Monday, February 21, 2011

Living at 33 rpm

Lazybones that I always was, I cursed my luck when the city bus on which I was on was suddenly diverted from its familiar route barely two blocks before my stop. Then, as the bus actually made its 90-degree turn, I caught sight of a long line of tanks heading downtown. That night the government was overthrown.

This is a true experience of mine in Buenos Aires many years ago when, as a teenager coming home from school, I first came face to face to with the everyday details of a government overthrow. The events of Egypt and its region bring it to mind.

Back then, some people joked that Argentina's politics were like a long-play record because it had 33 revolutions per minute.*

They weren't real revolutions; no systemic change was ever brought about by these events. They didn't occur quite as frequently in Argentina as elsewhere (at the time Bolivia held the frequency record, with more revoluciones than years of independence). They were not spontaneous, popular overthrow, as in Egypt.

Yet they bore a number of similarities. There were war vehicles in the streets and soldiers in fatigues. People liked them or didn't like them, but life temporarily stopped.

Schools closed. Many places of work closed. Groceries were available but in short supply because deliveries halted. For an average person, it was a time of uncertainty.

In the Latin American pronunciamiento (pronouncement) ballet, some generals sided with the president, some with the rebels. Both sides seized radios and began to broadcast communiques.

Who was really winning? Were the two sides going to shoot at one another? Was it safe to be on the streets at night? Would they -- the "they" who were at the moment in charge, whoever they were -- turn off electricity or shut off the water supply? Who knew!

When students and workers took to the streets against the army a few years later, there were sharpshooters. From both sides. Anyone could get hit by a stray bullet.

This is what I imagine life was recently like in Tunisia and Egypt and is still much that way elsewhere in the Arabic World.

More to the point of the moment, in countries where revolt has succeeded in toppling a ruler, there's still that terrible, terrible uncertainty of not knowing what comes next. As the Hungarians joked in the 1990s: What's worse than Communism? Post-Communism.

Toppling is always the easy part. Putting something better in its place ... that's tough. Many average people in those countries are now wondering what comes next.

* The joke made more sense in the 20th century, before cassettes or CDs, when the LP -- a vinyl record roughly comparable to the contemporary commercial music CD today -- replaced the single, which usually spun at a speed of 45 rpms on the turntable (see for details).

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