SANTA FE, ARGENTINA — Santa Fe, Argentina.-- I try to return often to this town where I lived when I first came to Latin America nearly 30 years ago, for the perspective: It encourages me to re-examine some of the elements of my point of view.
There is a small plaza in Santa Fe with an aviary called the park of the pigeons. The park has benches, a statue of a mother and child, a garden in the shade of an immense tree. Now and then pigeons rise out of the aviary, circle the plaza then reascend. The sound of their wings is metronomic. I used to bring my two daughters here. I have pictures of them casting bread into the eager beaks.
During a visit some years back I saw workmen digging up the park of the pigeons. They were searching for the remains of victims of the Dirty War of 1976-1980 when some 9,000 people, mostly young, disappeared and were destroyed by agents of a homicidal military government.
After it had subsided, someone with authority in Santa Fe determined to expunge the stain of that criminal aberration by finding every bone, the whereabouts of every "disappeared" victim. They dug everywhere, even beneath the statue of motherhood. They found nothing.
Whatever expectations I once had about Argentina were diminished by the minor holocaust of the Dirty War. But you cannot turn your back on the people life sends your way, not without facing a solitary future. And the deepest wounds can heal, and sometimes things can be made the way they were, as the park was.
Just a few weeks ago I had my grandson on a swing in a square near the park of the pigeons. So it wasn't the same place exactly, it was close enough that I could feel the benign sense of symmetry I had hoped for. Life can get better, I realized. Sometimes all you have to do is wait.
The change that has come over Argentina in recent years has been described as the triumph of the free market ideal over a near-socialist, clearly statist, way of governance initiated in the early years of Juan Peron's tempestuous career.
The degree to which President Carlos Menem has embraced the strategy of privatization and deregulation is remarkable in view of this tradition. He sold the state telephone company. He privatized the metro in Buenos Aires and the railroads. He is in the process of selling the national airline and plans to sell off the national oil and gas monopoly.
He has even privatized the little parks of Buenos Aires, which over the years had become so bedraggled. Privatized might not be the right word there: What he has done is to assign responsibility for the parks' upkeep to various corporations, banks and such. For making sure the grass is trimmed, the
plants fertilized, they get tax breaks.
They do a good job. Buenos Aires has rarely looked so bright and scrubbed. A preservationist trend has taken hold. It's evident in the restoration of the Galeria Pacifica on the capital's glamorous pedestrian shopping mall. A decade ago they would have ripped down that old Second Empire structure with its beautiful murals and put up a square box. Also, they are painting and cleaning the turn-of-the century apartment buildings that lend Buenos Aires its Parisian tone.
Carlos Menem is the second civilian president to take office since the military was driven from power for leading the country into a disastrous war with Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982. Mr. Menem followed Radical Party leader Raul Alfonsin into the presidential palace for a six-year term. Mr. Menem is a Peronist, but only nominally so. A Peronist "por exterior," was the way Neli the barber in Santa Fe put it, an "outward Peronist." No political scientist has offered a more apt description.
Peronism has always been an authoritarian, nationalist and statist creed. Government bureaucrats ran all the major engines of the economy, invariably ineffectively. The featherbedding was immense, especially in the railroads and public works industries.
Mr. Menem is ready to sell everything, end any and all protection of weak industries. He would like Argentina to follow Chile, the most likely first candidate, into the North American Free Trade Agreement. He appointed an economics minister, Domingo Cavallo, who has given Argentina something it has not experienced for nearly 40 years: hard money. The inflation rate for the last half of 1993 was only 4 percent. In 1989, when Mr. Menem took office, it reached 5,000 percent.
"You have no idea what that means," said Judge Elias Guastavino, rapping his knuckles on the table. "It is the most important thing that has happened. It has changed everything."
He sat outside his century-old summer house on the bank of the Parana, in the feathery shade of a eucalyptus. It's summer in Argentina now; it's hot.