Eyewitness Account: The Mass Protests That Brought Down Argentina’s President


[The enormous size of the spontaneous outpourings of December 19 and 20 in Buenos Aires made them virtually unstoppable. A huge cross-section of the population went out into the streets to protest government policies and defy the “state of siege,” ultimately forcing the resignation of Argentine President De la Rua. Within a week or two, similar mobilizations forced Rodriguez Saa, De la Rua’s replacement, to resign. One commentator in the mainstream press spoke of “the growing divisions between the state and its inhabitants” (New York Times, January 1, 2002).

[This e-mail message (which we have edited only slightly) is by an Argentine participant in the protests that brought down De la Rua. It gives a vivid, first-hand picture of the tremendous strength of such mass mobilizations.]

I WAS THERE

It was Wednesday night [December 19] when I found myself fooling around downtown. I didn’t know what was going on a few blocks ahead of me. After dinner with some friends, I was only trying to get home, since it was 1:30 am [now December 20] and someone had said that a state of emergency had been ordered by President De la Rua. The streets downtown were so quiet, there was such a solitude, that it reminded you of a ghost city, or maybe a nightmare.

But the truth was far from that. As a snake moves unconsciously to the sound of a flute, a certain rumor from somewhere stole my steps and led me, corner after corner, toward the Congress. The rumor became a familiar sound. It was the voice of my people, singing to the beat of crashing metal. I turned the last corner and the picture spoke by itself: The Congress Square was packed with people. It is about 9,000 sq/yards place, and if we compute 3 persons per sq/yard we have about 27,000 people there.

But that was a very unusual crowd. Unusual, considering our traditions and history. They were middle class people, students, young professionals, guys with a bike next to an old lady and a cute teeny wearing an RN’R T-shirt. There was even a street dog, howling to the moon sitting among the people. Then I understood the origin of the metal noises. The crowd had as their only weapon their saucepans and spoons. And besides that, the only symbol there were the thousands of Argentinian flags flying in the night, something that before December 20, 2001, you could only see in Buenos Aires if the soccer team won a world cup.

It was a peaceful but determined crowd that had spontaneously won the streets, and converged on the Congress Square singing that the government should “push the state of emergency up its ass.” But that was not all. They also sang against the IMF, against the former president [the Peronist, Carlos] Menem, against the lack of representativeness of most of the union leaders and against Domingo Cavallo, the perpetrator of the neo-liberal model installed in Argentina since his dark appearance on the political stage way back in the past, during the 1976–1983 military dictatorship.

The crowd also sang the National Anthem, and this one who is writing now could not hold back his tears when we got to the part that says, “Let’s live crowned in glory. Let’s swear to die in glory.” Nobody left the Square until 3:30 am. There was a spirit of peaceful rebellion, and there were no police in sight. Half past three in the late night everybody started to clear out slowly and peacefully, including myself, going back home but holding in our hearts that we stood firm and told the government that its autism toward the crisis and the hunger was not to be tolerated anymore. Far more, if the only solution they had found to stop the assaults on supermarkets (made by desperate people that had to feed their kids) was to suspend constitutional rights.

But then the real nightmare began. We were going down Rivadavia Avenue, walking away from the Congress Square, when the police appeared on stage. Suddenly we heard whistles zooming over our heads. We looked up to see smoky lines crossing the dark cloak of the night, landing by our feet. The cops were standing in a tight formation, and had opened fire with their tear gas weapons on our backs, when we were already leaving the Square peacefully. Everybody got in a panic and started running, but in the confusion nobody knew where to run, bumping into each other as in madness.

One of the canisters landed by my side when I was trying to help a girl that had fallen to the ground, victim of the smoke that made us not just “cry,” but besides the mustard in our eyes we also vomited; we couldn’t even breathe. I received it so directly that I fell down myself, next to the girl I was trying to help. Some anonymous arms lifted me from my knees and took me away from the danger, and they led me, running blind for one or two blocks. There, somebody washed my eyes, and my sight slowly cleared when we all saw that two police trucks and two patrols were heading high speed toward us, with their lights circling in blue in the deserted streets.

I looked around, and the little crowd near me spread immediately, running away. I started running myself, but when I got to the next avenue I saw that there were cops wherever one’s sight turned. My eyes were not working right yet, but I felt a hand holding my arm. “Come in, come in” I heard, and instinctively I entered a building, led by an unknown woman who took me into her home, washed my eyes, and gave me a T-shirt, since I had lost mine somewhere somehow.

Half an hour later I left, not knowing even the name of that woman who helped me. I walked back home. It was a 50 blocks walk, but fear put me so alert that I didn’t notice. When I finally got in my bed at 6:00 am I didn’t know that the worst was yet to come. And it would come the next day.

When I woke up I turned on my TV set, and I saw that the historic Plaza de Mayo was the new stage of what had started the night before. As the ones that came before me must have felt that October 17, 1945, [a mass protest at the time of Juan Peron] I could do nothing but attend.

I took the subway heading there, but they stopped it when we were halfway to the Plaza, in a useless attempt to stop people from getting there. In that moment I realized that a lot of people in that train were also heading like me, and we took buses and walked toward the Plaza. When we got to the avenue called 9 de Julio, the crowd was growing, and when we got to Roque San Pela Street it was a human river flowing in a single direction. This last is a diagonal street that communicates between the Obelisk and the Plaza de Mayo, where the Pink House (the President’s office) is located. There were no political parties there, no flags other than national flags, and among the people there were as many males as females, from people in their teens to people in their seventies.

The songs that had been heard the night before were once again sung, and we kept moving forward, driven by the will to get to the Plaza. How wrong we were. The police had the firm intention to keep everybody away from the Plaza and they demonstrated it when their gases started raining over our heads. Everybody ran back as we realized how it would be: We had to get to the Plaza and occupy it, and they had to prevent it.

In those hard moments everybody was helping everybody, unknown anonymous people sharing water on a hot-as-hell sunny day, teaching each other how to tie the T-shirt wet over your mouth and nose in order to reduce the gas effects, teaching each other not to wash your eyes, or the magnificent properties of the lemon to heal the itch of the tear gas. I saw two guys take off their ties and give them to a couple of girls for them to use to cover their mouths and noses, since the girls just couldn’t take off their T-shirts as we men can do.

Almost everybody, including myself, learned all of these lessons the hard way in the worst place. And the tactics appeared naturally according to each new situation that occurred. People took some iron hurdles that were closing a phone company reparation, and moved them forward, creating a wall from side to side of the street to prevent policemen from crossing it. Then the crowd moved forward, moving on and on the iron frontier and gaining positions closer and closer to the Plaza.

But then the horses appeared. The mounted infantry charged against us, in a number of ten or maybe fifteen. Everybody ran back again, and gases landed once again all over us. Some anonymous heroes stepped on the flares, extinguishing them, and then everybody knew what to do if one of them fell by your side. But then, in an unexplainable way, thousands of people immediately understood that the policemen had already used their loads, so everybody turned around and now it was us that charged against the police, thousands of fists up, screaming and running like a storm in a retaliation that made them turn around their horses and escape back to the safety of the Plaza, where the main police force was.

The crowd was mad angry because of the brutal way that police was attacking their own folks, and a rain of stones kept cops at a distance. It was nasty to see those girls in their early twenties with their crying eyes swollen and red like the ass of a monkey. But when the crowd got just a block away from the Plaza, the horses charged again with their reloaded weapons, pushing us back with their gases and hitting savagely with their rubber sticks at all those who remained in the first line, blinded in their own tears. But once they had used their flares, all the crowd turned around once again, and the hunters became hunted once, and once, and yet once again in a battle that took two or three hours. They chased us, we struck back; they fired at us, we made them escape.

As time passed, we starting recognizing each other, even in the crowd, and after each attack we checked out around to see if the “blond girl with a bearded boyfriend” or the “the guy in yellow” were OK. There were fires burning all over, and that, far from being an “act of vandalism” was a necessity: The heat of the flames and the smoke raised up the gas, and it was much better to breathe smelly burning trash than tear gas poison.

It was by then we saw that a big column raising red flags and banners were standing five blocks back, by the Obelisk. We all said, “Finally, the left is here.” But the Argentinian traditional left parties proved once again that they are not ready to accomplish their destiny, staying back, five blocks away from the action, for another two hours while the rest of us were going back and forth without even feeling the tiredness. One hour later they took the decision and moved. The struggles remained more or less the same, for a while, going back and forward once and again, but now it was a little worse since the comrades refused to put down their big banners, which covered the view, making it more complicated to avoid the flares, since you couldn’t see where they came from.

Then something amazing occurred. The “people’s cavalry” appeared. A group of about fifty motorcycles in every shape and color appeared honking. Most of them were ridden by two persons, and the one in the back was carrying big stones. Then the bikes sped up, and disappeared in the black curtain of smoke that the fires were giving off. We could only hear the noise of the motors for a few seconds, and then a lot of shots were heard. Then the bikers appeared back from the black smoke, bleeding from their knees and heads, with the impacts of rubber bullets on their backs. It was around 4:30 pm, and President De la Rua spoke. There were some radios among the people, and everybody (maybe including the police itself) stopped for a few minutes to take a breath and to see what was going to happen with the Chairman’s speech.

Everybody was expecting him to quit, and the calm was short because he didn’t. But that was not all, since Mr. De la Rua also denied the importance of all the events that we were all going through, as if there had not been six deaths already among the civilian people who were only trying to express their opposition to the government.

Such a denying position put things even worse, making a large group of people get really out of control. Besides, it was clear that there was no way to get to the Plaza and the night was dangerously close. So they started breaking the glasses of banks and all kind of companies, they started taking out the furniture, tables, computers, chairs, everything they found and set them on fire.

Then I walked two girls that I’d met there out of the smoke and the fire, and we got to the Plaza de la Republica, where the Obelisk is, and the air was clearer.  There was a large number of people there, and then I realized that Corrientes Avenue was also crowded and in combat. In that moment the artillery entered the stage. The hydrant truck fires flares of tear gas and high-pressure water. It came as a tank of fear, shooting a large number of flares that crossed the air drawing white smoky tails behind them, fired randomly at people. A large group counterattacked it, and it had to disappear to where it had come from. The two girls and I ran out of there as fast as we could, and after five or six blocks a   bus stopped and they jumped into it, no matter where it was heading.

The sunset was beginning to paint the west, and I sat for the first time in a long time, in the middle of a deserted 9 de Julio Avenue, which is said to be the widest in the world. In that moment I remembered my family, and I phoned my mother to ease her mind. Then she told me that President de la Rua had resigned. Then I knew that I could go home.

Today I went to the Plaza de Mayo. I sat there, and looked around. In every corner, in every street I could almost see all the images that I had lived yesterday and that I have related to you. The scars of the battle are deep wounds that took more than twenty lives, and some tears rolled down my face again, but no tear gas was fired this time. Those comrades did not die for nothing. Because everybody knows that something has changed forever in Argentina.

“Let’s live crowned in glory. Let’s swear to die in glory.”

Nestor Miguel Gorojovsky

gorojovsky@arnet.com.ar