Trial, Punishment and Eternal Activism in Buenos Aires

Alerta! Alerta! Alerta que estan vivos
Todos los ideales de los desaparecidos…

Watch out! Watch out! Watch out those who are living
Watch out for all of the ideals of the ‘disappeared’….

Thursday afternoon, 3:30pm and las Madres de Plaza de Mayo have commenced weekly march in the central plaza of Buenos Aires. Carrying flags representing their cause and wearing blue and white headscarves against the placid pink backdrop of the Presidential building, La Casa Rosada, they walk slowly around and around the plaza.

Linking arms and holding a banner which refers to their social justice centre “Popular University of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo: 11 years of struggle and resistance” they project a resolute and tenacious aura. A modest crowd of curious onlookers stands a few metres away, snapping photos and listening to the chants of these defiantly independent women, up to 97 years old, as well as their supporters.

Nearby gaudy yellow tourist buses whir down Avenida de Mayo and frenetic traffic buzzes along the hopelessly wide Nueve de Julio, but in Plaza de Mayo there is a somberness and depth of humanity which seems to transcend the differences in culture, age and political convictions of all those who are gathered here.

2012 marks the 36th year since the military seized power from an Argentina left reeling by the death of its iconic leader Juan Domingo Peron. The initial period of Peron’s government is often characterised as one of the most leftist periods of Argentine history due to his strong advocacy for the working class and industrial reform.

Nonetheless, his accordant political ideology Peronismo imbued Argentines with a strong conviction in the centrality of government in affecting positive social change and the need for political and military leaders to galvanise the country, Peron himself being a former army colonel.

As Peron died during his second presidency in 1974, the government wobbled, lurching towards the right under his wife Eva Peron before the brutal military coup took place. From 1976 to 1983 its dictatorship crippled Argentines as a social and political war was waged against left-wing activists, students, journalists, Peronist guerrillas and sympathisers.

Often referred to as El Proceso, this resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30 000 activists and the imprisonment of 400 000 individuals. The 30 000 who were abducted in this epoch, referred to in Argentina as ‘los desaparecidos,’ vanished in swift nighttime bursts from the military and were tortured and killed in what has been revealed to be up to 340 detention centres. While such historical events are staggering and deeply traumatic, perhaps equally damaging was the impact el Proceso had on Argentine civil society.

Activism became anathema to personal stability and professional success, as the country was largely gripped by fear in the decades to come. Family friends of mine left for New York amid uncertainty about their safety, social dialogue waned, and the youth’s belief in the capacity of politics to achieve change was crushed.

While the political sensibilities of Argentines have broadly been rekindled as a result of the crippling social and economic crisis which hit the country in December 2001, throughout the past 36 years Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo have represented one of the few sources of continual hope and inspiration for the nation.

Since 1977, they have agitated for those who were responsible for the deaths of los desaparecidos to be brought to account through their weekly vigil in Plaza de Mayo. The courage they have displayed is not to be underestimated, nor their impact on Argentine politics.

While originally a group of small activists dedicated to cause of their missing sons and daughters, these women now occupy a central role in Argentine society. Importantly, on the back of their work, other social activist groups have proliferated to investigate and confront the injustices of Argentina’s past.

Through their direct and public protests, las Madres de Plaza de Mayo have helped open public dialogue and reshape the character of Argentine politics. While of course it is impossible to ever completely remove the traumas of the dictatorship from national consciousness, rather than being taboo this is now a topic Argentines are more willing to confront.

Much of this change must be attributed to the initial defiance of las Madres, along with the reflection that time has allowed the nation. On the footpaths in front of the former houses of those taken and tortured, there are now signs detailing their lives, their age and their profession. Graffiti is also abound on the streets with phrases such as “30 000 reasons to struggle,” while the youth of today no longer have the fear of past generations.

In the searing heat at the Bolivian border, swathes of young men and women wear t-shirts with the defiant message “Nunca mas” or ‘never again’ in front of the full might of the military. Similarly, as las Madres de Plaza de Mayo congregate for each Thursday march, numerous men and women walk behind them with signs such as “200 years of the revolution of the nation, 33 years of the revolution of the mothers of the nation.”

Institutionally, today’s government generally seeks to educate the public about the inequities of the past. In 2002 March 24 was proclaimed “The Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice,” which was further formalised in 2006 when this date was made a national public holiday.

Similarly upon the ten year anniversary of the economic crisis of December 2001, commemorations were held in numerous public sites remembering the thirty seven people who died as a result of police repression. Images of the events were displayed in key public places to stimulate historical consciousness and debate amongst the public.

Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo have also contributed to shifting gender relations in Argentina. Like the rest of South America, its social dynamics have historically been deeply ingrained with patriarchy, in spite of the well-known feminist figures such as Eva Peron and Mercedes Sosa.

While this situation largely continues, las Madres serve as an example of the power of strong women to confront and overturn unjust social dynamics. Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, a first hand account of the community based movements which have become entrenched throughout the country since the 2001 crisis, documents that many of these movements have been initiated by women.

One of the most iconic images of the crisis was of hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Plaza de Mayo from the neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires to oust five governments within a period of two weeks, led by carcerolas or women banging pots and pans to express contempt at their leaders who had sold them out, allowing banks to foreclose on their savings to pay off foreign debt.

Subsequently, when the unemployment rate spiraled out of control and men were made redundant, in communities across the nation many women created Movimientos de Trabajo y Dignidad, or Movements for Work and Dignity.Consisting of the unemployed, these movements initiated their own projects in the community in areas such as food production, education, and the provision of medicine.

Similarly, where the scarcity of employment and food was such that families could not be fed, women made up the majority of piqueteros or those who blocked roads in the attempt to negotiate for the provision of basic supplies from corporations and local governments.

Lastly, in the formal political arena las Madres remain highly important. Numerous politicians gain valuable political capital through maintaining good relations with them, and the highly popular current president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was roundly endorsed by them during her 2011 election campaign.

Argentina is a country with a violent history. A casual walk through the streets of Buenos Aires reveal countless testimonies to the liberators of South America from the forces of colonialism: General San Martin, Simon Bolivar, and subsequently the ubiquitous Che Guevara. However oppression is cast not only through the culturally jarring actions of empires, just as odiously it manifests itself from within.

In a very real sense, las Madres de Plaza de Mayo have and continue to liberate Argentina from its past and present injustices each Thursday march, each conversation about the dictatorship and its impacts at a time. Even more importantly, they show that the truest, most committed and profound activism is that which comes from the heart, that which implores engagement from the broader public solely on the basis of our shared capacity to feel pain, to love, and to strive for change.

While their activism is not perfect, for this the people of Argentina will remain eternally conscious and grateful for their historical, political and emotional legacy. As for me, their courage imbues me with a greater strength to advocate for genuine social emancipation, a belief in the resilience of the human spirit, as well as the capacity for defiant individuals to together resist the deepest forms of tyranny. I need little more from life.

Cameron McPhedran