One of the most wide-spread but little-known infectious diseases in Argentina will be thrust into the spotlight today as the National Day For Argentina Without Chagas is marked.
The government-backed campaign, which has been underway all week and officially takes place throughout the month of August each year since 2011, saw special awareness-raising events take place alongside extra public diagnosis and treatment measures in the northern provinces of Chaco, Formosa and Misiones among others that are most severely affected by the disease.
“The idea is that we’re letting people with the disease know that we have not forgotten them,” Marcelo Abril, the projects director of Healthy World (Mundo Sano) told the Herald. “The hope is that we can show people infected that they have a right to treatment and to raise awareness about the disease,” he added.
Despite infecting an estimated 1,500,000 Argentines (around four percent of the population) according to Healthy World, Chagas is officially classified as a neglected disease by the NGO, which staged the 17th International Symposium on Neglected Diseases at the National Academy of Medicine in Buenos Aires City earlier this week. One speaker at the event, neglected diseases expert and Children Without Worms director Dr. David Addiss, told the Herald that neglected tropical diseases like Chagas or Soil-Transmitted Worms lacked the dramatic nature of other serious diseases and so had been sidelined.
“Other tropical diseases that caused death and are in some ways more dramatic were very interesting from a research perspective: HIV, malaria and so on. Professors were in some ways attracted to studying these diseases more,” he said.
Chagas symptoms are often latent within the body and so are often significantly prolonged. While someone who contracts other tropical diseases like yellow fever, for example is at risk of death without treatment within weeks but may also recover relatively quickly, Chagas stays present in an infected person’s system for years, even decades.
Slow motion disease
The virus is contracted by coming into contact with kissing bugs that live in humid sub tropical climates such as the Greater Chaco region, and can be transmitted through blood transfusions and from mother to child during pregnancy.
It works slowly, attacking vital muscle tissue such as the heart, which can deteriorate slowly over many years as a result.
Unlike yellow fever, which has a widely enforced vaccine, or malaria, for which preventative drugs like Doxycycline and Malarone have existed for decades, there is no current vaccine or cure for Chagas.
On the other hand, the treatment that is available, mostly taking the form of antiparisitic drugs, works well in nullifying the worst effects. “Treatment effectiveness is higher than 80 percent in the acute phase and, in congenital cases treated during the first year of life, it exceeds 90 percent; hence the importance of early detection and treatment,” Healthy World said.
Consequently, raising awareness about the disease is of paramount importance. The government’s Program Against Chagas, of which today’s national spotlight is a part, has helped launch awareness raising events like this weekend’s National Walk For Infancy Without Chagas — aimed at highlighting the risks of mother to child transmission — across 15 provinces.
Special treatment and diagnosis stations were also launched in the most at-risk provinces recently due to government and NGO efforts. The disease affects the northern provinces acutely due to their subtropical climate, but is exacerbated by generally lower levels of basic sanitation among poor rural populations in northern Argentina.
As such, targeted action is what the government and NGOs working against Chagas disease have tried to achieve.
“The government’s Program Against Chagas including tomorrow’s National Day Without Chagas, works alongside targeted provincial programmes too. It has helped promote diagnosis and provides free treatment for infected people,” Abril told the Herald.
The Healthy World programmes director said that in recent years there had been a slight tendency of falling infection rates among some populations since the government effort was launched in 2011, although due to the stealth-like nature of the disease and lack of public awareness about its symptoms there are no precise data for Chagas infection rates.
While the positive efforts of the government and NGOs like Healthy World have helped launch initiatives to combat the disease, though, the problems of diagnosis and treatment coverage—despite it’s high effectiveness—remain obstacles in the fight against the disease.
Rick L. Tarleton, the president of the international Chagas Foundation, told the Herald that despite renewed government efforts, the majority of the estimated 1.5 million Argentines already infected nationwide were not receiving medical help.
“Unfortunately I don’t think National Day Without Chagas had much impact. Few of those already infected are being treated. We have a long way to go,” he said.
Buenos Aires has long been considered a hub of psychoanalysis, but one institution has set itself apart in recent years by offering a unique twist on the discipline in catering specifically to the City’s myriad immigrant communities.
“We try to create an intercultural experience. That’s the focus. So we have large group meetings and explore all the phenomena of intercultural relations,” says Dr Grace Bar Jones, the psychoanalyst director of Babel Psi, the institution to which she has dedicated over a decade of her life to and set on an orbit around the theme of multiculturalism, which dominates the narrative of the school for attendees and staff alike.
Founded in 2004 by Bar Jones, Babel Psi evolved from a previous organization, Babel Centre, which had practiced a similarly tailored form of psychiatry since 1990.
Multiculturalism is a theme Bar Jones considered highly relevant to the experience of everyone living in Buenos Aires, though the school focuses on foreign students, a unique niche in the widespread culture of psychoanalysis here.
“It can be very difficult living in a different country, because you are out of your familiar surroundings where naturally most people feel comfortable. The City can be tough too. It is an atmosphere with different practices, cultures, language. These things can foster a lot of stress,” she told the Herald.
Buenos Aires is in many ways the perfect location for a psychoanalysis practice focusing on these issues, not least because the culture of psychology is so extensive here. The most recent World Health Organization (WHO) study found there were at least 202 practicing psychologists for every 100,000 Argentines, more than any other country, and the overwhelming majority work in Buenos Aires.
The City’s large immigrant population also makes multiculturalism a prevalent issue. Many of these are foreign students, like Alice Jothy from France, who chose to take time to study with Babel Psi, having formally attended the group therapy sessions that happen every Monday evening (8.15pm) and involve around 20 “participants” (Bar Jones rejects the term “client”).
“At the meeting we sat together and we started talking. It was very much like a conversation between friends, we heard everyone with respect and did not speak more than one person at a time — you had to raise your hand to ask for the floor and Doctors Graciela Bar Jones and Alberto Jones were responsible for moderating the discussion.”
Alice was typical for a Babel student in that she had a prior connection to the place before choosing to study.
By seeking a unique approach to the traditional service and study of psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires, Babel Psi deliberately set itself apart from the crowd, as Bar Jones readily admits.
“The psycho-analytical school in Buenos Aires is one of the most important in the world. However, the official school and academia can often be separate from everyday experience. It’s not genuine. Our approach strives for an understanding of people’s genuine everyday experiences and lives,” she said.
The individuality of the organization distinguished it from other psychology schools or universities that offer courses on the topic, not least since it insists on a focus on multiculturalism uber alles.
This brings certain challenges of its own, including that of juggling multiple languages of those in attendance. While making adding extra complications, however, the results Babel Psi has seen through this approach are often interesting in and of themselves.
“We always have someone to translate, since people tend to feel most comfortable speaking in their own language. However, we also find, most interestingly, that participants can also feel liberated speaking in another language, a sense of freedom that means they might more readily express feelings and emotions they’d feel less comfortable discussing in English or French or whatever.”
The unique approach to psychoanalysis offered by the organization goes hand in hand with its administration and funding, which remain independent and private. Those attending group therapy sessions that form the back bone of the services Babel Psi offers pay 260 pesos (some US$28) per month or 75 pesos (US$8.10) per session, though your first time is always free. “Multi-family Psychoanalysis” sessions are also on offer each Wednesday (8pm) for family groups and are free.
The courses Babel Psi offers for those like Alice who chose to study psychology with the school meanwhile are privately funded, and so set students back anywhere from 750 pesos (US$8) onwards, a contrast to Argentina’s long tradition of state-funded university education free at the point of use for students.
Focusing on multiculturalism, the make-up of group therapy sessions is varied between students across Latin America and further afield, while those choosing to pay for studies with the school are often European or North American. France, for example is one of the biggest origin nations of students, all of whom have sufficient disposable income available to afford the fees.
For those who do choose to sign up to study, though, it’s a service they’re willing to pay for. “They want to make it a personal experience so often it’s just two people. And they address the care aspect of the subject more than just looking at the theory. This type of degree and learning doesn’t exist anywhere else in the whole world,” French student Mathilde, told the Herald.
The rise of the global bourgeoisie continues. In a recent study published by the US-based PEW Center for Research, it was revealed that among a renewed expansion of the “middle” stratum of humanity, the Argentine middle class had more than doubled over the last ten years, from around 15 percent in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 economic crisis to almost 32.5 percent a decade later in 2011.
This itself is an increase of 117 percent and shows a meteoric rise in the number of individuals lifted out of the complex and disadvantaged mass of those who find themselves below the middle class in the 21st-century capitalist world order. Argentina is now a regional leader in this regard — along with Uruguay and Chile, they are the only Latin American states that can boast having a majority of their citizens belong to the “middle income” group.
The report was accompanied by new numbers released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank pointing to a corresponding, remarkable reduction in poverty levels in Argentina in the years following the economic catastrophe of 2001, when poverty stood around 50 and 60% of the population, to now, where (depending on your choice of study and, apparently, voting intentions) it is between 20 and 40% lower.
Is this a vindication of the economic road the Kirchner-led governments since 2003 have taken, placing and delivering poverty reduction at the forefront of their targets for the economy? Or is it simply capitalism’s benevolent tentacles of disposable income and consumerist luxuries reaching down into the quagmire of the unwashed masses and lifting more lucky winners out of the ooze?
We asked leading economics professor Augustín Salvia from the UCA, who told The Bubble that it was probably a bit of both. He said that an expanding global economy had helped raise income for consumers:
“THANKS TO A FAVORABLE INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENT FOR EXPORTS AND DOMESTIC MARKET GROWTH, LEAVING MORE CAPACITY FOR SOCIAL SPENDING BY THE STATE.”
Crucially, government policy over the last decade (i.e. Kirchnerite government policy) and such social spending, he continued, had helped dramatically reduce poverty from the 60% levels Néstor’s government inherited in 2003.
“OF COURSE, IT WAS ALSO DOWN TO PUBLIC POLICIES TAKEN. WHAT HAS HAPPENED OVER THE PAST DECADE UP TO 2011-2012 WAS AN EXTRAORDINARY SOCIO-ECONOMIC RECOVERY,” SALVIA SAID.
(N.B: It’s worth pointing out that Augustín Salvia, as part of the UCA economics faculty, has recently been very critical of the current government’s Panglossian approach to viewing poverty levels in the last two years, contributing to a report that refuted Cristina and Capitanich’s “5%” claims as outdated).
So it seems that fewer people in poverty since 2001 has helped a general shuffling along on the social scale. It has meant there are less people struggling to eat, work and generally support themselves with the paper IOUs we call money — virtually as precious to post-modern survival as bread, water or oxygen, and often exchanged for some of these things directly.
In a society with an expanding middle class, more money slowly becomes available outside of it being needed for basic necessities and little else. What happens next was documented over 100 years ago by H.G. Wells in his book satirizing the growing bourgeoisie during the turn of the Twentieth Century (1909) in Britain.
“WITH AN IMMENSE ZEST … THEY BEGIN SHOPPING. … THEY PLUNGE INTO IT AS ONE PLUNGES INTO A CAREER; AS A CLASS THEY TALK, THINK AND DREAM POSSESSIONS.”
The “pro-business” right may have screamed and still be screaming “next Venezuela” and “dictatorship” at the Victory Front (FpV) and their economic policies, but in truth the Kirchner era has, overall, helped capitalism and the system’s favored class, the bourgeoisie, expand and grow in Argentina since its spectacular collapse at the hands of a neoliberal model in 2001-2002.
Investing in the economy directly with government funds and lifting people out of poverty through expanded welfare programs has helped grow consumption, since more people now have more money to spend, as Salvia helped explain for us.
“Expanding coverage and retirement benefits, the income transfer programs such as Progress or Universal Child Allowance (AUH), higher minimum wages, constituted important countercyclical social policies to avoid increasing poverty and boost domestic consumption. This led not only to a fall in inequality, but social improvements. In this regard, 2011 was the best year of the decade.”
The Krichner era has, in fact, been one of remarkable capitalist growth in a mixed economy of well-balanced public and private sectors — often a good recipe for regenerating an economy with sustained economic growth and middle-class expansion, as demonstrated in Western Europe after 1945. The Inter-American Development Bank (BID) confirmed as much recently:
“SINCE ITS 2002 ECONOMIC CRISIS, ARGENTINA HAS BEEN ONE OF THE COUNTRIES WITH THE BEST PERFORMANCE IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN IN THE REDUCTION OF POVERTY AND POSTING GAINS OF GROWING PROSPERITY, EXPANDING THE MIDDLE CLASS.”
NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY
Not everyone is convinced that the social situation is so rosy, however. Presumably in response to the recent and understandable triumphalism of the government when they read the Pew report and following praise from the the World Bank/IMF duo (heady praise indeed from institutions that have lambasted social spending in favor of privatization and austerity for decades), conservative broadsheet La Nación quickly published a repost in the form of a study conducted by a group of fringe think tanks that have challenged the good news.
While the bodies referenced in the report appear to be politically interested, explicitly pro-market organizations (the clue is in the names), we shouldn’t just dismiss the arguments used. They raise genuine social concerns about the last few years in particular and underline that it’s important not to get carried away and view Argentina as the universal bourgeois paradise it clearly is not.
Salvia agreed, telling The Bubble that there was little room for complacency when it comes to growing the middle class further, despite the stunning achievements over the last decade.
“On the other hand, if we make the comparison between 2011 and 2014, the trend reversed. Not catastrophically but again, increased homelessness and poverty have reduced the middle class. Hence, structural poverty remains between 15 and 20% in Argentina and in that area, improvements are very slow.”
So the current government, the latest link in the Kirchner chain born in the ashes of the 2001 crisis, should not rest on its laurels at the remarkable poverty reduction achieved since those dark days and confirmed by the Pew Research Center, World Bank, IMF, BID and so on.
Poverty may well be back on the rise. And yet the temptation for Kirchnerites is to celebrate the new figures (which only go up to 2011, remember) as a final triumph, especially in this, a crucial and finely poised election year. This is dangerous.
For the current administration — and whoever takes up the reins of power after December 10 — to legitimately claim the mantle as champions of social justice, these returning and disgraceful problems of child poverty, homelessness, hunger and so on must be addressed rather than rest easy on the undeniably impressive achievements witnessed since 2003.
The job is not yet done. Massive social inequality between classes and regions continues to exist alongside the comfortable wealth of those privileged who have made it into or remain part of the property-owning bourgeoisie, who can buy stuff they want, not only stuff they need. According to Salvia, this class might now be shrinking again, despite what we will hear on Cadena Nacional.
So what about this middle class itself? What about the actual subject of the PEW report that kickstarted this latest merry-go-round debate? Clearly, its growth in Argentina over the last ten years or so has been remarkable. All the numbers say so, after all.
But to what extent do these precise statistical measurements and abstract paint-by-the-numbers social research actually help us understand the human stories involved in social development?
Most of the studies can tell us a lot about the base economic status of people in society and their relation to other groups, how much they can spend on niceties and so on. But the number crunchers’ use of the social grouping and labelling system called “class” doesn´t do enough to tap into human experiences on its own. It’s cold, hard data that cannot help us understand completely what it’s like to live in a certain social group that might be different from our own.
Perhaps a different definition with a bit more nuance, used alongside the necessary data crunching, would help the human element in class-based studies emerge. That’s what Ezequiel Adamovsky, a historian of the Argentine middle class, said recently anyway, refuting an economic definition.
“I DO NOT SEE CLASS AS A ‘STRUCTURE,’ NOR EVEN AS A ‘CATEGORY,’ BUT AS SOMETHING WHICH IN FACT HAPPENS (AND CAN BE SHOWN TO HAVE HAPPENED) IN HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS.”
“Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves…Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.”
It’s a process and a living, breathing thing. As much a verb as a passive noun or inert box on a spreadsheet. Studies like the latest reports from the Pew Center, IMF and so on are vital to show the hard evidence of social development and help us and the people in charge look at the broad scope of the economy and society, see where we’re heading and what issues we need to address
They can only ever give an incomplete picture of the situation though. When Salvia tells us that Argentina has a 15-20% structural poverty, what are the personal implications of that on people and their families? It’s difficult for these numerical studies agreeing and disagreeing with academics, economists, politicians and so on to cut through the esoteric clutter and actually tell us about the human experiences they ultimately try to describe.
That’s why we need to think carefully about what “class” actually means when wading into the political mud-slinging and statistical warfare the like of which we have seen from the pro and anti-government forces in Argentina recently.
The PEW Center report provided fascinating insights into the direction this country has traveled and the social advances achieved since the worst economic crisis in its recent history. Let’s not waste it by looking only at the numbers and forgetting the countless human stories that lie behind them.
Immigrants coming to live and work in Argentina continue to face a bureaucratic gauntlet when applying for a temporary or permanent visa and the necessary National Identification Document (DNI), but a series of reforms to the application system and improvements to Buenos Aires City’s immigration centre have refined the process for some.
The Interior and Transport Ministry launched sweeping reforms of Argentina’s passport, DNI document and visa application process in 2009, significantly modernizing all elements, including the addition of a digital element which, in theory, has made day-to-day use more straightforward and streamlined the application and renewal processes.
However, whether this streamlining has extended to immigrants choosing to stay and work in Argentina and their own experiences in obtaining visas and identification remains less clear. The application process for expats is necessarily more complex and demands more preliminary steps than it does for natives. This is true even for those arriving from neighbouring nations belonging to the region’s the supra-state trading bloc Mercosur, who need less documentation than others.
Twenty-one-year-old Laura Sán-chez, an industrial design student from Bolivia currently living in Las Cañitas, found her recent experience complicated by staff at the newly renovated immigration centre in Retiro.
“The people who processed all my paperwork were fine, but when I needed information, they were dismissive — as if you were supposed to know the answer, despite sitting there with a sign saying ‘information.’ They weren’t helpfull at all.” Indeed, many immigrants including Laura turn to their national consulates for technical help after after the information services at migraciones fail to provide adequate help.
Issues regarding the availability of information for the labyrinth application process appears a recurring theme among immigrants seeking either the student or work visa and associated DNI. Uruguayan Juan Eraso, 28, was frustrated in his efforts to gain legal residency status having moved from Montevideo and found work in Buenos Aires to fund his performance arts degree, also based in the City.
“The process is very complicated, and I consistently had problems knowing what steps I needed to take and when,” he said, smiling nonetheless now that his visa and DNI were safely in hand. “I was only informed by the authorities much later that rules had changed and I needed more documentation, by which time the paperwork I had aquired such as my Argentine Criminal Record Check was expired, and I had to repeat many steps again.”
Inaccessible or lacking information vital to the application process can exacerbate the complicated, multi-stage process, which is itself fraught with potential difficulties. The sheer number of different steps successful applications require can lead to the system tying itself in knots, whereby certain documents become invalid before others are issued. Consequently, “the experience was nothing shy of unpleasant,” according to Rubén López, a data processor and economics student from El Salvador living in Palermo.
“I had my temporary residency precaria form, which had a validity of three months, but after two and a half had elapsed, there was no sign of my DNI and I was close to having to leave the country. I tried to contact immigration, but every number I found simply led me to answering machines. I was getting desperate,” he says, having only resolved the problem by renewing his temporary residency — involving more paperwork — until the DNI arrived.
Yet for the many immigrants like Rubén frustrated by the application process, there remain others among Buenos Aires’ expansive immigrant population — the City is home to between 400,000 and half a million foreign nationals — who find the system in its current form much improved.
James Clacton, 42, a software developer living in Belgrano, experienced the process before and after the reforms began in 2009 and attests to the improvements made. “Back in 2006, to first get my permanent residency, I had to wait in line at the dilapidated old RENAPER office in Retiro at literally 4am because they only gave out about 100 numbers per day, and if you were in the back of the line you would miss out… All in all it took me about six months to get my residency and another 18 months to process my DNI.”
He says that since the gradual reforms, which required everyone to re-apply for the new digital DNI, the process has become far easier for foreigners such as himself. “A few weeks ago, with much trepidation, I applied for my new plastic card DNI. This time I was in and out of the office in an hour, and they delivered it in the mail about three weeks later… As Kafkaesque as things sometimes are here, some things have actually improved in recent years.”
Mixed progress in expat fortunes regarding the bureaucratic aspects to emigrating is also reflected by some foreigners arriving here only recently and encountering relatively few difficulties. “I got my first appointment a few weeks ago and I was amazed at how nice all the employees were with me and how easy it’s been to get the temporary residency permit,” says Fanita Guadalupe Juárez Pimppiez, 30, a French immigrant who works as a coordinator at the local Alianza Francesa theatre in the northern Greater BA district of Martínez. However, avoiding the extra paperwork necessary to obtain the DNI streamlined the process, she concedes.
Similarly proofreader Allan Kelin, in his fifties and originally from from New York City, reported a generally positive experience during his appointment at the immigration centre. “I found that all the bureaucracy was bearable because, without exception, the people behind the glass or desk all took the time to make sure I understood what was required and where I needed to go next. There are several steps and many people waiting, but the experience was never de-humanizing.”
‘So much better this year’
Though updated, however, the complex visa and DNI application process can still leave some prospective expats cold. Indeed, the reocurring instances of false information for those applying persist. Autumn Pittman, 42, a business owner from the United States living in Caballito, was left in legal limbo for extended periods as a result.
“I got my precaria and CUIL and I feel it took far too long. We have been through several processes since coming here over a year ago. I wish someone would update the website now and then as it would have saved us a ton of wasted visits to government buildings and agencies,” she said.
Similar problems, such as the changing of application fees without widespread notifications, were also reported, though few immigrants living in Argentina long enough to experience the necessary beureaucracy that comes with expat life reported that the situation had deteriorated. For many, it has gradually improved.
“The first time I applied was quite stressful. I was new to the city and my Spanish was bad. The company I worked for sponsored me but gave me the instructions in Spanish so I had to rely on helpful colleagues to get everything organized. It took about three months to get everything. Migraciones was unorganized and the workers were quite rude,” said Megan Edwards, a 33-year-old Candian from Alberta now working as a teacher trainer, remembering her first experience.
She was adamant that the bureaucracy was now more manageble, though. “This year, it was so much better. They’ve done some awesome changes at Migraciones. It’s much more organized and the workers were very helpful and friendly.”
This year’s Copa America will soon crown either Argentina or Chile champion. In hosting, Chile has played all of its matches in the expansive, open National Stadium in Santiago. Its atmospheric stands are uniform, curving slices of concrete piled on top of each other and ringing the pitch like contours on a map. And every time Chile plays in this tournament, the stands are transformed into heaving seas of red as the fans cheer La Roja on.
But there is one small section in the stadium ordinarily packed to the rafters that stays empty — a tiny cordoned-off section left virtually untouched, where the original wooden benches (there since the stadium was opened in 1938) remain. It’s perhaps the most eerily poignant detail in the Estadio Nacional that pushes home the memory associated with the place.
These benches were still there when, in 1973, the new military regime fronted by General Augusto Pinochet rounded up and arrested thousands of Chilean citizens and forced them into the arena, turning it into a de facto concentration camp. The Pinochet regime had swept to power in a coup on September 11 (an ominous date for Chileans and socialists long before the new millennium) of the same year. It ousted the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende — who shot himself as the presidential palace from which he refused to flee was being bombed — with the express consent and covert assistance of then US President Richard Nixon and the CIA.
The US involvement helps explain why so many of those forced into the stadium at gunpoint in 1973 were socialists and other political opponents of the new Pinochet dictatorship, which was fascist while also being utterly committed to US-led neoliberal economics and free trade. During the Cold War, the United States government favored regimes like this as it sought to stamp out non-capitalist governments and social movements wherever they appeared, from the jungles of Vietnam to the beaches of the Caribbean, directly or indirectly leading to the deaths of estimated millions in the process.
Chile was no different. Fascism was installed with US support and the new dictatorship soon set about rounding up the many thousands of loyal Allende supporters who were turned into dissidents the day he was murdered.
Over the 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship, concentration camps were set up around the country, many in vast open spaces like the Atacama Desert, where mass graves are still being found. But in the first few months, there was less of the meticulous, calculated infrastructure of fascism that would, just like in neighboring Argentina, later reach its tentacles across the whole country.
Consequently, the National Stadium in 1973 showed the brutality of Pinochet’s regime in embryonic form. Yet while the setting may have been improvised, the targeted cruelty was not. As one prisoner who was murdered inside the stadium said before his death,
“THEY CARRY OUT THEIR PLANS WITH KNIFE-LIKE PRECISION.”
This detainee was Victor Jara, a folk musician and vocal supporter of Allende who soon found himself a special target of the uniformed regime thugs who ran the stadium after he continued to sing his hope-filled songs in an effort to keep prisoners’ spirits up.
Like most of the other 41 people who were killed during the two-month spell between September and November that was the height of the National Stadium’s use as a concentration camp, Jara was tortured repeatedly before being shot. Reports say that the guards, concerned with his music and standing among the other inmates, elected to tear his fingernails off and then force him to keep playing in between the beatings that were routine for all the men and women inside.
Two days before his death, Jara managed to scribble a final poem down that was later smuggled out of the stadium in a shoe. It’s as good a testament as any in allowing us a view back into the Estadio Nacional’s dark past. (See below).
Efficiency in torture and repression was of paramount importance for Pinochet’s dictatorship, especially in the early days, when fear of mass dissent from a people who had recently voted for a radical socialist government bred constant paranoia for the fascists. Almost as important for them, though, was making sure the crimes and systematic human rights abuses they were orchestrating were hidden from outside view.
As the United States’ latest ally in the fight against “international communism,” the dictatorship had to appear respectful. Indeed, many former US politicos and economists (the so-called Chicago boys sent in to privatize the entire economy) who worked with the Pinochet government continue to deny its crimes, just as the top Western politicians including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did in later years. Neoliberal solidarity at its most shameful. (Video footage: Thatcher praising Pinochet for “bringing true democracy to Chile”).
The forced labor and concentration camps had to be kept a secret from foreign eyes if the new regime was to avoid international pressure. This barefaced cover-up applied within the stadium too. The prisoners were sent into the bowels of the arena — the changing rooms and lockers — whenever the guards got anxious and particularly whenever an event or visit was scheduled to take place above.
In one instance during a World Cup qualifier, when Chile was set to play the Soviet Union in the National Stadium, the Soviet team and players refused to participate, having correctly heard or deduced that the entire edifice was being used as an internment camp for political prisoners.
THEY REBUFFED DEMANDS TO PLAY THE MATCH AT THE STADIUM, ACCURATELY LABELING IT, “A PLACE OF BLOOD.”
In the end, FIFA belatedly sent inspectors over to review the complaints, but all the prisoners were hidden below the pitch (the only bit the inspectors really looked at) and the match went ahead.
This was problematic, since the Soviets boycotted playing on human rights grounds. But FIFA in its infinite wisdom insisted that the match go on anyway. With fellow citizens imprisoned, beaten and tortured under their feet, the Chilean team lined up against an empty field and scored in the open goal to secure their World Cup qualification — a farce that might have been funny were it not for the inhuman foundation it was built upon.
The stadium’s Jekyll and Hyde existence as concentration camp and national sporting arena ended soon afterwards, in November 1973. Despite the widespread knowledge of his regime’s brutality, it was too high a risk of bad press for Pinochet. By that stage, the infrastructure of clandestine facilities hidden from public view was growing and the tortures, beatings and murders continued in less visible concentration camps.
Today, a small museum under the stadium bears witness to what happened there in the months following the abolition of democracy. But, according to a recent article run by The New York Times, many of the survivors feel like it isn’t enough. Indeed, it isn’t clear how many of those watching this year’s Copa America outside of Chile are even aware of the stadium’s past at all. This might change through a better memorial in the stadium itself, like Néstor Kirchner achieved in one of Argentina’s former detention facilities, turning the ex-ESMA building into a human rights museum. But perhaps more important is that we remember the testimonies of those who survived the horrors of fascism. Victor Jara’s final poem is a good place to start.
Estadio Nacional by Victor Jara, 1973
There are five thousand of us here.
In this small part of the city.
How many of us are there in all
In the cities and in all the country?
Here we are, ten thousand hands
Who plant the seeds and keep the factories running.
So much humanity,
hungry, cold, panicked, in pain, under moral duress, terrified out of their minds!
Six of ours lost themselves
In the space of the stars.
One man dead, one man beaten worse than I ever imagined
It was possible to beat a human being.
The other four wanted to free themselves of all their fear.
One jumped into the void to his death.
Another beat his head against the wall.
But all had the fixed look of death in their eyes.
What fear is provoked by the face of fascism!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision, not giving a damn about anything.
For them, blood is a medal.
Killing is an act of heroism.
My God, is this the world You created?
Is this the product of Your seven days of wonders and labor?
In these four walls, there is nothing but a number that does not move forward.
That, gradually, will grow to want death.
But my conscience suddenly awakens me
And I see this tide without a pulse
And I see the pulse of the machines
And the soldiers, showing their matronly faces, full of tenderness.
And Mexico, Cuba, and the world?
Let them cry out of this ignominy!
We are ten thousand fewer hands that do not produce.
How many of us are there throughout our homeland?
The blood of our comrade the President pulses with more strength than bombs and machine guns.
And so, too, will our fist again beat.
Song, how hard it is sing you when I have to sing in fear!
Fear like that in which I live, and from which I am dying, fear
Of seeing myself amidst so much, and so many endless moments
In which silence and outcry are the end of my song.
What has never been seen before, what I have felt and what I feel now
Will make the moment break out…
The last military dictatorship in Argentina seized power in an anti-democratic coup in 1976.
In the weeks, months and years that followed, the junta proceeded to crush any opposition to its regime by force of arms. On the premise of “restoring order” and targeting underground left-wing rebels like the Monteros, it launched a systematic and targeted campaign of state terrorism, abductions, torture and murders still known as “disappearances” since many of the victims were never found.
The disappeared were not only men, women and children from Argentine civil society, but also many of those forcibly conscripted into the military itself, including one Alberto Agapito Ledo, a conscript who was disappeared in Tucumán Province on June 17, 1976.
Whenever a soldier was forcibly disappeared, the army tended to falsify the doomed recruit’s paperwork to cover their own backs, often using the euphemistic lie that the disappeared person or persons were “deserters” and therefore missing without a trace. In Ledo’s case, the man who declared him a “deserter” in signing his paperwork was a certain Second Lieutenant Milani, who resigned his post as commander in chief of the army on Tuesday.
Appointed two years ago by the current administration, the outgoing César Milani is consequently suspected of crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in the state terror campaign of the last military dictatorship. This situation raises some important questions. Why was Milani appointed as head of the army in the first place? Why by this current administration, which, like its predecessor, justly prides itself on the progress it has made in bringing many former oppressors from the military regime to justice? And why is he standing down now?
The final question is perhaps the most pressing. This year, human rights groups unified during a commemoration of the 1976 military coup to demand Milani be investigated. After two years of piecemeal calls for greater scrutiny, the ground was visibly beginning to shift under his feet. Naturally, though, the official line is that he quit the government for “strictly personal reasons,” as Defense Minister Agustín Rossi told the press on Tuesday, following up insistent and renewed questioning by my colleagues at The Buenos Aires Herald with the same answers.
“WASN’T IT THE RESULT OF THE INVESTIGATIONS IMPLICATING HIM IN CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY COMMITTED DURING THE LAST DICTATORSHIP?”
“RULE THAT OUT.”
“IT IS ALSO SAID THAT MILANI LEFT IN ORDER TO AVOID VICTORY FRONT (FPV) PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL DANIEL SCIOLI PAYING THE HIGH COST OF HAVING A COMMANDER ACCUSED OF DICTATORSHIP CRIMES…”
Whether we take the Defense Minister’s words on Milani at face value or not is subjective. But applying even a shred of critical reasoning to the situation suggests that, if nothing else, the FpV gains from letting Milani go before the election. Perhaps President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner forced Milani out and in so doing appeased the genuinely progressive voices within her governing Perónist movement dissatisfied with their centrist presidential candidate Daniel Scioli and surely feeling uncomfortable with an ex-dictatorship subordinate at the head of the Argentine military. Then again, if there was unease within the FpV ranks over Milani’s appointment, it was not audible on his appointment back in 2013.
It seems more likely that, with the net tightening around Milani and his shrouded past, the decision came — either from himself or his elected civilian superiors — to leave the Fernández de Kirchner administration and save the FpV the unsavory prospect of fighting a general election with a serving army chief accused of involvement in systematic human rights abuses.
Whatever the party-political dimensions are, the basis for his indictment, which may still lead to further investigations, is pretty robust and can be drawn from various pieces of evidence. First, he was mentioned directly in La Rioja’s 1984 exhaustive regional Nunca Mas (Never Again) report on dictatorship-era crimes for his alleged involvement in the abduction of both Pedro Adán Olivera and Alfredo Olivera in the province in 1977.
In the Ledo case, the signed paperwork declaring the disappeared soldier a “deserter” sits alongside his indictment by a former comrade, Esteban Sanguinetti, who did stand trial for the disappearance and alleged the former army chief’s direct involvement.
These cases haunting Milani in Tucumán and La Rioja remain in stalemate despite his recent loss of a government shield. But despite the deadlock, there can be little doubt that Milani is standing on shakier ground than he was two years ago when he ascended to his position.
Last Monday, Judge Ricardo Warley approved the habeas corpus request of Nora Cortiñas, iconic member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who demanded Milani provide information regarding her disappeared relative Gustavo Carlos Cortiñas, who went missing in April 1977 at a similar time to the other recorded victims linked in some way with Milani. Furthermore, the Tucumán Court of Appeals is currently weighing federal prosecutor Carlos Brito’s request that Milani face further questioning regarding Ledo’s forced disappearance. It may yet send Milani to the dock.
Milani’s past testimonies have failed to completely dispel doubts that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. When human rights group the Center for Education and Legal Studies (CELS) questioned him prior to his government appointment about his time serving under the dictatorship, he said he had been completely ignorant of any human rights abuses occurring at the time — that he only became aware of them years later, after the return of democracy in 1983.
It could conceivably be true. Then again, why do we have to simply accept Milani’s own version? On the cusp of a top government appointment, his answer would have been the same regardless of the truth. It is a stretch to believe that since he was serving in the army during the military dictatorship, during a time (1976-7) of mass abductions within the army and with documents linking him to forced disappearances, he had absolutely no knowledge of what was going on. If he is innocent, why the hesitancy to face more questioning that might help soothe some of the doubts of those families so brutally affected by the army’s crimes?
The Milani affair is, of course, just one detail in the vast open wound left by the military dictatorship that still casts its shadow over Argentina. In just the same way many ex Nazi’s in West Germany were stealthily rehabilitated into privileged social positions after the fall of fascism in Europe, there are people in Argentina directly affiliated with the military regime and it’s plethora of crimes against its own people who remain untouched by justice.
As in the case of West Germany, a resolute and dedicated campaign to condemn those seduced by fascism and culpable for its crimes has helped heal the pain of its many victims. The human rights groups that continue this work in Argentina today — among them CELS, HIJOS and Human Rights Watch, who recently called the accusations against Milani “credible” — must continue to be supported and endorsed by all parties for their efforts to seek out justice.
Yet the government itself, democratically elected to best represent all Argentines, also has a direct responsibility. Whether the FpV is successful or not at the ballot boxes later this year, a central Kirchnerite legacy is the repeal of the amnesty laws that had protected so many former oppressors and ultimately brought many of them to justice.
Suspected of human rights abuses during military rule, Milani’s appointment by Cristina two years ago was an anomaly to her party’s good record. He should face further questioning not only since the evidence of his involvement remains unanswered and his own legacy murky, but because it would put to rest the painful doubts of those families affected by the crimes he is linked to. If he is as innocent as he and the government say he is, solid proof confirming so would vindicate Cristina and the FpV’s appointment of him. In the end it could be, ironically, in their best interests.
It’s election year in Argentina and for the first time in a decade, we face the prospect of entering the immediate future with a president who doesn’t have “Kirchner” somewhere in his or her name. With the bland and vaguely centrist, Perón-ish bid of Sergio Massa in terminal decline (despite his desperate pleas to the contrary), the next president will probably be one of three people.
Either Mauricio Macri, the right-wing mayor of Buenos Aires running on the Republican Proposal (PRO) ticket, or one of the ruling Victory Front (FpV) hopefuls: Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo or Buenos Aires Province Governor Daniel Scioli.
These are the “Kirchnerist” or “Kirchnerite” candidates, named such since the Victory Front movement was formed and has always been led by a Kirchner — first the hugely successful Néstor, who salvaged Argentina and the economy from a very neoliberal crisis after his victory in 2003, and then his widow, current President Cristina Fernández, who must step down this election since she can’t stand for a third term.
The blending of progressive, social democratic welfare policies and strong Peronist themes (the mass rallies, constant Evita references and comparisons and so on) have helped drive Kirchnerism to win after win at the ballot box, but this time things look far from certain. What’s more, the lack of a Kirchner in the presidential race has caused divisions within the party. With no clear go-to choice after Cristina, we are left with two potential candidates (there had been more until very recently) who will fight it out for the nomination in the upcoming presidential primaries on Aug. 9.
Both Scioli and Randazzo have good claims as to why they deserve the FpV nomination. But there appears to remain an element of existential angst within the FpV that without the right family name on the ticket, somewhere, a Kirchnerite presidential bid will lack legitimacy, party direction and the intangible just-right, “Goldilocks” brand of leadership.
This worry finally appears to have bubbled over into the very public side of the party’s internal politics, as demonstrated by a spate of statements by party grandees regarding Néstor and Cristina’s son Máximo Kirchner.
For years, Máximo shunned the public eye and left party politics to his parents. But despite his best efforts to keep the Casa Rosada’s inner dealings aside, as well as a potentially damaging image of him growing fat on the bloating Kirchner wealth (Cristina’s own net wealth has increased by 16 percent in the last year alone), Máximo is clearly embedded in the Kirchnerite project and a key player in where the movement goes from here onwards.
His role up to now has provided a bridge between the institutional face of the FpV — largely taken care of by the career politicians in the cabinet — and the movement’s grassroots. He founded the important FpV youth group La Campora back in 2003 and injected it with his own brand of Peronist militarism from the start. Under Máximo’s watch, it has expanded its influence (not without a certain notoriety among those less sympathetic to the Kirchners) to gain a seat at the governing table with representatives in the Chamber of Deputies and many more on regional councils nationwide.
La Campora also exerts influence on Argentine politics through impressive shows of strength. Mass rallies are routine, and at one such rally at the Argentine Juniors stadium in September last year, Máximo stepped into the limelight. He has remained there ever since. It was his first ever public speech and caused a miniature earthquake in the Argentine media and political ether. Here was the prodigal son of the Kirchners following in their footsteps in mesmeric fashion, electrifying a devoted crowd with his rhetoric and passion for el proyecto nacional. What’s more, that day he cut a figure almost the spitting image of his late father Néstor in tone and style as many commentators couldn’t help but notice. Kirchner III had arrived.
WILL HE STAND?
Flash forward to today and the reality of a tough and crucial election for the Victory Front, which has never won without a Kirchner on the ballot, let alone without one in a defined government position of any kind. This uncomfortable fact has simmered under the surface of the FpV for years now. And just as a kettle boils over — with an apparent lack of activity and then all at once — there have been strong signals from the most influential names in the party that Máximo may finally make the leap into institutional politics.
These have been semi-cryptic statements, presumably designed to test the water for Máximo if and when he announces a move towards an official position in government during election season and sheds his current skin as the unofficial, close personal aide he has been to his mother in recent years.
Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, one of the undeniable stars of the current administration and Cristina’s own favorite among her inner circle, said:
“HE IS THE KIND OF POLITICIAN THAT THE CONGRESS NEEDS. ALSO, POLLS SHOW HE HAS 26 PERCENT VOTER SUPPORT. THAT MEANS HE WAS ABLE TO DESTROY THE BAD IMAGE THE MEDIA WAS EAGER TO CREATE.”
Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández also hinted at Máximo’s imminent arrival:
“THERE ARE NO DOUBTS LEFT THAT HE FITS AND THAT HE HAS THE STATURE TO BE A CANDIDATE. WHAT’S STOPPING HIM?”
Indeed, most intriguing of all is how both FpV presidential candidates Scioli and Randazzo have also put out Máximo-related feelers to the media and gauged the reactions, fueling speculation that they could name him as their preferred vice president. Neither has announced his choice yet, so there is still a very real possibility of at least one of them doing just that. Either way, the apparent widespread backing from within the party must reflect at least a certain degree of political competence on his part, and he is unquestionably popular with grassroots FpV supporters. The stage is set.
Máximo is a member of a wealthy, influential family still dominating Argentine politics, just as Macri is ensconced in the handshakes and business card world of the corporate elite.
But in Máximo’s case, his name itself might also be a hindrance as much as a help. There are many in Argentina who rightly feel uncomfortable with the prospect of another Kirchner calling the shots in whatever capacity after over a decade of just that. To have such dynastic tendencies within what’s supposed to be an open and representative democratic system hardly demonstrates the liberal meritocracy that politicians the world over champion as an accepted global norm.
Then again, when has this ever been true in Western liberal democracies? Meritocracy repeatedly plays second fiddle to social and industrial elites. Just look at the US. Its recent presidential history has been utterly dominated by selected families of privilege. There are Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons as far as the eye can see, two of which are running from opposite sides to replace Barack Obama next year, who despite shoehorning his way into the clique has done little to change the pro-capital and hawkish tendencies of the White House across two terms. Elsewhere, oligarchies of career politicians have a stranglehold over who actually does the representing in legislatures and the ruling in the executives, exemplified by the current UK cabinet that is basically filled with old, white and mainly male millionaires who went to Eton and then Oxbridge.
Whether we like it or not, representative politics is an incestuous game and it’s hard to break the mold, even if it’s healthy and often necessary to do so. If he does end up running, Máximo has spent some time with the party’s grassroots, at least. He may remain firmly within a wealthy circle of elite members of Argentine society, but if he stands, he will likely bring some of the radical notions of his activist days with him and maybe shake up the uneven landscape of Peronism in Argentina. Like father, like son.