Drew Reed was on the ground watching Argentina’s bicentennial celebrations in Tucumán this weekend. He shares his observations of the event.
Argentina loves a party, and last weekend, it had the perfect excuse for one. 9th July marked Argentina’s 200th independence day, and cities across the country celebrated with historic ceremonies, traditional folklore bands, gauchos decked out in traditional outfits, and plenty of empanadas and locro. The rest of the world took note of the day as well: the colours of the Argentine flag were projected onto the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum in Rome, and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.
This time, the epicentre of the festivities was not Buenos Aires, the traditional focal point of country-wide celebrations, but Tucumán, in the country’s more rugged north-west. In the same city where 200 years ago the country’s own founding fathers gathered to affirm the country’s independence from the Spanish Crown, politicians from across the country – governors, high-ranking functionaries, and the president, Mauricio Macri – gathered to reaffirm that independence, cheered on by patriotic Argentines who had descended on the city from across the country to witness the event. We were there for the festivities, and here are a few things we learned:
Tucumán is usually a sleepy city, with little to pull in tourists other than its historic landmarks. But once every 200 years or so, its status as ground zero for Argentine independence unleashes a wave of visitors from around the country. And a city whose hospitality sector is normally equipped for a slow trickle of visitors suddenly finds itself dealing with a tsunami.
Hotels were booked solid weeks, sometimes months in advance, as were flights and long distance buses. A representative I spoke with from the Tucumán’s tourist department trying to book a hotel told me, “we’ve never seen anything like this before.”
On the night of 9th July, visitors packed the city’s central Plaza de Independencia. Lines of hungry visitors formed outside restaurants near the historic ‘House of Independence’ to the city’s open-air shopping centre. At midnight, during the fireworks display, a barrage of mobile phone users frantically snapping selfies made network connections virtually impossible.
But this didn’t stop hearty Argentine visitors from enjoying traditional folklore bands, women decked out in colonial garb handing out escarapelas (Argentine flag pins), and visitors shouting out “Viva la Patria!” as they walked down the streets of Tucumán. And the city’s civic leaders can take heart that their city’s event wasn’t nearly as disastrous as the olympics in Rio is shaping up to be.
The ceremony on the morning of the 9th July began with a quick flag-raising ceremony, immediately followed by a lengthy mass at Tucumán’s central cathedral given by Archbishop Alberto Zecca, attended by Macri and other high-ranking government officials. The event underscored the quiet yet intimate relationship between the Catholic Church and Argentina’s government, where official separations between church and state are few and far between. Especially under Macri, who recently took part in a church-sponsored event in which he urged the country to “pray to end corruption” and spoke against abortion. Even Pope Francis, famously at odds with Macri, sent a letter for the event, which was read out.
In the seven months that have passed since Macri took office, political observers have referred increasingly to “la grieta” (the crack): the political polarisation in the country between fervent supporters of Macri’s predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and those with a more favorable view of Macri himself.
Kirchnerists were few and far between at the event, preferring to steam about it on twitter. The hashtag #lapatrianosevende, “the homeland is not for sale”, was popular among Kirchner’s supporters the day of the event, thanks in no small part to the presence of the former king of Spain, Juan Carlos de Borbón (and Macri’s deference to him). Alicia Kirchner, governor of the Santa Cruz province and sister-in-law of Fernández de Kirchner, was notably absent.
But this hardly registered with the crowd cheering outside, watching Macri on a big screen (security kept them from getting too close). Shouts of “si se puede” – the now ubiquitous campaign chant – rang out as he left the cathedral, and when Alicia Kirchner’s surrogate, vice governor Pablo Gonzales, signed the document prepared for the event, muffled boos were heard from the crowd.
During Fernandez de Kirchner’s administration, her supporters were frequently smeared by detractors as being lured in by the promise of free choripan – a bare-bones, alarmingly greasy sausage sandwich. But that doesn’t mean that free food has disappeared from Argentina’s political life during the Macri era – at least if this rally is any indication.
Macri’s speech was somewhat lacking in fresh material – it read like a typical stump speech from his campaign, tempered with a few acknowledgements of the effects of his policies, and a few jabs at unions and references to the popular Argentine card game “truco” thrown in for good measure.
About halfway through the speech, a team of workers made their way through the crowd, handing out trays of budín: a sweet, bread-shaped cake. These yummy treats had the already friendly crowd pumped up by the time Macri closed out his speech with a call of “Viva la patria!”
The bicentennial parade, held in the late afternoon on the west side of the city, featured a mixture of military officers, gauchos, and folklore dancers, marching and dancing to music by a brass band playing a mixture of military marches and upbeat renditions of ‘La Luna Tucumana’. The crowd was taken by some of the groups in the parade, such as all-female military units, firefighters, and dancers who interspersed their routines with handing out free empanadas to the crowd.
Nevertheless, many attendees were more enthralled by high-tech gadgets than by anyone marching in the parade. Before the festivities began, one participant hung a flag from a drone, launching the drone high above the crowd to oohs and aahs from onlookers. When the parade kicked off, vendors selling selfie sticks combed through the crowds, eagerly snapped up by onlookers wishing to snap photos of themselves in front of the parade. A far cry from what Manuel Belgrano and the other founders of Argentina envisioned when the signed the country’s declaration of independence two centuries ago.
Drew Reed is a freelance writer and translator living in Buenos Aires, focusing on urban issues and life in Argentina. Follow him on Twitter: @the_drewreed