"Our chance to show ourselves to the world" declares the official posters that beam out from big city billboards, but they are outnumbered by grafitti on pavement slabs, lamp-posts and even posters in many shops: "Get out, Bush! No to ALCA!"
It’s hard to believe that any city tourist agencies can believe that a big international summit promoting free trade, with invitations for the ever-popular Mr Bush, will project a good image of their city to the world. Seattle, Genoa, Cancun, Prague have all tried that route and ended up with masked men lobbing bricks as the image of their cities on the front pages.
And sure enough this morning, there were pictures of burnt-out banks and McDonalds on all the papers and TV screens. It’s difficult to imagine people in their armchairs at home watching telly and saying "Look, dear, this Mar de Plata looks a nice place, how about going there for our next hols?"
Clearly the residents of Mar de Plata didn’t believe it, because instead of showing themselves to the world they boarded up their shops and houses and disappeared. "Welcome to the city of ghosts" as one brave taxi-driver commented. A bustling sea-side resort has been turned into a city with one shop open on every street, vast empty boulevards shivering in the cold sea-air, and one restaurant in our barrio which is making millions serving terrible food to all the alternative-globalisation activists who have descended on the town.
My compañera found a cockroach in her food, but we still ended up going back for the next meal. Yes, it’s unlikely even activists will come back here if they can help it….
I have spent the week in Mar de Plata, Argentina with a Bolivian delegation from the Movement against TLC and ALCA. Because we weren’t invited to meet the 34 North and South American Presidents meeting at the Cumbre de las Americas, we headed to the Cumbre de los Pueblos (Summit of the Peoples). I am not sure we would have been able to sell as many radical T-shirts of Bolivian political art at the official Cumbre.
Maybe it was all a CIA plot, but the trip seemed to conspire against us from the start. First a compañera from Tarija was hit by a bus in Cochabamba before we even set off, we got to Buenos Aires minus someone’s luggage, someone had their wallet stolen, and then as we set off on the first morning three compañeros were arrested.
Very bizarrely a man walked into the money exchange place we were in, together with two policemen, pointed at three of the group and said: "They are the three who swindled me more than three years ago." More ridiculous than his accusation, was the fact that the police believed him. So we spent the first day running between lawyers, human rights activists and the police station to get them released. They were released due to "lack of evidence." Really? You do surprise me…
My feeling was that it was a racist-charged slur. I was the only person to not be asked for my identity card. A few million Bolivians have emigrated to Argentina (I have heard that Buenos Aires is the third largest Bolivian city in the world), and are often blamed for robberies or accused of taking people’s jobs. Echoes of the Daily Mail back in the UK.
Amongst the left here, Bolivians seemed to be viewed with a mixture of admiration ("that plucky Andean nation resisting globalisation") or with annoying exoticisation of Bolivian indigenous culture. Benedicta, one of the few in our group, who wore traditional altiplano dress, had to spend most of her time dodging well-meaning (but definitely patronising) activists thrusting cameras in her face and asking her questions about her bowler hat. Marta, a pretty Guarani lass who carried her wiphala (indigenous flag) and spent her time fruitlessly looking for yucca, will probably end up on the front pages of most Argentinean activist magazines for some time.
Many Argentineans are said to pride themselves on being the "Europe" of South America. Certainly parts of Mar de Plata and Buenos Aires remind me of cities like Madrid, and the activists here all wear the uniform of activists from London (baggy trousers, dreads, over-stripey jumpers, and Che Guevara tattoos). But it also feels culturally miles from the Latin America I have got to know in my time in Bolivia. The indigenous culture and peoples here were almost entirely wiped out, and despite its location in South America, it’s more like London than La Paz. In fact it is often hard to imagine that Bolivia lies just north of the border.
The two worlds were briefly combined politically and rather bizarrely, when Evo Morales, a Bolivian indigenous leader and leading candidate for President joined world-famous footballer, Diego Maradona on a train from Buenos Aires to lead the march against Bush. Maradona didn’t seem to have much to say when asked why he was coming. It reminded me slightly of when British model Naomi Campbell decided to support the Drop the Debt campaign. Celebrities finding they can’t fill the gap further than their egos framed in an photo. But I doubt it harmed Morales’ election prospects.
As for the summit of the peoples, there were some good workshops and as ever it was good to meet activists from different countries doing inspiring stuff to challenge corporate-dominated economic policies of greed. I came to help promote a campaign to get "water out of free trade agreements" which got resounding support and prompted an intelligent debate on how to take the campaign forward. The policies of water and free trade hit a nerve here, so I think the campaign will really take off.
There was also an impressive and largely-peaceful march of tens of thousands against Bush and the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (ALCA in Spanish). Whilst US hasn’t chosen to invade Latin American countries recently, the free trade agreement is seen by many as his main tool for extending US dominance and influence which has been a reality for Latin Americans since their Northern neighbour rose to be a superpower in the 19th Century.
But I think I must have reached some activist-gathering saturation point. If I see one more left-wing newspaper seller trying to sell me something I don’t even want for free, one more Che Guevara T-shirt or banner (surely it’s time for a bit more imagination on iconography), one more person saying "this workshop on water policies in Costa Rica is all very well, but we need a socialist revolution of the working class", on
e more person making a 2 hour speech continually repeating themselves when they have been endlessly asked to make "brief comments or questions from the floor," then I think I will have to join those smashing up banks just to have a bit of variety and exercise in my life.