Day of Remembrance demonstration a lesson in Argentine politics
03/24/2017 - 03/24/2017 78 °F
I woke up today with no planned sights to see. I had not done much research before arriving here, true. However, it was also because I'd pretty much gone through the list of things I wanted to see. Stepping out onto the street, I was amazed to see it empty. On weekdays, the street outside my centrally located hotel was usually bustling. Then, I remembered that Florencia had said Friday was a national holiday. Those last museums I was thinking of visiting to fill my day would likely be closed. Now what, I thought?
I began with a stroll down Calle Florida, Buenos Aires' pedestrian street, heading downtown. Nearly every store was closed, so it was not the lively experience it probably is most often. On one corner, I passed up a group of about a dozen people with identically colored shirts who had banners furled on the ground next to them. Some were tapping away on drums and they seemed excited. Was there to be another demonstration, today? As I neared Plaza de Mayo, it became obvious the answer was yes. I passed more and more groups, many larger. And the sound of drumming intensified as I got closer to the central square.
Once I turned onto Avenida de Mayo, it became obvious this would be a big event. Banners and posters were strung everywhere. Food vendors were grilling up piles of sausages and other meat in preparation for hungry crowds. Even souvenir sellers were staking out a patch of sidewalk with a blanket, spreading their wares. Granted, some had a political theme, with tshirts proclaiming, "Yo No lol VOTE" or other obviously political sayings. Some were printed withthe features of the famous guerrilla, Che Guerva.
My normal instinct when traveling abroad is to avoid political demonstrations like the plague. You never know when they may get out of hand, invite a heavy-handed government response, or if a crowd will decide to vent their fury on a handy representative of American foreign or economic policy. However, a couple things made me feel this was safe. Number one, they'd had a big demonstration a couple days ago and it was peaceful, with no violent government response. Second, the sheer number of vendors set up to service (and make money off of) the crowds. When the sausage seller feels safe enough to set up his grill and fry up a mountain of meat, then my guess is lawlessness is not about to break out.
More groups began to arrive, stopping and lining up about three blocks away from the plaza. They raised their banners high, and began to drum, blow on brass instruments, sing, dance, and have a great time. Each new group that arrived had matching tshirts and a recognizable color theme. I could translate some of their banners. I saw the group demonstrating for more rights for gay and transgender people in purple. There was a communist faction in red, holding aloft images of Che or the hammer and sickle. Most groups demanded justice for the political prisoners of the past. The riot of colors each noisily cheering their cause was amazing.
I noticed another thing -- there appeared to be no ill will between these various groups. They appeared united in one thing: letting their voices be heard. Hugs were more present than any signs of disagreement. No group jockeyed for position to displace another. It was great to see each group in their colors, and try to translate their signs so I could decipher their political message, while watching them entertain themselves by dancing and singing. Police were scattered here and there and seemed to be only observing. There were no dark looks or officers in riot gear. Everyone seemed agreed on this "Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice" (as it was officially called) taking place peacefully. In the center of the plaza, a stage was set up blaring rock music in Spanish. All of the government buildings were placarded with their posters, and the air was festive -- not angry.
I bought an Argentine flag pin for my world map back home from one vendor. I succumbed to the wonderful aroma of the sausage grillers, and enjoyed some excellent street food. And then I threw myself into observing and photographing this example of South American democracy in action. As I watched the ordinary citizens in their groups enjoy themselves, hug each other, and coexist alongside other political factions, I couldn't help but compare this experience to U.S. democracy. Here, there are a myriad of groups, parties, and movements. Back home, we have two main political parties who become more divided by the day. When we have a demonstration, riot police show up to keep the counter-demonstrators separate. Epithets are hurled, violence breaks out, and there are signs only of disunity. All of my life I have felt fortunate to live in a country without the Parliamentarian factionalism. You see nations struggle to put together coalition governments, only to watch them crumble at the first crisis. As our two-party system in the U.S. becomes more and more polarized, and conservatives and liberals find little common ground, are we truly lucky to have this system?
Today was a day to wonder "what if?" What if we lived in a country not dominated by only two parties? What if we had a Christian Democrat party, a Liberal-Socialist party, a stronger Green Party, more organized and less angry Libretarians? What if these parties had to get along to govern -- to form a majority -- instead of our minority party obstructionism? Food for thought. I have often said that the best thing that could happen to America is to get rid of ALL political parties, that way, people -- especially our elected officials -- vote their conscience rather than what their party tells them to do. As I strolled along the snaking columns of demonstrators, photographing each colorful new group and wondering where they fit into the political spectrum, I heartily enjoyed this experience of witnessing Argentina's democracy in action. This was far better and showed me more of the soul of the people than an art or history museum could ever have.
The final group I witnessed was a fitting climax to the afternoon. They were all women dressed in purple, from very young to very old. They carried brooms and were called, I believe, the Mothers of May. What immediately struck you was the towering mannequin of an elderly lady, and smaller (but still more than man-sized) figure of a young man. They were enthusiastically dancing in circles around and in front of the mother figure. As they danced, they swept the ground furiously with their brooms. The joy on their faces was evident. When their song ended, they formed a circle around the mother. The women and girls faced outward, tapped their chest twice and repeated a phrase in Spanish. They locked eyes with the crowd, staring into ours intently, repeating the phrase. Even though I could not understand what they were saying, I could tell it was an emotional moment.
Later, I asked someone, and they explained that the group represents those mothers who lost husbands or sons to the political prisons. They were demanding the return of their loved ones from police custody, and justice for those lost. It was the most powerful moment of a moving day. I plan to ask Florencia and Pablo more about this tomorrow, on my last day. Although I had awoken that morning unsure what I would do on my final, full day in Buenos Aires, I felt thankful for having glimpsed this side of life in Argentina.