Manuel Belgrano (forced by circumstances and convictions to act as politician and as a military man) died at the age of 50, poor and forgotten, only eight and a half years after creating and flying the Argentine flag on two artillery batteries on opposite banks of the Paraná River, one in Rosario (then just a village) and the other on the islands of the Paraná's floodplain facing it.
For reasons unknown to me, Argentina commemorates great men and their deeds at the date of their deaths rather than their births or the actual events that made those men great. So this death anniversary is Flag Day. I wrote about it last year (Flag Day 2007), which was a big deal because it was also the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Monumento a la Bandera (Flag Memorial).
This time, however, I refrained from attending the ceremony and the parade. Besides the awful weather (cold, windy, cloudy, and threatening to rain) plus my own concern for my health (I'm still recovering from the cold I caught last weekend), there was too much going on for it to be just a festive meeting of the citizenry.
Until a few days ago, nobody knew whether Cristina Kirchner would preside over the official celebrations in Rosario, as protocol dictates. The "man in the street" view was that she would either (a) employ any excuse to avoid coming to Rosario, where she'd meet harsh popular opposition, or (b) come here bringing along a couple tens of thousands of "supporters". The latter hypothesis was likely, given that the shock troop leader in the service of the Kirchners, Luis D'Elía, had vowed to come to Rosario today to cheer for the President, "defend democracy" and "vindicate the flag", defiled by the May 25 meeting. However, D'Elía went overboard with his call to "take up arms" against those who wanted to "destabilize the government", and the Kirchners backed away from him.
Then the President went and presided over a partisan rally, two days ago. It was organized and paid for by the Presidency, i.e. our taxes, but it was undoubtedly a Peronist rally. The CGT union even decreed a national strike (it was effective only in Buenos Aires) to allow workers to go see Cristina. This rally was seen as both a provocation and a confirmation that Cristina would only address her selected supporters from now on. The idea that she might have thousands mobilized again, to Rosario, 300 km away from her only real center of political power, and along a national road that is blocked in a hundred places by people hostile to her policies, was beginning to sound ridiculous.
The middle class, in fact, hates Cristina with a passion. Even the local leftist movements are against her in her fight with the agricultural sector. The governor of Santa Fe, Hermes Binner, is a Socialist who supports the legislative debate of the export taxes that Cristina would've chosen to impose. The mayor of Rosario, Miguel Lifschitz, is also a Socialist. Cristina, like her husband, is used to have local authorities on her side wherever she goes — authorities that can be counted on to fill the spaces at rallies with cheering people.
So she chose not to come. The excuse was "bad weather" — plausible, but nevertheless just an excuse. Two days ago, when "bad weather" couldn't be assured, the national officials in charge of protocol and presidential security were already conspicuously absent, when usually they should be planning and coordinating with local police and municipal officials here in Rosario. Then it was announced that Cristina would be instead in Quilmes, near Buenos Aires, in the afternoon. And finally, she moved once again and decided she would do some other minor stuff in Hurlingham, because it's going to rain and there's a roofed stadium in Hurlingham. (La Nación says the Flag Day celebration was moved to Hurlingham. That, as someone pointed out, is incorrect. What moved was Cristina and the presidential political machine, not the official seat of this patriotic celebration, which is duly held in Rosario, as has always been the case.)
It's a pity that the President misses the true celebration. I for one would've considered going if she came, though mainly to boo her. Some of my fellow citizens would, I think, as well. Others were understandably afraid that the Kirchnerist mob would hijack the celebration and disallow the expression of dissent. And yet others were planning to boycott the President's coming to Rosario by hanging black flags on the balconies, instead of sky-blue-and-white Argentine flags, or by simply leaving when she began her speech. She's spared us from choosing among those sad alternatives.
Yesterday I was thinking that Rosario has traditionally been a progressive city, with critical citizens, who never receives attention except on Flag Day, when protocol compels the chief of state to be here for a couple of hours. In ten years Carlos Menem came three times, and the last one he was basically ignored (the weather was awful, like today). Fernando de la Rúa never came, since he couldn't have gotten out alive. Néstor Kirchner came twice, and only the first time he was greeted with enthusiasm; the second time he had to bring his occupation troops with him. Cristina backed away already.
I was writing to someone who lives abroad about this, and I said I felt this feeling of refreshing insolence against the government. Not the bitter anger of people who don't know what the government will do to them, but a healthy mixture of disrespect and rebelliousness. Indeed, if one isn't free to insult one's own authorities for fear of being accused of subversion, what's left? Cristina is afraid of coming here to Rosario, where she'd receive the public punishment she deserves. And I'm proud of that.