Chris Szurgot on Political Passion in Argentina
December 9, 2010
Spend any amount of time in Argentina and you will soon learn that the country has no lack of passion. Witnessing the heaving crowds at a soccer match, the emotional swaying of tango dancers, or just the affection of a standard Argentinean couple in a park will reveal this fact. Politics here carries the same passion.
The political history of Argentina consists of a series of upheavals punctuated by coup d'états. In fact there have been five coups since 1930, and each space in between was filled with its fair share of riots, protests, and cults of personality. Stability, when it comes, seems ephemeral, as though everyone knew the next major uproar was lurking just around the corner. For example, the most violent and repressive military dictatorship ended just over 25 years ago in 1983. Over 30,000 citizens disappeared in detention centers, never to be seen again, while government forces battled rebel groups during the Dirty War. The country transitioned back to democracy in 1983 with the election of Raúl Alfonsín, but the ensuing calm did not last long. In 2001 Argentina experienced one of the worst economic crises in its history. The value of the peso collapsed, and after the resulting financial frenzy the government froze bank withdrawals. The action sparked widespread rioting and a rapid succession of presidents who struggled to piece the economy back together. The nation has yet to fully recover.
The memories of these events still linger in the collective conscience of Argentina. The recent re-democratization and the continuing economic recovery have left citizens of all ages with strong feelings when it comes to politics. Ask any Argentine about a political theme and he or she will gladly discuss, debate, or shout about it with you. The amount of political activism here is almost obscene by American standards, and it has had a grand impact on my study abroad experience.
During my semester here, a strike occurred in the Buenos Aires public school system that abruptly stopped classes for a period of six weeks. Since I was taking a class in the School of Social Sciences in the public Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), I did not know if my class would meet again or if it would even continue at all. Yet this was like no school strike that I have ever heard of where teachers strike to demand higher salaries. This was a strike started by students on behalf of the teachers and the conditions of the schools themselves. It is called a toma, a specific form of protest where the students occupy school buildings to prohibit classes until a specific request is met. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the toma is the fact that it began with high school students with the goal of changing the poor conditions of their school buildings and low salaries of their teachers. The toma spread to the majority of public high schools in Buenos Aires, and the university students soon took up the cause to show solidarity.
Public education is taken very seriously in Argentina and is considered a fundamental right. Public universities have been fully autonomous from the government since 1918. For this reason, teachers and students can smoke during class even though smoking has been officially banned in Buenos Aires. Public education at the university level gained even higher regard during the administration of Argentina's most revered president, Juan Perón, with the expansion of graduate schools. Today public education from pre-school up through the completion of a Ph.D. remains completely free, and the public universities considered the most prestigious in the nation.
Close to six weeks into the toma, the situation appeared to be at a standstill. The government proposed a deal, which the student leaders promptly rejected for being insufficient. Our study abroad program was beginning to prepare alternative means to finish courses started in the UBA, when the toma leaders staged a demonstration and then stormed to the Ministry of Education to demand the instant realization of their terms. The government then backed down, and the toma was lifted. They won wage increases, the promised repairs of deteriorating facilities, and the payment of all outstanding debt owed to teachers.
The whole experience was like a roller coaster ride that I never could have imagined while contemplating studying abroad in Argentina back in the United States. It was frustrating at times, and many people's final exam schedules were negatively affected by the loss of class time, but looking back, it was exhilarating. I didn't have just the chance to learn about activism while here, I lived through it. I have witnessed other political events during my semester, such as the demonstrations after the death of former president Nestor Kirchner, but none affected me on a personal level quite like this. As a government student, I feel lucky to have had the chance to experience this political passion first hand, in addition to all the other aspects of Argentinean society that I became acquainted with. I cannot believe that this semester is already at its end and that I will soon be on a plane back home. I have certainly come to realize what a vibrant city Buenos Aires is along with the all the subtleties that make up Argentine culture. All too soon I know I will find myself missing my Argentinean friends, family, and of course, the steak.