Last month, somebody jumped out of the shadows on a badly lit street and punched out most of Manfred Schoenfeld's front teeth.
Schoenfeld works for the morning daily La Prensa. He is one of the two most widely read columnists in the country. The other, J. Iglesias Rouco, also works for La Prensa, and when you pick up the day's papers, their columns are one of the few places where you are as likely as not to find something resembling straightforward, intelligent, critical commentary on the state of affairs in Argentina.
One of the other places is the English-language Buenos Aires Herald. Its editor fled the country after a death threat to his family, and its acting editor generally takes no telephone calls because he is tired of hearing people describe how they will kill him and everybody who works for him.
Ever since the military took over here in a 1976 coup, both the Argentine press and people, with few exceptions, have practiced a sort of "self-censorship" that resulted in little serious challenge to official policies.
Today, however, there are indications that this government may not be as invulnerable as was once thought to the historical ebb and flow of Argentine politics during a century in which the only certainty about governments -- both civilian and military -- was that they would collapse under their own weight or be overthrown, if not in a few days, then in a few years.
The La Prensa case appears to have struck unusually responsive chords. The government recently declared, according to numerous press reports here, that to indicate its displeasure with La Prensa, it was withdrawing all its advertising from the paper, a potentially devastating move in this state-dominated economy.
Iglesias Rouco said he was told that someone from the government had called the paper's library to ask for copies of all his back columns. Schoenfeld was in the midst of a passionate series of critical commentaries. Part two, in which he talked about military corruption and the total breakdown of the postcoup reorganization plan, called the "Process," appeared two days before he was beaten.
The authorities immediately repudiated the assault. Then they got mad at La Prensa, which has increased its circulation tenfold and has rapidly filled its pages with small, privately paid advertisements that said things like, "Thanks to La Prensa and its staff for being the last bastion of Argentine dignity." The government had never singled out La Prensa, one official said, but was just cutting back on its advertising in general.
The authorities put out an artist's conception of Schoenfeld's mugger (blond, thin, mean-looking) so people would see they meant business about finding him, yet no leads have developed. Schoenfeld was too swollen and bloody to say much at first, but soon he sat up in bed -- defying doctors' orders, he wrote -- and went back to his acerbic typewriter.
The title of his series was "Before the Country Hits Bottom."
It is all over Buenos Aires this winter, the sense that Argentina is coming apart with the kind of helpless, conspiratorial despair that the 1976 coup was supposed to dispel forever.
Since Gen. Roberto Viola was handed the presidency last March, the peso has been devalued three times -- each devaluation, among other reasons, allegedly to discourage people from buying dollars by making them more costly in pesos. Each time the authorities devalue, they say they will not devalue again.
Those who bought enough dollars early enough are now comfortably set for the rest of the year. Those who did not, which probably includes most of the middle-class Argentines who have spent the last five years waiting for the military to make everything better, are stunned and staggering.
Unemployment, although still officially below 5 percent and therefore miniscule by South American standards, is growing so fast that when 1,200 mechanics and auto workers were arrested briefly last week for staging an illegal one-day strike, they had only one demand: jobs.
Taxi drivers launch on cue into speeches about the trauma of day-to-day economic survival. On the international market, the Argentine peso is now worth about a third of its February value.The headlines and magazine covers have lost any hint of subtlety: "Does the Government Have a Tuture?" "On the Edge of Collapse" and in last week's Herald: "This Is Ridiculous."
A lot of people went to the zoo on the afternoon of the winter solstice, which is June 21 in this hemisphere. The children tossed crackers at the flamingos and llamas, and the Indian elephant took a highly entertaining mud bath in the middle of his clearing. The cold had gentled a little. For a few hours, there was sun on the bare-branched park trees, and you could stop thinking about the thick gray chill that filters slowly into the darkness most of these mornings in Buenos Aires.
The president, one is told, is fighting with the Army commander-in-chief. The Army commander-in-chief is fighting with the Navy commander-in-chief. The harder line officials are uneasy about the president's approaches to certain political parties. The people who work in banking circles were braced one week last month for a coup they said would surely come before the weekend was out.
Nobody says this directly, with attribution in print. Information creeps quickly around Buenos Aires, and if you are a foreigner you must learn how to see it, how to listen for it, how to understand that what you are reading is not what you think you are reading. This is as essential as learning to wear knee socks to bed in June.
On another floor of this aging downtown building is an Argentine newspaper reporter whose office is a nice place to go for counsel, hot coffee and arguments about things like feminism and the Anglo-Saxon spirit. One blustery afternoon last week, the Argentine sat down with an American, whose unreconstructed Anglo-Saxon feminism he generally humors, and conducted a primary lesson in what Argentines refer to as entre lineas, between the lines.
He had a copy of the morning daily Clarin, which resembles the New York Daily News and gets read on the morning subway by sleep-fogged people in parkas and sheepskin coats. "Junta Will Not Limit President," the headline said.
The story was about a speech by Adm. Armando Lambruschini, the head of the Argentine Navy who, along with the heads of the Army and Air Force, makes up the junta to whom the president is responsible. What he said, among many other things, was this: "With regard to the specifics of the directing of the state, a detailed analysis of the development of distinct areas and their projection in the future evolution of the Process has been completed, to the end that the realization of these established objectives must materialize within a certain span of time that, the Navy maintains, must not be considered indefinite."
An Argentine reporter's eyes do not glaze over when he reads passages like this. They gleam, and then they narrow. "This is furious opposition to the Army," said the Argentine studying Clarin. "He is saying there is a time limit on the Process. The Army and Air Force have just gotten through saying the Process will go on as long as it has to. It's a sign between card players. Lambruschini is talking to two other people -- the other commanders-in-chief. Three, including the president."
There is a time-honored Argentine tradition, which the exiled editor Jacob Timerman mentions in his recent book, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," of doing everything possible to avoid the potentially dangerous practice of saying things plainly in print.
It did not begin with the 1976 coup. Juan Peron's hostility to an unfriendly press was legendary during his first presidency 35 years ago, and he at one point confiscated La Prensa. But when the post-1976 disappearances began to include dozens of vocal journalists (Timerman believes he narrowly escaped death during his imprisonment), the blandness of most newspaper copy began to border on the obscure.
Things are hinted at, addressed obliquely, written around. The people who "disappeared" are generally referred to only when their tireless relatives cause a ruckus by being arrested in front of the government palace. In the prestigious pages of the morning daily La Nacion, one can get quite desperate just looking for a verb.
So how do you know there is talk of a coup? You know it through the rumors. The planting and cultivation of rumors is high art. It was art before the 1976 coup and it is art today, whatever the armed foces may say about wishing to transform the nation into a stable and permanent repository of Christian, Occidental values.
The city quivers with momentous events that will come to pass before your newspaper ever tells you about them -- the peso may collapse, exchange shops may close suddenly, a cabal of generals may depose the president in the middle of the night. You can see what this atmosphere would do to rumor -- the urgency, the fascination, the status of having the right rumor at the right time.
Taxi drivers have rumors. Political leaders have rumors. Bankers have rumors, and on a particularly jittery aftermoon a banker will call over the customer who happens to be a newspaper reporter juggling a half-dozen loaded rumors of his own. "Have you heard anything about a coup?" asks the banker, and the reporter says, "No, but I'll see what I can find out."
The reporter calls his man in the Interior Ministry to ask about a coup, and the Interior Ministry man calls three or four people, and before long it has reached the point -- as it did earlier this month -- where the president says publicly that he and the armed forces are in perfect accord and the rumors are simply the work of those trying to "destabilize the government of the armed forces."
There may be some truth to that. But when each morning begins with the draining international reserves and the misadventures of the peso, when magazines are willing to refer openly to "the crisis" and "the wave of rumors" (you will not glean from their contents precisely what the rumors said, but if you are any kind of Argentine you already know), the sentiment grows that just now the government is not, perhaps, so very difficult to destabilize.
Schoenfeld said as much the weekend before he got his teeth knocked out. The government suggested that whoever beat him may also be part of the destabilization campaign, which caused Iglesias Rouco a moment of black mirth in print. "Obviously, we are witnessing an imperialist- Jewish-Marxist-conservative-Spanish-subversive conspiracy," he wrote, and then began to talk about Kafka. He was very angry.
The winter rains came back while Schoenfeld was home waiting for his mouth to start working again.