On a chilly spring night in the middle of September, I found myself in the middle of a passionate protest in the streets of Buenos Aires.
And we were quite literally in the streets. The Argentine police force had already blocked off AvÃ©nida de CÃ³rdoba when my friend and I arrived, and as my friend and I walked amongst the crowd, we soon realized that this was not the only impassable road: Avenida 9 de julio-which translates to the 9th of July Avenue, the date that Argentina celebrates its independence each year-was also completely cut off from traffic.
This was an incredible sight to behold. 9 de julio Avenue is famous for being the widest highway in the world, with seven lanes running in each direction for most of its length. And for once, it was not filled with commuters driving home from work; instead, these drivers were forced onto the side streets, which left many of them grumbling angrily and occasional shouting Spanish obscenities at the protestors. Sometimes, they even threatened to run us over. Whether it was because they were against the cause that these thousands of Argentines were protesting or because they just wanted to get home, I couldn’t say.
And what were all of these Argentines in the middle of the world’s widest avenue in Argentina’s capital city fighting for? They were there to protest against President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s proposal to ban the sale of any foreign currency in Argentina.
Kirchner, who Argentines simply refer to as Cristina, already caused an uproar when she banned the purchase of US dollars in the country earlier this year. Many Argentines preferred to pay important bills, such as monthly rent, in dollars, which are more stable than the Argentine peso. When she announced she wanted to stop the purchase of all foreign currencies in order to protect Argentina’s foreign reserves, the country went into an uproar. Many people were also there to protest rising crime rates and President Kirchner.
The Argentines were infuriated, and they made sure it was known, banging on pots and pans, blowing whistles and singing national songs as we made our way down a street in Barrio Norte, one of the wealthier neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. As I walked around with my video camera, filming the events, people would stop me so that I could film the words they had chalked on the ground or the designs and slogans on their signs.
“I’m here,” one Argentine woman told me in Spanish, “because my government wants to take my liberty away. This government has not protected my rights, and now it is working to take them away.”
The protection of their rights by the government is especially crucial for the Argentines because of their recent political turmoil. Since arriving here in June on a study abroad program with Lawrence, I have discovered that Argentina’s not-so-distant past is still part of the present as a very visible scar on the face of this country.
From 1976-1983, Argentina was led by a military dictatorship called the Junta, who facilitated the “Proceso Nacional de ReorganizaciÃ³n”-which translates as the National Reorganization Process. During the Proceso, as it was usually called, Argentines were frequently kidnapped, imprisoned and executed in horrifying ways-all by their own government.
Before I arrived in Buenos Aires, my research showed that NGOs had estimated that the number of people who went missing in Argentina during the Proceso ranged from 8,000-11,000-this includes an estimate from Amnesty International.
But, after arriving in Buenos Aires, I found that Argentines are convinced that not 11,000, but at least 30,000 people went missing from their country during this time.
Whether this is an honest statistic or not, it is something many Argentines have in the back of their minds permanently, as a reminder of what their country suffered from under this military dictatorship, one that promised to restore democracy and instead ended up murdering its own citizens and censoring the media to cover it up.
During the protest, it was clear that the Argentines had not forgotten this, as they held signs that not only protested the proposed legislation but also the rumors that Kirchner was planning to modify the constitution so that she can serve as president beyond her current term, which would otherwise be her last.
It was clear that thousands of Argentines, who protested that night not only in Buenos Aires but also in CÃ³rdoba and Rosario, Argentina’s next biggest cities, were thinking back to those years when their government turned against them. And it was also clear that they had decided that they would not let that happen again.
But this is all just scratching the surface of the issues currently facing this vibrant Latin American country, a country that I have grown to love. I would encourage anyone who is interested in both Spanish and politics to consider studying abroad in Buenos Aires. And that clichÃ© about studying abroad changing your life? Turns out it’s a clichÃ© for a reason-as I’ve lived here for the past few months, that has certainly been the case for me.