Mar del Plata, known to Argentines as "La Ciudad Feliz" (The Happy City), became an unhappy place last week. The middle class resort of choice for roughly a century hosted a summit conference on trade and a popular stadium rally to decry the globalization of greed for the few and poverty for the many. The metropolis also became the site for the overshadowing violent acts of a few who seem unconnected to either peaceful assembly.
Who were these rowdies and why were they there?
My Argentine sources tell me this is part and parcel of what has been going on for several years at least. The party or candidate most likely to benefit from the appearance of disorder hires a bunch of thugs to go smash things while political events are going on. Citizens engaged in the peaceful expression of grievances get branded as "violent," when in fact the violence comes from the established order.
The French is not incidental. The use of agents paid to provoke violence, to "force" the hand of the law to come down with its full complement of counterviolence, was first documented in the 19th century uprisings in France, in which the government sent spies to falsely radicalize action and create an excuse for repression.
If Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, it is because Argentina has long been influenced by the styles of France, in politics as in fashion. Peronists, in particular, with a history leading back to the radical right of the 1930s, have always employed thugs; and their example has been emulated by other segments of the political spectrum.
In this case, however, the Peronists had nothing to gain. President Kirchner, a left-of-center Peronist, was not impressed with the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (Nor are his colleagues in Brazil, Uruguay or Venezuela, to name a few.) A peaceful protest was enough to provide the symbolic popular sentiment against FTAA to justify his opposition.
Someone else stood to gain from violent disruptions.
A U.S. president who knows nothing about policy, except what his svengalis whisper to him, had sat in on the deliberations of 33 heads of state looking bored and annoyed that everyone was not praising and applauding him. The FTAA, his proposal, fell so flat that it failed resoundingly, despite diplomatic efforts to paper over that fact. Indeed, the conference was such a disaster that President Bush hastily and rudely departed before the summit had ended.
How difficult can it have been for the CIA chief of station in Buenos Aires to make a few calls and get a truckload of rowdies in the streets of Mar del Plata?
What a convenient smokescreen for yet another Bush foreign policy failure! The violence created at last the pretext for repression. A city that was already under siege (schools were closed and half the city was walled off from the summit proceedings) witnessed a violent police response and the predictable deaths.
The violence, not the lawful protest nor the trade summit failure, became the leading item in the news cycle. The 30-second attention span of the public was distracted from the truth. No one will ever know.