Déjà vu--I was on the road to the city of Rosario, where I went last Tuesday for the closing rally of Alliance presidential candidate Fernando De la Rúa. Tonight, the Peronist candidate Eduardo Duhalde would hold his final rally.
There is no law in Argentina that closing rallies have to be held in Rosario; it was a coincidence that both main parties chose that city. There is a law, however, that campaigning has to stop a few days before the election. Argentines are meant to vote in a calm, sober atmosphere. Very civilized, that. Still, there can be too much of a good thing. For the next couple of days, one cannot even buy booze. Liquor stores did brisk business today as people stocked up for the weekend.
The Duhalde press bus turned out to be a minivan for the eight stubborn reporters who could not be persuaded to make alternative arrangements. As I mentioned yesterday, Peronists hate the press.
We arrived in Rosario to discover that the press tent ... ah, there was no press tent. Those journalists who needed to file stories (and you'd be surprised by how many of us planned to do just that) were allowed to use an office in a provincial government building, two miles from the scene of the rally.
In the late afternoon, I sat with the other reporters in a café, watching the gathering crowd. There is a striking class difference between Peronist and Alliance activists. Whereas the middle class drives the Alliance, organized labor forms the core of Peronism. Groups of beefy, red-faced workers marched toward the rally under union banners. From the sidelines, union organizers were barking orders into cell phones.
I interviewed one union leader who assured me that "Duhalde is perfectly positioned to win." If that is the case, then I really, really feel sorry for those who are positioned to lose. According to the latest polls, Duhalde is trailing De la Rúa by 17 percent. Not long after the interview, a voice came over the loudspeaker chanting, "The polls don't matter, the polls don't matter."
The founder of this labor movement, Juan Perón, was a soldier, not a worker. Indeed, Perón's contribution to Latin American politics was to combine the power of the military with organized labor--two great tastes, as it were, that go great together. Although the armed forces long ago split off from Peronism, the party maintains the military tradition of always keeping the troops busy. Party leaders were constantly putting the crowd through drills:
"Everybody lower your banners!"
"Raise your banners!"
"Lower all banners, except for Argentine flags!"
The speeches began shortly before 10 p.m. First came vice-presidential candidate Ramón Ortega, a former teen idol singer known by his nickname, "Little Stick." Once again, globalization was the most emotional issue, particularly IMF-imposed austerity measures. "We don't want conditions from anyone," cried Little Stick, "because the Argentine People are sovereign!"
Duhalde followed up on the same theme, declaring that globalization has favored "concentrated capital" and victimized "the little guy, the workers." He also went on for a long time about small business, which has become the surprise hit issue of the campaign. The main candidates are falling over each other to offer goodies to small businesses: tax cuts, tax forgiveness, refinancing debts, special institutes, and promotional campaigns. Having just switched careers to journalism, I now found myself thinking of opening a little kiosk in Buenos Aires and letting the good times roll!
But I had a story to file, and it was already well past deadline. There was no chance of finding my way back to the press office, so I went to the café to dictate my story from a pay phone. A crowd of impatient, would-be telephone users gathered around me as I flipped through my notes, composing the piece as I went along. When I finally hung up, the others let out a cheer.
With a sense of anticlimax, I thought, That was not just the last event of the campaign but also my last news story before I go back to the United States. After 14 months, I still have much to learn about Argentina. Covering the election campaign has, at least, helped me to understand a country that alternately reaches out to the world and shrinks back from the dangers of globalization; a country that is haunted by messianic political figures, but is about to elect a bland, scholarly lawyer as president.
I suddenly realized that two of the people from the telephone crowd were staring at me. They asked where I was from. One of them wanted to practice his English.
"Hey, New York," he said, grinning from ear to ear, "Fuck you."
Believe it or not, I am really going to miss Argentina.