Monday, March 27, 2006

March 24, 1976.

March 24, 1976, will be remembered as one of the darkest days in Argentina’s history.

On that day, a military junta overthrew a democratically elected government. Over the next 8 years, up to 30,000 ‘dissidents’ were disappeared.

In what was officially labelled the National Reorganization Process, the dictatorship systematically terrorized its citizenry on ideological grounds. The government closed congress, banned political parties, abolished freedom of speech and freedom of press.

In what was claimed to be a war against terrorist and communist groups, the military government persecuted, tortured, and killed citizens who opposed or questioned the dictatorship, expressed leftist views, or simply appeared in the address books of people considered subversive.

According to the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP): among the victims still missing and those who were subsequently released from secret detention centres are people from all walks of life:

Blue-collar workers 30.2 %
Students 21.0 %
White-collar workers 17.9 %
Professionals 10.7 %
Teachers 5.7 %
Self-employed and others 5.0 %
Housewives 3.8 %
Military conscripts and members of the security forces 2.5 %
Journalists 1.6 %
Actors, performers, etc. 1.3 %
Nuns, priests, etc 0.3 %

CONADEP, established by the democratic government which followed the dictatorship, produced a harrowing document entitled Nunca Más. The torture testimonies are deeply disturbing, yet vital to understanding what truly happened during this so-called ‘reorganization process’. These testimonies are essential for constructing a collective memory that forces the country to learn from its past and help build a different future.

This past week I was impressed by the national and international efforts to remember what happened thirty years ago, on March 26.

In Washington, the National Security Archive declassified several key U.S. government documents: “The documents record Washington's initial reaction to the military takeover. I do want to encourage them. I don't want to give the sense that they're harassed by the United States,’ Secretary of State Kissinger ordered his staff after his assistants warned him that the junta would initiate a bloodbath following the coup.”

In Toronto, my parents, along with several other Argentines and Canadians, took part in the organization of the 30th Anniversary Committee, which featured several films, a play, a concert, an art exhibit, and a roundtable discussion.

On Thursday I attended an event in which Ernesto Sábato, the famous author and former President of CONADEP, led a remembrance ceremony at the Ministry of Education (pictured above). Over 200 students attended the event. They watched a remarkable documentary by Roman Lejtman, titled “The 24th of March, 1976-2006. From horror to hope”. The students then were able to ask questions to those adults on the panel who lived through the dictatorship.

The following day I traveled to the
Military School, in the Buenos Aires suburbs (picture on the left). President Nestor Kirchner, in the presence of his cabinet and high ranking military officials, gave a powerful speech. He expressed his disapproval with the impunity enjoyed by many of those responsible for state terrorism. He said that he expected that the judiciary would soon rule that the amnesty granted to these suspects will be deemed unconstitutional.

Earlier in the month, Kirchner succeeded in making March 24 a permanent holiday, to be called the "National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice." While the move is undoubtedly well-intentioned, I worry that Argentine society, particularly its children, will not take it upon themselves to remember the meaning of this date when on holiday.

Considering how dedicated this government, particularly the President and the Ministry of Education, were in organizing the numerous events and commemorations throughout the week, I hope I am proved wrong in the years to come.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Perito to Punta / Argentina vs. Uruguay

During my hiatus I made a couple of interesting, polar opposite trips: first, to a frozen floating land mass, Perito. Then, to a bumping beach spot, Punta.

In December, I spent a few days in the south of the country gazing at glaciers. The sights were breathtaking.

First, we made the mandatory visit to the Perito Moreno glacier.

We then hiked on the Perito Moreno for a couple of hours.

The next day we took a boat tour of the Upsala, Onelli and Spegazzini glaciers.

Pictured is Onelli, a glacier and lake littered with icebergs (and my sister).

After spending New Year’s in
Buenos Aires, I took the ferry across the river to the renowned regional hotspot, Punta del Este. Although the Ibiza/Hampton’s/St. Tropez of Latin America is located in Uruguay, the beautiful beach town is traditionally taken over by Argentines.

This year was somewhat different. There was a notable increase in the amount of non-Argentines (for reasons discussed below). Many Europeans, North Americans and other Latin Americans flocked to Uruguay to see what the hype is all about.

Even Tara Reid and Naomi Campbell spent a few days, or should I say nights, partying and plundering in Punta. At a couple of parties I had the pleasure of talking to an intoxicated Tara who now makes a living partying. According to her Taradise website, “She’s Improving World Relations: One Party at a Time!”

Given Argentina’s and Uruguay’s recent conflict, Tara could have partied a little harder.

A dispute over the construction of two paper mills on the Uruguayan side of the border has led to an Argentine blockade of the bridges joining the two countries. The two brother nations are now involved in their biggest conflict in recent history.

Argentine protestors claim that the shared river will be polluted by the mills. Despite the complaints lobbied by citizens and the government, Uruguay is going ahead with the Finnish-Spanish construction plan – the largest foreign investment in Uruguayan history!

The European companies are planning to use a bleaching process which involves chlorine dioxide – a chemical which is harmful to humans and the environment. There is a new, cleaner bleaching process which is mandatory in the European Union, however the companies will not be using it in Uruguay because of the higher costs.

In response to this looming threat, Argentines living in the border town of Gualeguaychu have blockaded the border for most of January and February. Given Uruguay’s dependence on Argentina for tourists and imports, this protest has hurt the tiny country’s economy and soured what has traditionally been an excellent relationship.

In the past two weeks, the battle has become heated and created international headlines. Argentina is threatening to take Uruguay to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Uruguay is menacing with legal recourse for Argentina’s lack of action with regards to the road blockades.

Mercosur, the Southern Common Market, is another potential victim to the conflict. The multilateral organization, which has been invigorated by the election of left-of-centre presidents in South America, could face a setback if middle ground is not reached soon.

If only Tara had stayed in Punta a little longer…

Aside from the paper plant dispute, Punta del Este has seen a decline in the share of Argentine tourists for other important reasons.

Another factor is that Punta has become too expensive for 99.9% of the Argentine population. Since the 2001 Argentine economic crisis and peso devaluation, Uruguay, which has long been a more expensive country, became prohibitively pricey. Gas alone costs two-and-a-half times more. The cover charge to enter Tequila, the most exclusive night club, ranges from US$40 to $60 per person. Tables in the VIP run from $2000 to $4000! Across the river, the highest priced clubs in Buenos Aires run about $30 pesos (or US $10).

Another reason why Punta is becoming less ‘Argentine’, is the recent tourism boom which has been sparked by Argentina’s weak peso. Most people from Europe and North America who visit Punta, usually come via Buenos Aires after hearing about how such a world class city is now a bargain. Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, they are told by Argentines that they must visit Punta. Once they cross the river they are shocked to find a) everything fixed at New York prices b) a town with beautiful beaches and a non-stop-nightlife that is not invaded by alcoholic American spring breakers.

However, given Tara’s recent trip, Punta may soon become another Taradise.