Siege Mentality in Buenos Aires


(New York Times, Dec. 22, 2001)

BUENOS AIRES -- On Wednesday night, no one in Buenos Aires slept. Midweek during a stretch of brutally hot, steamy weather, the city's streets were taken over by thousands of irate citizens marching on the Plaza de Mayo, the elegant square that faces the presidential palace, to protest the government's lack of response to the rioting and ransacking that had spread across the nation.

President Fernando de la Rúa, who had been maintaining a monastic silence, finally delivered a brief statement at about 11 p.m. When it was over, Channel 11's acid-tongued political commentator, Jorge Lanata, looked straight into the camera and said: "He's autistic. If that statement was his best, the mind boggles at how bad his other versions must have been."

In Palermo, a leafy, upper-class neighborhood, the noise from the streets grew into a sustained wail. I opened the window and found hundreds of people on their balconies clanging soup spoons against pots, blowing whistles or banging aluminum lids against their railings. A few well-muscled young men set off over-sized firecrackers that left the humid air acrid.

But most of the protesters were the same educated folk who voted Mr. de la Rúa into office a year and a half ago. "They say I'm boring," he had declared comfortingly in his most talked about campaign commercial. His dullness was a strength, because it distanced him from the contempt and embarrassment Buenos Aires's establishment felt at the antics of President Carlos Saúl Menem, famous for his bold sideburns and red Ferraris — he who left the nation crippled by debt. Mr. de la Rúa came in as the anti-Menem, a staid functionary promising to "normalize" Argentina.

It was not to be. Wednesday night he had decreed a state of siege. Less than 20 years after the fall of Argentina's last dictatorship, citizens could again be arrested and detained for no stated reason. By Thursday morning police on horseback were crushing demonstrators, palm trees blazed, tear gas clouded the summer air and more than a dozen people were dead.

For 200 years Argentina has "disproved Darwin," as one friend of mine says. "You can always regress." A nation blessed in almost every natural resource continues to shoot itself in the foot. President de la Rúa held on for a little while. The violence got worse; the looters and pot-bangers, who had been positively bourgeois at first, got rougher. The president pleaded with Congress — both of its houses being controlled by the opposition — to form a government with him. But the opposition could see the whole prize coming into its hands, and the military men were staying quiet.

I walked about and found Manuel Milone, an attorney. He wore a natty dark blue suit over a shirt the color of a pale rose. Not long before he had been banging pots and pans. "I participated out of indignation, exhaustion," he said. He felt Argentina's leaders had reached past the acceptable limit of ineptness. "I don't judge him to be solely responsible," Mr. Milone said of his president. "I judge the entire political class."

A 6-year-old boy named Luís came up to us, wearing royal-blue cotton pants that were in shreds. He asked for money. I gave him some.

"Social chaos exists," Mr. Milone said. "Poverty is a reality. I think there is a way out. But the entire political class will have to collaborate, and that is something we've never seen in this country."

Two hours later the opposition made it clear it would not cooperate with the president, so he resigned. Friday the city went quiet. (Buenos Aires is not a quiet city.) The weather broke at last into a storm, and hot rain swept across the nearly empty streets.

Noga Tarnopolsky is a correspondent for Radio Nacional in Buenos Aires and The Forward.