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Eyewitness Account Of Events In Buenos Aires

Eyewitness Account Of Events In Buenos Aires Over Last Hours

President de la rua of Argentina has just resigned following protests at massive spending cuts imposed by IMF. New Zealander Catherine Cecilia has shared her reactions to events during the last days in chronological order.

Background notes follow at end.

From: Paul Bruce Latin America Solidarity Committee Aotearoa New Zealand c/- ALAY Centre, P O Box 7153, Wellington. Tel 04 972 8699 or 04 471 0161

Buenos Aires, Friday, 21 December 2001 09:55

i know you'll be getting some news from here, but i want to tell you how it's been…

there's a war here, i¿ve left it to write to you, finding a place open isn't easy, most businesses are either closed or pretend to be, with the metal doors down and a small entry; here we are without any light other than that of the computer screen, to keep a low profile.

it started a few days ago then yesterday intensified with first saqueos/sackings of supermarkets; the reaction rom the supermarkets became defined as things heated up; in some places groups of up to a thousand converged on supermarkets to demand food; owners 'gave' out packages to the crowds; some filled trucks and delivered them to the 'villas'/slums; some filled their trucks and erturned the goods to safe warehouses; some closed (today nothing is open); in some cases, the employees stood their ground with sticks to defend what is really their percarious small piece of the pie; the scenes on the tv included more and more distraught, weeping owners - in most cases Asians, small family businesses - standing helpless as hoards overwhelmed and then sacked their only livelihood. It was all wrong, of course, anger erupting, misdirected against fellow argentinians who are struggling; the don't haves against those who have a little.

The govt's 'solution' was to announce a state of emergency (estado de sitio). The´people's response was defiance. I had just returned home and eaten dinner when I heard a racket in the street that grew and seemed widespread; i went out to investigate (11pm); I returned at 4am. The people had taken to the streets and were banging pots, lids, anything that made a noise. Here it's called a 'cacerolazo', or 'casserole-ing'. In all the streets of what is normally a quiet barrio, the people were in the sidewalk or on their balconies banging things; cars and buses were hooting their horns. I decided to go to town to see what was happening. (i don't have tv and so am sometimes a bit disconnected; in most cases the pueblo/people were kept in communication with the constant news reports.) All along the way, the same story. On some corners, burning rubbish. We had to make detours in major streets where the people were marching towards the centre.

At Congress, there was a huge rally; the people were on the steps - a thing i have never seen before - and they were chanting and banging pots. I wondered what group had organised this, it's usual, but it turned out it was a spontaneous gathering of angry citizens, finally on their feet to say, Basta! We did a circuit of Congress then headed for the Plaza de Mayo; it all was just developing spontaneously; meanwhile people were arriving through all the avenues around, people who had evidently walked outside their homes to bang a pot in the sidewalk and who had then started to move, and then to follow the movement; instinctively they headed first for congress then for plaza de mayo, the scene of every uprising or tiny protest in a century of oppression and erbellion here.

I picked up a stick and an empty beer can; chanting we converged on plaza de mayo; the chants expressed the disgust and outrage the people have born inside for months, years.... Stick the state of emergency up your ass! Cavallo (min of economy and mastermind of much of the current suffering, buddy to the Yanks) son of a bitch!! (there was great celebration later when the news rippled through the crowd that he had resigned); The pueblo, united, will never be defeated! If this isn't the people/pueblo, where is it? Get them out, get them out! and so on.

I have been in a lot of marches here but this march was different, strange: there were no banners, no political grouping or elbowing. (Later HIJOS appeared and one or two of the left groups, but isolated). This was 'the people', mostly middle class - low or medium - so angry and finally rising up. There was a sense of erlief for that. It's been so long, they've been pushed and pushed and we speculate constantly on, How much will it take? well, they reached their limit.

In plaza de mayo i met by pure incredible chance two dear friends, barefoot and in their pyjamas!!! they'd done what most had done, joined in without planning to, spurred on by the people in movement. We made our way to the front, at the barrier fronting the Casa Rosada. On the other side, the police, but a token line. The mood was in no way nasty; these were 'ordinary' people, not activists, expressing their rejection of one unjust economic/social measure after another. Then at one moment, the riot police arrived; they fired gas; we ran (though there were cries of Don't run!) The gas was terrible, and our disbelief and outrage worse. I couldn't breathe, it felt like my lungs were going to burst; my eyes were streaming and stinging, my throat burning. We ran blind, away, anywhere to escape the gas.

But the sense of outrage was stronger, and we returned. Again they fired, again we retreated. Each time the anger was growing, fueled by the excessive repression. Rubbish bins were set on fire, barriers from roadworks dragged into the street and set fire to; i saw one guy throw a stone into a bank window, and the huge glass front smashed and collapsed with a frightening explosion. On one corner the police were waiting and a fight started upthere between stone-throwers and the riot police with gas.

We returned to the plaza. When i say 'we', i want you to understand that i'm talking about thousands; some continued returning to the congress, but for many of us the sensation of frustration and injustice drove us back, though we knew what the consequences were each time. Either anger or fear erupt in you and move you on or back. It was when armed police on motorbikes came pursuing us, firing rubber bullets and gas, that we turned and ran and continued then marching, still defiant and strong, to the congress.

The Avenida de mayo links the plaza de mayo and the plaza de los dos congreses; It's 18 blocks long. From midpoint looking back we could see a sea of people all the way to plaza de mayo, and ahead the same to congress, and there in the plaza and on the steps, an unbelievable crowd. Later estimates suggested a crowd of 100.000.

It was 1.45 when we reached congress. I stayed with my friends until 3; it was obvious the people were there for the night. There was a euphoria and enthusiasm that i ahven't felt in that measure before, I think because it was utterly sincere and spontaneous.

I walked home.

Friday, 21 December 2001 10:46

Today when i woke up i heard that the repression was continuing in plaza de mayo. I returned in the blazing sun. The stench of gas was tangible long before i reached the plaza. There were people straggling here and there, dressed in summer or work clothes; as i got closer everyone had streaming eyes and handkerchiefs held to their faces. They were business men and women, city workers; it was impossible to know if they were 'in' the fight, or passing by. Only a very few showed signs of being 'campaigners' who had obviously stayed in the action all night.

In the street that circles the plaza an armoured truck with a water gun mounted on the roof was pursuing the crowd and firing powerful jets of water at the balconies overlooking the plaza and the people around. In one branch of the street, camera trucks and cameras. Nearby, mounted police, less than a dozen. They were wielding whips and long batons with which they were lashing out at the few individuals whose fury drove them close to hurl stones. They were also firing rubber bullets and gas. In Avenida de mayo, the concentration of people, moving in and away as the gas flew then dispersed. Closer in, a couple of hundred facing the danger. It was a battle scene. My first reaction was anger and incredulity, and these kept me returning with the smaller number who refused to be driven out of the plaza. (El pueblo no se va! The people don't retreat!) But at one point a terrible sadness and sickness in my stomach hit me, and the urge to cry. This was a terrible scene, what was happening was terrible. On the face of it it's terrible - violence, pain, fear, horses wounded, a beautiful palm tree on fire - but what made me sick with sadness was looking at it all from a step back and wondering, what's behind this? and, What now? What can we achieve here? what are 'they' hoping/waiting for? The vanguard of police was soon joined by the rows that had been lined in front of the casa rosada and they rushed forward in timed moves, sending the people fleeing. I was carrying a bottle of water which i shared with anyone whose agony was apparent. There was a water tap nearby, a crowd converged on it after every assault.

Again and again i stopped to look about me at the people; these were office workers, apartment dwellers. What was happening here was a movement that could mean the salvation of this almost beaten country, if only.... But the euphoria about cavallo's going, and the joy at the expectation that de la rua will be next are misplaced. Who is waiting in the wings? Menem, close buddies with Bush, recently paying visits to military leaders? He must wait until 2003, but the road seems paved. Whatever the individual cards that are played, it's certain that this has been foreseen, if not actually planned, and that there is a packet sealed and waiting to be opened. It's that that gives me the same sense of frustrated powerlessness as ever, even as just a few blocks away hundreds or thousands of argentinians are shouting, ARGENTINA!! and vowing their solidarity. It's the sensation that we are, now as ever, manipulated, and that we can never win. Supposing even that this was the much mythologised revolution, what next? There is strong alternative ready to take this people into a truly new world.

I'm going back to the plaza. I hear there is one person dead. It doesn't surprise me. With the bullets flying, i felt danger and fear stalking around me. And just now the chico here tells me that one of the men whose supermarket was sacked - a chinese man whose despair i found terrible to witness on the tv at 3.30am as i was making my way home - committed suicide today.

Just a couple of hours ago de la rua made a long-awaited speech; the hope and expectation was that he would announce his resignation, but he said... nothing. While his police fire on 'his' people with bullets and cannisters of gas, he called for peace - and asked for suggestions from the people! The man who has the grave responsibility of managing the fates of 35000 peole in a third world country now erupting in the most severe social crisis in a decade, is asking for ideas from the people. If only the people really were capable of taking the reins. Then this chaos would have meaning, the tragedy would be a step towards hope; the end of an era of misery and the beginning of something new. Ojala! /If only!

Friday, 21 December 2001 10:51

I had just pressed the Send button, when i heard the announcement: de la rua is resigning. What the fuck that speech two hours ago was all about god knows! One thing¿s sure, they'll be celebrating in the streets. I'm going to join for that ... but the question remains, Now what - or, rather - who?

My personal bet is something that was hinted at some few months ago, a coalition govt, in which the US will most certainly play a typically dominant role. There is a song here that is almost a national hymn: 'Cambia, todo cambia'. Today, leaving the battle zone, I heard it in the street, and thought, Cambia, nada cambia. So sad.

catherine cecilia

Background notes from weekly update on the americas


Argentine economy minister Domingo Cavallo announced on Dec. 14 that the government was paying $700 million due that day on Treasury bonds, averting a default on Argentina's $132 billion public debt. Officials said they now had the cash on hand to meet the government's debt obligations for the next two months, despite a refusal by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to disburse a $1.26 billion credit unless Argentina manages to impose a new round of austerity [see Update #619]. To make its debt payments, Argentina is forcing private pension funds to buy government bonds, raising the cash it needs to pay creditors. Deputy Economy Minister Daniel Marx said government officials would continue to use pension fund money to meet other debts later this month. Also on Dec. 14, Marx confirmed reports that he was resigning. He insisted that he was leaving for personal reasons, but Economy Ministry sources said Marx had differences with Cavallo's policy, announced on Nov. 30, of restricting cash withdrawals from bank accounts. Marx was considered a key part of the economic team because his contacts with foreign banks were useful in negotiations for restructuring the date. Marx is being replaced by Economic Planning Secretary Guillermo Mondino, a Cavallo ally. [CNN en Espanol 12/14/01 from Reuters; Miami Herald 12/15/01 from AP] Despite the frenzied efforts to avoid default, the British daily Financial Times concludes, "the Argentine debt crisis is entering its decisive phase; there are no escape routes left." Government policies "constitute default in all but name. Devaluation is a reality on the street of Buenos Aires," where pesos are down 20% against the US dollar, to which they are officially pegged. The IMF's refusal to disburse more funds means it has "stopped throwing good money after bad." The main concern for foreign investors now is "curbing the contagion." "A chaotic Argentine debt default or devaluation would still severely test the international financial system. Brazil would have the most to fear...." [FT 12/10/01] ARGENTINA: STRIKING, VOTING AND LOOTING

While Argentine officials scrambled to meet international debt obligations, the country's main labor federations held a massive 24-hour strike on Dec. 13 to protest the government's neoliberal austerity policies and its restrictions on cash withdrawals. It was the seventh national strike against the economy policies of centrist president Fernando de la Rua, and the third in the past six months [see Updates #593, 599]. It was called by the "official" General Confederation of Workers (CGT), the largest confederation, which is headed by Rodolfo Daer and is linked to the opposition centrist Justicialist Party (PJ, Peronist); the more radical "dissident" CGT, headed by trucker leader Hugo Moyano; and the leftist Argentine Workers Central (CTA), headed by Victor De Gennaro. The strike was nearly total in the sectors where the unions are strongest: public transportation, civil service, health care, and schools and universities. The Buenos Aires daily Clarin reports that the job action also had unprecedented support among private sector workers and among "professionals, technicians, academics and other workers not very friendly to unions." The general consensus was that it was the most successful general strike to date against the De la Rua government. The government itself calculated that the strike was observed by 59% of the workers--a slightly lower figure than the government's 60% estimate for the general strike in June 2000. The strike was generally peaceful, but there were incidents of violence in some provincial cities, especially those hit hardest by the country's three-year old recession. A dozen people were injured and 10 arrested in Neuquen in confrontations between police and protesters which also resulted in broken windows and the destruction of several cars. Protesters threw rocks through the windows of banks in Cordoba province. In Pergamino, Buenos Aires province, a group of demonstrators entered the municipal building, where they started a fire and caused other damage. A union leader was wounded in Rosario, Santa Fe province, when an angry newspaper vendor shot him in the thigh. State workers in San Juan threw eggs at two legislators. [Clarin 12/14/01] The radical CTA federation was using the strike to build support for an unofficial referendum it was promoting for Dec. 14-17. The National Front Against Poverty, the referendum's sponsor, is hoping that 1 million Argentines will vote on a proposal for Employment and Education Security legislation that would guarantee a $380 monthly income for the families of the unemployed, with an additional stipend for each child under 18 and for seniors without other insurance [see Update #608]. Organizers have set up 20,000 ballot boxes in public spaces in 579 localities around the country for the referendum, the first of its kind in Argentina. The proposal is supported by a number of Congress members, and it was approved by the Chamber of Deputies' Labor Committee on Nov. 20. [Clarin 12/15/01] Some 32 people were arrested in incidents of attempted looting at supermarkets in poor neighborhoods in Rosario on Dec. 14, and 10 were arrested in the city of Mendoza. Hundreds of people were involved in a total of six incidents in Rosario. In all cases, police and private guards kept the crowds from entering the stores. In the Empalme Graneros neighborhood in the northwest of the city, the police used rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of almost 400; one youth suffered light injuries. In Mendoza a group of 40 men and women overpowered guards at a store of the Atomo Avellaneda chain and carried away rice, flour, pasta, mate (an herbal tea), milk and cooking oil. There was a similar incident at another of the chain's stores on Dec. 13. The police prevented three other attempted lootings. Supermarket lootings occurred frequently in Argentina during a period of hyperinflation in 1989. [Clarin 12/15/01] *12. MEXICO: NEW EVIDENCE ON 1968 MASSACRE

On Dec. 9 the left-leaning Mexican weekly Proceso published 21 previously unknown photographs apparently taken by a government photographer on the night of Oct. 2, 1968, when soldiers and police agents killed as many as 300 student protesters and their supporters in the Tlatelolco housing project in downtown Mexico City. The photographs, which were delivered anonymously to the magazine's Madrid correspondent, show young men in their underwear being processed by soldiers and undercover agents, some of whom are wearing a single white glove on the left hand. The government has repeatedly dismissed survivors' accounts that the massacre was started by agents provocateurs from a special security force called the Olympia Battalion; the students said the agents wore the white gloves so they could recognize each other. [New York TImes 12/13/01] On Dec. 10, the day after the photographs were published, an anonymous source telephoned the daily La Jornada to offer photographs and other previously unpublished official documents on the massacre. The material, which was published on Dec. 15, documents a number of cases of students processed after the massacre and taken to Military Camp Number 1 in Mexico City; it also includes summaries of autopsies of some protesters and soldiers killed at Tlatelolco and in confrontations in the months leading up to the incident. According to La Jornada, the documents, which were produced by the Attorney General's Office (PGR) and the now-defunct Federal Security Directorate (DFS), refute 33 years of government denials of "the existence of detainees and disappeared in Military Camp Number 1." [LJ 12/15/01; El Nuevo Herald (Miami) 12/16/01 from AFP] The revelations came just two weeks after the government's own National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) blamed the government for at least 275 disappearances in a "dirty war" against leftists in the 1970s and early 1980s [see Update #618]. Last year President Vicente Fox Quesada, of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), promised to form a truth commission to investigate crimes the government committed under the long-ruling centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); the revelations seem likely to increase the pressure on him to carry out his promise. [NYT 12/13/01]


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