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Archive for June, 2010

ESMA (which stands for the National Naval College in Buenos Aires) is the innocuous acronym for what was the most notorious concentration camp in Argentina during the military dictatorship of 1976-83.  Almost 5000 political dissidents were brought here to be tortured and exterminated.  In all, an estimated 30,000 persons “disappeared” during those fateful years: members of the left and democratic political parties, students, teachers, journalists, workers, and others who resisted and opposed the dictatorship, as well as hundreds of other unrelated persons who were randomly picked up, brought to the camp, tortured, and killed as part of the terrorization of ordinary people to keep them subservient to the military junta.

Today ESMA houses the Centre for Memory, Truth and Justice, a public project with full time staff, that is researching into this period of Argentina’s history, creating public awareness particularly among the younger generation – through publications and guided tours of the camps – of the dangers of succumbing to the lure of dictatorship, and acting as a fact-finding support group for the families of “The Disappeared” (most iconically represented by the “Mothers of the Disappeared”).

Argentinian artists perform depicting the Madres de Plaza de Mayo under the rain on May 25, 2010, the occasion of the Bicentennial celebrations. The Mothers of the Disappeared are human rights activists who began their mission after thousands of their children "disappeared", abducted by agents of Argentina's military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983 (Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images, the Boston Globe, May 26, 2010)

I learnt from the two young researchers who took a whole morning off to educate us about their project, that the Centre is painstakingly reconstructing the events that took place in ESMA (and the 340 other secret concentration camps across Argentina) during those seven years, identifying and listing all those who “disappeared”, recording testimonies of the few survivors, and archiving all the data in electronically accessible form. It has created a permanent museum out of the stark interiors of the building where the concentration camp was housed.  The commentary by the guides recreates the little we know about the prisoners’ fates from the moment that the cars bringing them into the college premises were waved towards their prison.  Here, hooded, chained and handcuffed prisoners  – mostly youth – who had been abducted out of their homes, workplaces and the street without warning or stated reason, lived out their final hours, days and months, before succumbing to torture, or being shot and buried in mass graves within the compound of the Naval College itself, or in the later years when, in order to avoid  possible international discovery of incriminating evidence, they were thrown out of military planes when still alive, with cement weights chained to their legs, to drown in the waters of the River Plate.

Most poignant among the “survivors” are the several hundred children of young pregnant women dissidents who were allowed to give birth and then put to death. The babies were appropriated by those among the torturers and their friends who were childless. Today, many of them are young adults, haunted by doubts about their past, and searching for their true identity.  With help from the national DNA screening centre that is located close to ESMA, and “Grandmothers of the Disappeared” (candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize), they are trying to locate their true extended families. One of the young women who accompanied me to the ESMA had a father who had disappeared into the ESMA never to return; she now volunteers with the “Mothers of the Disappeared” in her free time. Another young academic told me of his cousin whose mother was one of the  disappeared.  He had been appropriated by a military family, but when he became an adult he developed doubts about his ancestry; getting himself DNA tested, he was able to track down and reunite with his real extended family.

Memory Wall in the La Boca working class district of Buenos Aires, listing some residents who were among the "disappeared".

The challenge before the progressive democratic forces within Argentina to get justice for the disappeared, and to get those instrumental in the disappearances to accept political responsibility, is a major one. The trials are ongoing at the moment, and testimonies are being heard. The men who were students in the Naval College during the dictatorship years deny any knowledge about the goings on of the concentration camp that was right in their midst. The ESMA itself is an idyllic and spacious compound filled with trees and gracious colonial style buildings, situated in the city centre and, ironically, right on the Avenida Libertador, a major avenue which is busy with traffic round the clock and lined with plush high-rise apartment buildings.  This is where, day after day for seven years, people were brought in cars – blindfolded and handcuffed – for incarceration. Yet, nobody on the street or in the high rises noticed what was happening.  Even as the trials are underway, some of those testifying against the dictatorship have “become disappeared”.  Today, the military elite continues to be part of the politically and socially influential classes. Several schoolteachers across Argentina are daughters, wives or relatives of members of the armed forces, and they feel uncomfortable about handling this aspect of Argentina’s recent history in the classroom.  The Centre for Memory, Truth and Justice has the unenviable challenge of awakening social memory and responsibility, even while it protects the freedom of its own fragile space.

Adding to the Centre’s visibility are the “Mothers of the Disappeared”, the women of Argentina who lost sons, daughters, husbands to the dictatorship.  Every Thursday afternoon at 3.30 for the last over 27 years (their protest began even when the junta was in power), these women have been gathering on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires (the national symbol of the May 1810 revolution when Argentina declared its freedom from Spain).  They are dressed in black and wear white diapers printed with the names of their disappeared sons and daughters as head scarves, and use the imagery of Christian motherhood – their right as mothers to ask for the truth of what happened to their loved ones – to enhance their effectiveness against the professedly Catholic regime.  They march silently in anti-clockwise movement for an hour.  Over the years, several of them, too, including their founder, have joined the ranks of the “disappeared”.

There are parallels in numerous countries of the picture described above.  Within India itself, there are decades-old struggles of wronged people for truth and justice that still remain unresolved: the survivors of Bhopal, the victims of Gujarat, the atrocities during the Emergency, the human rights violations by the army in Kashmir and the north-east…   The Argentinian people’s cry of “Never Again” has its echoes across the world…

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Two things struck me as a first time visitor – from a Southern country – to Buenos Aires.

One, is the sheer beauty and modernity of the city. Whether you view it from the air or at ground level, Buenos Aires takes your breath away, as a most aesthetically laid-out, grandly-envisioned, and culturally-rich capital of a self-conscious nation. You would not be far off the mark if you decided that it must be the most beautiful, modern, and uniquely European metropolitan city, anywhere in the non-European/non-Western world.

The other striking thing is that it is an exclusively white city; in this respect, it is different from other countries in Latin America like Brazil and Peru. In Brazil, you encounter all skin colours and racial types, whether in Rio de Janeiro or elsewhere. Peru has a less diverse racial mix; but indigenous Indians are conspicuous by their brightly-coloured traditional dress even in the capital city of Lima, and even more visibly present in the regions. It is plausible to believe that, in these countries, darker skinned people look, and are, relatively more disadvantaged vis-à-vis lighter skinned, fairer haired people. But they do exist. Their complete absence from Buenos Aires is notable.

Proud as they are about their city and country, my hosts were more than willing to introduce me to both the bright and dark sides of Argentina. This piece is about the positive picture.

Bicentenary celebrations on 9 de Julio Avenue, Buenos Aires, May 25, 2010 ( Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images - Boston Globe, May 26, 2010)

Teatro Colon

Driving from one place to another in Buenos Aires one regularly touches base with the broadest and grandest of avenues that run right through the city. These avenues (one of them, the 9 de Julio Avenue, is reportedly the broadest in the world) are intermittently adorned with impressive national monuments, memorials, and 19th. century classical European-style palaces and public buildings (e.g., Congreso de la Nacion, Teatro Colon, the University faculties of engineering and law, the National Library). The most famous is the Avenida del Mayo: the venue for all protest marches and, even today, the scene where the “Mothers of the Disappeared’ stage their once-weekly silent march,demanding to know the fate of their loved ones who disappeared during the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983.

Much of the beauty of the city comes from the landscaping. There are trees everywhere – lining the roads and filling the public gardens and parks, and displaying a diversity that makes them look like what we, in India, associate only with ‘botanical gardens’. When I was visiting it was autumn, and the tall old dark-limbed maple trees had created pale golden arches high above the streets lending a glow to the cityscape below. Pedestrians can walk safely and comfortably on clean, nicely-paved sidewalks, with waste-sorting bins positioned every few hundred yards, and cleaners sweeping and emptying bins virtually round the clock.

Row upon row of over-a-century-old gracious European-style city mansions lead off from these tree-lined roads. There is also a growing number of somewhat jarringly flashy, tall and prosperous-looking apartment blocks with ultra-modern appointments and security systems. New areas along the canal are also being developed with massive luxury apartment complexes.

Public art installations are ubiquitous, notably the emblematic stainless steel flower (20 meters high) whose petals are electrically tuned to open and close in tandem with the sun’s rays, symbolizing “The Hope of Being Reborn Every Single Day”. I visited a forested and user-friendly waterfront running along the sea-like river, the Rio de la Plate by whose banks Buenos Aires is situated; there is a scientifically nurtured botanical garden here that walkers and exercise groups frequent.

A fashionably refurbished canal front, lined with elegant and busy restaurants, leave the gourmand spoilt for choice. Indeed food, drink and socialising would seem to figure high in the city’s preoccupations, as evidenced in the profusion of restaurants, bars and sidewalk cafes everywhere, filled with people in animated conversation. When after two excellent courses – at a formal sit-down dinner in an Italian restaurant – I sent back my enormous third course untouched (because I thought I would burst if I ate even a morsel more), the waiter was apparently upbraided by his supervisor. When this was reported back to me, I had to explain at length to the maitre d’hotel and the waiter that the fault was entirely mine! Such is the abundance where food is concerned.

My visit to the Museum of Latin American Art (MALBA), in stunning contemporary design with very imaginatively conceived display interiors, an amazing permanent collection of avant garde art from across the Latin American region, and  educative mode of the display, was for me the highlight of the city. The fact that the museum was created by a private philanthropist, that the endowment accommodates a flexible cultural agenda that includes world cinema, discussions etc., and its affordable entry fees for locals, speak of the place of the arts in the public cultural landscape.

Buenos Aires’ rich offerings of a variety of art museums, theatres and cultural centres that are venues for classical and contemporary cultural expressions, go a long way to making it the lively metropolis that it is. Added to this are the busy bookshops everywhere – people of all ages sitting on park benches reading, is a common sight -, revealing a city with a strong literary bias. The most unforgettable bookshop is the El Ateneo, an exquisitely restored former opera house-turned-cinema hall-turned-bookshop, whose plush interior has been retained to look like an opera house. In place of rows of seats, the semi-circular curves of the first and second balconies and the special boxes – while still gloriously lit up like a theatre – are beautifully lined with books. Its domed ceiling is a soaring wonder, covered with paintings that look down upon a central auditorium filled with tastefully displayed books arranged by subject.
I found whole shelves dedicated to Rushdie and Tagore; books on yoga (BKS Iyengar and others), Buddhism, Ramana Maharishi, Osho…Only, every single book is in Spanish. What you have under one roof is ‘the world’ in Spanish – Spanish writers from across Latin America, and world literature in Spanish translation… Canvases adorn the walls everywhere, the floors are luxuriously carpeted, and comfortable sofas in alcoves are determinedly colonized by readers blissfully lost in their piles of books. In other secluded corners, seated on the carpet in the midst of bookshelves, are earnest students in muted discussion….

El Ateneo Bookstore

The huge stage, with its heavy crimson velvet drapes intact, has been converted into an attractive (and appropriately quiet) restaurant. Its period furniture and hovering white-gloved waiters complete the picture of elegance. As you savour your food, you can run your eyes along the curved walls, where hang huge scroll portraits of great world literary figures, carrying the titles of their most famous works and brief biographical paragraphs. There is even a basement that sells music, DVDs, games, bookmarks and what have you. The imaginativeness of it all, the ambience, the footfall… left me in no doubt that Argentinians take their literary interests seriously. Somehow, looking at El Ateneo, the prospect of a film theatre in Bollywood-crazy India being converted into a vibrant bookshop just seemed beyond the realm of imagination!

Above all, what impressed me as an ordinary visitor to Buenos Aires were the signages. For an Indian visitor it is a culture shock to find, everywhere, the names of roads and streets and public buildings clearly displayed, every building logically numbered, and the numbers themselves clearly visible even at night. And, within public buildings, the signs for public services and utilities prominently, unambiguously and aesthetically displayed, making these spaces infinitely painless to navigate even for a non-Spanish speaking person. And the public toilets everywhere! Sigh! They were like gifts from the gods: clean and dry wash basin counters swabbed by the attendant on duty after every use, the toilet cubicles themselves always in impeccable condition, user-friendly toilet seat liners always in supply…If clean and freely accessible toilets – particularly for women and children – are a sign of a modern, civilised city, then Buenos Aires tops the list of candidates. All this in a country that may have once been one of the richest in the world, but is today part of the ‘Global South’ (whichever way you want to define it: ‘newly developing’? ‘emerging economies’? ‘newly industrialising’? ‘north in the south’?). What is significant is that the infrastructure and services continue to be maintained to a high standard even today.

Much of Buenos Aires was developed in the late 19th. and early 20th. centuries, by an adventurous elite coming from Italian and Spanish stock. Systematically annihilating the native Indian population, while consciously modeling itself and its flagship city after Paris of that time, this elite acquired the wealth to back this vision by exploiting the rich natural resources of the country. During this period of ‘nation and city building’ (and all the way until the Depression of the 1930s), Argentina was one of the five richest countries in the world, the leading European country outside of Europe, and the most coveted destination for poor migrants from Italy and Spain looking for a better life.

After the 1930s, things began to change. Argentina steadily became economically unstable and politically volatile, plunged into repeated dictatorships and military rule, by fascist generals who sympathized with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and sheltered Nazi war criminals, even while they permitted immigration by European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The latest abrogation of civil liberties was as recent as the 7 year-long military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983.

Today, Argentina is struggling to restore its economy and strengthen its civilian democracy in an environment where the military is still powerful, and the oppressors of the recent past continue to be socially and politically influential. It is trying to come to terms with its bloody and brooding history – particularly the privileging of the military and genocide of indigenous peoples – , reassessing its unilinear European-orientation, building bridges with other Latin American countries, and beginning to reach out to fellow ‘southern’ countries of Asia and Africa, as evident in the ‘south-south dialogue’ in the social sciences that took me there. As always, in all these initiatives in democracy,  it is the universities (students and teachers) and intellectuals in general who are at the forefront ( particularly in the matter of opening up to dialogue with the non-European world, both within and without), along with the working class, and movements of disempowered peoples.  Just as they were in offering resistance to dictatorships and military rule.

National Indigenous March that arrived at the Plaza de Mayo for the Bicentenary celebrations in Buenos Aires after marching 2000 miles across the country, calling for a multicultural state that respects the rights of the native peoples (Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images- in the Boston Globe, May 26, 2010)

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