Packed with some of Buenos Aires’ best known historical landmarks, not least the presidential palace, the Plaza de Mayo is a microcosm of the city’s past: it’s been bombed by the military and crowded with Evita’s descamisados (literally “the shirtless ones”, or manual workers), while for many years it was the scene of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo’s weekly demonstration. Although it still often attracts small, noisy protests, including an eternal group of Malvinas/Falklands veterans demanding greater compensation, more often than not it’s sedately filled with gossiping old men batting away flocks of squawking pigeons while hawkers sell candied peanuts and Argentine flags. At its centre stands the Pirámide de Mayo, a snow-white obelisk erected in 1811 to mark the first anniversary of the May 25 Revolution, when a junta overthrew the Spanish viceroy, declared Buenos Aires’ independence from Spain and set about establishing the city’s jurisdiction over the rest of the territory. The headscarves painted on the ground around the pyramid echo those worn by the Madres. The plaza’s towering palm trees lend it all a wonderfully tropical feel.
Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
Madres de la Plaza de Mayo
Many of those arrested – and, in many cases, tortured and executed – during the 1976–83 dictatorship were young people in their teens and 20s who were kidnapped from their homes and streets with no acknowledgement from the authorities as to their whereabouts. In 1976 some of their mothers, frustrated by the intimidating silence they were met with when they tried to find out what had happened to their children, started what would become the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) movement.
At first just a handful of women, the Madres met weekly in the Plaza de Mayo, the historical centre of the city, as much to support each other as to embarrass the regime into providing answers; the wearing of white headscarves emerged as a means of identification. As their numbers grew, so did their defiance – standing their ground and challenging the military to carry out its threat to fire on them in front of foreign journalists, for instance. Some disappeared themselves after the notorious torturer known as the “Blond Angel of Death”, Alfredo Astiz, infiltrated the group, posing as the brother of a desaparecido (disappeared). He was sentenced to life imprisonment in October 2011.
In 1982, during the Malvinas/Falklands crisis, the Madres were accused of being anti-patriotic for their stance against the war, a conflict that they rightly claimed was an attempt by the regime to divert attention away from its murderous acts. With the return to democracy in 1983, the Madres were disappointed by the Alfonsín government’s reluctance to delve too deeply into what had happened during the “Dirty War”, as well as by the later granting of immunity to many of those accused of kidnap, torture and murder. The group rejected monetary “compensation” and both the Madres and the respect in which they are held were key in finally getting the amnesty laws overturned in 2005. The Madres continued to protest at the Pirámide de Mayo weekly until January 2006, when, after around 1500 protests, the Madres finally brought their long vigil to an end, citing confidence in President Néstor Kirchner. Now some of the Madres have branched into other areas of social protest: the emblem of the white headscarf was at the forefront of the movement to demand the non-payment of the country’s foreign debt, among other issues.
The Madres were mixed up in an extremely embarrassing scandal in 2011, when Sergio Schoklender, a lawyer employed by their association, was accused of embezzlement; he was charged in early 2012. Jailed in the 1980s with his brother, Pablo, after they were found guilty of murdering their parents, whom they accused of abuse, he was taken under the wing of the current president of the Madres, Hebe de Bonafini, when he emerged as a leading defender of prisoners’ rights in the dying months of the junta. According to the allegations, Schoklender had amassed a huge fortune by siphoning off funds intended to build low-price housing for the poor. De Bonafini is no stranger to scandal (indeed her daughter Alejandra was accused of involvement in the Schoklender corruption case). Most notably she publicly expressed support for the 9/11 attacks, saying that they were acts of revenge for global repression by the United States and NATO.
Centenary and bicentenary
Centenary and bicentenary
On May 25, 1810, locals gathered in the Plaza de Mayo to demand the withdrawal of the viceroy and to form the Primera Junta – the first move in throwing off the yoke of Spanish rule and creating an independent nation.
The centenary in 1910 was cause for great celebration: in its first hundred years Argentina had gone from being a fairly small colonial backwater to one of the world’s richest countries, still in the throes of an unprecedented immigration and building boom, and bursting with confidence that it was destined to be a great country, perhaps even challenging US hegemony in the western hemisphere. Several foreign nations gifted monuments, many of which are still standing in Buenos Aires, including the Torre Monumental (Britain) and the Monumento de los Españoles (Spain).
Argentina has failed to live up to its original heady promise, but in 2010 its citizens nonetheless passionately celebrated their two-hundredth birthday. In Buenos Aires, lasting legacies of the party include a new museum, behind the Casa Rosada, and the Casa del Bicentenario, at Riobamba 983 (t011 4129 2400, wbicentenario.gov.ar), which holds exhibitions on different aspects of Argentine identity. The huge main post office, the Correo Central, at Sarmiento 189, near the beginning of Avenida Corrientes, is slowly being restored and transformed into a cultural centre. It is to be the seat of the national symphony orchestra and host more exhibitions – and might just be ready in time for the next bicentenary, that of the declaration of independence: July 9, 2016.