#20 - So you want a Revolution
Jeff Willner - 20 December 2001
(Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA) – Ducking beneath the tear gas shells, I inched
down the sidewalk of Sàenz Peña, trying to get a better picture of the
rioters hurling stones and fire bombs. In between the mounted policemen
and the burning barricades set up by the masked demonstrators was a kind-of
no man’s land. Downtown Buenos Aires was under siege, the people had had
enough of the government’s incompetence and on the very day we showed up
the country was coming apart. I angled my crappy little Kodak no-zoom digital
camera to get a better shot of the guy with a Molotov cocktail, when from
down the street several hundred men suddenly rushed forward, pelting the
horse mounted policemen with rocks. They turned and fled. I almost crapped
my britches as the rioters bore down on me. Five people had been killed
that afternoon – it would suck to be the sixth.
It had been a weird week. We left Rio last week on Wed. and drove south to
Curitiba, a wonderfully clean and well presented city, where I got in an
accident with a blue Ford Focus. It was my fault. I was in a left-turn lane
and went straight instead (though it was raining and there were no markings
on the road – but I digress). We paid the driver $200 to compensate for the
sheered off mirror and massive gouge in the side of his car. There was a
short side trip to check out Paranagua, and the amazing Avenida Graciosa
(a mountainside road in a flower park). Amazing, but it rained the entire
day. From there it was a long jaunt to Foz do Iguacu, where we spent a day
walking and climbing over, under, and inside some of the world’s most picturesque
waterfalls. And also my new Sony digital camera was stolen. After that we
drove to Paraguay to check out Asuncion, a country that is only just emerging
from decades of ugly dictatorship. The economy is barely emerging and it
shows. As Jody
remarked during the drive to the capitol, “This looks
totally like Africa!” And it does. Nice, but it has a
long way to go.
Crossing into Argentina was like moving into civilization. Nice roads, cool
pool halls with extensive menus, and parity to the US dollar. Easy conversion – one
peso equals one dollar. Except that the prices are too high for our measly
budget. We ended up camping in a gas station parking lot in order to avoid
a $40 hotel bill. It’s a huge country, over a thousand kilometers from the
border of Paraguay to the capitol Buenos Aires. As we drove in there were little
weird things that didn’t make sense. Most of the stores in the little towns
were closed. And the giant Carrefour hypermarts had empty parking lots. Passing
through the toll station fifty kilometers out of BA, a soldier flagged us down
and said some obviously important things in Spanish. I nodded and took off. “What
did he say”, asked Jody. “No idea”, I replied. The mysteries were deepening.
Inexplicably, the highway was suddenly closed off, all traffic was forced up
an exit ramp with no detour signs and no idea where to go. We looked around trying
to figure things out. To the right, a mob of kids and young men were swarming
over a couple of loaded flat-bed trucks. Yelling. Someone cut the tie-down line
and the mob ripped off the tarp. I think the truck was carrying notepaper or
writing tablets because people scrambled to the top of the load and started flinging
boxes off to the waiting crowd. Several hit the ground and burst open, scattering
sheets of paper everywhere. Looters? Was this normal? “Lock the doors!” I said,
and we drove across a grass median to get out of there. Weaving through neighborhoods
we found our way back to the highway,
still unsure why it had been closed.
After finding a cheap hotel downtown we went to an Internet café. Wow. Cavallo,
the Finance Minister had just resigned together with the entire Cabinet after
rioting and looting in the suburbs of Buenos Aires had left a dozen dead. And
there were demonstrations going on mere blocks from us. You gotta love up to
the minute web news. No big deal we figured. We’d dodge the demonstrations
and go sightseeing as usual the next day.
Wrong. Gulin took off across the river to visit Uruguay and Jody and I walked
up the pedestrian mall toward Plaza de Mayo – where the congress and a lot
of pretty old buildings are located. On the way we tried to get some pesos
from bank machines. There were long lines and most of the machines were out
of service. It turned out that one of Cavallo’s last moves was to limit bank
withdrawals (after a run on the bank had pushed the country to near insolvency)
and sensing trouble, people were desperately trying to get whatever money they
could out of their bank accounts. In the Citibank branch two pretty tellers
were directing the lines, soothing tempers, and doing their best to control
the crowds. Stores had pulled down their steel anti-theft doors halfway, shoppers
had to duck underneath to get inside, everyone seemed to be holding their breath.
We continued down the street. Suddenly a flood of people poured at us, we turned
and ran into the shelter of a bank entrance. Tear gas. Police were breaking
up demonstrations in Plaza de Mayo. A snappily dressed businessman walked passed
and made a comment in Spanish. "No comprende" we said. He stopped, "Are
you tourists?" "Yes, we just arrived last night." "Welcome to Argentina!"
Jody and I went to a café to get coffee. “I have got
to see this up close”, I said. Grabbed my camera and took off. Approaching from
a side street I found myself in the midst of young men, shirts off over their
faces. Tear gas was making things dicey. Through trial and error I realized that
you can’t wipe off your eyes when the tear gas blinds you, it just makes it worse.
You gotta just take it and let the tears
wash away the pain. I guess that’s why it’s called Tear Gas. Individuals would
start yelling slogans, or
just “Argentina!”. But mostly the group seemed like bored, unemployed men, who
had nothing to lose. At 20% unemployment, a lot of people had been hard off for
a long time. Police stayed several blocks away but kept firing tear gas canisters
from shotguns. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the streets were being re-paved
and there were plenty of rocks lying around for ammunition. With the police too
far away, the group turned on the plate-glass windows of an insurance company.
Bam. Bam. Crash. With bricks and stones they demolished the front of the shop.
Several guys ran in and snatched computers, disappearing into the smoke with
their loot. I started feeling conspicuous in my Junglerunner t-shirt and little
camera. I tried to avoid eye contact, but when the demolition started a couple
of the guys began glancing in my direction.
Time to go.
Around the corner, I passed the Citibank branch where we had tried unsuccessfully
to get money earlier in the morning. It was demolished. All the windows smashed,
a fire burning outside, furniture strewn about inside. Wacky. I went up the
street and waved my Junglerunner business card at a mounted cop, “I’m a journalist”.
He waved me behind the police lines.
Unlike the US (when I visited the World Trade Center
in NYC), the police didn’t care how close you got to the action. All the news
agencies were there and the cameramen were taking crazy chances, venturing past
the line of mounted and foot police into the firing zone to get better pictures.
Of course I followed. I always wanted to be a photojournalist! A bank had been
totally destroyed and I sidled down to have a better look. Windows smashed, furniture
on fire inside,
plants thrown onto the street, anything of value – gone. On the street across
from me, a lunatic started baiting the police with a fire bomb clutched in his
hand. “Bastardos! Imbecile!” Me and a couple of the news boys scurried close
to frame the shot better.
That’s when the rioters down the street grouped up and
stormed the cops.
Pure sweet adrenaline flooded through me as the mob raced toward us. Rocks were
hailing down, one photographer took one to the body and slumped behind a torched
news stand. Rubber bullets and tear gas canisters were whizzing past us from
the other direction. Me and another news flunky dove into the burned-out hulk
of the bank, crunching over piles of broken glass to duck behind the smoking
looked down at my Teva sandals – not the best choice for a long day of violent
civil unrest. Rioters streamed past. Then the police re-grouped behind a black
tank-like vehicle and tore into the middle of the pack, flailing with their cudgels.
People fled everywhere. We ducked out of the bank and rushed back behind the
It went on like that for over an hour. Advance and retreat, trading tear
gas for rocks. Man, if it had happened in the US there would be dozens of casualties
lying around – can you imagine the carnage? Good ol’ boys would show up with
their Glock 9mm pistols and start wreaking havoc. The Argentines were pissed
off, upset, and doing damage, but at least all they were firing were stones.
Down the street a dense pillar of black smoke started rising. The police formed
up and stormed down to allow the fire engine to get through. It was another
bank – and this time it had really been torched. After battling the fire for
twenty minutes or so, suddenly the second floor crashed down, barely missing
the firefighters inside. The photographer pack went nuts. Flames were roaring
all over the building, the firefighters screaming for more water, smoke pouring
out the top of the building – and in the distance the crack, crack, crash of
rocks pounding off more building windows.
I went back to get Jody. “Want to see a riot up
close?” “Absolutely!” she said. We headed back. The pitched battle had faded
back to Plaza de la Republica, a huge white obelisk (like the Washington Monument
in DC) in the middle of Buenos Aires’ main boulevard. Police were holding their
line while the
rioters beat the crap out of stores and restaurants. “I’ll be right back” I told
Jody, and walked down into the middle of the pack. By now, live news coverage
had attracted an even bigger crowd. People were setting fire to subway stations,
pulling furniture out of shops and setting it on fire, and running off with shopping
bags full of looted booty. Two guys looked at
me and yelled (I think) “Hey! No pictures of us! No
pictures!” No problem! I’m a journalist! From Canada – no problem! They turned
back to the looting. Bam, Bam, Bam! The police charged in from another side street
and a wall of gas rolled over us. I had gotten pretty good at handling the tear
gas but this cloud nearly did me in. Staggering back up the street over twisted
metal barricades, tears streaming down my face, I
could barely see. Couldn’t open my eyes. Leaned
against a smashed Men’s Wear shop window, then moved aside so the looters could
get out more easily. I finally found Jody and suggested we go up a different
side street for the view behind the police lines.
And that’s how the day went. I dodged and darted around getting way too close
to the action looking for shots (my fabulous Sony digital camera with the 5x
zoom lens had been stolen in Brazil and the little Kodak DC3800 had no zoom – in
fact objects appear further away than they actually are). Jody took notes in
her journal and chatted with the locals (came back with a lovely spent tear
gas projectile shell casing). “This government is terrible, they do nothing,
they do the wrong things, they f**k us” said a couple of the guys. Then, around
8:30pm, the battles subsided and the rioters started cheering. President de
la Rua had resigned. What a day. We had arrived in town to see the results
of bad fiscal policy turn into the worst rioting in decades, and at the end
of it all, had been there when the government came apart by the will of the
people. Awesome. Oh, and we also had the laundry done – so that was nice.