Thoughts on Argentina's Conjunctures :: Recuperating Work, Recovering Life (2005-2007)

Friday, July 29, 2005

Witnessing the political on the street in Buenos Aires: Flaneuring from 9 de Julio to Plaza de Mayo

Avenida 9 de Julio
I begin my walk through the cultural and political centre of Buenos Aires in the middle of what is ostensibly the widest street in the world: the 9 de Julio ("nueve de julio"). Protected from the chaotic pace of the waves of incessant traffic all around me by the wide centre boulevard I’m standing on, I close my eyes and listen. I hear the movement of Buenos Aires, the rumble of the "Reina de La Plata" ("the Queen of the Plate") – it is a velvety cacophony of white noise and dull grumbles interspersed with the staccato of car horns. I feel the rumble of the avenue below my feet throughout my body and think of it as the eternal gesticulations and movements of this vast, concrete Gran Aldea ("Great Village").

The traffic surrounding me – half of it made up of the infamous black and yellow cabs that pulse through this city 24/7 – allegorizes the vast Rio de la Plata located about three kilometres east of where I’m standing. Indeed, the broad boulevard can be seen as a mechanized version of the murky river. Like the Plata collects and pushes through the silt and sediments of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers that flow into it, the 9 de Julio collects the traffic of this city and redirects it southward and northward in steady streams of rubber and metal and flesh. Like the brown waves of the Plata caressing Buenos Aires’s riverfront, the unremitting flow of the polluted waves of traffic caresses the edge of the grey island perch I stand on in the middle of this vast metallic and concrete river of speed. The 9 de Julio is in constant motion, every day, all year, facilitating the daily north-south movements of porteños without discriminating whether its local navigators are bourgeoisie, middle class, working class, tourists, or cartoneros (the cardboard and bottle collectors and recyclers that populate Buenos Aires's streets at night).

Avenida de Mayo
I hurriedly cross the remaining half of the 9 de Julio and head east along the Avenida de Mayo (May Avenue). I leave behind the turbulent river of traffic and enter one of its slightly more pacified tree-lined tributaries. I’m walking on the southern bank of the street. From this vantage point the tides of traffic of this stately avenue flow towards me on my left. The traffic looks like it’s emerging from the Casa Rosada (the Pink House), the seat of Argentina's executive branch of government, barely visible between the overhanging branches about a kilometre east from where I am now. Each side of the avenue is lined with ornate French and Spanish neoclassical style apartment buildings not exceeding ten stories. The sidewalk is wide – roughly four to five meters. From here it is easy to understand why Buenos Aires is nicknamed the “Paris of the South” by travel writers. This ornate cityscape is occasionally broken by the straight and functional modernist designs of the street’s more contemporary office towers, such as the HSBC bank headquarters at Av. de Mayo 701. The architectural exhibit in this part of Av. de Mayo teaches the judicious observer what the late 19th century ambitions for Argentina were, while alluding to what that vision actually became: The ostentatious neoclassical facades crowned by their peaked cupolas – to a large extent product of late 19th century Buenos Aires mayor Torquato de Alvear´s Parisian vision for the city – remind the onlooker of the cosmopolitan, European, and sophisticated society Argentina has always wanted to be; the few functional, boxy, tattered-looking skyscrapers that share this avenue’s streescape are insipid witnesses to the enfeebled neoliberal orphan Argentina has become.

Avenida de Mayo and Calle Peru
I walk on eastward along Av. de Mayo and come to a protest festival with musicians performing on a mobile stage looking south onto the pedestrianized Calle Peru and backing onto Av. de Mayo. Written on a large sky blue and white banner acting as a backdrop is the event’s consigna, or the slogan underscoring the political demands that the festival wants to highlight: “Expropiación definitiva - Hotel Bauen.” The political festival is happening towards the end of Buenos Aires's financial district's, the Microcentro's, work day; it’s now about 3 p.m. The stream of people running their daily chores criss-crosses with those who decide to stop and watch the bands and listen to the political speeches.

That the Hotel Bauen’s workers are staging the festival in front of the city of Buenos Aires’s government house, and a mere half-block from the city’s legislative buildings, is no coincidence. The city’s councillors are, at this very moment, debating the expropriation law that could secure the Bauen workers’ right to run the hotel, located a few kilometers west of this spot near the nation's Congress, free from the control of its former boss and without hassle from the city’s authorities. The festival’s intention, according to the articulate president of the Bauen’s worker-run cooperative in his speach from the pulpit of the temporary stage, is to “soften” (ablandar) the block of councillors who are stubbornly opposing the expropriation law for the hotel at this very moment.

The joy of the music counteracts the broader sombre undertone of the event: recovering jobs for Argentina’s burgeoning unemployed and underemployed classes. Argentina’s political realities seem to often be infused with the pleasures of its social rituals - drinking mate, participating in public musical festival, watching futból on Sunday afternoons, smoking, debating politics, interchanging chismes (gossip) with friends. Even when grappling with the gravest of issues, joy seems to be often be ready-to-hand. Here, this public festival, sponsored by the Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (National movement of Recovered Enterprises), is situated, purposefully, in the middle of the commotion of everyday porteño life. In its collective concsiousness, its discourses, and its practices, the political and quotidian merge constantly in Argentina. This often pushes the political onto the street.

The threeway intersection of Calle Hipolito Irigoyen, Calle Bolivar, and Avenida Julio A. Roca, kitty-corner to the Plaza de Mayo
I leave the festival and walk east towards the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires’s symbolic and real centre of national power. Seduced by the chronic smokers that walk by me, I give in to my craving and duck into a kiosco to buy a pack of Philip Morris blandos (lights).

After negotiating my way through the crowded space under the portico of the colonial Cabildo (Buenos Aires's first municipal hall), I cross the street and begin to walk up Irigoyen, immediately south-west of the Plaza de Mayo. I pass by a café on the corner of Julio A. Roca and Irigoyen called “Gran Victoria”. I peer in and see people leisurely sipping café cortados (strong espresso with a shot of steamed milk) and dobles (double espressos). In the main window of the café glossy empanadas (Argentiean meat pasties) and media lunas (croissants) invite passers-by to pause from the intense speed of work life, if only for a few minutes, and surrender themselves to the pleasures of these Argentinean delicacies. Next to the café a police officer guards the corner with vacuous indifference. He is obviously lost in some daydream. While the state constantly invigilates, if ineffectually so, Argentinean society, drowsiness often sets in at around 3:45 in the afternoon.

I pass by a magazine stand overstuffed with books, magazines, pornography, maps, and the dozen or so dailies that saturate the porteño’s lust for news, sex, and gossip. The myriad magazine stands that occupy the city´s street corners seem to provide empirical evidence supporting the commonly-held – yet now mistaken – belief that Argentina is one of the most literate societies in the world. While Argentina once did enjoy an almost 99% literacy rate, this is quickly becoming an historical curiosity as the country continues to suffer through its neoliberal hangover. Many once middle and working class Argentineans continue to slip below the poverty line daily, the poor now making up around 50% to 60% of the country’s population, depending on who you read. And, with many of this country's children malnourished, a decreased capacity to learn is heightened by inadequate educational resources, adding to the country's immiserated condition.

On the wall to my right, as I walk under the promenade of one of the numerous federal government and bank buildings that surround the Plaza de Mayo, I read, in grammatically questionable Spanish (a sign of the diminishing literacy rate amongst the working class?), the following graffiti: “Todo estado es represor” ("All state (sic) is repressive") and "Policia asesinos del pueblo!" ("Police assassins (sic) of the people"). Another graffiti artist decided at one point to leave his communist sentiments on one of the columns of the promenade. I can’t make out what the consigna says because the stenciled graffito is faded, but I can still make out the hammer and sickle which, despite its age, continues to exude its ideological residue to passers-by. This reminds me of Argentina’s fractured left and the faded dreams of revolution that the vanguardist party once promised. I read yet another piece of graffito, this time anarchist. It reads “Autogestión obrera” ("Self-management for workers") surrounded by several circled As. This is more in line with the political tendencies of many of the social movements of the left, such as the empresas recuperadas (recovered enterprises) movement like the participants of the Bauen protest I just left behind. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this graffito looks newer than the others I read nearby.

A half-block later, another café with another magazine stand in front of it. The magazine stand is just as overflowing and seductive as the last one. The café is also just as sensually alluring as the one I just walked by at the other end of the block. The same middle and moneyed classes that were lounging in the previous café also people this one. And something trivial but nevertheless telling just hits me: I realize that I’ve never seen a café completely full in this city because there are so many of them. The limited choices of the poor, the homeless, and jobless contrasts sharply with the infinite amount of life choices enjoyed by Buenos Aires’s moneyed classes. For them, this is a city of unlimited abundance and possibilities. For a growing population of poor porteños and new migrants from the interior of Argentina and neighbouring countries that come to live in Buenos Aires, however, this is an insensitive city of crippling misery and social exclusion (I'm sure Bourdieu would have much to say about the oft impermeable social stratifications distinguished by this city's cultural practices).

Plaza de Mayo
I cross Irigoyen and enter Argentina’s representational centre of power, the Plaza de Mayo. The Plaza is surrounded by symbols of Argentina's main institutional powers: the old colonial Cabildo I just walked past, the national cathedral on the north side of the plaza, the Banco de la Nacion Argentina's main headquarters, the Casa Rosada on the east side, the Ministry of the Economy's headquarters to the south-east, various foreign investment firms, and just off of the Plaza to the north-east, the headquarters of the Argentine Army and the Navy headquarters, the Ministry of Communication further to the south-eas, and the headquarters of Argentina's secret services behind the Casa Rosada. And, in case one forgets the symbols of power that encircle the Plaza de Mayo, a handful of trinket salesmen do their bit to underscore the significance of this place by, somewhat irreverently, flogging cheap knockoffs of Argentina’s national symbols: flags, escarapelas, sky blue and white pins, and maps of the country etched onto leather wall mounts. Tools all used by the state for winning the population’s consensus, these patriotic symbols, it seems, are also great fodder for extracting tourist dollars.

Today, the tourists and trinket salesmen share the plaza with the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. I had forgotten that they march around the plaza’s Pyramide today, as they have every Thursday starting at 3:30 since the early days of the last dictatorship in 1977. It seems to me that the Madres’ reclamations for “justicia y castigo” ("justice and punishment") for the impunity enjoyed by the barbarians quilty of heinous crimes against their own compatriots during the last brutal dictatorship, intermingling with la Madres' stubborn and noble desire to keep the political struggles of their disappeared children alive, are being cheapened by the symbols of the state being sold around them. Tourists add more tacky hues to the scene as they pose with broad smiles for pictures in front of las Madres who sombrely ignore the tourists and march on.

I come upon las Madres as they pass by the unemployed piqueteros (organized unemployed workers) of YPF (the former national oil company that President Menem privatized in the 1990s) who have, it seems, taken the plaza; about 15 former YPF workers have been camped out in the same spot since the first day I arrived here three and a half weeks ago. That the piqueteros are here, in the middle of Argentina’s various seats of power asking to be heard by their continuous presence in the plaza is, like the Bauen protest a few blocks away, also not coincidental. While the effects they seek – attention for their plight, new jobs – are diluted in the midst of the infinite protests that have carpeted Argentina since the financial meltdown of 2001, these piqueteros feel they are left with no other recourse, no other space to claim, no other voice. Perhaps their occupation of the Pyramide will eventually take on the same cultural and political force that the Madres’s march has. Perhaps they will eventually go away, exhausted by their invisibility despite their best efforts to be seen and heard. For many destitute Argentineans, these types of occupations seem to be the only political alternative left.

To the east of the Pyramide sit those conspicuous police fences which are stationed strategically in front of key locales of power around the city which tend to particularly attract the ire of protesters. These portable meshed barriers seem to always be ready to block an impromptu protest march.
Positioned between the Casa Rosada and the Pyramide right in the middle of the plaza and spilling onto the street to the north of the plaza, the metallic barricades of the Plaza de Mayo act as rigid sentinels that can be called to action at any time by the police in order to contain the protesters that often take the plaza and seem to spontaneously emerge out of nowhere. And patrolling the plaza on its north side, more than a dozen police officers stand idly by. The fences and police force point to the reactive force of the state that is much too often unleashed on the invigorated and active counterforce of the marginalized classes. These tools of state repression sharply contrast with the peaceful determination of the Madres’s campaign or the claims for dignity and work that make up the consignas of the piqueteros.


On my walk of Av. de Mayo between Av. 9 de Julio and the Plaza de Mayo I saw evidence of the perpetual movements and tensions of contemporary Argentinean society, as well as the ebbs and flows of Argentina’s history and politics etched into the very cityscape I entangled myself within this afternoon. The impressions I experienced on my walk was emblematic of the neurotic, if not schizophrenic, state of Argentine society that is, at once, at the capricious whim of the world’s victorious capitalist system and always at the cusp of exploding into a sequel of Dec. 19/20, 2001. Frenzied traffic, protesters, cartoneros, and piqueteros merge with workers, tourists, and the moneyed classes. In its people, its architecture, its politics, and even its graffiti and its chaos, Buenos Aires is a network of criss-crossing cultural and political veins always pulsating and alive under the greying, scarred, and wrinkling skin of the porteño city.