The obelisk in Buenos Aires, standing stoic against the current of time, has witnessed Argentina’s World Cup successes in football, promoted sexual health by wearing a giant condom, mourned the death of esteemed authors, and, most recently, been home to the congregation of thousands of citizens in a chaotic percussion concert of pots and pans expressing the sentiment of general discontent with the government.
Around one million people mobilized on November 8th not only in the capital city, but also in the inner provinces and in several countries abroad. There are several reasons for this discontent: the possibility of a second reelection for President Cristina Fernandez, government corruption, the economic state of the country, challenges to the freedom of press and an increased sense of insecurity. It was a leaderless protest, and as such, less intimidating for a government that tried to minimize the implications of the demonstration. The reluctance to acknowledge it went so far that when a journalist asked the president what happened on November 8th, she answered the meeting of the Chinese Communist Party.
As a leaderless protest, the government cannot answer to a single organization, but rather to the people, a heterogeneous composition of lower, middle and high-class individuals. Some complaints were directed at the claim made by the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC) that six Argentinian pesos were enough to eat for a day, when the number is better approximated to one hundred. Others protested against the restriction of rights, evidenced in the constant rhetoric attacks on the media—whose role according to the president is to inform, not to oppose. Increased inflation rates and a feeling of lack of representation in the government are also sources of discontent. In an attempt to calm the waters, Fernandez tried to associate herself with the middle class, a shot that backfired when data showing a conspicuous increase in personal wealth from 7 million pesos in 2003 to 70 million today, portraying her as a hypocrite and illustrating that her case might be one of illicit enrichment.
As the journalist Jorge Lanata—a governmental opponent—puts it, “this was an adult and respectable protest” in which Argentinians claimed their right to “be people”. He argued that there is a disconnection between governmental policy and Argentinian reality. For example, inflation has significantly reduced the purchasing power of the Argentinian peso which, coupled with governmental policy to prevent saving in dollars, leaves many people feeling they have no alternative before the current economic situation. As a critical medium to the current government, his show, Periodismo para todos (Journalism for all) was vetoed out in some of the inner provinces, a move that only served to stir the public sentiment.
Discontent among the lower class rose from an unsustainable populist agenda. The vast subsidies offered to people in the villas—the Argentinian equivalent to a favela—did not promote any economic growth. And, as it drained the governmental funds, it was cut down at the precise moment when people needed it the most. Being one of the more populous groups comprising of the country’s demographics, their dissatisfaction greatly contributed to the magnitude of the cacerolazo.
Considering the difficulty in proving some of these points (as different organizations publish different data aimed towards their self-interest) the sense of civil society ingrained in the Argentinian collective mind is praiseworthy, as they appear to be responding to every perceived threat. This can be traced back to the period of the authoritarian military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983, when rights were just an ideal, never a reality. With the return of democracy a commission named Nunca Más (Never Again) was set up to shed light on the crimes committed and disappearances perpetrated by the dictatorship. But this slogan, as recent events show, is also a promise made by the Argentinians to themselves, to protect their rights and those of future generations, and an oath to constitutionality and the state above any individual figure.
This evolution can also be seen in Chile, Brazil and Colombia, countries where in the past people have encountered governmental, environmental or practical restraints to achieve their full economic and social potential. From these experiences people learned to protect their rights zealously, acting as a counterbalance to their governments, and even pushing their leaders to work harder. Evidence of this can been seen in the faster economic growth of these countries in contrast with Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, for example. The rise of populist governments with totalitarian tendencies in these three countries was possible due to constitutional weakness and a lack of checks and balances, accompanied with the passivity of the civilian population.
The frustration of the people is voiced as discomfort with the status quo and support of the constitution above any governmental figure. Described as ‘vague’ by the government, the demands are clear: freedom, truth, improved economic policies and representation. With the memory of the horrific military juntas still fresh, the obelisk observes the return of routine—the protesters dressed in their labor uniforms. Still the images of November 8th remain, a testimony to the character of the citizens who reclaimed Argentina as their own in an admirable demonstration of collective desire for respect.
– Camilo Ucrós