Riot Police in Argentina

Barrios de Pie - Enough of the price rises

Barrios de Pie – Enough of the price rises

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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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Arrival and first impressions of Buenos Aires

Casa Rosada with Argentine flag

Casa Rosada with Argentine flag

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Arrival and first impressions of Buenos Aires

I’m going to try, on this particular trip, to post something everyday. Basically a diary. I’ve planned this before and failed – for reasons which are nothing else than down to some of my many failings. However, this time I’m starting with good intentions.

It might work out the ramblings of a misanthrope but I would like to think, amongst all the bile, there is something that someone, somewhere might find interesting and, above all, useful if they were to follow a similar adventure – because that’s what travelling alone without a fixed itinerary is to all intents and purposes. The next surprise is always around the next corner.

So, to the beginning.

Arrival and first impressions of Buenos Aires

Doing a circuit in the air of three sides of the city before landing and then getting a view of the other side on the bus from the airport to the city centre Buenos Aires might call itself ‘The Paris of Latin America’ in some of its architecture, but the majority created in the last 120 years or so doesn’t have much to write home about.

From the air it looked like some giant children had been given an unlimited collection of equally giant Lego bricks and lacking any imagination had just arranged stacks of these, to varying heights, in a grid road system.

Yes there are some impressive European, Baroque influenced buildings but they are mainly concentrated in the older part of the city centre but once away from the ‘famous’ ones, such as the Casa Rosada, they are not treated with a great deal of respect.

Just one example from the bus from the airport was of a typical BA building, with its domes, and slap bang next to it – without any space as far as I could make out – was one of the most uninspiring steel and glass buildings I have ever seen. Surely if there is supposed to be some sort of pride in the city’s architecture it should go for those buildings that might not be in the forefront of any tourist route as well. Such neglect only indicating that the pride some people might take in the city’s architectural past is somewhat shallow.

That’s just from a matter of an hour or so in the place so I can hardly call myself an expert. It will be interesting to see how, or if, that first impression changes.

But first, some possible Useful information for the first time visitor to the city (and country).

Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini de Ezeiza (EZE) – Buenos Aires International Airport

When you arrive on a transatlantic jumbo jet – with 350, more or less, passengers – you expect to be there a long time getting through Immigration, especially when there are more flights coming in at the same time. But the immigration and passport control was well staffed, to meet the high demand, both by immigration officials as well as airport staff directing arriving passengers to the different sections to even out the queues. This is the wonder of that webbing and metal stands that often get you walking for mile after needless mile yet here it was being used in the way it was designed.

What is becoming more common, wherever you travel nowadays, is the electronic logging of your data. Not only is the passport put through a reader – which is presumably attached to some data base to which the USA and GCHQ in the UK has access (as well as the other major capitalist states) – but added to that a picture is taken of your face and the print of the right thumb is also recorded. This was the first time I had encountered this level of surveillance but that might just mean haven’t been to the ‘right’ countries in the recent past.

If you want to stay off the radar then air travel is becoming impossible as every detail is being collated and some algorithm is being used to measure your threat to the future of the world, capitalist system. So far land travel has yet to reach such ‘sophistication’ but an article I read about how the ‘capitalist roader’ Chinese authorities are effectively preventing people from travelling by air or fast train (a system which is growing exponentially and will cover most of the country in the not too distant future) means that train travel is also becoming subject to the same sort of checks.

For some time now foot passengers travelling on the likes of the Channel Tunnel (between the UK and France) and the AVE in Spain is more akin to air travel than the relaxed way train travel is advertised – and that’s not taking into account the delays and cancellations that are making rail travel more of a chore than a joy in the recent past – here I’m talking about the UK

But back to the Ezeiza Airport.

Another thing that all passengers were being asked, in my hearing, was the name of the hotel they might be staying in whilst in Buenos Aires. Even if you arrive and have nothing arranged it might be useful to have a name to supply.

I was also quite impressed by the speed with which the luggage arrived on the carousels. Although the main airport of a capital city Ezeiza is nothing in comparison to the likes of Heathrow and Gatwick, even Birmingham airport, the place I started the journey, is probably bigger but getting the people’s luggage to them as quickly as possible is merely a matter of organisation and employing enough people to do the job. In place of efficiency (in the UK) we get excuses and lies but rarely any move to find a solution.

From sitting on the plane at 08.10 to leaving the customs – having gone through all the formalities – took 40 minutes. I don’t think you can fault that.

Getting money

I’m only in the very early stages of understanding the mess of the Argentinian economy but before I had placed foot on Argentinian soil for more than three hours I was starting to learn something of the chaos into which it has fallen.

The only ATM I saw at the airport, and to which I went as soon as officially arriving in the country, was reluctant to supply more than 2000 Argentinian Pesos – that’s little more than £40. I later – in the centre of town – tried to take out larger amounts but only managed to take out 4000 Pesos (£80).

It also charged 231 Pesos (a somewhat bizarre figure) over and above any charges that the card user will have to pay their own bank. This seems to be a fixed charge and is the same irrespective of any amount drawn. So far I have been unable to find out the justification for this charge. This is a cost to Argentinians as well as foreigners.

With the collapse in the value of the Peso since the end of 2017 this seems to be an extra tax on Argentinians – and accounts for why the ATMs are never busy.

But what this has done, not by itself but in conjunction with the collapse in the currency, is the increase in on the street money-changers (cambistas) which is always a sign of an economy in crisis and also a long-term recognised and effective manner of money laundering. A pedestrianised street on which I am stating for my fist few days in the country had both men and women calling out ‘Cambio!’ to all those passing. Queues were also out the door at the ‘official’ exchange shops.

Being a Saturday it will be a couple of days before I can check up the official reason for this tax although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that no one can give a real reason for it yet will still accept that it comes with the territory

These are the sort of surprises that so-called ‘travel writers’ should be highlighting. They will ‘promote’ the country as a good place to visit due to the fall in the value of the Peso but that’s no good if you have to make up for the lower prices by giving even more to the banks. Taxi drivers and bankers are universally allowed to get away with fleecing us all. The judicious use of the AK47 wouldn’t go amiss for either of those groups of people, worldwide.

Another sign of the crisis in the economy is the number of empty shops along this pedestrianised street, which has some remnants of having its pretensions in the past but even the high-end shops are having a bad time in ‘austerity’ Argentina.

Transport from the airport to Buenos Aires city centre

The quickest way of getting away from an airport to a place you don’t know is obviously by taxi but I’ve gotten sick over the years with having arguments with taxi drivers and the way they think they have an almost God-given right to rob people. This happens even if you ‘agree’ a price beforehand – in circumstances where your luggage is being held hostage in a locked boot. Often the actual value is little, it’s the principle. And these are the sort of parasites on the body politic that Comrade Lenin warned about the ‘petty-bourgeois’ threat to a nascent Socialist society.

However, there is a cheap and efficient way to get into the centre. A bus company called Tienda Leon runs a bus from outside the main exit of the building to their bus station not far from the ocean, just out of the city centre. If you have pesos then there’s an office immediately after clearing customs (where there are also a number of car hire places and a small Information Office) before coming out into the maelstrom which is the mass of people awaiting incoming passengers.

Nobody seemed to mind me going back into an area that should be leaving one way only. At that time I didn’t know that there was a ticket office at the bus stop itself.

The cost of a one way journey is 350 Pesos, departures are every 30 minutes (on the hour and half hour) and takes 45 minutes.

To find the bus stop and ticket office go through the main exit, turn slightly to the right, cross the first section of a zebra crossing and the office is a small white kiosk on the right.

There’s even an element of security for luggage as you are given a ticket for each piece place in the luggage compartment (in the same way you get when flying) and you have to show that before being able to claim your bags at the end of the journey.

From their bus station it’s not too arduous a walk if you have accommodation in the centre of town.

To finish this first post I was going to just mention the fact that I think I have found ‘my’ bar in Buenos Aires. I look for a place that’s not the normal place for a tourist and also has the advantage of having a view of the street – although that view will unlikely appear in tourist publicity. And also within staggering distance from where I’m staying.

To give a view of my level of entertainment this little bar (whose name I forget to memorise after leaving but which I hope to rectify soon) charges 80 pesos (about £1.70) for a litre of 4.6 lager beer – the name was Isenbeck (I assume German, Nazi influence here), an Argentinian local beer.

However, events in the local football world took over – and that will form the basis for my blog tomorrow.

I’m also less than impressed with the hostel I’m staying in (especially after the expereince at the end of last year in Moscow and Leningrad) but, that too, will have to wait till another day.

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