Argentinian Diary – Anti-cuts meeting and demonstration in La Plata

SUTEBA meeting, La Plata

SUTEBA meeting, La Plata

Argentinian Diary – Anti-cuts meeting and demonstration in La Plata

On Monday 3rd December I was asked if I would like to attend a meeting called by one the Buenos Aires Teachers Unions, SUTEBA (Sindicato Unificado de Trabajadores de la Educación de Buenos Aires), in the city of La Plata – about an hour’s drive from central Buenos Aires and the Legislative centre for the Buenos Aires Province. On that day the legislature was meeting to decide the budget for the coming year.

For anyone who has an interest in the attacks that social and public services are undergoing throughout the world under the auspices of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank they will not be surprised to read that the Trade Unionists were fighting to protect public education in general (it is still free to University level in Argentina) as well as the conditions of work for the teachers and the level of support provided by the state so that a future generation can have a decent start in life.

It will also come as no surprise that the so-called leaders of the province – behind their barricaded Congress Hall with the presence of hundreds of police – decided that the best way forward for the country was to cut the education budget – as well as other social welfare schemes.

As I’ve written so many times in various posts on this blog I just cannot understand why ordinary working people still have any faith in these people, of whatever political colour, who put themselves up for election and then do what they wanted to do in the first place, i.e., maintain their privileged position in society and let the rest go to hell.

However, SUBTE still believes in the electoral process and decided to have a meeting (what they call a press conference) in front of the very barricades in the Plaza de San Martin (known as the ‘Liberator’ in many South American countries) that were protecting the legislature from the anger of those they are supposed to represent.

A meeting is a meeting – even thought the sun was shining and people were sheltering from the sun – so many demonstrations I’ve been in Britain we would have been sheltering from the rain. Pictures in the gallery will give an impression of what was taking place.

Here I want to make a couple of points.

At the very start of the meeting there was the call for a minute’s applause as we were almost exactly four months since the death (on August 2nd 2018) of a deputy director and an assistant in a school in the city of Moreno, about 36 km to the west of Buenos Aires. A faulty gas appliance, which the authorities refused to repair, blew up as they were preparing for the start of the school day. A few minutes later the room would have been full of children.

Applause for Sandra and Ruben

Applause for Sandra and Ruben

Immediately after the event there were demonstrations in the city by teachers, parents and students protesting that such unnecessary accidents are a direct result of government cuts in education. On the day that the local government was planning further cuts in the education budget it was important that the needless deaths of these two union members was remembered and commemorated.

But what these teachers did to celebrate and remember these fighters for workers’ interests was to have a minute’s applause – not a minute’s silence – which in any Argentinian city is an almost impossibility anyway. I have never come across this before, in any Latin American country, and don’t know if it has become the norm. But isn’t that something more positive than just standing there counting the seconds in a minute’s silence and doesn’t it actually require some level of participation?

What I also thought was strange was the fact that although the teachers had organised (and got permission) for their meeting so close to the legislature they were not really interested if other trade unions (also facing the same sort of cuts in the budget) would be taking action as well. As soon as we arrived in the city it was obvious that something else was going on as a demonstration was forming up in the Plaza Italia. But my companion didn’t know anything of this beforehand, even though she is a full time union official.

I can understand the power of spontaneity when it comes to demonstrations but I also believe in the movement working towards a common goal. In Britain, and in the rest of Europe from my knowledge, the aim is to get as many people on the streets at the same time over similar, if not the same, issues. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in Argentina.

There was a common issue which brought trade unions, neighbourhood organisations and political parties together and that was the G-20 of the week before. If it can be done (with all, the possible conflicts which I mentioned when writing about the G-20 demo) for something exceptional why isn’t it done all the time. The State is always organised and knows exactly what it is doing. Why isn’t the Argentinian working class thinking in the same way? Or am I just missing something here?

Anyway.

As the teachers meeting was coming to an end this demonstration, that had taken over the whole width of the road (it being blocked to vehicular traffic as the extra ‘protection’ for the building had made it impossible for any more than pedestrian traffic to use the street) came along.

And with such vocal force. In front was a large, flat back truck on which was installed a sound system that would have made a 60’s concert goer weep. Huge speakers amplified the words of a couple of women who were taking terms calling out the legislature for what it was. Without a break. No time for empty space. Denunciation followed denunciation. Challenge followed challenge. Insult followed insult.

The March arrives

The March arrives

And behind them the road was filled with fluttering banners – representing people’s political or neighbourhood allegiance rather than that of their work – which might say a lot about the difference between political activity in Argentina and a place like Britain – at least in the past.

Here I became slightly bemused. Although the amplification of the teachers meeting was more than adequate for the task in hand (there being no traffic against which it had to compete) now, getting closer and closer were these loudspeakers, bigger than me, blasting out an anti-government message and behind them groups of drummers banging out a message of ‘we are here’.

But SUTEBA had a programme and they were going to stick to it – which included a musical performance by a Chilean Andean music group – which just got drowned out by the ambient noise of this mass of people coming into the square. But this was just treated as normal by everyone but me.

So I have to accept that I was the odd one out.

The square filled up with people and the truck was parked right in front of the Legislative Building, right next to the reinforced ‘vallas’. Behind them stood ranks of riot police, taking it in turns standing out in the sun or in the shade.

A fireman's work in Argentina

A fireman’s work in Argentina

Earlier I had seen firemen running out hoses, I assume in readiness for an attack on the building on the part of the demonstrators. In Argentina the fire brigade is still part of the police. It was in Britain but I don’t realise that until I went to Liverpool and heard the term ‘fire bobbies’, meaning fire fighters. Although they still follow a very much military structure there has been a significant change in attitude over the years. Pictures from the ‘Bloody Sunday’ events in Liverpool in August 1912, during a transport strike, show the firemen of the time working with the police in ‘riot control’. This is noted in the difference in their helmets.

However, in Argentina, and in many parts of the world, there’s still a close link between fire fighting and the police and that means it’s just in a day’s work for firemen in La Plata to be running out the hoses to be used against the protestors. I assume it is also the same people who would man (and women) the water cannons on the streets.

I would like to think that the fire fighters in Britain have matured enough to become true members of the working class to refuse to carry out such tasks if called upon to do so in Britain. That would have to be taken on by the military – the scabs (strike breakers) in past fire fighters disputes. Perhaps this is one reason why we’ve never seen water cannons used against British protesters.

But, as usual, I digress.

But that Monday in La Plata the State had obviously decided that it didn’t need the bad publicity. Just as it didn’t want bad publicity at the time of the G-20 lock-down – which anyway made any confrontation extremely difficult – it was prepared to just look on, some from the roof of the Congress building.

So nothing ‘happened’ that day in La Plata.

Speeches are made denouncing budget cuts

Speeches are made denouncing budget cuts

The people complained. Speeches were made and drums were beaten in response.

The budget was cut – for all social services. As expected.

In the Clarin newspaper the following day there was no mention at all about the demonstrations. Reporters and TV crews were there to record what happened inside the legislative building but seemed blind to what was going on outside. Such is the ‘free press’ under a capitalist system.

Marches will continue to happen. Governments might or might not change. The poor will get poorer and the rich will get richer.

Everything changes but nothing changes.

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Argentinian Diary – The Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier
Perito Moreno Glacier

Argentinian Diary –The Perito Moreno Glacier

A visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier is one of things that attract people to the town of El Calafate – the town itself is dominated by tourism and doesn’t have a lot to offer in its own right. It is possible to get to the glacier by public bus (and that would work out very cheap although involving a lot more walking to see as much of the glacier as possible) but again, for an easy life I opted for one of the tours.

As in Puerto Madryn (for Peninsula Valdés) and Puerto Natales (for the Torre de Paine) there are many agencies offering tours. They might all offer something slightly different but by the time you have paid for all that you have to pay for the costs work out very much of a muchness. These tours aren’t cheap (if the Argentinian economy is in a bit of a free fall the tourist industry has protected itself by basing their quotes on the US$) so though the situation is getting dire for many Argentinian workers the companies that run these sort of tours for visitors (from Argentina or abroad)have not really been effected.

The Perito Moreno is visited by hundreds every day for a number of reasons. It’s one of the few glaciers that can be reached relatively easily. It’s still a long day but the roads have been improved as the State realised this site could bring in a lot of money. The area is a National Park and the road infrastructure to and within the park is good enough to not put people off the long journey. There has also been a huge investment is a series of walkways on the hill facing the glacier that give anyone prepared to walk a view of virtually all the face as it reaches the lake.

The glacier is also unusual in that although most of the face of it comes to an end in water there’s a part that hits the land. It is here an unusual event happens from time to time. There’s no regularity overtime and the last was earlier this year but the next could happen within weeks.

For most of the time there’s a channel under the end of the glacier where it touches land. However, for a mixture of conditions which I’m not sure anyone really understands what happens is that this channel will get blocked. This leads to a build up of the water in a narrow branch of the Lago Argentino whose level starts to increase. This can be clearly seen on the shore line where the maximum water level is marked by the lack of any vegetation.

But this huge build up in the weight of the water together with water’s desire to find a way through any obstacle means that this blockage gets weakened. This then collapses catastrophically and is called the ‘Rupture’.

By all accounts when news got to El Calafate that this was likely to happen earlier this year virtually the whole town tried to get a front seat. There’s a series of pictures taken when this happened in 2003 on a poster in my hostel so I’ll see if I can photograph the sequence and post it here.

But the day I went wasn’t so dramatic. However, it was a perfectly beautiful, sunny day which meant you were able to appreciate the beauty of the way the various shades of blue were developed with sunlight refracting through the different thicknesses of ice. This colour show can only really be appreciated by taking one of the boat trips (most cover the southern part of the glacier although there is also a smaller boat on the northern side). The improving weather in the high mountains by mid afternoon meant that a clear view of those peaks was also possible.

Practical Information

I took the tour organised by the owners of the hostel I stayed in called ‘The Alternative Glacier Tour’. It took a different route out of town,providing a panoramic view of the Lago Argentino beside El Calafate itself and also took a route through the countryside, along dirt roads rather than going the quickest and most comfortable route.

Basic cost = A$1,110 (about £20.00)

Then on top of this was the boat trip = A$800 (about £16.00). This I would recommend,especially if it’s a bright and sunny day. On a dull and overcast day you would still get the sense of the size of the glacier but would miss out on the colours.

On top of this there is the entrance to the National Park itself = A$700 (about £14.00).

What follows is a lot, and I mean a lot, of pictures of ice.

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Argentinian Diary – Peninsula Valdés, whales and elephant seals

Southern Right Whale
Southern Right Whale

Argentinian Diary –Peninsula Valdés, whales and elephant seals

Peninsula Valdés is probably the most accessible of places for visitors, both Argentinian and foreigners, to get a chance to see whales, elephant seals, sea lions and penguins (who were at a part of the peninsula I didn’t visit). Regular, day long tours start from the town of Puerto Madryn which is ‘only’ a 19 hour overnight bus journey from Buenos Aires. (In Argentinian terms that’s close.)

I won’t be going into much detail about the animals themselves as other places will provide more detailed and accurate information than I can. All I want to do here is give a bit of information about how such a visit can be made, with up to date costs and to provide a gallery of images taken at the time of my visit.

There is a bit of confusion about the times that whales can be seen in the Golfo Nuevo. I was there at the beginning of December. Most information states that the whales would have gone by then, having spent previous months in the birthing and mating process they would then be ready to head south to start feeding in the Antarctic summer. That’s true to a certain extent but perhaps due to the fact they are no longer hunted some stay in the area for a bit longer. However, locals stated that the trip I was on was lucky to have seen a couple of whales (a mother and calf) nonetheless.

A comment on the images

The pictures of the whales were taken from a tourist boat that was only on the water for an hour. Those images that people are used to now from natural history programmes on the BBC see virtually everything that these mammals do. But the crews will be there for months and hundreds of hours of filming will take place before the spectacular breaches –which everyone on the boat I was on would have loved to have seen (including me) but the chances of which were probably less than zero. At the same time a mother would not be playing around with a young calf in tow. Such antics are for the young and unattached or the large males with nothing else to do.

So the pictures are more a representation of what any visitor is likely to see, so don’t get your hopes up to much – although I was pleased to see what we did.

I did get the feeling that we were bothering the mother and calf. It was the same pair we saw about 5 or 6 times during about 30 minutes. On two occasions the mother took her offspring down to the depths, possibly to get away from us. At the same time we were only there for a short time and we might well have been the only boat that had bothered that particular pair of creatures over the course of the season.

At the same time at least we weren’t trying to kill them and by all accounts the community in Golfo Nuevo is growing year on year. The whales that you are likely to see in the bay is the Southern Right Whale (Eubaleena australis). Orcas (killer whales) are also in the region but not on the day I was there.

As for the elephant seals the time of my visit was after the mating season and what we saw on the beach were mothers and their calves from this year. The males had finished the fighting over territory and harems and had left. The Peninsula Valdes is a National Park so there are restrictions on how close visitors can get to the animals. Again understandable for both sets of animals. The marine creatures have to be protected from the human animals and the human animals have to be protected from their own stupidity. Taking a selfie with a male elephant seal in full mating fighting form would be interesting.

So those pictures come with distance but, hopefully, give an impression of the scene in the beginning of December.

Useful Information

There are a number of agencies that run these tours from Puerto Madryn, with prices that are, more or less, the same. There might be some variation but whether it is worth the time spent to save a couple of pound is worth it is debatable. I just took the suggestion from the hostel I was staying in – all I had to do was pay and be ready at 07.15 in the morning to be picked up in the tour minibus.

Costs – December 2018

All day bus tour, plus an hour’s boat excursion to attempt to see the whales = A$3,550 (about £75.00)

Added to this is the cost of entrance to the National Park = A$520 (about £11.00)

Also, the land on which the elephant seals congregate is private (although within a National Park) and there is an expectation that visitors will eat in their restaurant. A little bit overpriced but quite good nonetheless. Some people brought a picnic and although there were long faces they were allowed to stay but other guides might be more forthright than the one leading our tour. So think about adding, more or less, another A$500. Not a cheap day but if you are lucky you will see quite a lot.

Apart from the marine animals the bird life is quite prolific and there are also chances to see armadillos (we saw one), guanacos, and choique (a breed of rhea – large, flightless bird) amongst others.

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