March 25, 2007

Coup Commemoration

Dateline: Saturday, March 24th, 2007, Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Europe politics is predominantly a daytime Monday to Friday activity. In much of Latin America, where voting is compulsory, elections happening on Sundays and many important events begin later, much later (especially in Buenos Aires).

It was 5:45PM when I got to Plaza de Mayo in front of the President’s palace (the Argentine pink house). We were to proclaim our presence and chant “Never Again!” on the date of the Coup d’État that took place in 1976 in this very Plaza.

The turnout seemed disappointing. Looking around me I saw only a few thousand people. Later I realised that this was the only the first part of the march, the tip of the iceberg. The banners around us early birds were colourful and varied: Andean indigenous groups, a Colombian flag, a Gay flag, but most were blue: Péronist blue! The Péronist party, currently in the hands of the Kirchner faction, is in power. After all this is a presidential election year. Around us there were a few red banners of the socialist groups but they kept to the margins for the time being.

As it turns out the left had decided to have two actions in Plaza de Mayo. The factional groups had divided into two. The centrist Mothers of the Plaza had organized the government-friendly, centre-left groups and they got first billing. I listened as their bands play in the plaza, a musical background track for the news cameras capturing video for the evening TV broadcasts. As commemorations of coup d’État’s go, it was all very lovely.

A Commemoration of Death

In Argentina March 2007 marks thirty-one years since the taking of the palace in front of us by the most notorious of the many Argentine military Juntas. Eight years of brutal dictatorship followed, abysmally mishandled by the military Junta and foreign financial interests under the coordination of the IMF. The IMF offered their first multilateral loan to the Junta just three days after the coup in order to “stabilise the situation”. It was to be the beginning of a love-fest of international loans. This phase is referred to in Latin America as the “Plata Dulce”, easy money (recycled petro-dollars) pushed on crucial oil-exporting economies in Latin America so as to facilitate future favours.

31 years back a Junta of military officers deposed Isabella Péron. She had just replaced her powerful husband Juan, on his death. Isabella had neither the aptitude nor the power to fill her husband’s shoes. Under Isabella, Argentina was already beginning to fall apart. She currently faces extradition from Spain for her rôle in the founding of the AAA, the notorious ”anti-communist” death squads. The dictatorship claimed that it would restore order, it kept its promise. It also proceeded to triple Argentina’s international debt obligations. Rather than dismantle the AAA they expanded their activities, vastly. The fear of returning to instability and the selective allocations of the "Plata Dulce" helped mollify public protest. The death squads did the rest.

During the dictatorship, the compliant Argentine population were freed to enjoy their shopping (interspersed with inconvenient bouts of hyperinflation). They no longer feared that their children be being abducted by ‘terrorists’. The state terror regime was very efficient at annihilating dissident voices but was not classist in silencing dissent. Rich and poor intellectuals alike, much of the free press, many left-wingers and leaders of the trade union were given options: exile or torture and death. All told the junta murdered thirty thousand people in eight years thereby maintaining control and enabling the debt burden to be loaded on.

The Mothers of the Plaza were present in both demonstrating groups. The related group called the HIJOS came in the second wave. The generation in between them and their grandmothers were missing. These dead mothers were murdered after giving birth in secretive military prisons in the leafy suburbs of Buenos Aires. Pregnant women thought to be connected to the dissident movement were systematically rounded up. When they gave birth they were summarily murdered. The state then used their children as leverage and as raw materials for an illicit adoption service.

One has to ask oneself where the military thought up this repugnant terror tactic, was it the product of an Argentine mind, maybe an exiled Nazi or was this glorious technique taught at the school of the Americas in Panama?

The spanish word for child is hijo. Marching in the second wave, the HIJOS carrying their banners wore question marks as masks to obscure their faces. Many of them still do not know who they are. Their grandmothers donate to DNA data banks and every effort is put into ascertaining their lineage but some may never know the identity of their birth parents. What they do know is that they were born in terror and that the inherited the ‘sins’ of their dead mothers whose crime it was to demand democracy.

The second wave were there to make forceful demands for punishment of the Junta regime. President Kirchner announced plans to step up prosecutions but he walks a fine line between the powers that be. Last year he already had to put down dissent in the military. To maintain full retribution would require tackling industrial interests, the companies and their shareholders who benefited from the largesse of the dictatorship such as the Macri Group or Citibank.

The Second Wave

The music in the Plaza had stopped and we were asked to clear the way for the second wave waiting noisily on the Avenida de Mayo. It didn’t look like too many people till one got close enough to hear the drums and smell the smoke. There was not enough room for everyone on Avenida de mayo so many groups took to the parallel streets. Among them were the Maoist communists followed by the CCC ("Corriente Clasista y Combativa", Loosely translated: The Combative Classist Current),, and the MAS (Socialist Worker's Movement) who are presenting the very Irish sounding Patricia Walsh for the Buenos Aires mayoral elections this year.

The CCC presence was particularly impressive but in contrast to many groups they were not in town to party. Divided into groups from the outlying industrial suburbs, the CCC came from towns like “La Matanza” and Pilar. They marched after the flags of the Maoists but outnumbered them ten to one. Theirs was no slick political statement, this organisation is grass roots in the true sense of the word. The men and women who guarded the periphery of the marchers were armed with batons. If the mood on the Avenida was jolly in a left-wing kind of way, the side-streets were surprisingly dour. The marchers were tired but determined. Not for them the jingo and the free handouts of the political parties. They came to make their presence felt. The men carried their clubs and their CCC banners and the women carried their sleeping children or bottles of water filled from the tap. These CCC had little to shout about, and even less to lose.

Quantitative Analysis

In order to sell this article to a western press outlet, I would be expected to provide some numbers for the marchers. You know the rote: the organizers claim so many tens of thousands and the security forces claim a smaller or bigger number (depending on the marcher’s affiliation with the government). If numbers interest you, you will find them in The Clarín. Earlier, while the evening TV cameras were broadcasting, the on-stage talent asked people holding banners to lower them a moment so that the cameras could count attendance. No one lowered a banner but it did not matter; the second group was much more numerous. Rather than reduce this commentary I would suggest that what really matters is why people came as well as how determined they are, for change.

Many media outlets express curious positivism about Argentina’s economic recovery basing their arguments on the standard fare of growth in gross national product and healthy export surpluses. Argentina does not concur with their simplistic models of foreign direct investment. The shameful default seems somehow to be forgiven. The markets are up and there is a construction boom spurred by the local rich and the inevitable foreign real-estate investors.

You won’t find this reflected in the sullen faces marching under the Matanza CCC banner. For them this recovery is not so obvious. It is not happening fast enough. They slaughter their cattle for foreign markets, cutting out the finest steaks to freeze for export. They load their ancient trucks with hides to send them the Riachuelo tanneries for cheap leather goods for the tourism trade. The effluent from these factories goes untreated into the black river, stinking up the Boca tour buses.

The meat worker’s labours may help to pay down debt the national debt in this commodities boom but the inequity of the distribution of the income from their labour has lead to indigence, crime, and squalor. The recovery is imbalanced. My doctor friend who accompanied me on this commemoration worked in the Matanza public hospital, she still does what she can but it is not enough.

All Quiet on the Northern Front

As a foreigner here I am shut out of the apartment rental market for the lack of certain paperwork. This results in a strange form of social engineering, a concentration of foreigners in the richer parts of town like Barrio Norte, the Upper East Side of Buenos Aires.

Economists would attribute the prices I pay to imperfect competition; they are right but for all the wrong reasons. The imperfection comes more from the purchasing power of the euro (five times what it was in the late nineties) not from imperfect market access. Some of my Argentine neighbors have conflicting interest to the poor who trudge under their CCC banners. They spend the commemorative weekend away from Barrio Norte in their ‘countries’ (semi-rural gated communities).

Their luxury may be partially dependent on my imported Euros but Argentine corporate profits are also directly dependent on the cheap labour force. Cheap services thrive on high unemployment caused by the default crisis. This means the poor have little choice but to work for less. Those who drive the taxis, those who clean the streets or teach in the public schools, do so for less. Tonight many of them are marching under the CCC banners. They will not go away!

Thanks to Tony Grace for his photographs which accompany this article.

Posted by Tony Phillips at 10:13 PM | Comments (0)

March 19, 2007

Article published March 2007

Posted by Tony Phillips at 05:06 PM | Comments (1)