The cameras cut to a shot of the barricaded school — as if it was just another mundane news story. As I watched television with my host mother in her Buenos Aires apartment, I was shocked to hear that the city’s most prestigious public high school had been taken over by its students. They were demanding that the building’s facilities be improved. As an American student, the thought of privileged 17-year-olds sleeping over in their barricaded school was inconceivable, yet awe-inspiring. This sort of thing was only imaginable in American children’s books. Yet this is what happens in Argentina.
During the six weeks I studied in Argentina, I saw a rich culture, but also poverty and corruption unlike anything else I’d previously seen. As the campo crisis between the country’s Peronista government and landowning farmers escalated, I was startled by the ineffectiveness of the legislature and by the government’s public spectacles. Yet more importantly, I also saw a tradition of direct political action unknown nowadays in the United States.
The campo conflict began in March when President Christina Kirchner and her husband Nestor, the former president, unconstitutionally raised taxes on agricultural exports. Despite the immediate controversy, it took the government deputies over three months to convene and discuss the issue, finally rejecting the proposal by a narrow margin in July. Thus the situation was at its most volatile during our June stay in the country’s capital.
Although the increased revenue from the raised tax was supposedly to fight poverty and build new schools, roads and hospitals, the opposition claimed that Kirchner was using it to fund political payoffs and bribes.
At the height of the conflict, both the pro-government and pro-farmer groups fought to gain public support. After members of the middle class took to the streets in mid-June to show solidarity with the farmers, the government quickly retaliated, staging a pro-government demonstration two days later in Buenos Aires’s main square, Plaza de Mayo.
Ignoring our professors’ and host families’ pleas not to attend, some fellow students and I brashly went to the event. We received dirty looks from demonstrators for blatantly being tourists. Amidst the chants, flares and sea of Argentine flags, I was struck by the seeming political fervor of the hordes of young hooligans. Only later did my host mother, a middle-class speech therapist, tell me that these “supporters” are supposedly bribed with money, alcohol or drugs to attend these protests and back the government.
This event exemplified modern-day Peronismo as I experienced it: a less-extreme neo-Fascism built on mirages of support.
Juan Peron became president by finally reaching out to the lower-classes (especially the ever-powerful, ever-conservative labor unions) after they had been ignored and oppressed by decades of oligarchies. Yet Peron’s actual impact on the classes who unyieldingly supported him remains controversial. With the help of his charismatic second wife Eva, Peron’s political spectacles were a centerpiece of his presidency. As I watched the crowd wait in anticipation for Kirchner to speak, I could not help but draw parallels to Peron’s reign. A fellow student even noticed that Christina looked to be trying to emulate Evita’s mannerisms during her speech.
The Peronista party still retains a monopoly over the country’s political landscape. Despite a broad spectrum of stances within Peronismo, most other parties, such as a variety of leftist groups and some right-wing groups, have hardly any influence. Beside Argentina, for the most part, South America is a continent with a strong present-day leftist movement. Despite the activism of young people and the fact that Ché Guevara is an Argentine national hero and not just a marketing icon, left-wing organizations are, for the most part, fringe groups for idealistic intellectuals.
But despite the many problems that Argentina faces today, there does seem to be the possibility for hope. During the recent decades of political turmoil, Argentinians, especially the middle class, have learned to stand up for themselves. They’ve learned to bring about political change through collective action, whether through incessant strikes or the famous cacerolazo — when crowds of middle-class women rushed to the streets to bang on casseroles and express their discontent toward President Carlos Menem during the economic crash of 2001.
In a country where each individual’s potential for political action is so palpable, change does indeed seem possible — more than an election-season buzzword. After everything that has occurred in Argentina’s recent history, there’s real cause to hope.