'The G-20 Is Death,' and Other Lessons in Global Capitalism
You will hear a demonstration in Buenos Aires before you see it, its bass drum throbbing deep and regular like a heartbeat.
On Friday, while the world’s leaders gathered for the 13th annual G-20 summit at the nearby Centro Costa Salguero on the Río de la Plata, the echo reverberated several blocks. This was due not to the size of the crowd, which probably numbered in the low thousands, but the emptiness of the city in which it traveled. The subway system had been shut down for the day, entire blocks of the microcentro had been barricaded with reinforced steel and officers from the Argentine Federal Police sporting shotguns and bulletproof vests seemed to outnumber the pedestrians. Calle Florida, typically overflowing with shoppers, street artists and arbolitos offering to purchase dollars for pesos, had been all but abandoned.
Closer to Avenida 9 de Julio, a wide avenue that bifurcates the city and features its most recognizable monument, El Obelisco de Buenos Aires, members of the Prefectura Naval Argentina strapped on their gear and prepared their automatic weapons, while the occasional helicopter whirred overhead. In front of a human wall of riot police, an officer casually explained to a small coterie of photographers and foreign tourists where they could cross.
At the intersection of avenidas Independencia and 9 de Julio, the protest was in full swing, a procession maybe half a mile long snaking toward the Palace of the Argentine National Congress. No sooner had I joined the march than a collection of demonstrators began singing, “Vamos a luchar por trabajo, vamos a luchar por salario” (“We’re going to fight for work, we’re going to fight for salary.”) Along one of the avenue’s dividers, another protester spray-painted what would later emerge as the march’s cri de coeur: “G20=MUERTE.”
Founded in 1999 and consisting of 19 nations plus the European Union, the Group of 20 has supplanted the G-8 as the world’s pre-eminent economic council, its ostensible aim to foster global financial stability. The organization’s members account for 85 percent of the world’s GDP along with two-thirds of its population. And while discussions tend to focus on trade deals and labor markets, heads of state and foreign ministers will raise any number of issues pressing to the international community. Topics of discussion this year included climate change, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait, to name but a few.
In the streets, the G-20 protests similarly contained multitudes. Two blocks’ worth of demonstrations produced placards decrying climate denialism, the Syrian civil war and virtually every member of the G-20. A single banner read “Fuera Trump-Abe-May-Macron-Merkel” (“Out with Trump-Abe-May-Macron-Merkel”); another simply “Fuera Putin, Sicario Del Imperialismo” (“Out with Putin, Assassin of Imperialism”). S., a woman in her mid-20s wearing rainbow-colored face paint and a matching flag draped across her shoulders, claimed that she was not protesting any single head of state but an entire politico-economic system. “Queremos otra cosa” (“We want something else”).
Argentines were not the only population that made their presence felt. Bearing red flags emblazoned with the portrait of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, a handful of Brazilians chanted “Lula Livre” (“Free Lula”)—a reference to the former president and popular Workers’ Party politician who has been incarcerated since his arrest in April of this year. Lula currently faces 12 years in prison on dubious money-laundering charges stemming from a larger corruption scandal known as “Operação Lava Jato“ (“Operation Car Wash”). More significantly, Brazil’s top electoral court barred him for running for president in the 2018 election, a decision that paved the way for the election of neofascist Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro, in turn, has appointed the judge who imprisoned da Silva as Brazil’s new justice minister.
Far more ubiquitous than Lula’s visage was that of Santiago Maldonado, an Argentine activist who went missing last August in the Patagonian province of Chubut. In 2017, less than two years after the stunning victory of right-wing presidential candidate Mauricio Macri, “Donde Está Santiago Maldonado?” (“Where is Santiago Maldonado?”) became a rallying cry for an Argentine civil society still scarred by the 30,000 disappearances under El Proceso de Reorganizacion—a military junta aided and abetted by the United States as part of a larger campaign of state-sponsored terror across South America, later known as Operation Condor.
The body was discovered months later at the bottom of the Chubut River, with no apparent signs of foul play. Last week, a federal judge closed the case’s investigation, declaring that Maldonado had drowned on his own, “sin que nadie lo notara” (“without anybody noticing.”). The victim’s family claims the judge was pressured politically. In the Friday edition of Pagina 12, one of the country’s leading left-leaning newspapers, the front-page headline read “La Segunda Muerte de Santiago Maldonado“ (“The Second Death of Santiago Maldonado”).
The news was not lost on the demonstrators, some of whom bore photocopied pictures of the 28-year-old native of Veinticinco de Mayo with the message “Fue el estado” (“It was the state.”) Across one of the barriers along Avenida de Mayo, behind which stood several rows of PNA officers with riot shields, someone had scrawled the words “Santiago Vive” (“Santiago Lives”) in bright purple letters.
Indeed, much of the protest’s ire was directed at the Macri administration and its neoliberal agenda. In September, Argentina secured a loan of $57 billion from the International Monetary Fund—the largest in the institution’s 74-year history and an infusion of capital the Cambiemos government hopes will offset a currency crisis and double-digit inflation. But as The Guardian reported in September, the loan comes with “stringent conditions” that include a commitment to zero deficit for 2019, the layoff of thousands of public servants and a freeze on national incomes through December of that year. “Estamos en crisis económica desde que subió esta administración” (“We’ve had an economic crisis since this administration took power”), observed M., a slender woman of 32 with a flannel shirt knotted around her waist. “Tenemos un gobierno para los ricos que excluye al pueblo por las fuerzas represivas” (“We have a government for the rich that excludes the people through repressive force.”)
Macri’s maneuverings have triggered fears of another great depression, the most recent of which (1998-2002) saw the economy shrink 28 percent, unemployment balloon and poverty explode. During that crisis, not only did the IMF refuse to accept a discount when Argentina defaulted on its debt, it actively enlisted private creditors, or vulture funds, who continue to prey on the country to this day. (Billionaire Paul Singer, one of the Republican Party’s most prominent donors, stands to earn an estimated 370 percent on his investment.)
“Estamos aca por los chicos” (“We’re here for the children”), offered W. behind a salt-and-pepper beard and a pair of sunglasses. W. was previously employed at Hospital Italiano before a round of layoffs left him unemployed shortly after Macri took office. Nodding in the direction of the PNA, he added: “Es una guerra esto” (“This is a war.”)
If it is, then one side is winning. Despite their disparate targets, Friday’s protests shared the same root cause: a global capitalist system that has not only run roughshod over the region through its brutal austerity measures and attendant authoritarianism, but now threatens human life on earth. And to their credit, the demonstrators understood this implicitly, even as they articulated their individual reasons for marching.
“Estamos protestando en contra a todos que representan al imperialismo” (“We’re protesting all of those who represent imperialism”), observed L., a man of 36 sporting a T-shirt with a portrait of Friedrich Engels and the words “socialism or barbarism” emblazoned across its chest. “También en contra de un modelo ultra neoliberal que produce condiciones que son cada vez peores” (“Also against an ultra-neoliberal model that produces conditions that are getting worse.”)
In front of the Congreso Nacional, the demonstration began to fracture as protesters collected in a nearby park while others marched on along Calle Solís. The sun was setting, and between blasts of a bullhorn you could hear the steady squawk of the cotorras diving across the plaza. A small crowd had swelled on Avenida Entre Rios. At its center stood a fragile woman no more than 5 feet tall, her gray hair held in place by a white silk scarf. Around her neck, she wore a laminated photograph featuring a young man in a bright green shirt, a name and date written above it: “Carlos Gustavo Cortiñas, 25 De Abril De 1977.”
That year, Nora Morales de Cortiñas co-founded Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a human rights organization that became a worldwide phenomenon after drawing attention to the abuses of the Argentine dictatorship. Her son Carlos had disappeared while working at INDEC (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos). Cortiñas, now 88, barely spoke above a whisper, and she required as many as three people to help keep her upright. Her words were indecipherable over the din of the crowd, but I learned she had separately told Radionauta the following: “En el G-20, se cocina el saqueo de nuestros pueblos” (“In the G-20, they are preparing the looting of our people.”)
After a few minutes, she straightened her back and ambled forward, the masses parting as she passed.