At 1 p.m., I met Marcelo at the Alliance Party headquarters, just around the corner from the Argentine Congress. The press office had forgotten to put me on the accredited list for the evening's rally in Rosario, and our photographer was nowhere in sight. The day was shaping up nicely.
Graciela from the press office gave me a credential anyway. "But I can't guarantee you a spot on the bus," she said.
Marcelo took me aside. "Let's get on the bus now," he said, "while the other journalists are still in the cafe." We settled into the bus and waited as the others straggled in.
The driver switched on the radio--"Tequila" was playing--and we were off. Graciela walked up and down the bus compiling a passenger list. Behind us were two German journalists; across the aisle, a correspondent for a Brazilian paper. When Marcelo said that we were from the Buenos Aires Herald, Graciela cried: "What international coverage we have today!"
"We're not an international paper," Marcelo growled under his breath.
We're used to being thought of as foreign, but the Herald is actually something of an Argentine institution. Founded 123 years ago, the paper established a unique reputation for independence, especially during the years of dictatorship. The staff takes great pride in the fact that the majority of Herald readers are Argentines rather than expatriates. Not bad for an English-language paper.
We drove four hours through the pampas, past neatly plowed fields and the big white gates of splendid estancias. Marcelo and I got to talking with the Brazilian journalist. Her name was Vanessa, and she had just moved to Buenos Aires with her husband. I experienced one of those delightful expat moments when you meet someone who knows even less than you do about the country.
Covering an election campaign, in Argentina at least, involves short bursts of activity wedged into long hours of eating, drinking, and slothfulness. The bus made two stops so that campaign officials could ply us with soda and junk food. When we finally arrived in Rosario, the press contingent gravitated to a fast-food restaurant called VIP. I sat outside, eating my "Menu No. 12" with Marcelo and Vanessa.
At length we waded into the crowd in search of interviews. The Argentine political landscape is confusing. No fewer than 10 parties are fielding presidential candidates. The Alliance itself is a coalition of the Radicals (the traditional anti-Peronist party) and various smaller groups, including the gorgeously-named Intransigent Party.
Vanessa and I interviewed a group of rebel Intransigents who were upset at the way the Alliance was being run. They had come all the way to Rosario for the sole purpose of unfurling their banner and then leaving before the speeches started.
The vice-presidential candidate, Carlos "Chacho" Alvarez, gave a rousing speech against "globalization," by which he means Americanization. Argentina opened its economy in the early '90s, attracting an unprecedented flow of American capital, bankers, and lawyers--that's what brought me down here in the first place. Today, your average Argentine will tell you that excessive U.S. influence is responsible for economic stagnation and a general moral decline. I try not to take that personally, but when Alvarez shouted, "We have to defend our cultural identity against the forces of globalization," the crowd gave a such bloodthirsty roar that I found myself thinking: "Taxi! U.S. embassy, and step on it!"
Then came the keynote speech by presidential candidate Fernando De la Rúa. After so many dictators and charismatic strongmen, Argentina seems to be craving a spell of boredom. De la Rúa rarely disappoints. A gray, somber lawyer, he is almost wantonly cautious in every utterance he makes. In his schoolmarmish way, De la Rúa promises to cut VAT, but only when people stop evading taxes. His slogan is "President Safe." Is it just me, or can you feel your pulse quickening?
Here's the thing: Argentines are eating it up. Pollsters are predicting a massive De la Rúa victory in Sunday's election.
After the speeches, there was a scramble to the press tent. Although Marcelo was ostensibly there to research a longer feature, he helped me (a lot, actually) to get the on-the-spot story filed in time for tomorrow's paper. Then we both helped Vanessa, who was having trouble with the Internet connection to Sao Paulo.
When the last reporter left the tent, the Alliance informed us that the bus to Buenos Aires wouldn't leave for another hour. In the meantime, the press was invited for--what else?--pizza and beer at a local cantina. It was getting on for midnight when we finally left.