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Buenos Aires, City of Faded Elegance » Social Issues

Social Issues

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No more brass

I was walking down the stairs of the apartment building the other day when one of the neighbors sighed and said that someone stole the brass handle to the front door. I’ve heard that happened a lot just after the economic crisis a few years back but didn’t know that it was still common. Obviously, the Argentine economy is not improving for everyone. It’s annoying but at least the thief didn’t damage the lock mechanism in the process.


Where is Lopez?

Again on Wednesday evening several human rights groups led a march down Avenida de Mayo from Congreso to Plaza de Mayo to protest the disappearance of Jorge Julio Lopez. More info (in Spanish) can be found at www.30anios.org.ar, one of the organizers of the march.

18 of October: a month after 77 year-old Jorge Julio Lopez disappeared, a key witness in the recent trial against former police official Miguel Etchecolatz, who was sentenced last month to life imprisonment for his involvement in the last dictatorship in Argentina.


At one point during the demonstration I turned away from the crowd and saw a person in a black hood spray painting the words “Donde esta Lopez?” on the walls of the Cabildo. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the layers of white paint that covers graffiti from past demonstrations. Four policmen stood just within the closed gate of the Cabildo, clearly knowing that it’s easier to re-paint the Cabildo than try and stop the vandalism.


A few minutes earlier, across the street, a couple of girls sprayed a stencil on the walls of the Palacio de Gobierno de la Ciudad. The city used to station a line of riot police in front of that building but, this year, the city seems to have pulled most of the police away from that area during the demonstrations.

This particular march was not quite the carnival that was the march of a couple of weeks ago that also focused on the disappearance of Lopez. I still need to do a write up on that one.

The crowd last night was quite different. I didn’t stay to see the entire protest line, which stretched quite far, but last night’s demonstrations didn’t have the mass of poor residents bused in from the provinces. Overall, last night’s crowd was more middle class and working class than a lot of the demonstrations. There also was an extremely large number of students.


Perón Mania

It’s not everyday that the body of a famous historical figure rides through the streets. So, I took a break yesterday and walked over to Paseo Colón for the sendoff for Perón. The reburial of his body from the Chacarita cemetery to an expensive mausoleum in San Vicente, south of Buenos Aires, has been well covered by an article in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Tuesday morning the coffin of Perón was transported from the cemetery to the headquarters of the CGT labor union, the bastion of all things Perón. It was a very manly affair. The blocks surrounding the CGT were filled mainly by working men, most wearing hard hats. An odd sight that I should have photographed was the dozens of these guys lined up on the massive steps of the University of Buenos Aires School of Engineering, located across from the CGT. They were a contrast to the students I normally see around there.

Some workers took a rest while they waited.


I estimate that 90% of the crowd were men from the labor unions. About 5% were media and the occasional person like myself who just came by for the spectacle. The remaining 5% were the loyal Peronist, like this mother-daughter pair with the picture of Evita, which they claimed was actually signed by Evita herself.


When it finally came time for the long journey from the CGT everyone jumped to their feet, ran onto Paseo Colón, climbed statues, and pushed for position while singing the Peronist anthem.


It was a false alert as it was only ex-president Duhalde and his wife Chiche walking down the street.

Then came an honor guard, trying to make space through cheering crowd :


The crowd surged when Perón’s casket was wheeled down the street. Until then I had a good view but was immediately swamped by dozens of people making their way towards the remains of Perón. Riding atop Perón’s casket were Hugo Moyano and other millionaires labor union leaders with big smiles on their faces.


As mentioned by fellow BA blogger Ian, the day’s events turned ugly once the procession arrived at the new mausoleum. It’s really not surprising considering that some of the guys were well on their way to drunk by midday, like this guy in the white CGT t-shirt guzzling cheap wine out of a tetra pak.


Saving African Culture

One of the exciting aspects about living in a city such as Buenos Aires is encountering the unexpected. Walking home at night along Defensa through San Telmo is always an experience worth savoring – the cobblestone streets, the old facades, the sounds of tango around Plaza Dorrego.

Last night I came across something entirely different. As I walked under the highway overpass I noticed a protest march further down Defensa, banners and flags waving in the air accompanied by the sound of drums. An odd location for a march, I thought. Getting closer, I could tell that the rhythm was not the usual snare drums of the piqueteros but an entirely other beat.

Crossing Garay I then saw two tremendously large flags – red, yellow, and green – dominating a group of about thirty dancers and musicians heading down Defensa towards La Boca. They carried banners protesting the forced closure of the Movimiento Afro Cultural located in Barracas at Herrera 313, .

It was a reminder that I should always carry a camera with me in Buenos Aires, but I didn’t have mine. It was certainly the most colorful protest I’ve seen in Buenos Aires, almost like a carnival parade. The women dressed in flowing skirts, bare midriff, and silky tops danced exuberantly while the men played all sizes of drums.

The march was halted by police at the corner of Defensa and Brasil, just in front of El Hipopotamo café. The police would not let them march any further down Defensa. After a while of dancing and playing, the group picked up their instruments and crossed Av Brasil to gather once more in Parque Lezama where they continued playing and dancing.

Night of the Pencils, 1976 – 2006

Saturday, 16 September, is the 30th anniversay of La Noche de los Lápiches (The Night of the Pencils), another sad but notable event from the most recent dictatorship in Argentina. Last year I wrote extensively about the march that took place on the 29th anniversary.


Since it’s the 30th anniversary there should be an equally large gathering. On the radio this morning I heard about a march planned for Friday evening at 6pm from Facultad to Plaza de Mayo. Today there is also a teachers strike at the University of Buenos Aires. I won’t be covering the march this year since I’ve made prior plans to hear a friend sing Celtic music.

Last year’s march was one of the largest that I saw in 2005. But last year there also was more tension between the piquetero groups and the police. Last year’s Night of the Pencils march was just one week after a very tense confrontation between piqueteros and police at the intersection of Av de Mayo and Av 9 de Julio. That march was originally planned to be an anti-Bush protest in anticipation of Bush’s visit to the summit in Mar del Plata. A large number of students were mixed in with the piquetero groups but the whole thing turned ugly when the police blocked Av de Mayo and pulled up the truck with the water cannon. It eventually ended in a few hardcore piqueteros throwing stones at the police while the other marchers walked away.

So, the following week on the 29th anniversary of the Night of the Pencils the turnout was enormous. The marchers made it to the plaza where I watched a number of young people (not piqueteros) paint graffiti on the monument in the middle of Plaza de Mayo.

Piramide  de Mayo

The monument was quickly repainted by the next morning. Tonight’s march should be interesting but not as exciting as last year. I don’t know if there are any commemorative activities planned for Saturday, the actual anniversary. (People here seem to like to march on Fridays).

As disturbing as history

Ok, I’ve not been keeping up with the news the last few days, via Clarin I just learned about a controversial entry in the Spanish version of Wikipedia about la Noche de los Lápiches.

The entry has been updated but see this link for an older version of the entry on La Noche de los Lápiches that claims la noche de los lápices was invented by terrorist organizations and that the seven youths who were kidnapped by the government on 16 September 1976 were actually terrorists. What is disturbing is that this viewpoint that the military government of 1976-1983 was in a struggle against terrorism is still accepted among certain parts of Argentine society. Admittedly, Argentina during the 1960s-1970s is a very complicated history – one that everyone needs to reflect upon.

30 years since her disappearance

Every few days I see a story on the news or a sign on the streets commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of somone who was disappeared, such as this poster: an homage to a mother who fought for life and liberty.


Angela Maria Aieta de Gullo was born in Fuscaldo, Italy on March 7, 1921. She lived in the barrio of Parque Chacabuco and Flores and was the mother of four sons. One of her sons, Juan Carlos Dante was imprisoned in 1975 for being a leader of the Peronist Youth. On the fifth of August in 1976 she was taken from her own home and witnesses reported seeing her at ESMA, the Navy School of Mechanics, a notorious torture center. In 1979 her youngest son Salvador Jorge also was disappeared. Juan Carlos Dante Gullo was freed in 1983 with the fall of the dictatorship and is still active in politics.

It is believed that she was carried onto one of the death flights in 1976 that dropped the disappeared into the Rio de la Plata.

Last night, Saturday evening, a mass and tribute to all the disappeared from the barrio took place in front of her home. A statement on the web site of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo lists the names of 32 people who disappeared from the same barrio.

Trial in Italy

There’s more to this poster than the simple remembrance of a dear mother by her family.

Italy is using the death of Angela Aieta and two other Italian citizens who resided and disappeared in Argentina as the basis of an investigation and trial of five officers from the Argentine Navy: Jorge Acosta, Alfredo Astiz, Hector Frebrés, Antonio Vanek, and Jorge Vildoza. Lawyers for navy admiral Emilio Massera, who was a member of the ruling military junta, are pleading that he is now mentally unfit to stand trial.

Most of the former navy officers live in Argentina. Vildoza is a fugitive whose location is unknown.

They are being tried in absentia in Italy. Testimony from more than forty witnesses against the navy officers is scheduled to begin in October.

Justice, decades late

Not everyone reads the paper or watches the news on TV. But everyone sees the posters on the street.


On Friday posters were pasted to the city’s walls proclaiming Justice against one of the most notorious torturers from the last dictatorship. The poster, sponsored by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Center for Legal and Social Studies, focuses on Julio Simón, known to his victims as Julián the Turk.

Simón was finally sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in the kidnapping, torture, and forced disapperance in November 1978 of José Poblete, Gertrudis Hlaczik and their 8 month old daughter.


The long delay was caused by the Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws that provided impunity to those who participated in the military government that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Efforts to repeal the laws were finally successful in 2005.

Simón is the first person to be sentenced now that Full Stop and Due Obedience are no longer in effect.

“Legacies of Torture”

Julian the TurkI first learned about the horrendous person that is Julio Simón, Julian the Turk, a few years ago when reading A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture by Marguerite Feitlowitz. It’s an excellent book on the dark history of the last dictatorship and, along with Nunca Mas, should be required reading for anyone trying to understand contemporary Argentina.

Described as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Julián the Turk is said to love opera. One of his victims tells that Julián would bring tapes of classical music to the detention center and they would listen to it together. The same victim recounts horrors committed by Julián the Turk and the large swastika that hung on the end of a watch chain worn by Julián the Turk.

After the dictatorship ended some victims encountered Julián the Turk walking on the streets and were warmly greeted by their former torturer. Reading some accounts of the Dirty War and its aftermath can leave you with a bizarre feeling in which you wonder whether the old man sitting next to you on the bus is so kind.

On May 1, 1995 a taped interview with Julián the Turk was shown on the Buenos Aires news program Telenoche on Canal 13. One of his victims also was presented on the same program and said the following about Julián the Turk. Warning: graphic description of torture:

There was Julián standing over a prisoner they had naked, laid out on his belly, with his legs hanging down over the end of the table. Julián was torturing this man with an electric cable which he had shorn of its insulation and changed to 220 volts. It seems this wasn’t enough for Julián for he then inserted a stick into the man’s anus and then tortured him some more with the cable. As the man’s body writhed and jolted, the stick tore apart his intestines, and he died.

There’s also an odd story about competing news stations. Perhaps someone who was living here at the time might know more about it. Julián the Turk had pre-recorded his interview with Canal 13 but was irritated that he wasn’t going to be paid for his appearance. The station advertised heavily in the newspaper to promote the exclusive interview.

So, he went to the state-run TV station then called ATC (now Canal 7), which reportedly paid him for the interview and ATC aired the interview prior to his appearance on Canal 13.

On Canal 13 Julián the Turk appeared in a dirty turtleneck sweater and with a beard. On the ATC interview he was clean shaven with hair slick by gel and combed back. On ATC he told the interviewer, “What I did I did for my Fatherland, my faith, and my religion. Of course I would do it again.” (Feitlowitz 212).

The things nations do to fight terrorism

Marguerite Feitlowitz, who was conducting research for A Lexicon of Terror, met with Julián the Turk two months after the TV interviews at a café near where he was living in the Constitución section of Buenos Aires.

Julián the Turk immediately told her, “I am not repentant….This was a war to save the Nation from the terrorist hordes. Look, torture is eternal. It has always existed and always will. It is an essential part of the human being.” (Feitlowitz 212)

Feitlowitz writes:

Julián says the program on Channel 13 was “distorted. Not one innocent person passed through my hands.” He holds out his hands, which are large and muscular, with trunk-like fingers, and not entirely clean. What about the man with the stick in his bowels? He waves this away. The pregnant blind woman tortured and raped at his command? For some reason this gets to him, he denies ever having tortured “cripples.”

Justice – nothing more, nothing less

I know for a fact that there are a few educated porteños who believe that the actions of the government at that time were justified. Their arguments have the hauntingly, familiar tone that it was all about protecting the nation from terrorists. They say, “It was a war.”

It’s important to fight terrorism but it’s equally important for the state, for all countries, not to overstep human rights in that struggle. The path to justice and peace always seems decades away.

Cheers for Italia from the heart patients…and for a great doctor

I saw most of the Italy-Germany game at home but had to skip the overtime to meet Ceci at the cardiac institute where her father had a procedure on Tuesday. (He’s doing fine). Got to the hospital just in time to hear the cheers as Italy won. Suddenly the street was full of cars honking their horns again. Of coure, Argentines were happy to see Germany lose after Germany’s recent defeat of the Argentine team.

The game also reminded me that there are a lot of Italians in Buenos Aires. A lot are like Ceci and have dual citizenship but a lot are like her mother who immigrated here after World War II and remained simply Italian, never obtaining Argentine citizenship; needless to say, she was very happy after the game (and that her husband’s procedure went well).

I wonder: during the Argentina-Germany game did the cardiac institute have to keep an extra close eye on its patients?

Some words about the cardiac institute, Fundación Favaloro: it’s a very nice, modern facility and there’s an interesting history behind the foundation. René Favaloro was one of the foremost heart surgeons in the world. In 1967, at the Cleveland Clinic in the U.S., Favaloro pioneered the coronary artery bypass graft surgery, a procedure that has impacted the lives of millions.


Favaloro returned in 1971 to Argentina from the U.S. to create the first thoracic and cardiovascular center in Buenos Aires. Over the years Favaloro developed Fundación Favaloro, the Universidad Favaloro, and the non-profit Institute of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery.

Sadly, Favaloro committed suicide on July 29, 2000 by shooting himself in the heart.

Favaloro was a strong supporter of universal health care, treating the uninsured and wealthy without discrimination. At the time of his death the foundation was owed millions but also was itself deeply in debt and almost bankrupt. Just before his death, Favaloro wrote a letter to Argentine president Fernando de la Rua pleading for financial assistance to the foundation. I don’t know the full story about the financial problems of the foundation at that time, which undoubtedly were complex, but the foundation has recovered.

In so many ways, Favaloro is a very admirable person…a child from a working class family who became a great surgeon; a man that left behind the immense personal wealth of a medical practice in the U.S. in order to promote healthcare in Latin America; someone who devoted his life to helping others.

If you’re interested in learning more about René Favaloro:

– Fundación Favaloro page about his life (in Spanish)
– A memorial tribute to Favaloro by the Texas Heart Institute is a well-written essay that should inspire anyone, not just medical students.
– An excellent article in the New York Times, Argentina Searches Its Soul Over a Suicide, is particularly poignant considering what happened in Argentina in the years after that article was written, a reminder that the country’s collapse didn’t start in 2001.

Favaloro, isn’t that name Italian? I thought today that I was just going to watch a football game, but I learned about so much more.

Bar Británico is closed

It’s a sad day in my barrio. Four blocks from my apartment is, or was, one of my favorite, old spots in the city, Bar Británico. Located in San Telmo at the corner of Defensa and Brasil, Bar Británico was one of the classic cafes of Buenos Aires.

I just returned from walking by the now closed Británico . Police are standing in front of the doors and all the furniture has been removed. It’s now just an empty shell. I didn’t even want to take a photo, preferring to remember it as it was before. On flickr you can see these photos that others have taken of this wonderful place. And be sure to look at this great photo.

Británico has been fighting to stay open for months over a dispute with the new landlord. We signed a petition earlier in the year, along with 20,000 other people, and the case has been in the courts. The city also has tried to mediate a solution between the property owner and the tenant. The end came finally this month when a judge ordered the bar to be closed. This morning the police arrived to enforce the court order. The Clarín has an article about the closing, as does La Nación. [both in Spanish]. Several news crews were around so there should be coverage on the Buenos Aires TV stations tonight.

The bar has been run for almost fifty years by three guys from Galicia. They are José Trillo, Manolo Pose and Pepe Miñones. At almost any given time you could go into the Británico and see one of them, now old men, serving the beer and food to customers. José Trillo says that now that the bar is closed that he will return to Spain.

The problems started when the former landlord died and the property was inherited by his son. The son Juan Pablo Benvenuto, seeing a prime real estate opportunity, didn’t want to renew the lease and rented the corner property to another person.

True, Bar Británico didn’t have the splendor of the Tortoni and hadn’t renovated itself like 36 Billares but the Británico had an antiquated character that kept it a popular place. While its competition across the street El Hipopótamo is a nicer cafe, we preferred to take our foreign visitors to the Británico.

The new tenant plans to open a cybercafe on the corner, as if the neighborhood really needs another one? How boring, you would think that with all this trouble that they could come up with something more creative.

Update: The rumored cyber never opened, yeah. Bar Britanico re-opened some time ago and I’ve returned as a regular patron. It’s not quite the same as the old Britanico but it’s close enough.

The Widows of Thursdays

Ceci just finished reading the book Las viudas de los jueves by Claudia Piñeiro and highly recommends it. It’s only available in Spanish and can be widely found in the bookstores of Buenos Aires. For those in North America, I see that there’s also a listing for Las viudas de los jueves in Amazon

Las viudas de los jueves won the Premio Clarín de Novela last year by a prize jury that included one of my favorite novelists, José Saramago. The book was selected from a competition that included over 1,300 works, just to give you an idea of the range of books being published. Unfortunately, few of those will ever make it into an English translation, more on that in another posting.

Las viudas de los jueves
is about a group of families who live in Altos de la Cascada, a fictional gated community in the upper middle-class suburbs of Buenos Aires. Set in the late 1990s the novel portrays that life among those seemingly happy families isn’t so perfect. The novel culminates in a tragic episode that coincides with the rising economic crisis in Argentina and September 11.

Paging through the novel I am reminded about the way that the word country club is used around Buenos Aires. Altos de la Cascada is called a Country Club, in English. It is actually a gated community and not quite a country club as that term is known in the U.S., though the two have many similarities. I’ve never been fond of either country clubs or gated communities, so I can’t speak authoritatively on the difference except that members of country clubs don’t usually live at the country club and that gated communities may or may not have golf courses, etc. Both may be exclusive social entities.

From reading the real estate section of La Nación on the weekends, it seems that gated communities/country clubs are quite popular among a certain segment of porteños. There was an intersting article a few months ago in Perfil about how Jews are denied membership into many (most? all?) of those communities. Evidently, it only takes one family in a community to veto the application of a new resident.

Anyway, if you want to read a good book about middle-class life in Buenos Aires before the economic crisis then Las viudas de los jueves is recommended.

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