Argentinian Diary – Calm before the storm

Show of force

Show of force

Argentinian Diary – Day 7 – Part 1

The calm before the storm

Instead of getting a wake up call by the repeated word ‘Cambio’ from the money changers in the street below Friday 30th November provided a novel method a low flying helicopter. It was evident for the best part of an hour and I thought the sound might be with us all day. But before 08.00 it had gone out of sight. Perhaps being used to see how their tactics would work on the ground later in the day.

When I eventually got out on to the street it was amazing how quiet it was. As I walked around I realised that transport – although drastically reduced – was functioning in a limited manner. But no one could have been sure of that and really only those that had to travel did so. Even the airport bus was coming into its normal bus station – although on a slightly different route. Why someone couldn’t have told me that when I went to ask is a route I won’t go down.

However, that is merely academic now, although important for those arriving at the airport and unaware of the situation. But once the march starts later this afternoon I’m sure that all transport will keep as far away from the centre as possible, including into the late evening.

I was also surprised to see that a few shops, kiosks, fast food outlets and even a couple of supermarkets had opened – and plan to be open all day. However, even those places that are open have the steel shutters ready to come down if all of a sudden there’s an angry crowd coming down their street. One of the supermarkets was even in the process of removing all alcohol from the shelves although another one just around the corner was happy to sell me some wine – I had gone in their for emergency rations as I don’t know how matters will develop later today.

When it comes to the matter of alcohol I somewhat surprised that the police haven’t put a ban on the selling of any beer and the rest. Most places, basically restaurants, in the centre that sell alcohol are shut and will remain so for the next couple of days. So the only place to get a beer is from the supermarkets in the narrow side streets.

As for the police presence it is overwhelming. There are supposed to be 20,000 police here ‘to maintain order’. There is a huge congregation of buses, vans and cars of the Gendarmeria in the wide avenue, 9 de Julio, in the area net to the Obelisk. The authorities have restricted various access routes from the avenue so I’m not exactly sure what their plan might be when the march starts. Obviously their aim is containment but it’s impossible to see what it is when you can’t get an overall view of the situation. Small drones with a camera and someone with a map could probably get an idea of the police’s potential strategy.

Apart from the concentration by the Obelisk the main presence of the police is a couple of them just walking back and forth along some of the small side roads. I presume they are there to be able to give warning of any build-up of protesters and to give early warning to their control. They are in too small a number to be effective alone.

All the partially blocked streets are quiet at the moment, with no police presence at all. That will obviously change as the day wears on. What the marches will have to be wary of is any attempt at ‘kettling’. I can definitely see places where the march could actually do the police’s job for them, thinking they are getting through only to find an impassable wall. The temperatures are rising and being caught in such a situation would be worse than unpleasant.

A police convoy passed by one junction where I was standing earlier and when it saw people sounded all their sirens. I don’t think there was any need for that – but these noises can be heard from a long way off so are another part of the psychological warfare that will be going on throughout the day.

I went to the Casa Rosada and Plaza de Mayo this morning and there was no difference from what it had been yesterday afternoon. Extra protection is probably not really needed there as already the grounds have quite a substantial metal-fenced perimeter. Nothing is unbreakable but it would take some effort.

It was also clear that there is very substantial extra fencing in the area of the Teatro Colon. To my understanding that will be the location of the end of summit Gala on Saturday night.

Off for a rest now. It could be a long afternoon.

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Argentinian Diary – Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

The no-go area

The no-go area

Argentinian Diary – Day 6

Locking the city down for the G-20, 2018

The work to exclude the vast majority of the population of Buenos Aires from a sizeable chunk of the city centre began during the night, with the barriers being partially installed along the whole length of the perimeter. A certain amount of movement was being allowed on the Thursday but in such a way that people would soon get the message that it wasn’t worth the effort. This first tranche of lock-down has made ‘my bar’ out of bounds for at least the next three evenings – things will start to be relaxed as Sunday wears on.

Many shops and businesses were closed as the sheer effort of getting into town and then back out later in the day wasn’t worth it. Those who could choose decided to have a longer than normal weekend. The fact that the buses, on those lines that were still running on Thursday, were also going to finish early meant that by mid-afternoon the city was quieter than it was on a Sunday.

Preparation for the G-20, 2018, in Buenos Aires

Preparation for the G-20, 2018, in Buenos Aires

As shops and restaurants start to close the definition of the no-go area will be complete and riot police will be in attendance every second of the day and night until some time on Sunday morning, when all those who have caused such disruption are long out of the country.

How long it will take for the city to get back to normal will depend upon the willingness of the authorities to take down the barriers as quickly as they were installed. They won’t be going into storage and they will be ready for any disturbances in the future. Hard times are definitely in store for many Argentinians and, hopefully, they will start to stand up against he ‘adjust brutal’ demanded by the International Monetary Fund.

I’ll be going to look at the results in the morning. There are two barriers within about 5 blocks both to the east and the west from where I’m writing this. Transport difficulties (which on Friday and Saturday will be compounded by the fact that the underground system will also be out of action) means the streets will be very quiet.

There’s a demonstration planned to start at 15.00 on Friday and will be meeting up a long way from where anything will be happening during the day so don’t have a clue how matters will pan out. If people plan to try to break through the cordon it means they will only really have managed to get a block or two closer to any goal as there are cordons within cordons and then any buildings will have their own, immediate ‘protection’.

The cost of this must be huge but haven’t seen any figures of how much and who will be paying, the city or the national coffers. As things are so bad economically perhaps the Argentinian President will be passing the hat around at the gala planed for Saturday night.

Madres of the Plaza de Mayo

Since 30th April 1977 mothers of those Communists, trade unionists and other social militants who were abducted and murdered by agents of the military dictatorship walked around the monument in the centre of the Plaza de Mayo, next to the government building known as the Casa Rosada. It was a Thursday and the time was 15.30.

On Thursday 29th November 2018 they did so for the 2120th time – without interruption.

There was a fear that the preparations for the G-20 Summit due to start on Friday 30th November (described above) might have caused that unbroken series by the blocking off of the square as it is in part of the no-go area. In order that such a situation could be forestalled a number of the women from the organisation, together with supporters and various members of the international media, arrived before midday and installed themselves in the centre of the square. They reasoned, accurately I would have thought, that the Argentine government would not like to have images of women in their 80s and 90s being dragged off by heavily armed riot police.

The stupidity of governments can never be overestimated but there was no move to prevent the traditional even from taking place and I saw no obvious police presence at the time. What might have happened since I’ll discover on my walkabout tomorrow morning.

More than 30,000 men and women were ‘disappeared’ by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. They were abducted by agents of the fascists, more often than not tortured (for no other reason than because they could be), murdered and their bodies disposed of in unmarked graves in the countryside or just thrown from helicopters into the Atlantic ocean.

Although more than 40 years have passed there are still many parents and family members who know nothing about the whereabouts of their children’s remains. And justice is as far from being given these murdered champions of the working class now as it was then. The killing goes on. As I wrote about the demonstration in the centre of Buenos Aires on Monday 26th November, two militants have been killed by the police in the last week.

The symbol of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

The symbol of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Anyone who goes to the square today can see white scarves, the symbol the women adopted from the very start of their campaign, painted in the circle they walk each Thursday.

Due to the proximity of the G-20 and the threat that the women (and their supporters) might have been prevented making the traditional circuit of the square I don’t know if what happened on Thursday 29th November was the norm – but I don’t think the process would have been much different. The Press Conference wouldn’t have taken place but the procession, I’m sure, has established its format over the years.

What happened was that a small group (just after 15.30), with the old women in the front, holding a banner from the top edge in front of them, walked slowly around the square (probably getting slower each passing year) and someone read out a list of names. Once the name was announced the crowd would shout ‘Presente!’ in the idea that even though no longer alive they were forever in the memories of those who knew them. I didn’t count but they must have walked around the square close to ten times. As was the tradition from the start there were copies of photos of those who were abducted and murdered either pinned to their clothes or held up as placards.

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Then the women from the leadership of the organisation, who had arrived at midday and had spent the time under a temporary bodega (to protect them from the sun but on that Thursday it rained in the early afternoon but, fortunately, it had stopped by the time the clock struck the half hour past three) stood up so there were now two groups walking around the monument in the centre of the square. They didn’t read out names – but did carry photos of those ‘disappeared’ – but sang songs and from time to time started anti-government, workers solidarity chants.

This went on for about half an hour when the press conference took place. (This can be listened to on the official website of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.)

There’s no shadow of a doubt that this is a very emotional occasion. The determination and steadfastness of these women has to be admired. As has their development of the organisation that is not only seeking justice for their dead children but expanding into one that fights for social justice in present day Argentina – when so-called ‘democracy’ has changed little for the better for the workers.

However positive their struggle and the lessons it has provided for movements around the world there is still a problem with (what I consider) a lack of understanding of the society in which we all live.

My knowledge of Argentinian politics and history has never been that good and it will take me some time to get up to date. That means that some of the statements made and slogans chanted in the press conference were lost to me – I’ve gotten out of the habit of understanding how Latin Americans refer to their political leaders.

If I understood matters at all, after all that the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo have suffered during the period of the military dictatorship and through the different governments since they are still peddling the idea of parliamentary cretinism, supporting some leaders because others are worse. I don’t know if there is potential in Argentina for a radical change but if aggrieved mothers haven’t got justice in 40 years I think it is time they looked for a more radical and revolutionary change in their society.

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Argentinian Diary – Street art in La Boca

Smashing the State

Smashing the State

Argentinian Diary – Day 5

La Boca – street art

La Boca was, and probably still is, the most important dock area of Buenos Aries but as in other port cities the introduction of containerisation has had such a negative impact upon the labour force that the area has lost what had made it special in the first place, its sense of solidarity, community and a uniqueness which comes from being outside the ‘sophisticated elite’ that dominated the centre of the city as it expanded from the centre the areas of Palermo and Belgrano.

The fame of the Boca Juniors Football Club, involved in the ‘incidente’ of last Saturday yet still based in the area in which it was established, and the multi-coloured houses has turned La Boca into a couple of hours’ tourist destination which benefits a few but bears no relationship to the real lives of the people who live there.

The very small area with the multi-coloured, painted houses offers nothing of authenticity but merely an opportunity to make money out of tourists who can say they have entered the ‘badlands’. Poor working class areas exist throughout the world, to go any further than these few streets is no more nor less than an example of poverty porn – which might produce unwanted experiences for the unwary tourist.

Despite the tacky souvenir shops, the young women with skirts split to the waist who try to entice men in a sexy, provocative tango embrace for a photo opportunity, the singers of Gardel ballads who ‘entertain’ diners in the restaurants that take over the streets there is still a reason to visit this part of Buenos Aires.

One little street in particular, Caminito (de Juan de Dios Filiberto) is worth walking along for its examples of street art, some of which date back to the 1920’s. Many of these represent the people who lived there, where they worked and what they did as entertainment. You get the impression that anything new is there for effect rather that a true representation of the community, this small area being really taken over for tourist fleecing. I doubt if many dockers and their families live in these houses any more.

Some of the sculptures, bas reliefs, mosaics are not the best examples of their kind but some are quite charming. There is a series of stone bas reliefs that depict the different tasks undertaken in the past by those related to the docks which wouldn’t be out of place in post-Socialist societies. Figurative art under capitalism can celebrate workers but has no message or purpose other than representation.

However, there are two murals, relatively recent, that seek to remind the viewer of what happened under the military dictatorship of the 1970s and what is euphemistically referred to as the ‘disappeared’.

Craftmanship is culture

Craftmanship is culture

One is on the wall beside the official monument to the Argentine struggle for independence from the Spanish.

This is not treated with the respect it deserves, a movable street barrier and framing from one of the street stalls resting against it – which can’t do the paint work a lot of good. I can’t really understand its full message.

It’s painted around one of the series of bas reliefs mentioned above – this one is of a blacksmith. Incorporated into the mural is a white board, on which (in black letters) is a list of fourteen names and the dates they were last seen. These names are under the heading of left-wing militants, from La Boca, who were murdered by the military between 1976 and 1979. However, there were more than 30,000 so-called ‘disappeared’ throughout the period of the military dictatorship and this number seems surprisingly low for a predominantly working class neighbourhood. An interesting aspect of this board is that 1976 is the start date for State sponsored murder but the end date is 2018. From what I wrote about the demonstration last Monday it is clear that even under a so-called ‘democratic’ government workers representatives are being routinely murdered.

Neither do I understand the imagery. The words, ‘Artesania es Cultura, Cultura es Indentidad’ (Craftmanship/handicraft is culture, culture is identity) I can accept but I’m not sure how that fits in with the only other words in the mural, ‘Memoria, Verdad, Justicia’ (Memory, Truth, Justice).

On the right hand side there’s what I assume is a mother and her female child, both of them have a scarf over their mouths. The woman holds a hammer above her head in her right hand and her left arm is wrapped around the child (in a protective manner) and that hand holds a banner with the words about culture and identity.

To the left of this pair is another female figure, who is singer the words memory, truth and justice whilst banging a tambourine.

On the right hand side there’s a couple dancing the tango – probably the image which is most used to represent Buenos Aires – in front of the skyline of La Boca with its wooden buildings. But the largest part of this section is taken up with the image of a male figure, head thrown back, screaming. In his right hand he holds a large paint brush and his left hand is holding the other end of the banner.

30,000 reasons why we shouldn't forget

30,000 reasons why we shouldn’t forget

There’s another, larger mural dedicated to the ‘disappeared’ at the top end of the square which is at the end of the Caminito. This is much larger and also much more angry in its images. It shares stylistic similarities to the smaller mural so might well be by the same painter – I didn’t see and signature. It is also quite recent and has suffered from a certain amount of ignorant graffiti.

This mural consists of a number of faces with names attached, being militants from La Boca who were murdered in the 1970 – and possibly to date.

On the right of the mural there’s an image of a woman naked from the waist up. In fact the majority of the images are of women, the largest of whom is really angry and whilst motioning to the viewer to join in the struggle with her left arm stretched back behind her her right fist is smashing into the Sun of May, the symbol which is in the centre of the official Argentinian flag.

But this sun is not beneficial, the warming rays depicted on the flag being replaced by vicious and sharp spikes which harm the people.

The pre-G-20 Summit

I don’t know, and care even less, about how this meeting is being reported in the UK. Yesterday morning on a Argentinian TV station they itemised what some of these leaders of ‘the free world’ were bringing with them.

Not surprisingly Trump was arriving with half a battalion of thugs and an armoured car (called ‘The Beast’ – and which arrived on a military aircraft some time during Wednesday). Obviously he will never travel in it, why advertise his location when it could be a target? He will be travelling in a Ford Fiesta, until he needs the photo call.

Putin and Merkel, if I got it right, are staying in the same luxury hotel – if not the same then very close to each other. Putin is bringing his own cook (presumably a food taster as well – if you can’t trust the cook then you need someone else to be the fall guy if your trusted cook can’t be trusted) plus his own team of snipers.

I can’t tell you what the British Prime Minister is demanding (apart from a walk in fields of gold) as Argentine TV didn’t think the UK was worth mentioning – even though they did mention Macron, from France, who wants, it seems, vegetarian food. Really getting into the culture in a country which survives on the slaughter of millions of animals each year.

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