A tale of two obelisks
“Who’s in charge here?” asked an officer from the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., amongst hundreds of people.
On Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022, the inhabitants of this wonderful city were surprised with a crowd surrounding the Washington Memorial, wearing light blue and white attire, pins and flags.
The policeman, reasonably, appeared visibly concerned and was determined to maintain order in what looked like an event full of uncertainty and potential risks, as the masses continued multiplying, jumping, and chanting in a language other than English.
“It’s not a protest, it’s a celebration!” some participants clarified.
An Argentine citizen who was partaking in the celebrations quickly realized that there was no better way to explain the occasion than through images. Using his cell phone, he decided to show what was happening, simultaneously, more than 5,200 miles away. Indeed, near another obelisk, emblematic of the city of Buenos Aires, millions of Argentines were celebrating their win of a new World Cup (the third won by our national team, this time in Qatar).
It’s not always easy for me to describe Argentine idiosyncrasy to those in the United States. For example, how and why soccer is so passionately lived. That mere question, in fact, has been the subject of hundreds of essays by academics and intellectuals. On this occasion, however, I don’t wish to dwell on that. Argentines surely could have suffered and celebrated with the same passion at home, with their families or friends (I do love the whole Super Bowl experience in the U.S.). The question that became clear to me here, during my second period in which I have the honor of leading the Embassy in Washington, D.C. (and my third undertaking a representation in the United States), is how we take to the streets.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the first march of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. During the bloodiest dictatorship in Argentine history, where 30,000 people were made to disappear, and the dictatorship ruled through terror and repression, a group of mothers decided to go out publicly to demand for their disappeared children. As gatherings of three or more people were forbidden, including any demonstrations, they chose to walk without stopping around the monument in front of the Government House. They took to the streets—and their bravery became a symbol of the struggle for human rights around the world.
Like the United States, we have learned to process and revisit our history through film. Some of the horror of the dictatorship can be seen in extraordinary Argentine films such as, “La Historia Oficial” (Official Story, Oscar winner of 1986) and “Argentina, 1985” (Oscar nominee this year), which tells the story of how our country became the only example of such a large scale trial and conviction through civilian courts, by a democratic government, against a former dictatorship.
Some highlights of that time surely contributed to the reinforcement of the relationship between Argentines with the public space, as a form of vindication. As a result, on the date of the beginning of that dictatorship, every March 24, we commemorate the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice. On that day, each year, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets. On March 24, 2023, we will be able to celebrate yet another international symbol, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (who searched for every child appropriated during the dictatorship, mostly children of the disappeared who were born in captivity), have found two more grandchildren this year, bringing the total to 132.
It is likely that many cultural traits of the Argentine and U.S. people are different. However, the coincidences are also innumerable, and of a fundamental nature. Both countries were born out of their struggles for independence from the domination of European metropolises. They presented a notion of a power from below confronting power from above; distributed rather than concentrated, and deliberative as opposed to authoritarian. Moreover, it was decided that power would fundamentally reside in the people, regardless of birthright, inheritance, or title in perpetuity.
The current situation within our countries and across the globe presents enormous challenges. What’s in question is the capacity of the national democratic systems and their international coordination to respond to the unmet needs and legitimate demands of our societies. I am confident that we will face them together because we have similar values and increasingly convergent interests.
As mentioned before, we Argentines appropriate the public space in almost every relevant occasion. We take to the streets when we demand change from the government, but also when we celebrate or give thanks as a country. The Argentine people manifest and express themselves in this way, autonomously and spontaneously.
I would like to take the opportunity, after this long introduction, to answer the police officer who did his job impeccably that Dec. 18 at the Obelisk in the District of Columbia: I’m sorry—when Argentines take to the streets, there are no leaders. In the streets, the space that belongs to everyone. There we meet. Where we are all equal.
This 2023, Argentina and the United States will celebrate 200 years of bilateral relations. As on multiple occasions throughout our history, and like the magical day of the World Cup final, during this year the obelisks of both capitals will connect once more. And you will find us, once again, on the same side.
Jorge Argüello is Ambassador of Argentina to the United States.
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