Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Police and Politics

As I mentioned in a previous post, Argentina does not have a long history of democracy, and the police presence here is very different than at home.

For example, when I was in Buenos Aires, I went for a walk to the Casa Rosada, The Pink House, which is the head of their country's government like our Parliament Hill.  Except when I was in Ottawa, any visitor could walk right up to Parliament Hill and go inside, and there are usually a variety of protesters out front on any given day. Same thing when I lived in Toronto and would go to Queens Park; always people on the front lawn with pickets or passing out flyers, people picnicking on the grounds.  They are both very public spaces.

La Casa Rosada is a big beautiful building but there is a metal fence that must be at least ten feet tall around the entire building and the grounds.  No one can get near the building without passing through several layers of security.

La Casa Rosada
(from Google Images)

It seems that whenever I"m out for a walk, I'll come across a very large group of police officers guarding a building for some reason or another.  On this particular day, there was a large group of police officers lined up all along the outside of this building (on the left in the photo) on a quiet pedestrian shopping street.  Not sure why and didn't stop to ask.

One day, when I was out for a walk, there was a big gathering in Plaza San Martin. This is like the city centre and it seems that there is always someone protesting something there.  But this time there were buses, and fences, and it all looked very official.  There was a military band inside the fenced area, and a group of students with red headbands, and various other dignitaries.   I climbed up on the stairs to get a better view, as had many other spectators.  And like all tourists, I took out my camera to take some photos.

Right away, there was a security guy in a black suit asking me a question.  "Sorry, I don't speak Spanish."
No problem, he instantly switched to flawless English:  "Where was I from?  Why was I in Cordoba? When did I arrive? How long would I be here?  Why was I taking photos?"   I explained that since I didn't speak Spanish, I would take photos of the signs and then go back and translate them later so that I could understand what was happening.  He told me, "No more photos," and I put my camera away.

It turns out it was an 18th anniversary commemoration of the bombing of the Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires in 1984, in which 85 people were killed.  This came only two years after the bombing of the Israeli Embassy building in Buenos Aires. 

Last weekend, we saw a group of fans boarding buses to go to a soccer/football match.  As the boarded the buses, a huge group of police officers was frisking each person.  This was way more intense than the usual quick glance in your bag that you get at a Red Wings game but seems to be common practice here. 

I feel very safe in our neighbourhood and when I'm downtonw, but there are times when the heavy police presence is a bit disconcerting. Our neighbourhood is in the midst of a building boom with new apartment buildings going up everywhere.  Yet the economy here is so fragile, and the protectionism so strong, one wonders how tenuous this growth might be.  In a town not far from Cordoba the economy is so bad that town officials had a raffle to determine which public servants would be paid and which ones had to wait a bit longer.  In the first raffle only 23 of the town's 92 employees were paid.  Can you imagine working and not knowing whether or not you would be paid?  Me either.

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