Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Argentine university honours Venezuela's Chavez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was honoured in Argentina this week with a freedom of press award in recognition of “his unquestionable and authentic commitment to support the freedom of peoples.”

The University of La Plata presented Chavez with the prestigious Rodolfo Walsh Journalism award to pay tribute to the Venezuelan leader’s efforts "to support popular communication by breaking up media monopolies in Latin America."

Claudio Gomez, a journalism professor at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata said that the faculty’s decision to honour Chavez with the award “does not mean that the university agrees with certain measures his government has taken against critical mass media but it wishes to recognize for example his creation of the Telesur Channel.”

Created in 2005, Telesur is a state funded alternative to the continent's private television stations and covers Latin American and international news. It is considered to be an alternative voice to the massive privately owned media conglomerates, which Chavez highlights ‘seek to control the people.’

“One must fight the media dictatorship. The dominant classes always manipulate the communications media and trick the people through powerful psychological campaigns,” he said during his two hour acceptance speech at the university.

“There is more freedom of expression and press in Venezuela today than during any time in our history,” he claimed, stating that he was proud to receive the award even though “some people say the dictator Chavez doesn’t deserve it.”

The journalism award is named after the journalist Rodolfo Walsh who, after co-founding Cuba’s state-run news agency Prensa Latina, was killed during the Dirty War in 1977 when the military dictatorship in Argentina went about eradicating the country of dissidents.

Those opposed to the university’s choice stressed Chavez’s track record with the media. “He has closed more than 30 radio stations and six television channels,” pointed out Buenos Aires province congressman Jorge Macri. While Silvana Giudici, the head of the Argentine parliament’s commission for freedom of expression, said it was “inconceivable” and “a contradiction” to issue the award to the Venezuelan President.

But the university stuck by its decision to honour Chavez for “his commitment to defending the liberty of the people, consolidating Latin American unity, and defending human rights, truth, and democratic values.”

“You head a profound process of emancipation in Latin America,” said the university’s Dean Florencia Saintout, who announced that a new category of the Walsh award had been created for Latin American leaders committed to giving a voice to the people who are least heard from; adding that she hoped for an open debate about Chavez’s ideas. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

La fiesta de quince - The 15th birthday party

For girls in the US it’s a sweet sixteen party, for those in the UK it’s probably two or three bottles of Vodka Absolut while larging it about town on the night of their eighteenth. Every part of the world has its own customs to mark that first moment of adulthood. In Argentina, like in many other Latin America countries, the age at which young girls celebrate their coming of age is fifteen; and they do it with style.

La fiesta de quince, the fifteenth birthday party for girls, is more than just a big deal in Argentina. It’s the moment every little girl has waited for since she was messing around with her Barbie doll and playing dress-up (or messing around with her Action Man and playing footy; to be politically correct).

Although a trip abroad is gaining popularity, more often than not to that fun-packed destination favoured by middle class Argentines – Florida’s Disneyworld, traditionally the birthday is celebrated with an almighty party, largely reminiscent of a wedding.

And it's a party that parents have planned for their daughter since the day she was born; the crowning moment when their baby girl makes the transition to womenhood. They've scrimped and saved, booked the venue, arranged the music and entertainment, and food, and drink, and the guest list, and the flowers, maybe a mariachi band, the cake, the limousine, the photographer, the cameraman, the decorations; it’s all ready to go, one night to celebrate their daughter’s fifteenth with a bang.

In general, it goes something like this.

The hundreds of invited guests, both teenage friends of the birthday girl and adult family and acquaintances, get to the salon ahead of time where the waiting staff accommodates them all while they anticipate the arrival. The dress code is formal and the salon is decked out with all sorts of bright and colourful decorations.  

As the tension builds, tongues are moistened with free flowing beer and soft drinks until the announcement is made; she is here. It is time for the grand entrance.

Guests red rose-up and line the hall to form an aisle, while the immediate family waits at the end of the line to greet their daughter and sister.

The music starts. A song chosen by the girl - maybe a little Britney or Cristina. And then the doors open. She appears on the arm of her father; the duo's smiles lit up by spotlights.

She’s nervous, apprehensive, perhaps visibly overwhelmed; but she’s beautiful. Her hair and make-up are exquisite, and the dress; the all important dress is glamorous, long and glamorous. Gasps and mutterings can be heard in the crowd ‘Que hermosa que está, es una princesita!

By the time her father has walked her down the aisle to present her to her family, she is holding all the red roses and is breathing normally again. She is plastered with kisses from every direction as she soaks up the applause. She is fifteen and this is her moment.

Papa retakes her hand and accompanies her to the floor for the first dance with his grown-up daughter. The Waltz. Eyes are directed to the couple as all the men queue up to take a turn spinning the birthday girl round in celebration.

And when the Waltz is concluded, the food is served. Adults drink and chat, family members reminisce, spotty teenagers joke around and seek out a sneaky beer, while little toddlers run all over the place as they play with their new friends.

After a couple of hours of energetic and rhythmic dancing in a typically natural and Latin manner (the way Argentines are so coordinated on the dancefloor is frankly not reminiscent of everyday society and really beggars belief), the ceremony of the fifteen candles takes place.

This is the moment when the birthday girl chooses the fifteen people she sees as having been the most important in her life thus far. She makes a speech about each and presents them all with a candle.

Finally the cake is cut and scoffed, and the real partying begins. Lights dim, cumbia music starts back-up and it’s proper dancing time until the night finally draws to a conclusion somewhere around 6am.

A good old bit of fun-til-the-sun-comes-up has been had by all, and for now the parents can relax until number two daughter approaches that all important age and la fiesta de quince, which in Argentina, marks the end of childhood and the beginning of womanhood.  

Friday, March 4, 2011

Stolen babies and Argentina's Dirty War

Jorge Videla, left and Reinaldo Bignone
Two former dictators of Argentina, along with six other ex-military figures have gone on trial this week accused of stealing up to 500 new born babies from political prisoners during the country’s violent military rule.

Jorge Videla, who ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1981 and Reinaldo Bignone, the county’s leader for the last year of military dictatorship before democracy’s return in 1983, appeared in court last Monday where charges covering 34 individual cases were read to them.

During the trial, officials for the prosecution will present evidence from around 370 people to outline the viciously cruel acts carried out by the regime during Argentina’s Dirty War – a period that Federal Prosecutor Federico Delgado called ‘one of the darkest episodes in Argentine history.’

Activist groups like La Asociación Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) say that the mothers of the children stolen were imprisoned in torture houses, where shortly after giving birth while blindfolded, they were executed and usually dropped from airplanes over the Atlantic or the River Plate. The babies were then given to families sympathetic to the military regime. 

The 85-year-old Jorge Videla, who is already serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity after the amnesty he’d previously received was overturned in December last year, is widely regarded as the mastermind of Argentina’s Dirty War, which lasted seven brutal years from 1976 to 1983.

Videla's real rise to power came in 1975 when pressured by senior military figures and the wealthy rightist elite, President Isabel Perón appointed him Commander in Chief of the Argentine army after her government became increasingly threatened by a left-wing uprising. Videla immediately promoted the use of death squads, asserting that ‘as many as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.’ With his mitts firmly wrapped around power, a junta led a coup one year later.

Videla in the 1970s
The new regime, with Videla at its head, took on the task of ‘stabilising’ society. 

It labelled itself ‘National Reorganisation Process’, and went about eradicating the country of so-called subversives, principally left-wing activists, trade unionists, Peronists, students, journalists and Marxists - a campaign that was known as Operation Condor.

Despite history, Videla still claims today that Argentine society at the time of his reign demanded strength to counter Marxist revolution.

The USA, a country petrified of communism, agreed, and so the Argentine military junta was allowed to carry on its brutal rule without an ounce of international objection from the north. In fact, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information act show that many high ranking US officials, including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, gave their full support to the murderous regime and its Dirty War, and the US congress granted more than $US100,000,000 to assist the military dictatorship.

That astoundingly generous US donation was used to torture, kill and illegally arrest the regime’s enemies. Forced disappearances were the chosen method of disposal – no bodies meant wrongdoing was difficult to prove and the method was a popular one in many South American dictatorships.

All in all, the period was a dark and frightful time for Argentines. Many recall today how a halting late night train could leave you in terror at the sound of military boots marching down the aisles as soldiers checked order. While lending a fellow student (who then turned out to have Marxists tendencies), a textbook with your name in it, would more than likely see you join the growing list of the ‘disappeared’.

Photographs of los desaparecidos
It is estimated that 30,000 people went missing during the Dirty War. The majority remain unaccounted for but it is supposed they were tortured and murdered in concentration camps and their bodies dumped out at sea. 

The case of the stolen children is particularly disturbing. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which is a group of mothers whose children disappeared, has identified 102 of the stolen babies to date. The grandson of the group's vice-president Rosa Roisinblit for example, was located in April, 2000. He'd been robbed from his mother after she gave birth to him in the concentration camp where she'd been imprisoned with her husband in 1978.

Jorge Videla and Reinaldo Bignone, who handed power over to the Social Democrat Raúl Alfonsín after Argentina was defeated during the military's last ditch effort to hold on to power with The Falklands War episode, are expected to be sentenced by the end of the year.