In mid-September, middle-class residents of Buenos Aires held an unprecedented cacerolazo (pot-banging demonstration) against the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Usually, the biggest demonstrations are working-class throngs convoked by her own Peronist party, labor unions, or some faction thereof, at the central Plaza de Mayo (colloquially known as the Plaza de Protestas).
The government, for its part, has gone out of its way to attribute these protests to a right-wing conspiracy, headed by opposition media such as the Clarín group and La Nación, with ulterior motives: to discredit its economic “model” and even to encourage coup-mongers who detest the president. Last night there was a reprise of the September event, with quite a few working-class faces present among the middle-class groups who comprised nearly all of the earlier protests.
I went to last night’s protest (pictured above) and, in contrast to what pro-government legislators like the indignant Senator Aníbal Fernández said, it in no way resembled a bogus protest underwritten by ultra-right wing forces. Meandering through a crowd that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, at the downtown Obelisco monument, I found them good-natured and largely temperate in their criticism of the government. As the photograph below suggests, the protest was about issues rather than personal attacks: the poster below never mentions anybody by name, but stresses matters such as crime, inflation, corruption, intolerance, arrogance, authoritarianism, inappropriate political pressures, and extra-constitutional re-election.
Likewise, the aging gentleman below reinforces the moderate tone of the event. Rather than attacking anyone individually, he merely states that “I love honesty, humility, transparency, to listen and be heard, a fatherland free of selfishness, and being Argentine…” To be sure, there’s an implication that the president and her administration have their shortcomings, but it’s certainly not a personal attack and, by any reasonable, none of it qualifies as reactionary. In fact, overt mentions of the president’s name were scarce.
The harshest overtly partisan critic I saw was the young man in the photograph below, who suggests the country is becoming more like Cuba (a single-party dictatorship undergoing a timid liberalization) and Venezuela (clearly authoritarian despite regular elections). The woman next to him criticizes Cristina Fernández by implication, with a quotation from former president Arturo Umberto Illia (1963-1966): “A nation is in danger when its president speaks every day and believes himself (or herself) the most important person in the country.” That’s more personal, but it’s certainly not scurrilous.
I’m not an Argentine, so I have no direct say in what goes on here – that’s for Argentines to decide. That said, as we often say in the United States, “Elections have consequences,” Argentines gave President Fernández a solid majority in last year’s elections, and her term runs until 2015.
Barring outright malfeasance, she deserves to finish her mandate – throwing out presidents through uncontrolled street protests before the end of their terms, as Argentines did with Ricardo Alfonsín (1989) and Fernando de la Rúa (2001), undercuts institutional legitimacy. Hopefully, though, her partisans will give up plans to modify the constitution to allow her to evade term limits – personally, I’m not opposed to indefinite re-election for any political office, but changing the rules to benefit a single individual immediately is as poor a precedent as throwing one out before his or her time. Next year’s midterm elections may provide greater clarity but, for now, it would be refreshing to hear the administration acknowledge the legitimacy of its citizens’ criticisms.