Today I woke up to the sounds of beating drums and honking car horns. The longer I listened, the more I realized it wasn’t from an ordinary street performance or regular traffic. The beats from the drums were strong, insistent, march-like; the car horns were likewise rhythmical and consistent, unlike the long, angry blasts fueled by road rage. Plus, the sounds went on for an unusually long time, about an hour. Afterward, when I walked down to the corner, I saw a long line of police motorcycles there, with at least six police officers standing beside them.
Looks like the protests have begun.
I had been told before we came to Argentina that protests were a nigh daily occurrence. However, I experienced my first one only last week, and by that time we’d been in Buenos Aires for more than two weeks. We were getting off a train at the Carabobo (truly as fun to say as it looks) subway station when we heard steady clapping and drumming noises. At first I thought nothing of it; street performances and musicians are common.
Imagine my surprise, then, when we emerged street-side and discovered that not only was a protest going on, but also that we were smack-dab in the middle of it. More than 500 people were blocking traffic on Avenida Rivadavia — a wide, 4-lane street that is a major artery in the city. Many of them waved Argentina flags; most carried signs broadcasting their disapproval of Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner and the current government. I saw everything from toddlers tootling on plastic horns to senior citizens yelling. Everywhere it seemed people were chanting, beating on drums, banging pots, whistling, blowing noisemakers and/or clapping their hands. Many of the cars that came to the blocked intersection honked their horns in staccato sympathy.
Graffiti in Buenos Aires often makes a political statement. This one says, “Let’s keep fighting for the revolution. Communist revolution.”
Though the protest was passionate, it was peaceful while we were there. I didn’t see any scuffles, rocks thrown and/or looting, which I somewhat expected given the large amounts of barely suppressed anger and people. Even as we walked away, more people were streaming toward it. Later, I was told that similar protests occurred at the same time throughout the country.
I’m amazed by all this political activity, maybe more so because it’s a 180-degree turnaround from the “don’t ask, don’t tell — and it never happened” policy (unofficial, of course) in Bangkok, Thailand. Even the graffiti is politicized in Buenos Aires. Besides the usual, colorful balloon letters denoting a tagger’s territory, it’s not uncommon to see long scrawls about the government/missing people/the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands on the sides of buildings.
I can’t say I’m looking forward to another protest. There is a certain sickening excitement about them, but there’s also dread — things could turn sour, very quickly. (Don’t worry, parentals: I didn’t feel like we were in any danger during that first protest. I also want to point out that life returns to “normal” very quickly once the protests ends.) My discomfort has more to do with how to react to them than concerns for safety. As an outsider looking in, I thought it would be weird for me to clap along, and yet I felt oddly disloyal if I didn’t. And to stand there watching seemed to turn the protest into a spectacle for my own amusement. (I am, in general, averse to confrontation and tension used as entertainment. For example, watching Jerry Springer/Jersey Shore/Real Housewives grosses me out.) To treat the protests as just another fact of life seems callous.
Life being what it is, though, I feel like the latter will inevitably happen. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. If this morning’s activities are any indication, I shouldn’t have to wait very long.