Today's the day before the traditionally acknowledged beginning of summer in Argentina. Although nobody pays much attention to seasons here (except Spring, which has its own day), everyone "knows" that they start on the 21st day of March, June, September and December. Very few people know that this is because that's a good approximation of the date of the solstices and equinoxes; those who do know believe that the 21st is the exact date (of what, they can't really explain). Back in September, I remember my shodō teacher being perplexed that spring had a fixed starting date; in Japan, naturally, spring begins when it begins (i.e. when the weather becomes springy enough). As is to be expected in these times of global warming and climate chaos, we've had summery weather for months, mixed with colder spells, and lately, storms and copious rain that would really look better at the beginning of autumn. Needless to say, after the hail (which will live in legend), people get really edgy as soon as the sky turns dark. I don't have a car, and I don't use umbrellas, so I just get soaked when I can't avoid it.
Today's also the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the unraveling of Argentina... or the end of its unraveling in other way... or both. On 20 December 2001, after riots and lootings in Buenos Aires, Rosario and other large cities, a lot of people gathered at Plaza de Mayo in BA, defying president De la Rúa's state of emergency, and were met with harsh repression by the police, who killed 5 people. De la Rúa resigned and fled the Casa Rosada in a helicopter. In the following days, Argentina had 3 interim presidents appointed, who resigned one after another; on 1 January 2002, the fourth, Eduardo Duhalde, accepted his appointment. He stayed, more-or-less got things in order, called for elections, and on 25 May 2003 he relinquished power to Néstor Kirchner. You can read about that in the Wikipedia article linked above and the one about the economic crisis. I'm not interested in giving this explanation all over again, since this was in all the papers here and many abroad; reviews and analyses of the crisis have been written ad nauseam.
I was home at the time... Rosario was affected by the riots and everybody who could had stayed home (I seem to remember I was let off work those days). I watched the clash between demonstrators and police, and De la Rúa's flight. It seemed unreal. In 1989 we'd seen another president, Raúl Alfonsín, declare a state of emergency suspending constitutional guarantees in Rosario, and then resign amid the chaos, but I was only 13 back then and I have no clear recollection of that time, except being afraid of going up the roof to watch, as rubber bullets flew blocks away, and being told not to stay outside past 6 PM because of the police curfew. This time I was actually aware that this was an inflection point in history, but I didn't get how this could actually be happening, and didn't want De la Rúa to resign -- I wanted him to understand, and the other politicians to help. Silly me, De la Rúa was too much up to his neck in the mess he had inherited from Menem and then helped grow; and the others were like sharks smelling the blood of a fresh victim.
The day was called the Argentinazo, and the media and the popular lore now speak of the time before as "the 1990s", "the time of Convertibility", "the 1-to-1" -- the Law of Convertibility, which fixed the exchange rate at 1 Argentine peso for 1 US dollar, defined the whole decade, a time of reckless consumption, travels abroad for the rich, imported electronics for everyone, lack of political debate, artificial "stability", the mindless support of most of the citizenry for a president that had promised a "salary boom" and a "productive revolution" and gave us only the dismantlement of local industry, massive poverty, a vulgar display of corruption, frivolity and waste, and the exile of many tired families and of promising young minds. De la Rúa's flight marked the end of all that for those who hadn't seen it coming; and Duhalde's decission to end the Convertibility ushered in a new era and the painful return to reality: the reality that Argentina was broke and that it was a Third World Latin American country with delusions of grandeur, not a First World newcomer.
Those things took years to digest. But 20 December remains a special day... one that should be never forgotten. There have been commemorative demonstrations in Rosario and Buenos Aires (see La Nación and Clarín). Página/12 has a lot of editorials in a special section today. It's a shame that these are just demonstrations asking for justice for the victims and often claiming they were heroes, militants, fighters, as if that was the important thing -- the important thing is that people took the streets and some got killed and a constitutional government was allowed to get to such a point of disconnection with the people that they had to force it out; the important thing to have in mind is the marvelous, horrific power of the people. The demonstrations were led by groups of people: a sample of extreme-left micro-parties here, some radicalized members of student councils over there, a number of piqueteros... everyone with banners and badges, factionalized, divided, with their own baggage of ideological resentment (against the government, the IMF, the police, the United States) that has nothing to do with the victims of 20 December or its true significance. And the rest of us happily strolling past and around them. La Capital hit the nail right on its head with an unusually bitter editorial statement in the coverage of Rosario's demonstration:
The more than 500 people who participated in the march did so under the banners of some of the "more than 50 organizations" that make up the Multisectorial Rosario. The middle class, who went outside in December 2001, pot in hand, asking for De la Rúa and Domingo Cavallo's resignation after they found themselves unable to withdraw more than 150 pesos per day from the ATMs, was [now] busy doing the Christmas shopping, and more than a few asked what the demonstration was about.I was there in 2001, miraculously with a job, working in a public hospital where we were paid months after schedule, and where the poor came to get attention and often we were unable to provide them with X-ray film or analgesics. And I'm here today, just back from Christmas shopping and getting myself ready for vacations in the Andes. I don't feel exactly guilty, though maybe I should. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.