BUENOS AIRES—In April, approximately 150,000 Argentines filled the streets of downtown Buenos Aires in one of the country’s largest demonstrations since democracy was restored 20 years ago. The organizer did not belong to any of the county’s internationally renowned human rights groups, however. Juan Carlos Blumberg was virtually unknown until the murder of his 23-year-old son Axel, the latest casualty in Argentina’s growing crime wave.
The turnout stunned Argentine President Nestor Kirchner. The demonstration that Kirchner had anticipated and wanted to capitalize on occurred one week earlier at the ESMA Navy Mechanics School, the most notorious torture center during Argentina’s 1976-83 Dirty War, a military crackdown that resulted in 30,000 deaths. Here, Kirchner converted ESMA into a museum of remembrance for the families of the victims, known as the disappeared. The famous human rights group Madres de Plaza de Mayo co-led the march, yet only 35,000 Argentines attended.
The relatively small ESMA turnout has forced the Argentine president to rethink his priorities. Kirchner, who completed his first year in office last week, had tried to make the Dirty War’s unfinished business a signature issue. However, many ordinary Argentines have neither the interest nor the luxury to get caught up in the politics of the past. Surviving the present is their concern, and Blumberg’s son, not the disappeared, is on their minds.
Jorge Delprato, a restaurateur in the upscale neighborhood of Belgrano, welcomes the change, saying that by comparison, “the ESMA event was political demagoguery with no relation to the priorities of my customers.”
The economy is poor Argentines’ main concern. Alberto Aguero, 72, scavenges the trash each night for cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, anything recyclable that will fetch him a few pesos. He says he is worse off than he was one year ago. About Kirchner’s revisiting the past, he says, “I don’t care about that stuff. I want my job back.”
One of Kirchner’s first official acts requested that Congress annul a law passed during the 1990s granting immunity to high-ranking military officials from the Dirty War. The ESMA dedication continued his reckoning with the past.
To Kirchner’s credit, many Argentine political analysts testified to the event’s symbolic importance. Family members of the disappeared were visibly moved. Maria Laura Gullo’s grandmother was murdered at ESMA. “It was important to be there,” she says, “to support the President’s decision, and finally have somewhere I can take flowers to my grandmother.”
Julio Burdman, a political analyst with the polling firm Nueva Mayoria, says his most recent data showed 54 percent of Argentines support Kirchner’s position on human rights and 77 percent support his overall performance. Kirchner was elected with 22 percent of the vote.
Alicia Ocariz also attended the ceremony. Her husband disappeared when their daughter was two months old. But, she says, “I don’t belong to any human rights organizations. I don’t have time.”
Argentina, many Argentines say, has had 20 years to deal with its past. While its professional human rights activists are admired from London to Los Angeles, its citizens have had to navigate one financial meltdown after another. Nueva Mayoria’s poll that gave Kirchner high marks also showed that among Argentines’ priorities, human rights did not make the top ten. Kirchner’s signature issue was a priority for only one percent of Argentines.
Instead, along with the economy, crime is a top concern, particularly among the middle class. In addition to the sheer numbers who took to the streets during the Blumberg march, many were first-time protesters. Absent were the usual political banners. Ubiquitous were Argentine flags and photos of young Blumberg.
Blumberg’s murder has galvanized the country and has given his father unprecedented access to politicians. Within eight days of the march the Argentine Senate passed a sweeping anti-crime bill. Julio Burdman observed that for the first time in 17 years, Argentine legislators worked the day before the week-long holiday Semana Santa.
While many Argentines want to move forward, Alberto Amato, a journalist with the Argentine daily Clarin, says, “We cannot deal with present problems until we deal with the past. It is impossible to forget the past.”
He argues that one march is no substitute for creating institutions of a civil society. The Argentine middle class is not known for embracing participatory democracy, ironically, perhaps another reason that many of the past’s human rights issues remain unresolved. Amato adds, “The middle class has never taken responsibility for its government. It should take more interest in the country.”