Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Notes on Argentina (II) - Political Awareness

"30 years of impunity and repression, of theft and hunger
30,000 reasons to keep fighting"

"More than 30,000 reasons - popular justice. Never again. Looking to the other side" (Stencil of former president Jorge Videla)
Sidewalk painting by the law school, with names of disappeared law students.
Plaque marking the police-murder of Gustavo Benedetto in 2001.
Plaque marking police-murder of Gaston Riva in 2001.

Another thing I noticed while in Argentina was that the political activism was not limited to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Everywhere you went, recent politics were still exteremely present and felt, particularly regarding the dictatorship. There was graffiti everywhere protesting against the continued (relative) impunity of war criminals like Jorge Videla and others (granted, Videla is under house arrest, but such a “punishment” is beyond offensive for a president who, for five of its seven years, led a state that killed upwards of 30,000 of its own citizens). Near the law school, there were sidewalk paintings commemmorating the disappeared from the law school during the dictatorship.

Awareness of recent politics even in the mundane of daily life went well beyond the dictatorship, though. One day, while riding in the cab, my wife asked about the recent shift in cars in Argentina (almost all cars we saw were 2-3 years old). What started as an innocent enough question simply based on curiosity became a fascinating conversation in which the cabbie went on and on (to our pleasure) about the absolutely destructive effects of Carlos Menem’s neo-liberalism in the 1990s, and how those led up to the economic collapse of 2001, and that only with the economic recovery launched under Nestor Kirchner have things improved.

Finally, although not as large as the dictatorship, the events of that economic collapse in 2001 also made themselves very present in the public arena. Along the Avenida de Mayo (which culminates on one end in the Congress, and on the other end with the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosa), there were plaques commemmorating some of the protestors who Argentine police shot and killed during the upheaval that saw President De La Rua have to flee the country after its extreme downward turn (aided in no part by his ineptitude). Plaques like those above were visible along the sidewalk at random points, and one even was even re-done, because the first had been destroyed by police.

If you just went and talked to the average “person on the street”, I’m not sure you would necessarily hear anti-dictatorship or anti-Menem or anti-De La Rua talks – as with any politician or leader, some have their supporters. With the overthrow of the dictatorship and the (generally) anti-neoliberal policies of Kirchner in the wake of Menem, the victors are certainly inscribing the historical narrative in public spaces. Still, the physical presence of the darker aspects of Argentina’s recent history were far more obvious and tangible than anywhere I’ve ever seen in Brazil (although, doubtlessly, the 30,000 dead in Argentina vs. the 700+dead in Brazil probably explains some of this difference).