Argentinian Diary – Riot Police in Argentina

Barrios de Pie - Enough of the price rises

Barrios de Pie – Enough of the price rises

Argentinian Diary – Riot police in Argentina

Another day in Buenos Aires another demonstration against the conditions in which the majority of the working people have to live. On my last full day in the country I encountered yet another demonstration that had formed up at the Obelisk on Avenida 9 de Julio at the normal meeting time of 12.00, midday. But whenever there’s a demonstration in Argentina the riot police aren’t that far away.

This demonstration was called by, and was formed of, the organisation ‘Barrios de Pie’. My understanding after talking to some of the stewards present is that this can be translated as ‘Neighbourhoods on the March’ or as ‘Neighbourhoods standing up’. The reason for the march was the usual – against austerity, which is increasingly having a detrimental effect on an increasing number of the poor, and the problems that are being created with an annual inflation rate (for 2018) of almost 57%.

Although all the peaceful demonstrations that have taken place in Argentina in recent months, including that against the G-20 summit at the end of November 2018, achieve no change of heart on the part of the government – who is more prepared to listen to the ‘neo-liberal’ economic strictures of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund or the Inter-American Development Bank which lead to even more privatisation and cuts in whatever remains of any social welfare provision – many Argentinians are still prepared to go into the streets to make their feelings known. (This is so different from the lack of any such activity in Britain in the ten years since finance capital caused the crisis of 2008 which has led to the ‘austerity’ of the intervening years which has seen a worsening of the living conditions of the majority of working people in the country.)

In this post I want to look at an aspect of the Argentine state activity that demonstrates that they know exactly what is happening in society. However, rather than seeking ways to ameliorate the effects on the general population what they do is to put ever more resources into efforts to protect capitalism (and their own privilege). What I want to look at here is the use of the riot police both to intimidate people on the streets at the time and to reinforce the idea of letting everyone know who is in control.

I have already written how during the G-20 bash at the end of November 2018 the Argentinian state showed that it was prepared to lock down the country’s capital for the best part of three days just to allow the world’s most insidious gangsters to feel safe as they travelled around the deserted streets and to pig out at banquets where ‘important’ decisions were made. It was reported that 20,000 police and army personnel were deployed in Buenos Aires over that weekend, all geared up in state of the art riot gear and with, no doubt, more lethal weaponry close to hand.

(It’s difficult to understand the mindset of these ‘leaders’ who now must consider such a situation being the norm at their international meetings. With them living in such a bubble – not that they weren’t in a similar bubble in the past – their statements of us ‘all being in this (i.e., austerity) together’ rings even more untrue.)

Riot Police at rear of Barrios de Pie demonstration

Riot Police at rear of Barrios de Pie demonstration

I came to the ‘Barrios de Pie’ demonstration by chance at the Obelisk just after it had moved off and what struck me was the number of fully kitted out riot police still in the area and preparing to march at the side of the rear of the march. It wasn’t a surprise to see them there as they had been in evidence at the first demonstration I was to experience on my first Monday in the country but it made me think of their role in Argentinian society.

Riot Police escorting head of demonstration

Riot Police escorting head of demonstration

Argentina is not unique in having riot police prepared to appear on the streets when workers seek to make their grievances known to the rest of the population but I’ve now had the opportunity to see how it works on a number of occasions. This approach is slightly different in a country such as Britain where the state places a few, less intimidating police on the streets but with the ‘iron fist’ prepared to appear on the scene within minutes if called upon.

The march and the Obelisk

The march and the Obelisk

The issue in Argentina (and probably in most Latin American countries, more than likely due to the continent’s history of military dictatorship) is that the armoured police are there from the start – even though they would know that in such circumstances it only takes a slight misunderstanding for matters to escalate (perhaps the reason they are placed there in the first place). And many others would be on call if a peaceful march was to take a violent turn.

Porteños – the citizens of Buenos Aires – are also constantly reminded of the preparedness of the state to react to any civil disturbance by the number of ‘vallas’ (large, black, metal barriers) that are dotted around different parts of the city centre. I wrote about these in the posts in reference to the G-20 of November last year. The vast majority of – it must be – hundreds of new ‘vallas’ have been removed from the streets and now in some unknown (to me) storage facility, ready for any eventuality (if they aren’t already on a ship mid-Atlantic heading to Osaka, Japan, the location of the next G-20 at the end of June 2019). However, there are always some stacked in a corner near the Casa Rosada and, strangely, the Cathedral at the top end of Plaza de Mayo seems to have a screen of ‘vallas’ in a semi-permanent state.

Vallas ready for use at the Casa Rosada

Vallas ready for use at the Casa Rosada

It’s the heavy hand at the beginning which shows the contempt the state has for the people’s right to demonstrate. They try to frighten people from coming out in the first place and then by escorting the march along its short route (from the Obelisk to the Casa Rosa is much less than a kilometre) they are reinforcing the message.

The marchers from the ‘Barios de Pie’ understood this well and knew what the state was attempting and the demonstration was very heavily stewarded, many men and women walking between the police and the general body of the march. And they ‘policed’ their own people. That Thursday was very hot and once the march reached the top end of the Plaza de Mayo (the square in front of the Casa Rosa – the Presidential Palace) a few women, a number of them with babes in arms, moved out of the march to seek shade from the few trees at the top end of the square. This caused a couple of the stewards to come over and ask them to re-join the group as ‘they didn’t want trouble from the police’.

Stewards - in blue vests - between marchers and Riot Police

Stewards – in blue vests – between marchers and Riot Police

I wasn’t aware of the idea that the square was a no-go area before that incident. And that knowledge explained the manoeuvre of the police who had been escorting the march at the front into context. As the lead marchers turned the corner from Avenida Peña into Avenida Bolivar the police peeled off and stood in a line between the marchers and the Casa Rosa. It wasn’t a substantial line and they would have had problems holding it if there was a concerted effort to enter the square, their stand was more symbolic, wordlessly making the challenge ‘pass if you dare’.

Riot Police deploying at top of Paza de Mayo

Riot Police deploying at top of Paza de Mayo

But there was no chance of that happening. There were perhaps around a couple of thousand people on the march but a not inconsiderable number of them were mothers with very young children. There was no way such a group of people would carry out a suicide attack to get into a square which would achieve nothing even if they were successful. This was not a group of people such as the present day ‘gilets jaunes – yellow jackets’ in France who are expressing their anger at the effects of government policies on living standards and prepared to face the flunkies of the capitalist state.

Riot Police between marchers and Plaza de Mayo

Riot Police between marchers and Plaza de Mayo

After spending some time at the top of the square the march moved just a couple hundred of metres to get as close as possible as it could to the Casa Rosada – the palace has two sets of very high yet thin metal fences from the centre of the Plaza de Mayo to the entrance of the building – the second is only closed off when there’s some anti-government activity in the vicinity, in the process disrupting the traffic as the roads are also blocked. Such a fence would be no deterrent to a determined force as they would bend easily if enough organised force was used to pull them down. Just in case of such an unlikely eventuality there were a number of police inside the grounds of the Casa Rosada ready to react if called upon to do so.

Riot Police inside first fence of the Casa Rosada

Riot Police inside first fence of the Casa Rosada

But once here the march became quiet after making quite a lot of noise with the drums and whistles when on the move. And it stayed there for a long time, with me not quite understanding why. They were being totally ignored by the authorities in the palace and staying in the street just meant that their own people were being cooked at the hottest time of the day.

Matters eventually became much more relaxed. People started to drift into the shade of the trees in the square, the police totally ignoring this transgression, and some of them opened up their bags and had a picnic on the grass – on all the demonstration to which I’ve been a witness, including the big anti-G-20 march – many people came with some sort of food and drink. Others queued up at the public water fountain close to the fence. They had left the demonstration but hadn’t drifted off as is normally the case in such situations and they were ready to be called back once the decision to move was made.

Even the police became more relaxed, first resting their shields on the ground which was soon followed by them removing their helmets which changed the whole general feeling of the situation, any tension being dissipated. These movements were all organised and it seems that the Argentinian police are organised in squads of seven or eight as that was how they moved. As mentioned in the post on the demonstration in Buenos Aires back in November there are women in the riot police and here there seemed to be a squad made up of only women – all of them with long hair tied into pony tails – which indicates that there was no serious thought of violence on the side of the authorities as that long hair would have made them extremely vulnerable in the event of a flare up.

Whilst I was watching not very much happening I wondered what these young riot police thought of their role in the state machine. I don’t know if the state had decided to protect their salaries from the force of 57% a year inflation but even if it did all these officers would have known people who would have had no such protection. 2018 wasn’t a good year for Argentinians and the vast majority would have ended the year worse than they started. Yet these people were still ready to stand between an angry population and the state and its capitalist supporters.

In the past the police have not shown restraint when let loose on anti-government protesters, there being a number of deaths under ‘democratic’ governments, at least three in the final months of 2018, although on no occasion did I witness such an attack. Whether that reflects a change in the policy of the state which realises that such an approach doesn’t stop people from going on the streets or whether the state is not sure of the total loyalty of the police and asking them to attack people with widely accepted and recognisable grievances might eventually backfire I can’t say.

The march along Avenida Peña

The march along Avenida Peña

However, these forces of ‘law and order’ are a vital for the existence of the capitalist state and having the riot police out at least a couple of times each week in Buenos Aires alone must eventually get some of them to question what their role is in Argentinian society.

Or perhaps not. Their predecessors in the 1970s were either active participants or passive onlookers to the ‘disappearance’ and murder of more than 30,000 Argentinian citizens – the very people who they pledge to protect when they take their oath on becoming police officers.

(The more observant of my readers might have noticed that both Evita and Che appear on the lead banner of the ‘Barrios de Pie’. I hope to address the issue of Evita and the way she is considered in present day Argentina in a post in the not too distant future.)

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Argentinian Diary – Madres de Plaza de Mayo

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Argentinian Diary – Madres de 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.

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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