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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Civil Unrest in Argentina

Last Friday, thousands of anti-free trade demonstrators became an unruly mob and took to the streets of Argentina, burning banks and McDonald's restaurants, throwing Molotov cocktails at police, and thus creating general havoc and disarray. Only a few blocks from the mass of protesters was the fourth Summit of the Americas, where leaders of 34 nations, including President Bush, met to discuss the most important and critical issues in the Western Hemisphere. President Bush and the State Department were warned by the Secret Service -- whose advance team had arrived in Mar del Plata, Argentina, days before the summit to evaluate the security situation -- that such protests were not only inevitable, but also that the Argentine government was wholly unprepared for such escalations. The President and State decided to proceed with the trip.

It is important to gain a broader perspective of the situation and what the accompanying implications are for U.S. policy. In Spanish, there is a term to describe the unruly mob situation which unfolded last Friday. The term "bogotazo" was originally used to describe the chaos which unfolded in Bogota, Colombia, in April 1948. The city descended into mob-rule for two entire days after the assassination of Liberal Party chief Jorge Gaitan during the Pan-American Conference, which US Secretary of State George C. Marshall attended.

Among the "protesters" who took to the streets that day and helped to engineer the anarchy, which became an overriding distraction for the conference, were the youthful Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. The chief impetus for the mob scene that developed was not solely attributable to the dissatisfaction of the protestors because of the assassination of Gaitan. The entire demonstration, in fact, was an attempt by rebels like Castro and Guevara to disrupt the conference and bring down the host government.

Needless to say, the ordeal of Bogota in 1948 was not only dangerous for the US officials who attended the Bogota conference in order to found the regional organization of the Western hemisphere, the Organization of American States. It also generated negative publicity for the whole idea of a regional organization led by the United States at the beginning of our Cold War with communist expansionism.

Still, the conference succeeded in drafting the important Charter of the Organization of American States, which counts among its many goals a strengthening of peace and stability among the states in the Western Hemisphere.

It is less clear that the 2005 conference at Mar del Plata was either necessary or successful. It is not reassuring that no one in the State Department could foresee the obvious: that a visit by an American president to a country headed by the Peronista (that is, a populist, nationalist and anti-American) President Kirchner would mean trouble. Kirchner shares much of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez's hostility towards the United States.

Trouble in the streets should also have been foreseen. Why? Because the Argentine host government had actually agreed to permit Chavez to address an anti-American mass demonstration during the conference. In other words, the Argentines in effect sponsored an attack on the very conference of which they were hosts.

The danger to the President and to American prestige did not only stem from the fact that Chavez, Kirchner, and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva apparently were determined to prevent agreement on the US's policy in favor of a regional free trade agreement. The threat also arose because of the agreement of the host government to permit Chavez to address, outside the conference hall, a mob of anti-American radicals assembled for the sole purpose of attacking and humiliating the United States, and perhaps triggering a mini-bogotazo. Hugo Chavez conducted a two-hour, Argentine-condoned, anti-American harangue before thousands of protesters at a soccer arena just miles from the summit, generating widespread media coverage. The exodus from the arena created the perfect opportunity for extremists in attendance to take to the streets and begin burning entire city blocks, endangering not only the continuation of the Conference but also the lives of the leaders in attendance.

Argentines interested in knowing who was responsible for the violence, destruction and looting in their country should feel free to direct their concerns to the Argentine government that was so obviously complicit in the fun and games.

There is a lesson to be drawn from these events: No matter who the U.S. president is at the time, history has shown that these summits and conferences in Latin America almost always break down into well-organized riots instigated by the usual suspects -- politicians and groups devoted to the proposition that the United States ("the Colossus of the North"), and never their own governments or failed policies, is responsible for whatever ails them from moment to moment.

The "Mar del Plata Bogotazo" is only the most recent example of the civil unrest which occurs at these hemispheric conferences held in Latin America. Perhaps State Department officials should begin to reconsider the merits of "summitry" in this part of the world. Not only is it dangerous for an American president and other officials, but it also undoubtedly casts a political shadow on the conference's goals as well as on the President and the United States.

Even worse, by imprudently venturing into areas of such inevitable turmoil, we create ideal circumstances for the voices of spontaneous civil unrest to take the main stage. Why should the US willingly provide people like Castro and Chavez with such perfect opportunities to spread their message of violence and anti-Americanism? Mar del Plata was supposed to be the site of a conference aimed at strengthening the bonds of unity and stability in the region. Instead, we allowed it to become an opportunity for anarchists to take to the streets and destabilizing malcontents like Hugo Chavez to spur instability and violence.