There is Big Trouble Down Here
Thu Dec 20, 2001 2.40 am: My last post was more prescient than I thought. Here is the state of things as of 130am, Buenos Aires time:
What I have heard:
1. There has been a state of emergency declared. This means not more than 2 people are allowed on the street together at one time.
2. Some food markets have been taken over and looted by crowds, and 3 or 4 people have been killed by the police.
3. People are afraid and don’t know what will happen.
What I have seen:
1. There were broken windows this morning on Avenida Independencia.
2. Earlier today I saw large crowds blocking two major intersections with signs demanding food and work. 3. Police cars were rushing around earlier, but I haven’t seen any tonight.
4. I saw welders welding steel grates across the front of food markets around town this afternoon.
5. Tonight, despite the state of emergency and the ban on gatherings, a large mob gathered at Independencia and Entre Rios. I was sitting in a corner restaurant and the street was completely empty. Within half an hour, 500 to 1,000 people gathered, lit large fires and began to bang pans and drums. The noise was unbelievable. I ended up walking home because of blocked intersections. I’m sure the crowd is much larger now.
6. I called a friend who took a taxi about an hour before I walked home and she said intersections were blocked and fires were burning all across the city.
7. Everyone is in staying inside (except demonstrators), and everything is shut down.
8. Right now I hear a big ruckus, with horns honking, and sirens outside. We are currently home in the apartment and okay, and dancing tango. The girls went out and bought food earlier today. Please post this to the L list as a warning to anyone thinking of coming down here.
Thu Dec 20, 2001 08:59 am: First, I should apologize if my posting from 130am this morning was a little breathless. I had just walked through what appeared to be, from my small perspective anyway, the start of a revolution down here. My sudden transformation from reporting on tango adventures in the classes and milongas, to war correspondent, got me a little worked up. I have no intention of making matters worse for these great people down here by scaring away tango dancers from the U.S. , but I also think people going on vacation should know what they might be getting into. It appears at this point (10am) that things have settled down, and I would probably still come to BA for tango, but I would be sure to bring plenty of cash in dollars, much of it in small bills because large ones are hard to change. Here is what happened yesterday:
Everyone got up around the apartment at our usual tango time of about noon. (I had gone to an interesting milonga the night before, which I’ll tell about in another post). Renee Linnell and I decided to drive to La Boca (the old port) with Malena in her old car to hang out and have lunch. I had to be back to clean up for a 6pm class and milonga downtown with one of my teachers, Ricardo Vidort, who is one of the remaining old milongueros, and who has become a friend. On the way down to La Boca we had to detour because there was a large demonstration blocking one of the major intersections. The signs said "El Pibe" (which is a Lunfardo word meaning ‘kids’, or 'people'), and "Pan y Trabajo!” They appeared to be demonstrating for food and jobs, which seemed reasonable to me. We had some lunch at La Boca, and listened to the tinny sounding tango music which blares from the curio shops, endlessly repeating "La Cumparsita", "Volver", "Caminito", and "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" over and over again. The people working in those shops must really hate that music. On the way back the demonstration appeared to be much larger, and it was a mess fighting the traffic and trucks funneled through the side streets. As usual, Malena was yelling at and talking to the other drivers in her Porteño dialect. After an animated conversation with a cab driver, she said to me, "Oh, man, the s**** going down tonight!". She’s excitable, and I didn't think too much of it, but she said markets were being looted, and we should get some food and go home. I was late for class, so they dropped me near the apartment, and they headed for a market to try to get some food. I got cleaned up, and was going down Independencia to get a cab, because I was too late to take the subway. I saw Renee coming down the sidewalk, and she said I was crazy to go downtown, they couldn't get into the market, and that I should come back up to the apartment. I just laughed, but I looked around and remember saying that the street "looks weird". People that were usually rushing around were just standing everywhere.
On the taxi ride downtown I made it a point to look for food markets. The first one I saw was closed with metal grates up, and people inside peering out. At the second one I saw, there was a welder attaching steel bars on the front. For a moment I thought I should go home, but I didn't. I was glad I went. Ricardo Vidort and his teaching partner Alejandra Todaro were there, and he had made the long trip downtown to the small club on Esmeralda just for my 10 peso lesson. The organizer, Miguel Angel Balbi, had just cancelled this Wednesday milonga permanently, but he had agreed to open just so Ricardo and I could have the lesson- and that would be the last tango dancing there, maybe forever. The three of them were there waiting for me, and I would have felt terrible if I hadn't showed up. After the class, we decided to go to the milonga at Lo de Celia’s on Humberto Primo and Entre Rios. We were greeted at the door by the organizer, went upstairs, and were given drinks. There was no charge for anything because he loves Ricardo and Alejandra. Unfortunately, after a couple of tandas they announced that a state of siege had just been declared in the Republic, and they would have to close. They played one last song, "La Cumparsita", and Ricardo & Alejandra danced it beautifully, along with the few other couples that were there. At the time it felt sort of poignant, like the end of something. We went out on the street, and it seemed very strange. The usual heavy traffic had disappeared, and everything was being shuttered up. Alejandra wanted to call her daughter, but we couldn't find a phone. We finally found a nice man who let down some bars so she could reach inside and make the phone call.
Alejandra wanted to go home, but I talked her into staying with us because I wanted to buy them dinner. We walked up Entre Rios toward Independencia to a parrilla where Ricardo had been going for 50 years. On the way, he pointed out street corners where he and his friends used to dance tango when they were kids. We sat in the parrilla and had an excellent meal of salmon, squash, ravioli, and nice bottle of wine. It felt a bit ominous because there was no one on the street, and under the emergency siege order you can be arrested if there are more than two of you hanging out together. I was facing the street, and Ricardo had his back to the windows telling me the most amazing and interesting stories about the early days of tango and his experiences during the "dirty war". We were laughing, and drinking wine, having a great time. I wish I had a video camera to record it, and I will try to remember some and post it later.
As we talked I noticed a guy come to the corner and start banging on something. Then two more… and then two more. I remember thinking they were violating the state of siege rules, and there might be trouble, but I was also caught up in Ricardo’s stories. The crowd began to get bigger, and Alejandra began to get scared, but Ricardo just shrugged it off. Finally, I interrupted him and said Alejandra has to leave, and I took her out and found a taxi driver wearing a necktie, which somehow seemed safer to me, wished her luck, and sent her on her way (it turns out her taxi had a hard time getting her home, and she was very frightened). The intersection of Independencia and Entre Rios is big. Each street is about 6 or 8 lanes wide, and by the time I got back in and sat down with Ricardo, it had begun to fill with people. Cars were blocked, and a fire was started. I remember trying to listen to Ricardo, and looking over his shoulder as the banging became louder, and the flames reached higher and higher. Everyone else had gone home, and I think the waiters were scared. They locked the door, some went into the back, and others kind of crouched and peeked out the windows. Ricardo just kept talking, and there we sat, rich people sipping wine in the window, in full view of a mob demanding food and jobs. The noise was incredibly loud. They were banging on pots, and drums, and steel light posts, and the crowd quickly swelled to what must have been more than a thousand people. Flames were leaping 20 feet into the air. People were coming from everywhere. I was afraid we might get trapped in the restaurant, so I finally interrupted Ricardo again, and said I think it’s time to leave. We needed to walk down Independencia to the west, through the middle of the demonstration, and Ricardo suggested we should go the other way, but I checked it out, and it actually didn't seem as scary once you were in the middle of it. Sort of like 4th avenue in Tucson on the night the 'Cats won the NCAA basketball championship. People were just very excited, and banging on pots and things. It doesn't seem like much now, but at the time I didn't know what would happen. Maybe it actually was a revolution, and a tank or some police might come- and it wouldn’t be Tucson police. It would be South American soldiers. I thought about some of the things that have happened down here, and it made me nervous.
That’s about all there is to tell. It was about 1am, and we walked west on Independencia, passing very large groups of people marching the other way, banging pots, and stretching from one side of the wide street to the other, but they didn't bother us. The crowd at Entre Rios must have been huge, and I’m glad we got out when we did. Ricardo was being gallant, and he wanted to stay with me for support and protection, although I am 6ft. 1 inch of coiled steel fighting machine, and I don’t know how much help a small 70 year old man would be in a fight. When we got to the apartment I saw Malik and the girls 3 floors up on the balcony watching the action, and I yelled up to him. He said the door was barricaded, and they couldn’t let anyone in because it was too dangerous. Funny guy. We finally found a taxi for Ricardo, and I went upstairs to write my report. The apartment mates were worried about me, but everything was okay, so we had a milonga, and danced while Buenos Aires burned.
This morning I got up early and walked into the center of town to buy some magazines for a lady in Tucson, and to continue my job as your man on the scene in BA. At Independencia & Entre Rios it wasn't too bad. The street was cleaned up, and there were a few broken windows, but that’s all. There wasn't much traffic for BA, but things seemed almost normal. I continued up Entre Rios, past the National Congress building. It was fenced off, surrounded by very large policemen, and there were TV news crews. There was trash, debris, rocks and masonry everywhere on the steps and the drive in front. They design their government buildings like bunkers down here (I can see why), so I didn't see any damage to the building itself. I counted 20 large policemen lined up along the front, and there were probably twice that many along Rivadavia on the north side. Up toward Corrientes the damage was much worse. All of the banks had their windows broken out, and many of the other stores also. People were lined up on the street in front of the banks, and there were lots of guards and police. I don’t think anyone is getting into the banks, but that’s been a problem here for several weeks now. I will let you know if and when the tango dancing returns.
Update on the BsAs Situation
Thu Dec 20, 2001 11.40 am: I thought maybe last night was the worst of it, and this morning things looked calmer, but I think things are really starting to come unglued. I’m tired after last night, so I tried to nap, but I gave up. There is so much racket in the streets - pan banging, sirens, and car horns that I can’t sleep. I told the girls it was calm after my walk downtown, so they started down to Flabella to check on some shoes, but their taxi was turned back.
It’s now 330p here, and I’ve heard that a full-blown riot is developing downtown. I’m tempted to go check it out, but it’s probably a bad idea. Tango is definitely off for a while. More later.