced her inside and put a bag over her head. Corina, fearing the worst, struggled wildly as her shirt was pulled up, then she felt her stomach burning. Her kidnappers used an awl to scratch the words “ollas no” into her belly as well as giving her a good beating. An awl is a tool that looks like a screwdriver and is used for scratching marks on wood. Basically it’s a small steel spike with a handle.

The two men threw Corina out of the car two blocks up the road. In a traumatised state, she walked to her house and called the director of her school.

It took sometime to unravel this case — partially unravel. The first thing was the “ollas no”. The awl did its work well, the words were easy to make out in the scratches on her stomach. “Ollas no” means “no (cooking) pots”. Why would you etch those words into a teacher’s tummy? The day she was kidnapped, Corina hadn’t been teaching but cooking for needy kids who went to CEC (Complementary Education Centre) 801 not for classes but for food. The government was sending out food for the kids too, but it was cold and insufficient. Corina and other teachers had previously received threats that they should stop cooking and get back to teaching or else.

Corina’s school had been shut for over a month because of a gas explosion in another school in the same district of the conurbano: Moreno. The “conurbano” is a term used for the urban sprawl of Buenos Aires beyond the city proper. The conurbano is administered by the Provincial Government of the massive Buenos Aires Province and various municipal governments.

The school where the explosion took place was off the gas network (as are the majority of school in Moreno) and was using gas bottles to fuel heaters. The incident happened in 2018 — in August, which can be freezing in Buenos Aires. Teachers at the school had reported a smell of gas to the education council and a technician had eventually been sent out — but nothing was done. The gas bottle exploded in the staffroom at about 7:30 in the morning. The Vice Director and one other staff member were killed.

In reaction to the explosion, the teachers union, SUTEBA, announced a province-wide strike and that schools in Moreno would remain on strike until all buildings were made safe. The head of the SUTEBA Union, Roberto Baradel, a chubby Rasputin, told the press that the explosion had happened as the President and Governor, as well as other government functionaries, sent their kids to private schools.

In Argentina there have been multiple strikes in recent times by teachers seeking better pay. The government has offered them nineteen percent in the Province of BA, but this has been refused — if nineteen percent seems like a lot, keep in mind there is hyperinflation in Argentina. All these strikes make the government look bad. And of course there is the issue of many kids not getting educated.

The government since 2015 has been led by the somewhat right-wing Mauricio Macri, and before that by the left-wing Kirchners, Cristina and husband Nestor. To define these two governments only as left and right is an oversimplification, but serves to differentiate them here. Macri and Cristina continue to be the two major political forces in Argentina and increasingly bitter enemies.

During the fallout from the explosion, the Macrista Governor of Buenos Aires, María Eugenia Vidal, blamed the municipal chief of Moreno, Kirchnerista, Walter Festa, of spending none of his education budget on upgrading schools. Festa said that the education council of the provincial government was responsible for maintenance in schools…they blamed each other basically.

Governor Vidal repudiated the kidnapping and sent a patrol car to guard Corina’s house and also a psychologist to help her deal with her trauma.

Who kidnapped Corina? It could have been narcos or punteros according to the press. Punteros? These are political party agents living and working in the poorer neighbourhoods — a link between politicians and the community. They distribute resources the party gives them. Often they work for the party that’ll provide them with the most resources. They are called on to do the politicians’ dirty work. (The fund punteros politicians in Argentina need to collect money through illegal means.)

One friend told me it was Kirchnerista punteros who perpetrated the crime against Corina. I didn’t discount this, but found it hard to understand. The Kirchneristas would want the strikes to continue as they made the government look bad — that’s my simplistic reading of it. My friend said that the Kirchnerista plan was merely to induce chaos.

Was it punteros of the Macri government? That makes more sense to me. Perhaps it was rogue punteros that went further than the government wanted them to in their mission to get the teachers back teaching?

Another theory was that it was narcos/drug dealers. The idea being that a lot of people gathering together around to provide the ollas for the kids was a social organisation that threatened narco hegemony in the neighbourhoods.

When it comes to TV, I’ve been watching channel C5N that is pro Kirchnerista and the more right wing A24. I occasionally tune into Channel 9 and Cronica. There are two major newspapers in Buenos Aires, Clarin, which is centrist but hates Cristina and La Nacion which is conservative and so inherently more for Macri. It’s hard not to confuse yourself taking in a selection of this media.

Again, who were the kidnappers? Will investigators get any joy from security camera footage? We’ll either never know the real story — or it’ll take a long time to come out in the wash. The problem being that a new sensational crime or scandal will be out in the papers tomorrow and have the press running around like headless chickens… so they’ll all but forget about this case.


Well chuck all that out the window. The latest news on this changes things. Corina’s version of events have not been backed up by investigation. No old burgundy car was spotted on camera in the area at the time she claimed to be kidnapped. Also, cameras show her walking calmly after apparently being kidnapped. The evenness of the letters etched on her stomach do not coincide with the idea that she was struggling. The hypothesis now is that she has been a victim of domestic violence (?!?!).

Kaiser and The Minimum Wage

Axel Kaiser reminds me of the wealthy students I taught at the Grange School in Santiago, Chile in 2005. Some good kids among them but a sense of superiority from many. One of the richest guys in Chile, if not the richest, Andrónico Luksic, sent his sons to the Grange. Maximiliano, one of the middle sons, was a nice kid with the air of somebody used to people coming to him. The youngest son, whose name I can’t remember, was a prick — he was only thirteen at the time. I mention them to name drop and because — in one of his many didactic presentations available on YouTube — Kaiser mentions ‘los Luksic’. Kaiser aims to debunk the argument that if the richest families in Chile gave up their wealth there would be no more poverty. Kaiser compares the wealth of Luksic with government spending to show how minute it is by comparison. In the mind of Kaiser, a libertarian, most government spending is a waste of money.


Kaiser from what I’ve seen is a very good debater — a quick thinker and faster talker. About free market economics, he’s read a lot — as he says people demonize Milton Freedom as a neoliberal bogeyman, but very few of them have actually read him (I certainly haven’t). Kaiser comes up with a lot of very persuasive and easy to understand examples — he’ll use some theory but no TOO much. His fault is that he’s not balanced. That’s the fault of all of us? For sure, but he’s pretty bad.

His most well-known work to this point, co-written with Guatemalan Gloria Alvarez Cross, is El Engaño Populista, or The Populist Delusion. The book looks to expose the damage left-wing populist governments have done in Latin America — through corruption and demagoguery. All good, but he wants to blame ALL the problems of Latin America on these leftists. He also compares them liberally (by which I mean repeatedly from the first page) with the Nazis — these populists don’t allow personal freedom and apparently their policies are copy paste from Hitler and Mussolini.

Kaiser and Cross would have been better to have pointed out the totalitarianism of these socialist governments from the obvious like Castro and Chavez, to the more insidious like the Kitcheners in Argentina and not gone the Hitler route. Not all authoritarians are alike Axel — you wouldn’t compare Pinochet with Hitler. Axel is soft on Pinochet and sees his dictatorship as justified as it cleared away the Marxist experiment of President Salvador Allende in Chile and brought in the Chicago boys and their Friedman-Austrian school free market economics. I wouldn’t argue with Kaiser that planned economies have a far worse record than liberal ones.

The Populist Delusion reaches back into European history to find Jean Jacques Rousseau as the philosophical source of the anti-individualist populism that Kaiser sees as evil. It doesn’t go into Latin America’s old problem of oligopolies and skimps on talking about right wing dictatorships. Foreign exploitation in cahoots with local oligopolies in Latin America is the topic of Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America a book of great interest but not particularly balanced either.

In a debate on YouTube — a leftist professor from the University of Buenos Aires says to Kaiser that Hitler and Mussolini were the real capitalists (i.e. capitalism is evil). Kaiser’s reaction to this silly argument is to put his head in his hands. The debate was about which was more moral — socialism or capitalism? — a bit of a frustrating way to frame it for me. Both sides idolized their own ideology and pointed out the worst abuses of the other.

Kaiser freely admits he is trying to win converts to free market liberalism. He is a smooth media manipulator, which is rather off putting. Most of the clips of Kaiser on YouTube are edited to make him look good and he debates people not up to his standard. The YouTube channels he features on are fundación para el progreso (basically his channel), política Chile and propaganda libertaria. I’d like to see him in a not favorably edited video debating somebody capable (on economics) from the left. The people he argued against in the socialism vs capitalism debate mentioned above, all professors at the University of Buenos Aires, weren’t great orators.

It’s when he is not in a debate, but when he’s being asked to further expand his theories that Axel might trip himself up. He is 100% against having the minimum wage as it will increase unemployment. Many people, he says, are not productive enough to earn a set amount and so companies won’t hire them. However, if there is no minimum wage then people can get a job and learn skills while working.

And what is a dignified minimum wage for a person anyway? It’s arbitrary he says. That I can go along with to some extent — the living wage here in NZ is somewhat arbitrary (in the post office I used to earn less an hour than the living wage but above the minimum wage). A living wage is very different for somebody with three kids than a person with none.

Bill Gates has said that the minimum wage is not necessarily good for the poor in that labour replacement by machines may happen if it’s set to high or that workers won’t be given enough hours. He also says it’s a complicated issue, I like this balanced approach from Bill. But then what country doesn’t have a minimum wage? Even the fiercely capitalist USA does.

Here in NZ we have a minimum wage and it goes up generally in small increments over time. Minimum wage earners, such as fruit pickers and fast food service workers, make about three percent of the labour force. Fast food workers are vulnerable to automation and fruit picking is usually done by immigrants and backpackers. In both these industries profits for owners are good and the workers don’t really advance themselves skill-wise. And I suspect (read bet) some business/chains in both industries would pay less than minimum wage if they could get away with it. Those who hold the means to production hold the power is one Marxist idea that I agree with. The government, elected by the people, has some role in controlling their use of this power.

The government monitors the effects of the minimum wage increases in terms of loss of jobs and inflationary pressure — and the idea is to raise the wage beyond (the low) rate of inflation to improve worker purchasing power (that has been eroded over decades). With no minimum wage, low paid workers won’t have enough to live on.

The minimum wage in Chile is under $500 USD a month and this is for forty-five hours of work six days a week. Kaiser advocates a minimum income with subsidies for health and education for these low wage earners — to be honest I haven’t seen or read anything by him which really explains how to go about this in depth — but — hold the phone, isn’t that socialism?

He thinks in the free market that wages will be commensurate with value — or productivity. In this way he a Utopian, measuring these things isn’t straight forward. It’s not easy to decide value, pay a good teacher more? What is a good teacher a popular teacher? A teacher whose students get good grades? Neither are reliable measures.

The gradual rise in the minimum wage hasn’t forced a mass loss of jobs in New Zealand but the economy here has been strong for a while. Kaiser would say that Chile is not at the same level of development as New Zealand and so shouldn’t have a minimum wage. OK, but then ask him if he thinks they should have a minimum wage once Chile is developed enough. I’m guessing his ideology would force him to say no. He could in the past point to Germany and how they did well with no minimum wage (although I’m not sure he’d like the fact that unions were involved in wage setting there), but since 2015 Germany has had a federal minimum wage too.

photo: Yupi666 at English Wikipedia


Indonesia Sketches: Good Karma and the Becak Driver

The becak drivers of Solo were some of the most destitute looking guys I dealt with in Java. Sure, there are people worse off in a slum somewhere in Jakarta — but not the ones I’ve been to. The people in marginal neighbourhoods I’ve seen didn’t look as malnourished as the Solo becak drivers. Jogjakarta, an hour away from Solo, was another story, the drivers there had more meat on their bones and were more rapacious — consequences of Jogja being a booming tourist city.

A becak is bicycle rickshaw with a covered seat for the passenger up front, the driver sits behind peddling. Solo being flat, drivers don’t have to pedal up hills, however, with their rusty-chained and non-existent brakes, most becaks didn’t get a warrant of fitness from me.

After thirty minutes walking around the centre of Solo trying to find a hotel I decided I needed a ride. As soon as I’d made that choice the becaks vanished from the scene, none of the usual cries of ‘transport mistar’ to be heard. Normally becaks were waiting on every corner, here was a case of Murphy’s law in effect.

A Benkor, motorized rickshaw, Tidore, Indonesia, photo: Frank Beyer

Eventually, I did find one. The driver, lounging in the passenger seat, had a mullet and was staring at his cell phone through supermarket reading glasses. Five foot nothing and forty-five kilos, he couldn’t have been a day under sixty. His name was Budi, he seemed like a good guy.

Budi took me around to a bunch of hotels but they were all booked up. I was starting to think I’d have to go to a mall with wifi, get onto Agoda to book a hotel. Finally, we found a place with a vacancy, they didn’t have wifi but by this stage it didn’t matter. Budi said he’d wait for me outside the hotel, because surely I’d want to ‘jalan jalan’ (go about) Solo later in the evening.

There was no polite way to get rid of him. I decided to give him some money then and there, even though he told me to pay later and that tomorrow we’d tour the town together…I tried to make it known to him that I had other plans, but he didn’t get it. I went into the hotel and had a shower. When I went back out onto the street, Budi was right there. He laboriously peddled me to a cell phone shop where I bought credit for my mobile. Then he wanted to take me somewhere with a lot of choices of things to eat — it turned out to be street food and I didn’t want to risk an upset stomach. OK, he said, and drove me to a Chinese restaurant which wasn’t bad at all.

Back at the hotel he told me he’d sleep out in his becak and wait for me to get up the next morning. It was warm, I don’t think Solo is an unsafe city by night and the front seat of the becak was pretty spacious for someone his size. So I figured sleeping out wouldn’t be much of a hardship. In fact during the day the city was full of drivers asleep in their becaks. Solo had a climate suited to nocturnality but the city wasn’t well lit, putting you off nighttime wanderings.

A Bajaj, Jakarta, Indonesia, photo: Frank Beyer

I went to bed without paying him for the last trip around town. Paying him in dribs and drabs would get expensive, better to fix him up when we parted company for good. The next morning at seven I went out onto the street and he was nowhere to be seen. I got another becak to McDonald’s to use the wifi. At ten still no Budi. I was going to change hotels — he would never find me again. He’d biked me around town for free. Well, that was his fault I thought.

In the afternoon I remembered he’d given me his number, but I hadn’t given him mine. It was a moral test. I didn’t want to fail, so texted him to see what was up. Budi was at home ‘boz’, he’d be in back in town sometime ‘nanti’ (later). Why had he upped and gone home? Poor guy looked hungry and what I was going to pay him was definitely three days of decent eating. A mystery.

The next day I wanted to leave Solo for the more bustling Jogja. What to do about Budi? It was hardly my fault I told myself again, but I couldn’t leave town without paying him. I left an envelope at reception, and texted him that it was there. Lo and behold if he didn’t suddenly turn up with a clean shirt on, all smiles. I didn’t get an explanation about why he’d disappeared. When I was at the station waiting to get the train to Jogja he texted me, saying to call him if I ever came back to Solo. You could interpret that as meaning as he was happy with what was in the envelope or that he was just genuinely friendly.

I asked middle class Indonesians what they thought — was his behaviour weird? Why had he taken off without being paid? They said he was happy to drive me for free because I was a foreigner. But that was their reason for everything — why I had diarrhea, why I found that hike hard or easy….why? Because you’re a foreigner — often they were right in a way. I wanted a deeper analysis though. Never mind.

I left Solo feeling pretty good. I hadn’t forgotten various past peccadilloes, but I’d gained an inch back in the Karma stakes thanks to Budi.

 Header Image: Becak rickshaws, Bogor, Indonesia, Wikipedia

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