Author: Geoff Lemon
The first half of this interview can be found here.
Landbø is one of those people who makes you want to know her better. Small and neat, she exudes energy and is quick to laugh. She seems to fit in here. Our conversation is interspersed by jokes and chatter as her flatmate and assorted helpers pass back and forth through the apartment. The whole thing is entertaining, switching into Spanish to search for truant words, and the occasional lapse into charades, along the lines of:
“I always feel in Switzerland that the people have, like…how you say… the thing that you… [mimes sweeping].
“The broom! That they have…the long part of the broom…they have it in their ass.”
“How about we use the word ‘uptight’?” I suggest.
The differences between Europe and Buenos Aires, so heavily European and yet so clearly not, are a recurring theme. Argentina was made by waves of European immigrants – from Spain, Italy, Germany – and the differences between the modern incarnations of these countries are as compelling as the similarities. A comparison with Australia is also fascinating (at least for history geeks like me) – the two countries were founded around the same time, were colonised in a similar fashion, developed as nations far distant from civilisation as it then was, and have always had the same vast range of climates and ecosystems, expanses of land, and wealth of natural resources. So it’s intriguing to look at how the paths of the two diverged so drastically from such similar beginnings. Argentina is ramshackle, at times barely functional, and bursting with character; Australia is stable, content, and legislating enjoyment out of existence because someone might get hurt.
As Landbø’s sweeping-implement analogy suggests, she sees a similar difference between Argentina and her own birthplace. “The possibilities you have here, I feel free. If I have an idea right now, I can do it. There are not rules to stop me. In Switzerland…say you think today, you want to go horseriding. Forget it. First you need to get a licence. Maybe someone could lead you around on a rope. Here, I could do it right now, no problem. It’s the opposite to Switzerland. Your grandmother is not in charge here. Here the teenagers are in charge. I arrived here and thought, huh, the people are really more crazy than me. I’m not that crazy! The Swiss were so quiet. I wanted them to scream just once. But here everyone can scream. Yes, Switzerland is uptight. Here I can breathe.”
Naturally enough, the unregulated nature of the way things operate isn’t always a boon. Landbø recalls her time as a new arrival, taking an 18-hour bus ride to the distant province of Tucuman for an interview only to be blithely told that no, her subject is in another province today. This sort of thing is pretty much par for the course. “That’s the way it works here, everything is so slow. But eventually, you know it’s like that. And those things happen more when you do your first big stories. But when you start to know people it works better. You need your network. There are a lot of people here who are really fast, really intelligent, really good workers.”
Landbø writes for papers in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, filing stories for an agency during part of her day and then doing freelance work for interested outlets. “My main areas are politics, social issues, and I like also the absurd. We have so many absurd stories here.” I still can’t decide between the sixty grand in the toilet or the invention of Bolivian Coca-Colla. But Landbø has another corker. “They’re doing a test in the university in Buenos Aires, and they’re collecting the farts from cows. It’s already known that cows are farting a lot, and it makes a lot of the pollution. So they want to study this, and what they’re doing now is collecting the farts. How are they collecting the farts? Like this.”
There’s also no shortage of social issues to report on. Making big news in Argentina at the moment is the drug paco, essentially a waste product from cocaine production. Paco is the villain of the week across Argentina media for being hugely addictive and destructive, though as with most drug scares it’s hard to gauge how much is media beat-up. Another huge story in the last few weeks has been the legislative battle over gay marriage. “A judge said in December that it was legal, so some couples married. Then another judge said that it’s illegal. It’s a farce, it’s like a game now.” [Since our conversation the matter has gone to the national parliament, who narrowly voted in favour, but the bill is yet to gain Senate approval.] It makes good reportage for Landbø. “I like connecting the political and social things. Another topic is the kidnapping of women in Argentina, for prostitution. And here it’s good to tie in what the government is doing, what the parliament is doing. I like it when you are really getting behind something.”
Yes, but investigative reporting in Latin America is a dicey proposition. Eight journalists were kidnapped in the space of two weeks in Mexico earlier this year, and seven were killed in Honduras in the month of March alone. While Argentina is not in this league, explains Landbø, care still needs to be taken. “Yes, journalists have died here. The reporting we do for agencies is not dangerous, because we just report what’s going on, what’s already been written in the papers here. Most of the foreign journalists just repeat stories. But if I’m looking into paco or the military, that’s reportage, that’s different. Reporting on corruption can be risky too. In Latin America, it’s dangerous. But it really depends where you are going, what you are asking, who you are asking, and how careful you are.” When asked whether reporting for more distant foreign press is less risky than for Argentine media, her reply is unequivocal. “The point is not where the information is going. The point is that the journalist is asking something. That’s the problem. And sometimes there are more questions coming from foreign media. Maybe if you’re just staying two days in the city, you can ask some more questions you wouldn’t normally ask.”
Argentina’s military dictatorship is a particularly risky subject. Tens of thousands of Argentines were ‘disappeared’ and many more imprisoned and torture by the regime in 1970s and 80s, in what Argentines lament as ‘the Dirty War’. When the regime ended, an amnesty was put in place exempting anyone involved from prosecution. Until 2003, that is, when President Nestor Kirchner made the brave move of overturning the amnesty. Now that conviction is a possibility, those who were involved are extremely wary of investigation, and the situation has led to further outrages. “You have witnesses who really want to talk, but you have some who have been kidnapped and disappeared. One was killed two or three weeks ago. There are others who supposedly killed themselves, though no-one believes it. So now, especially, if you’re a journalist who writes about this subject, you must be careful. You just have to be…it’s not Europe. You can’t go and say ‘Did you kill three people?’ They’re still free, a lot of the ex-military, the police are not so strict, and maybe if you bribe the police it’s possible to never be arrested. So if a journalist comes to ask you questions…”
Landbø has had her own run-ins with the subject. “Three years ago I investigated the military dictatorship, and I had a situation where somebody threatened to kill me, because I knew too much. I had interviewed him several times. And after some beers he would tell me a little bit more and a little bit more. And eventually he told me something he wouldn’t have wanted to tell, but he did. The next day he realised. And for him it’s dangerous, because it’s possible that if I talk, the police will take him and he will be charged.” She remains guarded about going into to any detail, and one reasonably imagines that the threat is genuine.
The dictatorship isn’t the only thing to be careful of. “My first boss here had been the ex-Minister for Economy during the military dictatorship, and people had tried to kill him. So he gave me some warnings on how to be careful. I had colleagues who would say ‘How strange,’ because really they would just repeat stories, never investigate. These days most of the foreign journalists repeat, but there are some from Argentina who will investigate more. And there are dead journalists. And there are some topics that never really get investigated. The most dangerous thing is the drugs, the criminal element involved in drugs. The drugs are a mafia, the politics are a mafia, the women are a mafia…it’s all business here. Because you don’t have a lot of rules, or a lot of enforcement. So the markets are really working well. There’s a lot of money in the game.
“It’s really different to Europe. You’re never going to die there. Here it’s possible. Because the judges are criminals, some of them; the politicians can be criminals. When I came here I didn’t believe it, I’m always sceptical, it’s easy to say the judges are criminals. But it’s really like that. If someone is charged, they can pay enough money and be let go. It’s a lot of money for the judge…not everybody, but it’s not uncommon. In the beginning you don’t believe it if you come from a country like Switzerland, you think it’s not possible, but it’s possible here.”
And yet, as noted earlier, even these unnerving comparisons with her home country leave Landbø with no regrets about making the move south. To the contrary. “It sounds a little bit strange, but it’s like I knew that that’s my country, before I came here. I’d never been here. But everything. Books, films, the people I met from Argentina. One piece after another piece. And really I knew, that’s my country. Before I arrived here I knew that I would look for a job, that I wanted to write, I wanted to live here. I’m really in love with Buenos Aires, I’m really in love with Argentina. And it hasn’t stopped. That’s something strange. Often people stay a year and then go to some new place. But I’m still in love with Buenos Aires, after four years, still.”