The scene at Plaza de Mayo

Last Wednesday, a day that was supposed to be a relaxing do-nothing day since the entire city shut down for the 2010 National Census ended up being anything but that.   Néstor Kurchner, the husband of the current president and a former president himself during 2003-2007, passed away from a heart attack.  I woke up at noon, having overslept the census brigade who came by, and when I heard the news I didn’t quite know what to expect in terms of how big a deal it would be to the country.   It also seemed like such a coincidence, his death on a day the entire nation was at home with nothing better to do than watch TV all day.  After a few hours watching the news and seeing people hysterically crying, at times unable to talk, it was finally time to leave the house for a walk.  The whole city felt gloomy despite the sunny day it turned out to be.  By early evening, I found myself at the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada (the equivalent of the White House), unable to resist a visit to this historic plaza to witness Argentina mourn the loss of, what I was slowly coming to realize, a very important former leader.

The experience at the plaza was chill inducing.  Before we even could get close we saw hundreds of people in the streets with flowers, Argentine flags, hand-written signs heading in the same direction.  The mood was solemn and calm in what could have normally been a chaotic scene given the size and intensity of the crowds.  I saw groups of people walking the streets with different flags – some that read “Hijos,” “Movimiento Evita.” Each group represents what is known in Spanish as a “militante” or distinct political group, though is not how we would think of the word in that they are not necessarily violent.  It was so moving to see so many people passionate people out to show their support, to realize how different politics are in Latin American countries.  It made me wonder how a similarly respected former president back home might be mourned.

The most amazing moment of the night was when the white bonnets appeared, “las madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” and everyone erupted into applause.  They are the mothers and grandmothers whose children were kidnapped and killed during Argentina’s military dictatorship who meet in front of the Casa Rosada every Thursday to protest the government’s failure to unite them with their missing children.   The late Kirchner put forth efforts to find the missing and for that he gained the respect of this important political rights group.

The signs I saw plastered all over the city the next morning

What surprised me most was the level of universal respect it seems so many Argentines have for Néstor Kirchner. Also that in a place where there is so much cynicism for the government and so much corruption and complete failure of the government to serve its people, that a well respected president exists.  The public outpouring I saw makes me think that perhaps the stereotype that Latins are a passionate people is often true.  Kirchner oversaw Argentina’s recovery from the 2001-2002 economic crisis and is credited for having fought against poverty and unemployment.    The very next day on my way to work I saw that all the billboards in the street had been plastered by signs that read “fuerza Cristina” with a picture of the president with her late husband.  Many people believe that Cristina has been heavily influenced by her husband, so it will be interesting to see how things move forward.