Imagine closing a city of 13 million people for one day only. It couldn’t happen, right? Impossible?
On Wednesday October 27th, Buenos Aires managed to pull it off. It was the day of the National Census, which meant everyone was obliged to stay in their houses until a census employee had been round to their homes. To reduce temptation (and to keep workers at home), nothing was allowed to open. No shops, no supermarkets, no bars, no restaurants. Nada. Even the petrol stations were only allowed to serve emergency vehicles.
Knowing that those who didn’t adhere to the rules would be fined, most people were at home, just beginning to stir, when the news broke.
One friend said it was the census man that told him. Right in the middle of the Q&A session, the interviewer received a text from his girlfriend, saying simply: “Nestor’s dead”.
“Nestor? But I don’t know Nestor,” he puzzled aloud. “Oh except for, well, except for Nestor.” And thus they both found out together.
It was, indeed, Nestor Kirchner, the more dominant half of the country’s political power couple, collectively known as “Los K”. He was the ex-president, leader of the Peronist party and possible next president; she – Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner – was the current president. The two had the potential to ping-pong leadership up until 2020.
His sudden departure – following heart attack – marked the end of the dynasty. It was huge, huge news: politically and emotionally (because politics here is a very emotive issue).
But what an odd day for it to happen. As I made my way down to a news agency I had been working for, the streets were almost empty. I heard a voice through some closed shutters saying, “Se murio Kirchner. Te juro” (“Kirchner’s died, I swear to you”). He’d had some serious heart troubles in recent times, but no one could believe that such an indomitable figure was suddenly gone.
Sitting on the bus, I found none of the usual tailbacks. No road works. No honking horns. At some points the always busy thorough-way of Santa Fe lay empty before me. I disembarked and crossed an eight-lane road without waiting for the lights.
I have never known anything like it. In the UK, the census is very much a non-event. You get a form, you fill it in, you post it. Although this does leave us open to people not taking it very seriously. In 2001, nearly 400,000 people in the UK marked that their religion was ‘Jedi’.
Apparently next year’s UK census could be the last. They is so much information out there about us now, they just don’t need to go through the rigmarole of a formal survey. They could probably get all they need from CCTV footage and Tesco ClubCards, and track our haircuts and taste in breakfast cereal while they’re at it.
Back in BA, Census Day 2010 was a weighty one. President Cristina announced three days of national mourning. People waited at home to be counted and then they were free to go to Plaza de Mayo, outside the Casa Rosada (Government House) to mourn, show support or appease curiosity. Thousands did.
There are demonstrations almost every day of the week in Plaza de Mayo, but this was an historic one. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo were among those waving flags, coming to thank Kirchner for being the first president who really helped them seek justice for their relatives who ‘disappeared’ in the country’s military dictatorship.
As I walked to the Plaza later that evening, I couldn’t believe how quickly Kirchner’s supporters had acted. Billboards all across town had already been plastered with posters reading ‘Nestor for ever! Be strong Cristina!’. They featured the two locked in an embrace. On the roads approaching the plaza, graffiti bearing the same message was still wet.
It’s worth noting, however, that not every Argentine wanted to got to the Plaza. Kirchner had his critics too. Lots of them. And many Argentines found the reaction of those crying in the plaza (a minority, but of course the ones that made the best news footage) as intense as I did.
Everyone, however, had an opinion. When I checked my Facebook feed later that night, the way Kirchner had come to polarise the nation was instantly evident. Some friends had turned their pictures to black ribbons; some who opposed Kirchner still managed to leave respectful messages; some couldn’t help but to make a snide comment and were quickly reprimanded by others. I saw full-scale rows developing between Facebook friends.
Everything happened so fast. Kirchner died in Patagonia, he was flown back to BA for a 24hr wake, and then he was flown back to Patagonia again for burial: all in two days. In the meantime, Cristina was constantly in the public eye as the crowds (and Latin American leaders) flocked around her.
This is the first chance I’ve had to sit and write it all down. I mainly wanted to do so as a record for myself, as it was certainly one of the most unusual couple of days I have spent here.