Tierra del Fuego, the frosty island at the bottom of the world, has always been an isolated, mysterious shadowland. But these days, it is a Twilight Zone in more ways than one.
First came a exiled, coup-plotting Paraguayan general with a penchant for cosmetic surgery. Last week, he was banished here among the penguins in South America's Siberia, crying into his parka all the way. For an added touch, a gigantic iceberg, seven times the size of Washington, D.C., hovered 350 miles off Cape Horn. And if that was not enough, a cast of 50,000 Canadian beavers has caused local environmental authorities to launch an adopt-a-fur-coat program.
Harvesting the fur may generate some much needed cash in Argentina's southernmost province, which is suffering through a financial crisis so bad that unpaid elementary school workers shot out a window at City Hall. And the arrival of spring in the Southern Hemisphere can only mean one thing: Time for the annual visit of the Ozone Hole.
"It happens like clockwork," said an excited Bruno Carli, an Italian scientist who leads an international team studying the phenomenon.
The Ozone Hole, an ozone-short area of the upper atmosphere that lets the sun's ultraviolet rays come through unfiltered, generally hangs above Antarctica. But for three or four days a year it shifts positions and hovers over Tierra del Fuego.
Carli, who wants to monitor the occurrence, stood next to an old Russian spy plane parked in an insulated hanger at the airport here in Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, more than 1,400 miles south of Buenos Aires. The plane has been retrofitted with new ozone-monitoring sensors for the two-month research project. The Russian pilot wears a space suit in flight to protect him from ultraviolet radiation.
"The sun isn't bright enough down here on the ground to pose a real health hazard," Carli said. "Still, if I were walking out in a field for a while, I'd probably put on some sunglasses and a hat. In the fields, imported sheep that aren't used to the effect have been known to go blind."
On Tierra del Fuego, whose snow-capped peaks, rolling plains and shores of crystalline waters are divided between Argentina and Chile, the various plagues are causing a ruckus. Here on the Argentine side of the border, where the last pure descendants of Ushuaia's indigenous people died last year, the pride of the island is guarded by 100,000 stout-hearted settlers. And with all the calamities befalling their island lately, they are getting a little sensitive.
"We know we're at the bottom of the world, but we don't want to be known as the backside of the world!" said an angry Susana Sosa, 34, a Tierra del Fuego schoolteacher. "This is a tranquil, wonderful place, and we'd like to keep it undisturbed."
It is a little late to hang out the "Do Not Disturb" sign now. Hordes of Argentine and foreign journalists have descended on the sleepy villages here, writing stories the tourism board would rather forget. First there were the trials of embezzling politicians and alleged gross mismanagement that have put Tierra del Fuego $400 million in debt--an amount equal to its annual budget. Striking teachers who had not been paid for two months closed down schools; angry health workers joined in and shut down the province's only public hospital.
Then came a voice from above--Argentine President Carlos Menem. He telephoned the governor here while the governor was busy testifying in the corruption trial of his former education minister. Menem begged him to take a little problem off his hands: the Paraguayan general, allegedly an old friend of Menem's, who was granted asylum in Buenos Aires after being accused of plotting the Paraguayan vice president's assassination in March.
Since then, Gen. Lino Oviedo, 56, hired Argentina's most famous plastic surgeon for a face lift and hair transplant. And last month, he violated the conditions of his exile with an interview in which he said he wanted to be president of Paraguay. Diplomatic relations with neighboring Paraguay were sinking fast. So Menem asked the governor to be so nice as to accept the general's presence at the bottom of the world.
And there was the incentive. "Suddenly, there appeared a $20 million loan from the federal government to help the governor pay back salaries," said Alberto Secco, a local political commentator. "Everybody denied it was an exchange--the general for the money--but it was obvious to everyone. Oviedo arrived. The salaries were paid. The strikes stopped."
In Tolhuin, a tiny village 15 miles from the sheep ranch where Oviedo is guarded by a squad of crack troops, people have mixed feelings about their new neighbor. Oviedo did not want to come. In fact, he had his plastic surgeon write a letter saying the cold would damage his still-tender face and head. It did not work, but Oviedo might not stay long anyway. After he once again proclaimed his desire to be president of Paraguay in interviews at the local bakery, Argentine authorities launched talks with Panama, Venezuela and Germany to take him off their hands.
Lurking a few hundred miles off the coast of Ushuaia's Beagle Channel is another unwelcome visitor: the iceberg formerly known as B-10. When it split in two back in 1995, the larger part, which got caught up in currents that brought it southeast of Cape Horn, was renamed B-10A. This block of ice 42 miles long and 11.5 miles wide has caused the National Ice Center in Silver Spring to issue a shipping warning. Tourism authorities here say cruise ships sailing to Antarctica are being extra careful to avoid it--and the more dangerous smaller icebergs it is calving daily.
But Titanic 2000 is the least of the worries on terra firma, where hordes of Canadian beavers see this woody island as one big smorgasbord. Brought in 1947 to create a hunting and fur trade, the original 25 pairs have now multiplied to 50,000, devastating trees. Last November, environmental authorities spent $48,000 on Canadian beaver traps, passing them out to local hunters and ranchers. "Or, they can just shoot them with rifles if they like," said Gustavo Matteazzi, trying to impress a foreign journalist with the softness and marketability of two large beaver pelts on his conference table. "If we had the manpower, we'd exterminate them all."
CAPTION: British air force officers get aerial view of the iceberg--42 miles long and 11.5 miles wide--hovering off Cape Horn.