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Nov-23-2011 14:56printcomments

Occupy El Bolson

Public protest is firmly entrenched here as one of the central pillars of Argentine political life.

Occupy El Bolson
Photos courtesy: Eddie Zawaski

(EL BOLSON, Argentina) - I thought we were going to have occupy el bolson, but it turned out to be just more of the same ordinary everyday protest that we live with down here. If you are interested in the story, it is here for your disposal.

Last week we got word from our barrio information network that the occupy movement was to come Patagonia with a special edition of “Occupy El Bolson” this past Saturday.

Argentines are no strangers to public protest in the form of occupation of public spaces.

During the 2001 financial crisis, tens of thousands of pot-banging caceroleros hit the streets to demand justice and a cleaning out of the corrupt political order. Formerly powerful politicians and bankers withered and faded away quickly, but the demonstrators stayed.

Argentines have developed the habit of hitting the street over just about every issue that matters.

The politicians and banksters who led the country into bankruptcy a decade ago would no longer define the important issues for Argentines. People in the street with placards and loud voices would decide what is and what is not important. Occupy El Bolson was to be just one in a long series of local protests.

The notices went out a full week before the event. By Argentine standards that is long-term planning. Most local concerts and lectures get notice 3-4 days before the event on the theory that if notice is put out too early, people will forget about it and stay home.

I found out six days ahead with an email from the local politicians in my barrio who said we were all going out to protest the proposed new resort development on the north side of town. Unlike occupy Wall Street, we were going to focus on specific issues because we know that ordinary people in Argentina can put pressure on government to change things.

When we got to the protest at mid-day on a sunny spring Saturday, the opposition to the ski/golf resort was the first group we saw. They had set up a booth to inform people of the illegal but officially sanctioned project to place a golf course and upscale resort community directly over the source of El Bolson’s aquifer.

The wealthy foreign backers of this project would most certainly get away with using up and then contaminating our water supply if people didn’t take to the streets to to stop them.

This was the first big public demonstration for this group, but they weren’t alone. It seemed that every political grouping in town was there with banners and drums to beat out opposition or support for all the things that mattered to them.

There were our neighbors, eight miles south in Chubut Province who were fighting off a Canadian gold mining firm with evil environmental and financial intentions. No a la mina has been engaged in a continuous struggle against the mine for half a decade.

The biggest grouping were the school supporters. They have occupied the Plaza many times in the past few years protesting inadequate school funding and lack of support for special education. The current issue for them was the premature closing of four schools in El Bolson for “structural repairs”.

Students and teachers were gearing up for the demonstration by playing futbol, field hockey and staging foot-races. They were also getting all their faces painted in preparation for the march.

As we watched the face painting and enjoyed the drummers warming up, we saw one of our neighbors pass by, the one who had informed us of the occupation today. He didn’t stop to talk as he seemed somewhat preoccupied if not outright disturbed.

Only later did we discover the reason for his preoccupation; the event was not an “Occupy El Bolson” branch of the global movement and our neighborhood association had not been invited. The Plaza had been taken over by the school advocates as a fourth annual event with other groups invited to support their protest.

Our barrio had wanted to demonstrate “No a las tomas, Si a la derecha de tierra” (No to illegal squatting, yes to the right to land), but some people thought that the message was too ambiguous. In fact, many of the demonstrators out in the plaza that day would have supported the squatters who came to our barrio back in early October.

Besides, the barrio’s struggle was over as the squatters had long been removed to the old city dump so why join in on the protest of others who who still had goals to achieve?

The Anarchists were there, standing in the center of the plaza with their red and black flags. No one had any problems with their participation as they are simply opposed to just about everything.

I recognized the faces of nearly every one of the red and black contingent, most of them vendors with booths at our town’s craft faire, the friendliest people in town.

Another large group in the plaza were folks protesting the official explanation of suicide in the death of a youth in the police station in El Bolson.

The same people have supported similar issues all having the common theme of saying no to impunity, especially where the police are concerned. This bunch provided their own contingent of drummers and some additional clowns.

As far as the police were concerned, there was little possibility that they would push anybody around that day as there was not a single officer present at the event. The only evidence of their presence was the red and white tape that had been stretched across the Avenida San Martin at either entrance to the plaza.

The cops were following official government policy by staying in the commissariat and drinking mate during demonstrations.

Argentina had terrible problems with public protests after 2001. Many groups would close public roads or occupy public parks and create massive disturbances. This reached a peak in 2006 when agricultural worker protests closed down most of the major roads linking Buenos Aires with the rest of the country.

At that point, the central government adopted the policy of “de-criminalizing” protests.

The police no longer intervened in protests and confined their activity to directing traffic and sending out bulletins about the locations of protests. The protests didn’t stop, but the violence disappeared. Since 2006, Argentina has just learned to live with public protest as a part of daily political life.

The last group we spotted was the indigenous group, the Mapuche people from El Foyel.

They were protesting the ski and golf resort as it threatened to build houses and hotels on land that the Mapuche still had claim to. There were also Mapuches from Chubut Province who were trying to wrest land away from the powerful Benneton family.

The Bennetons “bought” a huge estancia of over 250,000 acres in a shady deal from former British owners who had, in turn, stolen it with the help of a previous corrupt government in Buenos Aires. The Mapuche were here today to say no to more usurpation of their territory.

At five p.m., the march started with a murga, a street band of drummers and dancers, with the anarchists out front flying their flags.

About three hundred or so other demonstrators filed in behind with their banners and a few of their own drums. Everyone marched and danced slowly up and down the Avenue with a couple of thousand spectators cheering them on.

The march went on for about an hour and then everyone went home. This was not, however, the end of the protest. The protestors had all agreed to join together again later in the week and travel to Bariloche to petition a judge there for redress of their grievances.

Stop construction of the ski resort. Re-open the closed schools. Kick the Canadian gold miners out. The judge could do all of this. The only thing certain was that if people didn’t publicly protest, the judge or any other public official will do nothing.

Public protest is firmly entrenched here as one of the central pillars of Argentine political life. We have seen many demonstrations here in our small corner of Northwest Patagonia and we expect we will see lots more. People here see protests as much more powerful tools of democracy than voting.

Eddie Zawaski is a contributing writer based in Patagonia, Argentina.

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.