Friday, February 25, 2005

Protest Against Political Prisoners

Thousands of protesters marched through the center of Buenos Aires this past Wednesday. They were protesting against the political prisoners in Argentina and the government´s recent human rights track record. Though many have hailed Nestor Kirchner's presidency as a major improvement from previous administrations, particularly in the area of human rights, there are still plenty of criticisms.

Jorge Alvero, a participant in witnesses march and a member of the unemployed workers movement in Argentina explained that "This protest is against all political prisoners. We are currently living in a secret dictatorship, the police are using prohibited weapons, there is a lot of repression against protesters and exploitation of poor people. Kirchner wants the country to be clean of all activism...he shouldn't be paying the IMF (International Monetary Fund) back one cent of the debt. Argentina is a country rich in resources, there is no reason for people to go poor."

Paolo, another member of the unemployed workers movement, left school because he could not afford it. Then he lost his job. "The government provides a subsidy to unemployed people of 150 pesos a month, (roughly 50 US Dollars). Imagine a family with five children trying to survive of that!"

At the end of the march hundreds gathered at the intersection of the most heavily used multi-lane street in the city. (The protest didn't even have a permit, which is basically unheard of in New York.) A few dozen people linked arms and blocked traffic for roughly fifteen minutes in the middle of the evening rush hour. I couldn't believe it. If something like that happened in New York City there would immediately be hundreds of police and a couple of helicopters. Everyone would probably be arrested within two minutes and traffic would resume quickly. In Buenos Aires, there were about five policemen mildly watching the scene. (I actually think the lack of police helped diffuse the situation quickly.) After blocking traffic, which the activists said was bringing attention to their cause, (they were waving banners explaining their motives and demands), the majority of them took the subway home.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Long Walk to the U.S.

There is a lot more going on in Argentina than tango, soccer, wine and Jorge Luis Borges.

In Mendoza for example, I was returning in a taxi to the house where I was living. The taxi driver was cruising down the road pretty fast. At one point in the journey, construction workers had left a pile of rocks in the middle of the street. I warned the driver, yelling "cuidado, cuidado!" (careful!) but it didn't matter. We crashed right into the pile of rocks. The front of the car was mildly smashed up, and under the car had been ripped up quite a bit. Luckily, neither of us were injured. We had to jack the car up and pull the rocks out so that the car could scrape and shudder back to where it came from. I safely walked the rest of the way home.

Asados, or barbecues, are extremely popular here. Like any party back in the US, they offer a chance for people to get together, talk, play music and eat. Perhaps it is because a lot of people are on vacation for the summer, but there have been numerous asados taking place among my circle of friends here this week. Besides the quantity of meat cooked, another aspect that sets these gatherings apart from similar activities in the states, is that they usually start around midnight and go on into the early morning.

The biggest asado of the week took place on the roof of a friend of mine the other night. Numerous people arrived with bottles of wine, guitars, violins, drums and steak. The asadero, (the one in charge of the BBQ) gathered all of the meat and began to cook. For him, this was all a delicate science and for hours he dedicated his attention on the feast. Music played into the early morning.

After sleeping a few hours I went out into the countryside with a friend who teaches music to a folk band made up of vegetable farmers. They lived way out in the middle of nowhere and were happy to see us when we arrived. As the music began, the goats gathered around to watch. The children in the family kept asking me questions about the USA. Some of the younger kids had a lot of trouble comprehending that my hometown was farther north than Salta, the city they were originally from in northern Argentina. "It would take a very long time to walk there," one of their mothers joked.

Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo Journalism

Hunter S. Thompson is dead.

Read his obit in the NY Times

I thought this quote from Thompson on "Gonzo Journalism" was great:

It was in the heat of deadline that gonzo journalism was born while he was writing a story about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan's magazine, he recounted years later in an interview in Playboy magazine.

"I'd blown my mind, couldn't work," he told Playboy. "So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody."

Instead, he said, the story drew raves and he was inundated with letters and phone calls from people calling it "a breakthrough in journalism," an experience he likened to "falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids."

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Bus That Never Arrived

The winds changed in Buenos Aires and I decided to set sail for Mendoza, a smaller city in western Argentina, near the border with Chile. A few hours into the ride, the bus's isle became a mini river full of old sandwiches, spilled coffee and soda. I had to place my bags elsewhere so they wouldn't become soaked. My seat was right next to the bathroom in the back of the bus, so it was difficult to sleep as people constantly bumped into me on their way to the bathroom. The profound smell of "el bano" was far from pleasant.

The bus was in horrible shape and broke down throughout the night in the middle of the vast, flat expanse of the countryside. Sometime around 2 am, the air conditioner began to leak. I was soaked in a matter of minutes, but still managed to catch a few hours of sleep. I awoke around dawn to the sound of a group of teenagers in the seats around me yelling and punching each other. Ready for the ride to be over, I began to search on the horizon for the Andes Mountains, the sign that we were approaching Mendoza.

The smell of the bathroom and the moldy, broken air conditioner fermented in the air. Crumbs and candy wrappers floated up and down the river between the seats. Hours and hours passed and still I didn't see the mountains - my beacon of hope in what was becoming an endless ride. The bus broke down three more times until finally in the cloudy distance I made out the dark profile of the Andes.

Fifteen kilometers outside of the city, the bus started to sputter and rattle until the motor stopped roaring and the driver coasted onto the side of the road. It was sunday and a festival of sorts was going on next to the highway. Dozens of the families in attendance stood on the edge of the fairground pointing and laughing at the feeble bus and its road-weary passengers gazing out the windows like captives.

After a brief inspection of the engine, our driver, with his purple sunglasses on, explained that the bus had died and there was no way to revive it. He called the bus station in Mendoza and they sent another bus to haul us back into the arms of civilization. When that bus arrived it had three inches of water all over the floor. No one, not even the driver could explain it. However, we did make it to Mendoza.

The trip normally takes fourteen hours. Our entire ride lasted about twenty hours.

Friday, February 11, 2005

"Occupy, Resist, Produce"

Gladis, a woman who works at the hostel I am staying at in Buenos Aires, explained many things about the people who collect garbage in the city and recycle it for cash. They're called, Los Cartoneros...

First of all, these people are all over the city, and their numbers have increased dramatically in recent years due to lack of work, higher prices, etc. People work late into the night collecting paper, metal and other materials and bring it back to their boss for a meager sum. According to Gladis, each cartonero might receive from 5-10 pesos (2-5 USD) for this wretched work that lasts countless hours.

She explained that the previous night, when she was taking the bus home, there were kids no less than three years old on the bus leaving to begin collecting garbage with their parents. She said each group of people has a boss that comes around the picks up the garbage in a truck. The man with the truck is paid a lot more than the cartoneros and he has a boss who is making a ton of money, drives expensive cars and so on.

Gladis hasn't voted for a politician in her country in a long time. She believes that voting for these "pigs" just encourages them. As her mother says, "don't blame the pig, blame the ones who feed the pig."

On another note, there has been a massive subway strike in Buenos Aires all week. The workers were demanding a pay increase of 52% and, after refusing to work all week, they received a 44% increase, which was viewed by many as a victory and could inspired others in the city to do the same. Click here to read an article I wrote on the strike

In Cordoba, another major city in Argentina, a massive prisoner rebellion took place in the city's jail. Numerous people were killed. Apparently, the riot began when a security guard pushed an inmate's wife while she was visiting. The prison is well known for its horrible living conditions, (as are many prisons throughout South America). Roughly 2000 people live in Cordoba's jail, and it was built for 1000.
For more on this jail uprising, check this BBC article out

I've been visiting various worker-run factories and businesses in Buenos Aires. Many were taken over by workers after the businesses shut down during the economic crisis in 2002. It's very inspiring to see these alternative work situations in action. All of the workers I have talked to are proud to be working for themselves and not a boss. At some of the cooperatives, everyone is paid the same and big decisions are made in assemblies with all the workers present.

I visited Chilavert book publishing factory today, one of the first factories to be taken over by workers after its closure in 2002. The workers had to fight for months to begin recuperating and working the factory, but they had a lot of work from the neighborhood around it. Neighbors helped defend the factory when police tried to kick the workers out. There is a cultural center in the building and while books were being printed downstairs, Salsa classes were going on upstairs. Fathers brought their sons to work with them and schools in the city have developed a kind of internship at Chilavert for students interested in the business. It was great to see this community activity surrounding the factory.

On the front of the building is a sign with a phrase used by workers who have occupied and transformed their place of work into a worker-run cooperative: "Occupy, Resist, Produce."

During an interview, Candido, one of the workers in the factory, walked over to a large safe which had the previous owner's name on it. Perhaps it was where the old boss horded all his money. "Now," Candido explained, "this is where we keep the whiskey."

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Politics and Bullet Wounds

It’s very humid here in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’ve been staying with a friend in Barrio Norte, a relatively upscale neighborhood with row after row of ten story apartment buildings. Many of the neighbors across the way hang out on the balconies, fanning themselves and wondering when the humidity will end. Tomorrow I move into a cheap hostel in the center of town and begin writing about worker-run factories and business cooperatives.

This city is enormous. I’ve been here a few times in the past and have never been able to orient myself, figure out the bus system etc. I’ve been studying the map and bus schedule and walking around a lot, which is helping, but it could take a while.

Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Israel and Europe is all over the news here. In one kiosk, I met this person from Mali, who was living in Argentina. He said he approved of what George W. Bush is doing. “Sure, the Iraq war, Afghanistan etc, all that was wrong, but Rice is helping create peace in Palestine and Israel. The bad stuff is in the past.” I asked if he thought any peace would really last and he said no.

He said he didn’t support Argentine President Kirchner. “He had all these great plans during the election, but so far I haven’t seen much! He wants to do everything by himself, with no help from the outside. Listen, if you want a cigarette, you have to buy the tobacco from someone. You give him the money, he gives you the tobacco and then you roll a cigarette. Both of you make out alright. That’s how business is, you have to work with others, and help each other out. Kirchner is trying to do everything all himself.”

“But not all business deals are good,” I said. “What about what your previous president Menem did the country?”

“Okay, okay. Yeah, he sold so many Argentine industries - telephone company to Spain, airline to France – that none of the money ever stayed in Argentina, which is partly why we had the damn crisis in 2001.”

Later in the day, it began raining heavily so I ducked into a narrow restaurant, packed with people off work for the siesta. It was ancient, greasy, smoky and loud. Sausage, chicken and steak were being grilled and the aroma filled the air. Meat is very popular in this country.

After I explained to someone I was North American, an Argentine sitting next to me declared his love and admiration for the US. “Everything there works, it is well organized. Americans know how to run their country.” He explained that he had met few North Americans and that nearly all he knew of the US was from what he read in the newspapers and saw on the TV. “Whenever you see a US film, there is always an American flag in it. They are proud of their country, I like that.”

A Colombian sitting nearby began playing his guitar. He had been traveling around South America for four years, playing music for money. “I left home because I was shot by a member of the FARC guerilla group in Medellin, Colombia.” He showed us two bullet wounds on his chest. “I was playing my guitar in a bar and this man pulled out his gun and started shooting everyone. Others were killed, but I was lucky to survive. I don’t want to go back there. It’s too dangerous. I’ll wait four years until the president changes and see what happens.”

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Check out the new article about Turkey and the European Union by Ali Tonak in www.upsidedownworld.org

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Accordions and Robberies in a Secret Country

In the capital of what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano calls "a secret country" there are banks and barber shops on every block. Montevideo is emptying as I write; it has a rapidly decreasing population. Thousands of young people leave the country for Europe, Argentina and the US each year. It has the largest number of people over age sixty per capita in South America. So it was no surprise when I saw a government-sponsored ad in the main plaza with a picture of a pregnant belly on it - the government wants Uruguayans to multiply.

Down one sidewalk in the center of town is a man playing an accordion. When I close my eyes and listen to the music I imagine pirates, the moon, sailing ships...When I open them I see tourists and a man who looks as though he has been drunk since accordion music was in fashion.

Mate, a thick herbal tea people consume out of a hollow gourd is enormously popular here. It has a metal straw that comes out of the herbal mixture and is usually accompanied by a thermos full of hot water. People walk up and down the street, drinking it all day long. One policeman I spoke with suggested sending Uruguayans to Iraq. "By the end of three days we will have pacified everyone. Everyone will be drinking mate together." He also said that because of the Uruguay`s economic hardships, it is not uncommon for people to kill pigeons with stones and cook them for food.

Carnival started last night. Huge drumming parades played into the night. It was a very well organized event. The last parade was scheduled to go on at 4:08 exactly, which was just about the same time my friend and I witnessed a young boy rob an older man right in front of our hostel.

The drummers in carnival carry flags from their neighborhoods. Some of the groups actually were waving flags with advertisements on them from local businesses. Though in a recent referendum, the majority of Uruguayans voted against the privatization of their water, it seems carnival is a different. Perhaps one day, Uruguay will have a carnival "brought to you in part by Coca Cola."

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If you´re interested, please check out an interview I conducted with Heidi Boghosian, the director of the National Lawyers Guild in New York. The interview was done months ago, but it was just recently published in Newtopia Magazine.

Here is the interview, Law and Disorder

In this interview, Boghosian discusses how police control of protests has changed since September 11th, what the "Miami Model" entails, how the threat of terrorism is being used as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties, and what activists can do to prevent and fight against such pressure.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Samba and Revolution

Check out my article, Samba and Revolution: Dispatches from the International Youth Forum,

http://alternet.org/story/21165/

Just published on AlterNet.org´s wiretap...

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Calm After the Storm

There is definitely a calm after storm here in Porto Alegre. There is some kind of local holiday going on today and nearly all of the shops in town are closed. A lot of the forum-goers have left town and things seem to be returning to normal. Instead of a 24 hour party of ideas and music, a light rain is falling on the nearly empty streets. I heard today that a poll taken of Porto Alegre residents showed that 85 percent of people here want the forum to come back to their city next year. I imagine it provides a huge economic boost, and the people that attend it are generally respectful and kind.

However, now that the party is over I have noticed a large number of homeless people and families begging in the streets. Unfortunately, it is very possible that these folks were rounded up by the police before the forum, or at least prevented from sleeping or begging in the streets during the event.

One thing a Brazilian couple mentioned about the forum is that it was much less centralized and dominated by big political party figures, (like Brazilian president Lula) this time around. It was more dispersed and horizontally organized.

Tonight I leave on a bus with Argentine friends to Montevideo, Uruguay. The trip should be about 11 hours long, which could mean 15-16 hours. We will see. From there I take a ferry from Colonia over the rio de la Plata to Buenos Aires, where I hope to start some articles on occupied factories. I met a lot of workers at the forum from various factories they occupied and recuperated, and plan to meet up with them in the city. Okay, back onto the road.