• Reporter’s Notebook: Argentina on the Eve of Elections

    For the past ten years I have had a love-hate relationship with the street fair outside my apartment. The Feria de San Telmo is a favorite tourist attraction in the oldest part of Buenos Aires, drawing an estimated twenty thousand people to my barrio every Sunday. I don’t enjoy dodging them just to run out for a container of milk, nor do I appreciate the ear-splitting drum ritual that closes the fair, which goes on at least until midnight and makes it hard to watch Netflix anywhere but in my bathroom. But it’s also true that I never get tired of roaming the street stalls, where I can lose myself for hours in the wallets repurposed from cat food bags, the fake-fur shoes, the necklaces that jewelers create in front of my eyes, delicate chains and all. Much of what I put on my body and walls is lovingly made by artists at the fair, as is some of the music on my phone. More than one of our street orchestras has gone from panhandling to bookings at Lincoln Center and in Europe.

    One Sunday in March I saw several of our artists face down on Defensa Street, being pummeled by policemen with clubs. A squadron in full riot gear was running down Defensa in formation, stretched from sidewalk to sidewalk, body shields to their chests, mowing down vendors and tourists who got in their way. One officer on the sideline knocked an elderly German woman to the ground — now immortalized in a viral video — and when her husband objected, the officer zapped him point blank with pepper spray.

    “¡Son turistas! ¡Ignorantes!” a woman that I’d seen around shouted at the cop. Bystanders who begged for the beatings to stop were roughly yanked away. “¡Hijos de puta!” the crowd chanted in response. Meanwhile, other policemen were overturning display tables, casually spilling people’s hard work on the cobblestones. One of the most poignant photos I saw afterwards was of a pile of toys lying like garbage next to the jackboots of the police. In the end, eighteen people were arrested, tourists included.

    You want to know why?

    So did we.

    Something had been brewing for months. Late last year the city suddenly started digging up the cobblestones on one of the blocks of Defensa that is a prime location for the vendors. I found it strange that in the midst of a major financial crisis the city was redoing a street that had already been redone a year or so earlier, but I’m used to the flurry of “improvements” that happen in the months before elections. (National, provincial, and city elections are coming on October 27, 2019.) This time, though, the work dragged on for four months, whole weeks going by without anyone actually working. Empty beer cans and pizza boxes floated atop huge mounds of muddy stones, and we had to shimmy down the sidewalks single-file because of the police barriers. My neighbors explained that the city had created this mess solely to dislodge the artists.

    I figured that the idea was to appear responsive to business interests, something that both the mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, and Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, had campaigned upon four years ago. It was no secret that the antiques dealers on Defensa didn’t like seeing vendors with dreadlocks stationed outside their exclusive shops. But the whole thing still didn’t make sense. Many of the antiques dealers had left over the past few years, and Defensa was no longer a destination for high-end shoppers. These days the street was lined with stores selling gift jars of dulce de leche to budget travelers — precisely the demographic that flocks to the street fair. Without the artisans on the key blocks of the fair, attendance was way down and no one was buying the souvenirs in the stores.

    Let me interrupt here to confess that I’ve been trying to write about Macri since his surprise election in 2015, but I could never figure out how. For starters, Argentina is insanely complicated. I didn’t see a way to put him in context for North Americans without including eye-glazing amounts of background, much of which I only knew second-hand from reading. And there were already enough wrongheaded stories in the foreign press about the election.

    Macri eked out his victory by taking second place against five lackluster or fringe candidates, forcing a runoff, and winning that by a slim margin. Despite the fact that only a third of the country chose him in the first round, news organizations around the world interpreted Macri’s win as a rejection of the social-welfare policies of the previous twelve years and a decisive swing to the right. There were enthusiastic stories everywhere, from Le Monde to The New York Times, and even in The Guardian, predicting that Macri would slash the deficit, get Argentina’s high inflation under control, and bring in foreign investment. There wasn’t much scrutiny of his plans, a lot of which struck me as the usual neocon/neoliberal baloney, trickle-down and the like. I wanted to know how he planned to attract multinationals to a place where the electricity and water could go out for days and companies had to wait months to get imported parts released from customs. (In June, Argentina’s electrical grid collapsed and the entire country went dark, taking all of Uruguay and parts of Paraguay and Brazil with it.)

    Argentinians were told to brace themselves for a year or so while the Macri administration made some “corrections.” I won’t detail them or dwell on the statistics, but suffice it to say that four years later inflation is twice what it was before he took office, hitting nearly 60 percent in May (compared to less than 2 percent in the US). In more concrete terms, the cost of everything from bottled water to movie tickets to Pampers to a pair of shoes rises steadily every month — sometimes a bit faster or slower, but so consistently that many restaurants have given up on printing menus with prices. At the same time, the capacity to pay for all of it has shrunk dramatically. More people are out of work, and those who have jobs are earning less than before, because the peso is not worth a quarter of what it was at the start of Macri’s term. Outside of Venezuela and Sudan, no other country’s currency did worse in 2018.

    Going after the street artisans during this recession seemed especially cruel. Many of them are surviving the week on what they earn on Sundays, and street fairs have some history as a lifeline during hard times. In fact, before Argentina’s catastrophic default in 2001, the San Telmo fair was just a couple hundred antiques vendors who displayed their pieces in Plaza Dorrego, the barrio’s central square. But that was before the crisis wiped out people’s life savings and left one in four of them out of work. The newly poor began reinventing themselves as jewelers and photographers and clothing designers, spreading their blankets on the cobblestones and setting up shop. With time, the unofficial fair grew to stretch more than a mile down Defensa and side streets, dwarfing the official one. Most visitors think of that as the real fair.

    I am just waking up to how the artisans serve a political purpose for this government, not unlike how Mexican immigrants are useful to Donald Trump. Here, it all has to do with an adjective that won’t resonate much if you are North American: “ordenado.”

    Orderly, organized, tidy. I can’t count how many times people have asked me why I would leave my orderly country to come live here. It used to make me laugh: why that same, peculiar word every time? I could see envying the job opportunities, or the wealth, or even the shopping… but the orderliness?

    What I now understand is that lots of Argentinians — particularly middle- and upper-class — view the globe as divided in two: the chaotic countries and the predictable ones, the desordenados and the ordenados. In their eyes, the disorder that they hate is personified by some of their compatriots — namely, the less-privileged ones who fill the streets protesting, performing music, or selling stuff.

    Those who dream of order are Macri’s and Mayor Larreta’s base. I doubt it was coincidence that the police crackdown came just when everyone could feel the economy spinning out of control and the governing party, Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”), had nosedived in popularity. Just before the police descended on San Telmo a new poll had showed Macri would lose a hypothetical match-up against his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was in the middle of a trial for graft.

    San Telmo wasn’t the only target; there were suddenly sweeps all over the city. That same weekend police busted up a popular outdoor milonga (tango get-together) in Parque Patricios, where retirees had been dancing every Saturday for the past ten years. Not only was the milonga beloved by the neighborhood, but it had been designated a site of social and cultural interest by the city legislature. Understandably, the dancers were incredulous when officers in bullet-proof vests leapt out of vans and began herding them away. At least a couple of people wound up on the ground, their friends pleading with the cops not to be so rough, as if they were criminals.

    In beautiful Parque Centenario, police evicted six hundred vendors who had been selling everything from phone cords to vintage jackets for many years. Officers are now stationed around the park perimeter to keep the fair from returning — the same fair, by the way, that is promoted on the city’s official tourism website as “an off-the-beaten track alternative for city visitors and bargain hunters.”

    Maybe the saddest eviction was the used book market in Parque Rivadavia, which had been a fixture since the 1950s. It was one of the places that most enchanted me on my first trip to Buenos Aires: rows of outdoor kiosks, one after the other, overflowing with books for serious readers. There always seemed to be shoppers in each one, noses in books or buying. Interspersed among the book shops were stands with magazines from the Sixties, or any record that you’d been hunting down for years. In January the city removed the kiosks and prepared to build a road there, right through the park.

    You may have gathered that the specific activity in each case isn’t relevant, whether it be selling bootleg films or finding homes for stray puppies. It also doesn’t matter that these markets are featured on travel shows, are a source of civic pride, or represent someone’s livelihood. There is only one issue: who gets to control public space? Or more to the point, who gets to control it while an audience is watching? Because the tango dancers are already back, as are the booksellers.

    A little context here. Macri was the mayor of Buenos Aires until 2015; Larreta was his hand-picked successor. They share the same base, and what goes on in the city remains vitally important to Macri’s success. In the last presidential election, Macri won only eight of Argentina’s twenty-three provinces, but he captured two-thirds of the vote in the autonomous city of Buenos Aires, officially the twenty-fourth province. And nearly half the country’s population lives in the city and province of Buenos Aires.

    The biggest shock, at least for an outsider, is that a sizable number of Macri–Larreta supporters are also reassured by a heavily armed police presence. I would have thought Argentinians would be triggered to see military-like forces in charge of crowds of civilians. After all, it has only been thirty-six years since the end of the junta that was responsible for thirty thousand disappearances. But the truth is, there is a segment of the middle and upper classes that welcomed the military government at the time and is nostalgic for those days.

    I first got a taste of this a few years ago, when a neighborhood merchant saw me heading to a memorial for “the disappeared” and sneered that I didn’t know how chaotic things had been in the Seventies, when leftist terrorism was out of control. I replied that there were radical movements around the world during those years, and that other countries handled it without resorting to the army or forced disappearances. Not to mention that there never were thirty thousand guerrillas here, nor were the abducted children and babies a threat to anyone.

    “No one disappeared,” she snapped. “It’s a big lie.”

    The denialist movement has found its voice under this administration. Early in his term Macri created a storm by telling an interviewer that he had no idea whether there were really thirty thousand disappearances (the widely accepted figure from human rights groups) or nine thousand (the figure cited by sympathists of the junta). He also pointedly used the term “Dirty War” when talking about the dictatorship, a name invented by the junta itself to justify its brutality as the type of measures to be expected during a so-called civil war. That Buzzfeed interview in 2016 was reportedly the first time that denialist rhetoric had found its way into mainstream politics.

    I shouldn’t have been surprised that the city started to look increasingly militarized over these past four years. But it has made my skin crawl to walk through Plaza de Mayo, the historic central square, and run into black metal barriers cutting off nearby streets, military vans parked haphazardly in my path, and more quasi-soldiers milling around than pedestrians. Metal barriers have popped up in various places around the city, and more often than not have become permanent, like in front of the stately Catedral Metropolitana, a city landmark that now resembles a bunker. Many parks and plazas are newly surrounded by ugly gates.

    A bit harder to stomach are the armed confrontations.

    Argentina has an active tradition of civil protest, at least in the decades since the last dictatorship. Depending on the time of year — say, if union contracts are being negotiated or something major is coming to a vote — you might see massive protests on a near-daily basis, maddening if you’re desperate to get from Point A to Point B, but magical when passion and engagement bring tens of thousands of people to the streets to make their voices heard. Nothing stirred me more in my first years here than seeing how protest was accepted as an integral part of the return to democracy.

    That all changed under Macri, most dramatically during a congressional vote on revisions to the pension system in December 2017. It was an emotionally charged issue, and an estimated hundred thousand people showed up to protest the “reforms” that they expected would reduce their own pensions or those of their parents. In anticipation, Macri had called in the National Gendarmerie, an uber-police force or quasi-army, along with the city, provincial, and federal police.

    This might sound reasonable to you, given the crowd size, and maybe in another country it would be. But as I said, demonstrations are an everyday occurrence here. I’ve been to several enormous ones that were patrolled by relaxed police officers chatting among themselves. The sight of barricades and armed forces ringing Congress and the central streets was highly provocative, as well as chilling for those who didn’t have such fond memories of the junta.

    With that much testosterone around, things naturally turned violent. The security forces were quick to deploy tear gas and water cannons, although the overwhelming majority of the protestors carried nothing more than signs and did nothing to provoke them. There was indeed a contingent of young men throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. But the police/gendarmerie fired rubber bullets at the crowd indiscriminately, not bothering to look through their rifles to aim. When they did aim, they targeted journalists and others who had filmed them beating up innocent bystanders. Several legislators on their way inside to vote were kicked and knocked around; one was bitten by a police dog, another sprayed directly in her face with pepper gas, which was captured on TV. Police ambushed a photographer for a major daily while he was resting, and shot him ten times with rubber bullets from barely two feet away. His pockmarked, bloody torso sent a potent message.

    Some of the main streets in Buenos Aires were transformed into unrecognizable war zones. Tanks rolling, smoke rising, injured bodies scattered around. But all that most Argentinians saw, on pro-government TV news channels, were the kids throwing rocks at the police. All they heard was that delinquents had manufactured a riot. Just one channel showed the real scene, down to the pepper-sprayed legislator.


    On August 11, Argentina held primary elections. They weren’t typical primaries, since each party had already chosen its candidate, but they served to determine which parties had enough support to appear on the October ballot. Since voting is compulsory here, the primaries are also an accurate gauge of how the real elections will go.

    Macri lost by nearly four million votes to his principal opponent, center-left candidate Alberto Fernández, whose running mate is Kirchner, the former president. Fernández and Kirchner comfortably surpassed the threshold that will be needed to avoid a runoff in October. Outside of the cities of Buenos Aires and Córdoba, every province in the country voted to change the party of change. Not many wanted to see Macri complete his economic vision, which thus far had bankrupted them.

    End of story? If only.

    The election was on a Sunday. On Monday morning the local stock market experienced one of the largest one-day crashes in history, in any country, and the peso went with it, suddenly trading at sixty pesos to the dollar after being worth forty-six on Friday. Even those who were euphoric about the election results started panicking about the prospect of hyperinflation and another default. By Tuesday some of my local grocers had removed prices from all their items. On Wednesday I picked up sushi take-out that was five hundred pesos the week before, but now cost seven hundred-pesos. The restaurant explained that the salmon was imported from Chile and traded in dollars.

    Macri, who is still running for re-election despite being somewhat of a lame duck, chose not to calm anyone down. Instead, he held a testy press conference where he blasted “you Argentinians” — as if he were from somewhere else, somewhere more sophisticated — for screwing themselves again by going backwards. “Kirchnerismo has no credibility in the world,” he said, blaming the market crash on his opponent. Or, more specifically on his opponent’s running mate, who had defaulted on a debt payment while she was president, during a complicated fight with vulture investors. “The world sees this as the end of Argentina,” he warned. The foreign press wasn’t so dramatic, but still ran predictable stories about Argentina’s return to “populism” (an easy and patronizing label that probably needs to be retired). If populism means addressing people’s needs and not hectoring them, then most of the country was all for returning to it. Ironically, two days after the press conference, Macri apologized to the country for his behavior and announced that he would be raising the minimum wage, increasing welfare benefits, freezing gasoline prices for three months, cutting taxes… and basically handing out pre-election favors like, well, a populist.

    While investors may be much more comfortable with Macri than with an administration that includes Kirchner, it isn’t so clear what triggered the latest financial crisis. On the Friday before the election, the local stock market suddenly took off, ending the day up eight points in a week of worldwide anxiety over China. Argentine companies listed in New York were up even more, led by the banking industry. Several prominent economists here found the whole thing fishy.

    Investors had gotten word of a new poll that was putting Macri slightly ahead of Fernández, which presumably encouraged them to start buying. Some of the economists suspected that two government banks and the national pension agency accounted for a lot of it, buying back their own shares to create the appearance of a frenzy over the election prediction. “Highly suspicious rally at the last minute,” tweeted one economist. “I would really like to know who was buying and with whose money.” Needless to say, markets don’t like being deceived. Investors responded forcefully on Monday with the giant sell-off.

    I haven’t seen any proof that the government was doing the buying, although it is plausible. Macri likes to use the fact that the market loves him as a reason to vote for him — if not the reason. Adding fuel to these suspicions, a former president of Argentina’s Central Bank claimed that Macri had instructed the bank on Monday not to intervene to stop the fall of the peso, so that Argentinians could “learn who they voted for,” according to Martín Redrado, who served from 2004 to 2010, and that they had voted for “more devaluation and inflation.”

    Meanwhile, my friends and neighbors are absorbing it all with their usual gallows humor and resignation. There’s plenty of anger, too, but I almost never hear Argentinians complaining about their personal financial struggles. Some of us are braced for more police crackdowns in Buenos Aires. Although Macri won the city, his margins weren’t close to what they were in 2015 and were significantly down even in the wealthy neighborhoods that are his stronghold. If he has any hope of forcing the runoff he predicts — highly unlikely, but nothing is impossible — beefing up his support in the city and outskirts is key.

    That leaves Mayor Larreta, who won his primary election by a substantial margin, albeit not by enough to avoid a runoff. If he does win in October, many of their joint policies are sure to continue. Today I noticed that the cobblestones that the city replaced on Defensa Street are already a broken mess. I hope he doesn’t see that as his invitation to return.


    Photos: Kresta Pepe de La Izquierda Diario