Story Behind the Image: The Old Man and Me
The man was old. I had never seen him before. I will probably never see him again. But his eyes. His face. They’re determined to stay with me through my dreams, goals, fears and nightmares.
Hunger. Frustration. Sadness. Determination.
I saw them all during the 3 seconds that we looked at each other in the midst of a protest in Buenos Aires.
For decades, under the cancer of Peronism, the party in power gave a Christmas present. The gift went to anyone that had supported the political party over the year. Since the unions were some of Cristina Kirchner’s biggest supporters in the past, union members automatically qualified for the regular end of year bonus.
This year, the government wasn’t handing out the end of year bonus. The money was needed by President Cristina Kirchner to fund her lifestyle.
The per capita income is roughly 7000 pesos a month. With the end-of-year bonus being about 7000 pesos it was like getting a 13th month of salary.
In an economy that is running at 40 percent inflation and an unemployment rate hovering around 38 percent, the end-of-year bonus is needed to live.
It’s not needed to buy digital toys that so much of the North America takes for granted. It’s not to pay for a summer vacation to Mar de Plata. It’s not to buy toys and gifts so that the Christmas tree will look full and family and neighbors will be impressed.
The bonus is needed to buy the essentials to get through another 90 degree summer in December. Toilet paper. Flour. Corn. Sausage. The staples of life.
If there’s enough money left over, the kids may find an orange or grapefruit in their stocking. More likely they’ll find a pencil and a ream of paper for school.
While President Kirchner steals millions every year from the Argentines, there’s not enough left in the government budget for school supplies. Each family has to provide their own.
Maybe that’s why this old man’s eyes haunt me. I can see into his family as I watch the anguish and suffering on his face. I see the grand kids that he won’t be able to buy anything for. I see the nights of lost sleep, the hope for work that will never come.
I see the president stealing millions of dollars from the very people she claims to love and lead.
The old man’s face is a map of his life. With lines crossing, starting and stopping unexpectedly, the man has seen the sun rise over the Capital of Argentina many times.
I imagine at the start of each day he hopes for something better. Each night he goes to bed, frustrated that the government has decided to torture his weary soul again with empty promises.
You can see the promises which never materialized on his face. You can see the hopeless that is the cancer of Peronism in his bearing.
Juan Domingo Peron was fascinated by fascism. He wasn’t a smart man. He couldn’t run a country. He was challenged in a closely fought election and the only thing that nudged him to the lead was the movie star looks of his wife, known as “Evita,” to the world.
She didn’t fare any better than her second-rate politician husband when it came to intellect. She was gifted with streets smarts and a body that politicians and generals ached for. They would watch as Evita slept her way higher and higher up the social ladder. Then one night in Luna Park, she met the lanst rung on the ladder she was climbing; she met the man that wanted more in life than what he could get on his own.
Together they created a brand, Peronism, that would be greater than the two of them. A synergistic relationship fed by lust, greed, narcissism and driven by fear of failure, the two would become greater than either of them could by them self.
Trading passports and travel documents to Nazi’s fleeing Germany with gold, jewels and paintings stolen from the Jews, the pair collected treasure while the Argentine in the street went hungry.
Evita made a not-so-secret trip to Switzerland to spirit jewels, gold and paintings out of the country and keep them safe for the day she would quit.
She wouldn’t live to enjoy the stolen treasure. She died in 1952 and a cult formed around her persona and image.
Meanwhile, while the gold and jewels stacked up in bank vaults on distant shores, the typical Argentine went to bed hungry knowing that there wasn’t enough money to keep an empanada on the table.
Thieving from the poor to enrich one’s self has been the pattern of Argentina leaders since Peron. It’s a pattern that Cristina Kirchner follows.
In the meantime, the man in the street stares at an Americano photographer wondering if there is any hope for the future. Any hope for his kids. Any hope for his grand kids.
I reached into my pocket, grabbed a 20 peso note. Palming it, I stepped over to the old man, shook hands and slid him the money while I whispered a barely audible, “Vio con dios, amigo.”