Carlos Escudé: ingenioso hidalgo* of Latin America

(* Cervantes’ term for Don Quijote: ‘ingenious gentleman’, implying both witty and original thinking.)

By Robin Wallis

Our friend, supporter and contributor Carlos Escudé died of Covid-19-related illness on 1 January, three months after the virus had also claimed his wife and staunchest ally Mónica La Madrid.  Que en paz descansen.

Carlos’ remains now lie in the family tomb in Recoleta cemetery, the spectacular walled necropolis in the heart of Buenos Aires.  He and Mónica showed me round in 2015, accompanied by my retinue of visiting UK students. On reaching his ancestral resting place he ushered us in, down the spiral stone staircase, past his parental caskets to the echoing subterranean crypt, where, to the astonishment of his unnerved guests, he produced trays of triples (sandwiches) by way of lunch.

Recoleta cemetery – with its Italian sculptures and panoply of European surnames engraved in stone – is a suitably cosmopolitan resting place for a scholar among whose many enthusiasms ‘globalisation’ featured large.  Carlos saw our times as only the latest variant of global connectedness. 

As if to prove the point, he carried with him on a chain a 1554 shilling showing the profiles of both the Spanish king and the British queen.  His home was a storehouse of pre-Colombian antiquities from across South America. 

He and Monica recently took a genealogy test which showed, to Carlos’ delight, that despite their outwardly European appearance, they both had a chunk of indigenous American ancestry. A vast poster on his study wall traced his European family tree back over 500 years: he found particular amusement in pointing out the more insalubrious couplings to which he owed his existence, invariably involving priests. 

Carlos was a natural extrovert who made a trademark of his appearance, with the startling beard and round spectacles. This was accompanied by a stentorian voice and cavernous laugh.  His accent was  porteño in Spanish and Bostonian in English, reflecting his upbringing in the US, though with an added dash of Britishness from a fondly remembered stint at St Anthony’s, Oxford.  He could put the voice to great effect, whether talking over an interviewer’s untimely questions on television, singing at the top of his voice to unnerve a would-be mugger or, on top of a beacon hill in Berkshire on the night of the Queen’s silver jubilee, leading the coy British citizenry there assembled in a rendition of God Save The Queen.

His quieter foibles included working in the bath and passing time in the cafés of Buenos Aires, which, he stated, were the reason he could never permanently relocate away from the city of his birth.  Staying in Buenos Aires was not always the easy option: many intellectuals of his generation fell victim to the military junta’s ‘dirty war’, and even in later years Carlos had to be conscious of his security.  This was partly because he was an incorrigible polemicist: for example, in the post-Falklands War environment of the 1980s, with the new civilian government as bad-tempered about the outcome and as insistent on Argentina’s rights over the islands as its military predecessor, Carlos published a paper called Argentine Territorial Nationalism, in which he attributed the population’s support for Argentina’s Falklands claim in part to systematic indoctrination through the educational system; and further, that such indoctrination was a phenomenon of continental proportions, given that each Latin American school system produced text books detailing ways in which its neighbours had violated historical borders and usurped swathes of its territory.  This was a brave position to take, given that a few years earlier intellectuals who had challenged the nationalist/military line on sensitive topics were ‘disappearing’.

In academic terms, the contribution for which Carlos will be most widely remembered is his theory of peripheral realism.  In brief, he argued that a state on the periphery of world affairs – such as Argentina, or any other Spanish American nation – should avoid unnecessary conflict or competition with the powerful states of the centre.  The context here is Argentina’s long tradition of petulance towards the United States: in Carlos’ view, this achieved nothing other than self-gratification for the Argentine elite.  He saw this as counter-productive and even immoral, because it undermined the relationship with the centre that, if working well, could generate economic and commercial benefits and thus help more Argentines out of poverty. 

Post-Falklands War policy towards the UK also fell into this category.  When, in 1989, the incoming Menem administration realised that Argentina’s ‘cold war’ with the UK was blocking its access to a trade deal with the European Union, Menem quickly reached an accord with the British government to place the Falklands/Malvinas issue under a ‘sovereignty umbrella’ and re-establish otherwise normal relations.  In 1991 Carlos’ friend Guido di Tella became Foreign Minster and swiftly appointed him as his special adviser.  Guided by the principles of peripheral realism, the two steered Argentina into what di Tella jokingly called ‘carnal relations’ with the United States – a cooperative approach that attracted US investment and IMF support.  On the Falklands/Malvinas issue Carlos devised a plan whereby the UK might retain sovereignty over the islands while sharing with Argentina control over the surrounding ocean, though this never became official government policy. 

Carlos was not a natural ‘man from the ministry’.  A year or two into the job he gave an interview in which he made a convoluted joke comparing Argentine diplomats to prostitutes.  He couldn’t understand the fuss and had to resign. 

Nonetheless, he was now at the top of his game academically, publishing prolifically and in demand on the international lecture circuit.  His academic honours were legion: a doctorate from Yale, professorship at the Universidad Católica Argentina and the Universidad de Belgrano, Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, visiting lectureships at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and St. Anthony´s College, Oxford, among other posts and distinctions. Trent University in Canada called him ‘the most distinguished political theorist in Latin America’.  His tendency to mirth and taste for outrage discomforted those averse to ‘unpredictability’, but none questioned the originality of his insights: for example, in the February 2019 edition of this Bulletin, he put forward the formation of a United Kingdom of Spain and Catalunya to resolve the Catalan crisis.

With Carlos there was always some new adventure around the corner.  In 2007/8 he publicly converted to Judaism, keeping his friends fully informed of the procedures – doctrinal and surgical – that this entailed.  Restyling himself Najman Carlos after a 13th century Catalan scholar, he wrote a book called Por qué soy judío, explaining that he was motivated in part to make symbolic reparation for the ‘ancestors of all Spaniards and descendants of current Spaniards who were forced to convert to Christianity under penalty of exile or the stake.’

In the end the implacably global Covid-19 brought to an end his starred existence.  Perhaps that was a more fitting cause of death than a more parochial affliction, though just as regrettable to those left behind.  The only consolation is that he had the misfortune to suffer from a number of debilitating medical conditions and did not relish the prospect of old age.     

However, he did not go quietly.  In August 2020 he stood on the pavement outside his flat banging a saucepan in protest against the mayor’s plan that the over-70s should need a permit to leave their homes, declaring that he would prefer death to such restrictions.  In April 2020 he had published in La Nación a typically tongue-in-cheek and subversive article entitled El jardín de las delicias: reflexiones sobre un diluvio redivivo (‘The garden of delights: reflections on a second Flood’), an extract from which we offer below, first in the original Spanish, then in English.  If it feels uncomfortable that its author was soon to fall prey to the virus depicted in this text, fear not: uncomfortable irony was Carlos’ natural habitat, and sharing his message is our best way to remember him.  


“Gracias al coronavirus, ha comenzado una nueva era. Es la primera vez en la historia mundial que el interés común de toda la especie se presenta tangible e incontrovertible. Si se profundiza, destruirá el poder de persuasión de las filosofías del egoísmo. ¡Y se lo deberemos al Ángel Exterminador!

Si no aprendemos, nos mereceremos la extinción. Dios sea loado, y también su Arcángel Virósico, que por mandato de Dios Padre quizá salve a la Humanidad de sí misma. 

Así terminan las vidas de quienes parecían destinados al lujo permanente. El coronavirus nos ha democratizado. ¿Para qué sirve el dinero si no puedo viajar, ni comprar caviar, ni lucir refinadas prendas en la platea del Palacio Garnier? Ya no hay sastrerías. Nadie puede comprarse un traje.

Siempre lo debimos saber, pero no lo registramos. La muerte siempre democratizó. Ahora se globaliza y el mensaje es más claro.

Nuestra Peste es el Diluvio Universal redivivo, capítulo 7 del Libro del Génesis, Biblia judeocristiana. Hoy su igualitaria sombra se pasea por Buenos Aires. Sea bienvenida.”

“Thanks to the Coronavirus a new era has begun.  This is the first time in history that the common interest of the whole species is there for all to see, tangible and incontrovertible.  If it extends its reach, it will destroy the persuasive power of the cults of self-interest.  And we will owe that to the Angel of Doom!

If we do not learn, we will deserve extinction.  Praise be to God, and also his Virulent Archangel, who at the behest of God the Father is perhaps saving humanity from itself. 

The lives of those who seemed destined to enjoy boundless luxuries are now coming to an end.  The Coronavirus has democratised us.  What use is money if I can’t travel or buy caviar or show off fancy outfits at the Garnier Palace opera house in Paris?  There are no designers left.  No one can even buy a suit. 

We should have known it, but we weren’t able to take it in.  Death always democratised.  Now it globalises, and the message is clearer.

Our Plague is the Universal Flood of Genesis chapter 7.  Today its egalitarian shadow passes through Buenos Aires.  Let it be welcome!”