Letter Home, January 10, 2002
Cacerolazos: Argentina Wakes Up
- I really must apologize for not keeping you all more
up to date on the Argentine situation. In reality,
things have been happening so fast here that it is
hard to know when to catch a breath and sit down and
write about it.
- You've already seen the bad news: the hunger riots,
the people killed by police in the Plaza de Mayo, the
economy sliding into a seemingly endless abyss, the
long bank lines. What I do want to report, which I
haven´t seen in any of the general media, is that what
I have witnessed here is a ¨waking up¨ of a people
who when I first got here struck me as being
depressed, exhausted, and politically paralyzed. I
would ride the subways, stare into the faces of bleak
depression, listen to the endless complaints of
government corruption, salaries being cut, increasing
poverty, and wonder..why? Why aren´t they doing
anything about it if they are so unhappy?
- "Well," said some, "we Argentines just like
complain." "Well," said others, "we´re
people, a passive people.¨"
"Well," said others, "we´re a nation of
individualists..we could never agree on any one thing
long enough to unite politically." Some would then
refer me to the unofficial Argentine national anthem,
the tango "combalache", whose pessimistic lyrics go
something like this: "life is a mess in the year 2002
just as it was in the year 1902, full of swindlers,
crooks and thieves.."
- Others spoke of more recent developments. In the
nineteen seventies and eighties, almost thirty
thousand Argentines, friends and family and neighbors
of the people I spoke to, were tortured and
"disappeared." for daring to speak out against the
military dictatorship. Tortures were devised that
rivaled the Nazis in perversity. Bodies were thrown
from airplanes into the River Plate.
- "It´s one thing when a friend or lover or neighbor
dies, and you know how and when they died," said one
friend recently as we were sitting in an outdoor cafe.
"But it´s another when people just disappear..."
friend looked out into the night as he said this, and
his words seemed to join the thousands of ghosts of
the "disappeared" who, I felt, still lingered in the
streets of Buenos Aires and in the fearful and
exhausted eyes of the people on the subways.
- Whatever the reason for the fear and political
paralysis, it came to an end on the night of December
19, when fifteen thousand people spontaneously took to
the streets with their pots and pans and brought down
the president. This was a historical moment that I
will never forget and am glad to have participated in.
Since then the sounds of the cazerolazo..the banging
of pots and pans... has echoed continuously
throughout the city, forming the new rhythm to which
the city of Buenos Aires now seems to be living. As
one radio commentator said after President De La Rua
escaped in his helicopter, "Politicians beware, there
are plenty of helicopters for all of you."
- "For years, we have been afraid to speak, to make
noise," said one student recently. ¨"To me, that
what the banging of pots and pans is about...it´s
about being heard."
- But now, a month later, it´s not just pots and pans.
It´s words, language, speech, propositions, action.
Neighborhood assemblies have been forming in every
neighborhood. They meet on streetcorners, in plazas,
in parks, and sometimes even in the middle of the
street. The groups range from twenty to four hundred.
My own group has about eighty. It feels a bit like
the American or French revolution must have felt when
the people decided they were not being fairly
represented...exciting, confusing, at times chaotic
and anarchic, but full of enthusiasm.
- Last Sunday I attended the second citywide convention
of these neighborhood groups. About three thousand
people gathered in a park in the middle of town. My
group arrived in a truck, with neighborhood banner and
Argentine flag waving. Other groups had already
gathered, along with a handful of reporters and some
camera people from Japan. Thirty people spoke, and
then three thousand people attempted to pass
"resolutions" that would create a context for the new
populist movement. Hands were raised, people stood up
on their feet, shouted out of turn, yelled, broke out
into spontaneous singing and chanting...the mediator,
clutching a wad of crumpled paper, tried valiantly to
maintain order, the Japanese camera crew looked on,
confused. Some resolutions that were passed
were vague,naive, and appeared to be little more than
slogans, ie "Get rid of everybody in the government!"
Others appear to be objectives that will take real
long term work and planning of they even have a chance
of succeeding, ie the nationalization of the country´s
- But it´s a start. And in some inchoate way, these
assemblies have all the enthusiasm and drive of real
democracy, with real, living people in it.
- Living here at the moment is surreal, frustrating,
depressing, painful, nerve-wracking, exciting,
Corrupt politicians escaping in sausage trucks from
angry crowds. Endless lines of people, sometimes two
blocks long,waiting to get our chance to extract their
alloted $250 a week from their bank accounts.
Paychecks that never arrive, money that disappears for
weeks inside the banking system, a dollar that
fluctuates from day to day. Banks that have
exchanged their breakable plate glass windows for
armored steel and now resemble iron fortresses. In
the provinces and in Buenos Aires, families without
jobs, without food. Hundreds of people in the
Northern province of Jujuy demonstrating their hunger
and poverty by climbing up on crosses and staying
there in the crucifixion position for hours in the
scorching heat. Long lines of people at the Spanish
and Italian embassies, trying to get out of the
country. Masses of middle class families out on the
streets at two a.m. in Buenos Aires, banging pots and
pans, complete with five year old kids and even the
family dogs wearing shirts made of ARgentine flags.
Argentine flags everywhere...flags wrapped around the
thin shoulders of old retired men who have been unable
to collect their govt. checks for months and now can´t
get money out of the bank,flags flying from the backs
of young people on motorcyles, flags waving from the
military statues in the Plaza de Mayo. A seventy
year old retired man entering a bank with a
grenade,plunking the grenade onto the counter,
demanding his life savings, and getting it. One
family who can´t get their money out of the bank to
take a vacation, setting up beach chairs and parasols
in the bank lobby and taking their vacation in the
bank. Neighborhood assemblies talking about
corruption, talking about¨"politics without
politicians", setting up commissions, proposals, acts
of civil disobedience, reinventing themselves,
politics, even the language of activism("compañero"
was challenged at a recent meeting as sounding too
left wing, most people prefer "neighbor" though some
were quick to point out that "compañero" comes
"people who eat bread together.") People breaking out
of silence, out of fear, talking to each other,
getting to know each other in ways that they never did
before. People without money forming "barter clubs"
that allow them to earn a living, to eat, and to
create community. People groping for something new,
unnamed, in the midst of a crumbling economy and the
reign of politicians who some call "the living dead"
and others more bluntly refer to as "crooks, con-men
- Tonight another "cacerolazo" (pot-banging) has
scheduled, this time nationwide. Most demonstrators
at this point are firmly committed to non-violence;
many people have decided to stay in their
neighborhoods tonight and not march to the Plaza de
Mayo, where in the past peaceful demonstrations have
ended in violent outbreaks by a handful of
demonstrators (some say provacateurs). The current
president, who in a recent poll, received a 5%
approval rate from the population, is understandably
nervous. Some people have talked about the
possibility of a military coup, and at least one man I
know has said it would be good if the military
returned to keep order, "at least for a while." Some
non-Argentine commentators have compared the current
situation to the pre-Nazi desperation of the Weimar
republic. But I personally don`t think there will be
a military coup,(at least not a successful one) nor do
I think the people in their current mood will put up
with any Hitler (or even Peron) type demogogue. What
I see trying to emerge here is real democracy, one
that springs from the hearts and minds of the people.
- "Fear", one middle-aged woman said at a meeting
weeks ago, "is what has kept us inside our houses,
silent, afraid of going out into the streets. Now it
is time to do something with this fear, to turn it
into something new and powerful."
- Another man was even more direct:
- "I have lost my job," he said, "I have lost
I have lot my dignity. I haven´t yet lost my life.
But if I have to lose that defending what I believe
in, I will."
- It is interesting to me that while my own country
seems to be withdrawing more and more into a state of
fear, even to the point of considering torture a
viable option for terrorist suspects, I find myself
living in a country which is finally climbing out of
a long psychological emprisonment that was brought
about by fear, and torture, and the "disappearance"
its citizens, a disappearance that was not only
physical but psychological.
- "Never again," said one young woman at the place
I rent computer time. She was young, maybe twenty,
twenty-two, and her eyes were clear.
- I feel fortunate to have been here during these times,
to have spoken with her and all my other Argentine
friends, to have watched, listened, witnessed.
- Dear friends, I wish you all the best, and hope we can
all learn to survive the scars of fear.