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Chávez speaks, I respond

03/30/2011

(NOTE: I know I promised photos from the memory sites in my last post, but WordPress’s photo-uploading is extremely slow and frustrating to use. I’ll be posting all photos to my Facebook page, with the occasional few inserted in-text here. The links to each Facebook album are on the Links tab above. Photos from the memory sites are in the album marked Part 2.)

It doesn’t get much more surreal than this.

That would be Venezuelan president and constant U.S. State Department headache Hugo Chávez Frías, live and in person.

So imagine this: an upper-middle class American student standing in a crowd of Argentines in front of an open-air stage in La Plata, watching the infamous Chávez speak at a ceremony in his honor. That’s the situation I found myself in last night. The Universidad Nacional de La Plata awarded him the “Premio Rodolfo Walsh Presidente Latinoamericano por la Comunicación Popular” (the “Rodolfo Walsh Latin American President Prize for Popular Communication”). Rodolfo Walsh was a journalist who was a vocal opponent of the 1976 military junta, one of the first people to describe in detail the crimes of the regime, and himself a desaparecido. I’m not sure whether it’s ironic or not that an Argentine university awarded Hugo Chávez a prize named after a victim of state repression. Depends on your point of view.

For his part, Chávez didn’t deviate much from his usual script: the fight of the pueblos in South America and around the world against Yankee imperialism; the “vampire” of capitalism that drains the life from Latin American economies; his continuing adoration for Fidel Castro; and of course, the invocation of Che Guevara, Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, and other famous political figures as inspiration for the cause of the working class and for his self-described “Revolución Bolivariana” in Venezuela. Neither did he miss a chance to take a shot at his favorite target, attacking the US and developed European nations for their current joint military action against Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. He compared it to the Nazi bombardments of Spanish civilians during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

With this kind of bombastic rhetoric, it’s often difficult for Americans to understand why Chávez is so popular with so many people. Watching him in action, in his element among a friendly crowd of fellow South Americans, it makes a whole lot more sense. He’s barrel-chested and tan with a deep, sonorous speaking voice that commands attention. Although he tends to ramble, wandering from Fidel anecdotes to quotations from Eduardo Galeano to interpretations of historical events that support his point of view, he always manages to reach a climax of emotion to reel the crowd back in. And he knows his audience; he made a point of praising the late Nestor Kirchner and his presidential successor/wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which got healthy cheers from the Peronista youths. Chávez even joined the crowd in a few chants himself. He’s definitely a pro.

But as far as I can tell, people aren’t being tricked or enchanted by Chávez. He tells them what they want to hear, what they already understand as part of their history. The people I’ve interacted with here all seem to follow a fairly Marxist interpretation of historical events: that there is a dominant class intent on accumulating money and power, and a working class that suffers under its rule. Under this model, the United States of America, its economic and cultural interests, and the people of developing nations that do business with those interests are the dominant class, the bourgeoise. The rest of the population never sees the benefits of free trade with the US, because the money ends up concentrated in just a few hands. Hence Chávez’s “vampire” analogy for capitalism.

So what did I think? What was I feeling, standing in the crowd as Hugo Chávez blasted my home and native land and essentially equated us with the Nazis? I can sum up my feelings in the actions of one of my fellow W&M students. He unzipped his backpack, pulled out a sleeve of Thin Mints, offered me one and told me, “Don’t forget who you are.” He was only half joking.

I want to understand the Argentines. I want to get comfortable in their culture and I want to make great friends here. And although I find myself falling in love with this country, I can’t change who I am.

I’m a UConn Huskies fan, a Glastonbury High School graduate, a College of William and Mary student. I grew up in a stable, two-parent home in a wealthy town in what is quite possibly the best country to live in on the whole planet. Am I proud of everything our government and our people have done? No way. Am I proud to be a citizen of the United States of America?

Damn straight, I am.

Sometimes a little pride isn’t such a bad thing.

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Terrorismo del Estado and the history of a dictatorship

03/19/2011

On Wednesday we drove into Buenos Aires (BsAs) to visit two sites that commemorate the victims of the last military dictatorship of 1976-1983. For context, I’m going to attempt to explain the basics of what happened during this period. If you don’t feel like reading a history lesson on a travel blog, I completely understand. To be honest, this is as much a way for me to continue processing what I’ve learned as it is a way to share the information with you all. I’ll put up some pictures from the two memory sites in a separate post.

At various times during the 20th century the Argentine military perpetrated a number of coups (“golpes del estado”) when its leaders felt it necessary to restore order, dismantle a corrupt democratic government, or simply remove an elected leader that did not serve their interests. The officers involved would call new elections within three or four years and democracy would resume. The final coup of 1976 was different.

In that year, a particularly brutal and repressive military junta overthrew the democratically elected government during a period of significant political violence, supposedly to restore “order.” These far-right generals were backed by big business, wealthy landowners, and for the most part the higher-ups in the Catholic Church. Their agenda involved the destruction of the various leftist guerrilla groups that had sprung up since the early 1960s, strict control (read: repression) of political and social activity, a return to “Western, Christian values,” and, perhaps most importantly, a program of neoliberal free-market economic reform.

While previous military governments had certainly engaged in varying degrees of repression, the junta of 1976 sunk to inhuman depths. During its seven years in power, but especially from 1976 to 1979, the military pursued a shockingly brutal campaign of what is now referred to as “Terrorismo del Estado” (“State Terrorism”). This consisted of the systematic kidnapping, detention, torture, and murder of anyone suspected of being a “subversive,” which was a convenient blanket term for anyone the military felt opposed its interests and those of its backers.

The prisoners, many of them high school and university students, both men and women, would be abducted by teams of plainclothes military members and/or police officers from their homes or on the street, night or day. Usually the kidnappers looted the houses for valuables, clothes, and luxury items for their personal use or to fund the military’s operations. The prisoners were taken to clandestine detention centers throughout the country and tortured to force them to name names of other “subversives.” Most of them were then executed, either by firing squad or by the notorious “death flights,” where groups of detainees were drugged, loaded on airplanes, and thrown, still breathing, into the Rio de la Plata.

In hundreds of cases, pregnant women were among those kidnapped. After the birth of their children, they would be executed and the military would give the newborns to families considered friendly to the government or beyond suspicion. To this day there are Argentines discovering that they had been raised by adopted parents after their biological parents were kidnapped and killed by the military.

It is estimated that more than 30,000 people were “disappeared” during the dictatorship. To this day many of their remains have not been found or identified. This number does not include the hundreds of people who were also detained and tortured but managed to avoid execution, or those forced into exile. The military as an organization never admitted to its crimes and in fact engaged in a massive misinformation campaign during and after its rule, claiming that the desaparecidos were guerrillas killed in combat or runaways who had fled the country and were living abroad under assumed names.

The massive national trauma of the dictatorship has left Argentines desperate for a way to process their grief and come to grips with the past. One trend that has emerged since the return to democratic rule in 1983 is the creation of memory sites. Whether parks, preserved former detention centers, monuments, or just a plaque on a wall, these sites serve as places to commemorate the victims, advocate for the protection of human rights, and commit to the mantra taken from the title of a 1984 investigative report on the dictatorship: “Nunca Mas” (“Never Again”).

Better a month late than never

03/14/2011

One month in. One-fifth of my time here has come and gone. I left in winter one night and arrived in summer the next morning. Fall is just around the corner. In July, I’ll swap winter for summer once again. Nice symmetry.

In a lot of ways, my timing was perfect. It’s an election year, with political debates flying fast and thick. Futbol season is in full swing. The Copa America will be played here this year in La Plata’s newly-renovated 40,000-person stadium. And I made it in time for the last couple weeks of Carnaval celebrations. Not to mention that I escaped the tail end of the worst winter I can remember to arrive in gloriously sweaty 90-degree heat.

The highlights of the first month:

1. Attending the grand reopening ceremony of the Estadio Único with my host mom, Silvina. Presidenta Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was there. So were the first two men to get married in Argentina after the legalization of gay marriage. Fuerza Bruta performed (http://www.fuerzabruta.net/).

2. Going with all of the W&M students minus one (whose parents visited that weekend) to Carnaval in the city of Gualeguaychú, about a three or four hour drive north from Buenos Aires. Four days of sun, pounding bass, and the biggest party I have ever seen. I have a newfound appreciation for the endurance of young Argentines. And for easily available toilet paper. Don’t ask.

3. Eating asado. Essentially Argentine beef slow-cooked on a charcoal grill. Unbelievable.

4. The seeming abundance of really good ice cream.

4b. Dulce de leche.

4c. Who am I kidding? All the food here is awesome.

5. Seeing Club Atlético River Plate play at their stadium in Buenos Aires. River is one of the two famous Buenos Aires futbol clubs; the other is Boca Juniors. You are not allowed to be a fan of both. I’m waiting to pick sides until I get the chance to see a game at Boca’s stadium.

6. Seeing a tango show in the La Boca barrio of BsAs.

7. Learning how to drink and prepare mate. Think of the strongest, most bitter cup of tea you’ve ever had. Mate is stronger than that. You get used to it.

8. Touring the Casa Rosada and standing in the Plaza de Mayo, the heart of Argentine political history.

9. Every time I meet someone new and think, “Argentines are incredibly friendly. This country is awesome.”

Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been perfect. I have my homesick moments. Times where I think, “I wish the crew from Monroe 1st freshman year was here to laugh with me about this” or “dang, my brother would love this asado” or “Wow, my parents would be amazed at this wall mural.” And there are annoyances; sometimes the dogs who live on the floor above me drive me nuts barking at stray cats at 7 in the morning, I still don’t have the slightest understanding of the bus routes here, and you can’t get a pretzel anywhere. But you know what? Of course I’ll have moments of homesickness and of course there will be some culture shock, but when those moments come the most important thing to remember will be “Oh, wait, that’s right…you are living in Argentina!”

Not that I’m excited or anything.