November 30th, 2010

This is Argentina Crying

Posted in Latin America, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

“Everything you foreigners know about Argentina,” the older gentleman asserted, “you know from that Madonna movie.” We’re standing in Palermo Viejo, a trendy neighborhood miles away from the buildings and blocks that pencil in postcard Buenos Aires. If his statement — referencing Evita, the 1996 musical melodrama about Argentina’s most charismatic first lady — were true, outsiders would be thrown by what they found here. There’s little of the country’s trademark tango of mournful melancholy and testy protest politics present among Palermo’s buzzing bars and chic shops. This is not an Argentina that Evita would have ever had to ask to stop crying.

But Palermo is an asterisk on Buenos Aires’ cultural and political map. Elsewhere, BA is a city of brooding memory: the names of generals and battles overwhelm its street signs and the friezes of its major edifices. There’s even a “Parque de la Memoria” in the city’s far north, devoted to the victims of Argentina’s dictatorial Dirty War.

Natives to such history-saturated soil eagerly invoked Evita and her husband, Juan Peron, when the Kirchners (Nestor and Cristina), came to power in 2003 — each eventually taking a turn as president. The parallels went well beyond their power couple personas. Nestor’s gutsy decision to stand up to the IMF on Argentina’s unbearable debt burden earned him acclaim for rescuing the country’s finances. Along with later accusations the Kirchners were attempting to consolidate domestic power, the move helped breed deeper comparisons to their autarkic (and somewhat autocratic) predecessors.

The Kirchners, fittingly, slated a dusty lot just downhill from the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, as the future site of a vast, permanent homage to Juan Peron. But however prevalent, Buenos Aires’ paint-spacked, graffiti-covered monuments are a reminder that Argentine politics offer only illusory glory. Power here has been made and unmade on the street. Raucous demonstrations for, against, or barely related to the controversy of the week are common in the Plaza de Mayo, the vast square reaching out from the front of the Casa Rosada — and tend to radiate well beyond.

That made it natural for many to gravitate to the Plaza on October 27, when word spread of Nestor’s untimely death — and the political shakeup it might portend. The resulting outbreak of national mourning begat a see-and-be-seen atmosphere of patriotic celebration, protest action, and all-out street carnival, coming to resemble the country’s passionate soccer matches more than any somber state vigil.

The morning after Nestor’s death, I was returning from Argentina’s north, where — apart from a few lowered flags — there had been little indication of any open public mourning. Surprisingly, I spotted the earliest evidence of public concern on highway sound walls bordering the capital’s wealthiest suburbs, Vicente Lopez and San Isidro — far from expected strongholds of the Peronist left. The fresh paint bore phrases that became common refrains of the mourning period: “Nestor con Peron, Cristinia con el Pueblo” (“Nestor with Peron, Cristina with the people”); “Hasta siempre Nestor. Fuerza Cristina.” (“Nestor forever. Cristina, have strength.”)

In the city center, the latter slogan dominated sidewalk ad stands, part of a poster campaign featuring a touching photo of the presidential couple. The job was claimed by mysterious equipos de difusión (“broadcast teams”), and it seemed as if their goal was to try and turn the mourning process into a political coup. Dissenting vandals seemed to agree. In wealthy Retiro and Recoleta, some of the posters had already been torn, evidence of their commercial predecessors cropping up behind scarred visages of the Kirchners: a sort of apt signal of the circling vultures of right wing recidivism.

But in the blocks surrounding the Plaza de Mayo, there was ample evidence of popular homage afoot. The line to enter the Casa Rosada and view Nestor’s coffin stretched interminably down the Avenida de Mayo, the Hausmannian boulevard that links the Plaza to Congress — and doubled back on itself, swerving into adjacent streets and even reentering the square at one point. Barriers had been erected to try to corral the procession, but it was clear police were playing catch-up with the growing crowd; only toward the end of the day was the line being parted to allow through pedestrian cross-traffic.

Many came not only to mourn. Outside and weaving amid the line of grievers were a type more often seen around the Plaza: protesters. Pressure groups seemed to be using Nestor’s lying-in-state as a means to attract media attention, representing their strength in numbers (and in noise) such that they would not be forgotten in whatever new political constellation emerged from the fallout — Cristina had been expected to hand back the nation’s reins to her husband in the 2011 presidential race, but now, all bets were off.

Their presence seemed strangely natural and fully expected. Banners representing a rainbow of political parties fluttered among the flowers, flags, and mementos already laid out in the square. On TV, anchormen breathlessly announced the arrival of new trade unions within the mourning column as if they were floats in a colorful parade.

My attention eventually turned to one corner of the square, where a sort of vapor wafted above the mixed crowd of mourners and demonstrators. It looked as if tear gas had been fired — an outcome which, given the history of protest in the square, didn’t seem so far fetched. In 2001, during the financial crisis that Nestor Kirchner headed off, demonstrations in the Plaza did turn violent. And in earlier decades, activists had gathered here to face down a much more confrontational military government. It took the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of resolute mothers protesting the disappearance of their sons in the Dirty War, to conclusively shame the generals then holding Argentina’s reins of power.

The country’s ruling junta could not survive the reaction to confrontations with the peaceful, older women: in the wake of the Madres’ steadfastness (especially after Argentina’s disastrous invasion of the Falkland Islands), the government did fold. The group remained active until 2006, when they finally declared confidence in a government — Nestor’s. Today, they’re educating a new cadre of demonstrators at their own university; its classrooms are conveniently close to the Plaza. A series of controversies over some of their less savory political sympathies has not dampened their appeal.

The vapor emanating from one side of the square turned out not to be gas, or even the spray of a water cannon, but smoke. Ad hoc food vendors had descended on the Plaza and had turned it into a giant, open-air parilla, or grill, roasting massive hunks of beef and pig. Other merchants milled amid the crowd, offering cold beer and soda. A dozen port-a-potties lined one side of the square; the authorities had apparently planned for the vast crowd’s digestive needs more effectively than they’d anticipated the length of the line of mourners. Nestor Kirchner’s wake appeared as if it were being tailgated.

Crouching conveniently close to the portable toilets were the square’s literal veterans — former soldiers who had fought to seize the faraway Falklands (or Las Malvinas, as they’re labeled on Argentine maps). On days when the square isn’t besieged with demonstrators, the Malvinas vets’ perpetual protest dominates the expanse, their banners rising over a dozen feet into the Plaza’s palm-studded sky. Yet even amid this commotion, they carried on their encampment, resolute in the knowledge that the circus surrounding them would fade — or, more likely, be swept away by next week’s noise.

The emotional outpouring that accompanied Nestor’s death had itself eclipsed days of controversy surrounding the death of Mariano Ferreya, a young member of an anti-Kirchner party, during a clash with a pro-government union. The outrage was palpable in massive demonstrations and in angry messages scrawled in graffiti across the center of the capital; even the Obelisco, the soaring stone spire that serves as one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, had been defaced. But in the wake of Nestor’s death, all the suspicious and ill-willed missives directed at the government had disappeared. They were not scrubbed away, but supplanted — by Kirchnerist slogans layered thick against the government district’s beaux-arts walls.

The rapid replacement affirmed that politics here lurched from one drama to the next, always bringing out the activists and power blocs that craved the city’s grandest stage. By the night after Nestor’s death, they huddled near the fuchsia floodlights that make the Casa Rosada glow an even more intense version of its trademark pink. An ashen-faced Cristina stood visible on a large video screen that had materialized outside the palace, sunglasses never leaving her face to betray any tears.

Those who filled the square seemed to follow her lead — and Madonna-cum-Evita’s famous words about weeping. Whether manning the barricades or the barbeque, they filled their time with distractions from the actual, dismal purpose of their congregation. The chattering classes, too, opted to get busy, debating whether Cristina had what it took to hold together the coalition forged by her husband. The opposition, when not making their own public spectacles in the square, were surely sharpening their claws.

What was certain was that, however the country negotiated its future, whoever felt left out would return, and make themselves heard — en la calle. “Argentina has not responded well,” the New York Times noted dryly, “when presidents or influential spouses have passed away prematurely.” The Plaza de Mayo is a long way from Palermo, and in its confines, the country’s history — its highs and lows, and especially the turmoil in between — tend to be remembered, invoked, and often, for better or worse, repeated.

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