If most Brazilians knew where I lived I would probably receive death threats for writing this post. Brazilians are very touchy about Argentina and Argentina is very touchy about Brazil.
Touchiness aside, I am a native Argentinian who has been living in Brazil for more than 20 years, so most Brazilians accept my ideas on this subject. I have also recently found myself fantasizing about Argentina for the first time in years. So the natural question I am now asking myself is: Brazil or Argentina?
To put it very bluntly, the main difference between Argentina and Brazil is based on their cultural background and influence. Brazilians look up to the USA while Argentinians prefer Europe. This is, of course, very a very cultural characteristic and mostly due to the influence of settlers, but nothing really explains that fascination Brazilians have with the USA as both countries were colonized by Europeans.
In Brazil, Portuguese people are the targets of bad jokes. No one respects them and both populations are always bickering over language issues and who is better or smarter. Brazilians generally consider the Portuguese slow, inflexible (square) and dull.
Argentina maintains lots of its Italian traditions, without the bad jokes, and is generally proud of its cultural heritage. Their buildings and railways were built by the British and they are truly concerned with their conservation and preservation. Old buildings are maintained and loved even by individuals (not only by organizations that focus on national heritage), without any form of intervention to ensure their protection, while organizations sometimes have to intervene drastically to protect the heritage left by the Europeans that settled in Brazil.
Brazil will never be like the USA because of its background. The USA was targeted by people who were looking for a better life, a chance to start again, while Brazil was colonized by people who wanted to strip it of its most precious resources to take back to their native country. Some sociologists say that the biggest problem of South American countries is the mixing of native Indians with Europeans. I don´t know if that is true, as the distant ancestors of these Indians were banished from the great ancient civilizations in this continent and were considered less than human. I personally think that the USA developed better than its southern neighbours because the intentions of its settlers were a lot more altruistic.
Another huge difference, probably related to this same cultural influence, is the fact that the USA is a country of consumption and the entire economy is founded on this concept. Quality is important, quantity is equally important, so prices are fair. In Brazil, companies focus on price rather than quantity or quality. In fact, good quality is sometimes reduced to cut costs and increase profit, even in small companies. The higher the price, the better, even if you only sell one. This would be unthinkable to a US company. They believe in selling more for less to make more.
The USA opened its doors to free trade to benefit consumers, risking the devaluation of domestic products. North Americans bought Japanese cars for decades and almost destroyed the US car industry, but manufacturers were forced to become more competitive and produce better cars. In Brazil, they wave the banners of free trade to accompany “globalization” but the benefits are for the companies alone, not for the consumer. Brazil does not want its people to buy better and cheaper, it wants them to buy domestic without facing competition from the outside. They build higher walls (usually in the form of tax) to prevent people from truly benefiting from free trade.
I think that the only reason Brazil admires and imitates the US is affinity. North Americans like Brazil and Brazilians like North America because they are similar in many ways. There is nothing more dissimilar than a Brazilian and a European.
Returning to the main topic (I had to cover this to make the rest understandable), Brazil and Argentina are for totally different types of people.
If you like good food (my weak point), cultural richness and individuality, Argentina is for you. If you prefer crowds, simplicity in details, natural exuberance and appreciate a little chaos in your life, Brazil is the best choice. Argentinian people are not characteristically friendly or warm. They can be cordial and they seem to have a greater sense of organization. Things work better in Argentina. The basis is more solid. Education is better and they appreciate art and the aesthetic nature of things.
In Brazil, you will find a collective society that values family (whether they like their family members or not), friends, celebrations and traditions and generally getting together. They are less formal and more carefree than Argentinians.
Argentina, to Brazilians, is synonymous of elegance, formality, classic beauty and quality. Brazil, to Argentinians, is synonymous of fun and festivities, sun and sea, half-naked women, nature and sun tan lotion. The idea Argentinians have of Brazil is obviously less realistic than the idea Brazilians have of Argentina. I was once on a bus travelling from Argentina to Brazil. When the bus crossed the border, some Argentinians sitting near me shrieked, “We´re in Brazil, but…it´s the same… nothing has changed.” I asked them what they expected and they said, “Monkeys, jungle… something exotic”.
Brazil has more diverse natural resources, more richness, while Argentina has less polluted, less exuberant, better “quality” natural resources. They still have the best grass for cattle and purer water sources due to the low population and climate.
Argentina has the corner café with tables on the pavement and people reading the newspaper for hours as they sip an expresso or smoke a cigarette. It has the solitary walkers roaming used book shops, while Brazil has very few bookshops because reading is not a popular pastime and people seldom walk alone in their free time. Argentina has flower kiosks and news-stands in almost every corner, which are extremely rare in Brazil. It has hidden, almost sombre bars selling delightful surprises with groups of two or three chatting silently at each table, while Brazil has the neon, plastic and steel with bright lights, metal chairs scraping on ceramic floors and bustle.
Argentinians have an obsession with perfection. Obesity is the same as cancer. If you are fat, you will be criticized and ill-treated. In Brazil, the obsession is more focused on belongings. People walk up and down beaches delightfully exhibiting their cellulite and protruding tummies but if they have an Honda Civic, a Rolex or a Louis Vuitton handbag, their physical appearance does not matter in the least. On the contrary, the newer the Honda Civic, the better the treatment and the greater the admiration. Argentinians will drive around in the same old car for years but God help them if their waist line is not in its proper place.
The values, the customs and the people are completely different in Argentina and Brazil. An Argentinian would not be caught dead in some of the horrid white-plastic chair and economy light bars that are so popular in my town, while a Brazilian would feel a little uncomfortable or overwhelmed in a typical but classy Argentinian bar. When I worked as a waitress in Buenos Aires, the Brazilian customers would ask for all types of souvenirs to take home, including the menu and the little umbrellas.
Quality and service is valued in Argentina. A good waiter gets a good tip, while in Brazil, no waiters get tips, good or bad. So what´s the point of being a good waiter? Obviously none. I remember once I saw a rich woman get her BMW and keys from the valet at an expensive restaurant without giving him so much as a dime or a nod. We, in our humble parati 1999, gave him 10 reales as they make virtually nothing and offer a great service. Have you ever tried not tipping in the US?
Argentina and Brazil, as with most South American countries, have one thing in common. Extremely low self-esteem when compared to the developed countries. Deep down, they feel they are the jungle of the world, and they are not. Both countries are extremely rich and have huge potential, but their choice of governors and insecurities prevent them from acknowledging the good or correcting the bad. In the case of Argentina, they tend to overindulge in the bad and never consider the good. In Brazil, people do not take criticism well, they complain amongst themselves but seldom do anything about it. Brazil can admire the US, but it should only imitate the good things, not the bad.
I have been living in Brazil for 20+ years and am 40 years old. The things that did not bother me before or did not bother me enough, are bothering me now. I love this country and will always be Brazilian (I opted for Brazilian nationality), but I am suffering from cultural and aesthetic starvation. I am an intellectual person who has stopped reading because there are no bookshops in my town (I like touching books and scanning the pages before I buy), I have stopped shopping because I don´t find the food I long for and haven´t bought anything other than bread in a bakery for years because there is nothing they sell that I want. In Argentina, I go insane in bakeries and bookshops.
Maybe it´s a mid-life crisis, maybe it´s my fading tolerance or adaptability, but this year I am going to give Argentina a(nother) shot.