Argentina set its alarm clock later than usual due to a one-off holiday allowing a national census to be conducted — but woke up to the news that the President’s husband Néstor Kirchner had died of a heart attack in Santa Cruz province at 9.15am.
The streets of Buenos Aires were quiet while everyone anxiously waited for the doorbell to ring and get their 40 questions done and dusted. It was only then that many could get on with paying respects.
The obvious place to express condolences to Néstor Kirchner — who besides being “first gentleman” to wife Cristina served his own four-year term as president from 2003-2007 — was at Plaza de Mayo and Government House.
However, one of the first public gatherings to support the presidency was held by the CGT umbrella union. Hundreds of members gathered mid-afternoon at its Azopardo street headquarters to hear secretary-general Hugo Moyano, a close ally of the Kirchners, speak. Ahead of Moyano’s speech, the mood was solemn with members sporting a rainbow of union jackets while licking ice creams in the afternoon rays, patiently awaiting their leader’s direction. But death was the reason for the meeting, and at the front of everyone’s minds.
Walter, from the toll workers’ union, told the Herald: “It’s sad that our friend Néstor Kirchner passed away like this, and so we are here as part of the workers’ union to show our support for our President. I regret that it happened so quickly, so that’s why I feel so upset.”
Moyano also called for support for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, adding: “No one can ever erase Perón and Eva Perón from our minds. Workers will never forget the person who gave them dignity, that is why we will also keep Néstor Kirchner in our minds because he recovered part of the workers’ dignity.”
Preparing for thousands of mourners, Balcarce and Alsina streets just one block away from Government House were cordoned off, but that didn’t stop a group of youths from battering a ball behind the AFIP tax office building. With no real attempt made at wearing mourning colours, young families, pensioners, teenage couples and confused tourists blended together around the Pirámide de Mayo, claiming for a day the space silently circled by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group on a weekly basis.
Politicians including Labour Minister Carlos Tomada, Defence Minister Nilda Garré and Senator Daniel Filmus mingled with mourners later yesterday evening.
PEN TO PAPER
A different circle was appearing on the ground, however, a slew of messages stuck together. A couple had brought plain white sheets and sellotape and were encouraging mourners to contribute. While one elder lady wailed, unable to put pen to paper, others wrote: “Thank you, friend of the Argentine people” and “Néstor, Venezuela will always remember you.”
While half of Plaza de Mayo had been blocked off, preparations were getting under way by 4pm as security men in dark glasses ordered federal police officers to shift barriers to allow a more orderly mourning procession to begin.
Some people had already started paying their respects by leaving bunches of jasmines, lilies, Argentine flags and notes at the gates closest to Government House — some single men were carrying single red roses — but the emotion, combined with the pounding sun, was too much for one mother. Walking away from the gates, sobbing, holding her son’s hand, and one of few mourners dressed in all black, she suddenly collapsed at 4.30pm, in front of a barrage of photographers, several policemen and to the sounds of bellowing, supporting chants from behind the railings.
Mother and daughter Sandra and Nieves were also in tears as they absorbed all the paraphernalia, which included tributes to Eva Perón and “Che” Guevara. Travelling from Núñez, not an easy journey on a national holiday, Sandra explained the reason why she and her mother made the trip to the Herald. “It’s a way of showing our affection and our thanks for everything that he did for us. He’s helped children, pensioners, and had a lot of courage to make changes to things that have been wrong for a very long time in our country. He also gave us a lot of stability after the crisis when he became president in 2003.
“I couldn’t believe the news this morning. And I still can’t,” Sandra added.
ONE BY ONE
Once security measures had been approved, small groups of people solemnly strolled towards the gates of Government House. Their grief was orderly.
Cubans, Brazilians and Venezuelans mingled with saddened Argentines, unable to take in the news, but busy absorbing and touching the assortment of messages pinned to the railings, nodding approval.
While couples hugged and tears flowed silently, the wrench of sticky tape leaving its roll was the only sound to break up the mourning process as more flowers and notes made their way onto the gates.
Although there were a few outbursts of disbelief, mourners’ dismay never once got out of hand.
One young mother, green eyes welling with tears, said: “We’ve come from Berazategui because I’m just so upset by this.”
Her husband, putting the finishing touches to a flag on which he had written “be strong, Cristina”, added: “I think people want to support Cristina and want her to carry on and not give up. We’ve travelled from quite far away but that doesn’t matter. Néstor was a great man, and that’s how I will remember him.”
One middle-aged woman talked about how Néstor Kirchner’s death might not just affect Argentina but the region as a whole.
She told the Herald: “We Argentines need to be united now, as do Latin Americans, so that this blow isn’t felt deeply in the heart of the continent. Someone could try to take advantage of this situation and generate a coup like in Honduras or in Ecuador, so we need to be united with our President and our Latin American siblings more than ever.”
While the tears and comforting messages continued to flow, of particular poignancy was the solitary bicentenary emblem on the front door of Government House, the light-blue, yellow and white circular logo which has covered Buenos Aires since May 25, lightly waving in the breeze on its own.
Former president Néstor Kirchner, only hours before his death, was reportedly on the phone from El Calafate with CGT boss Hugo Moyano. Kirchner was reportedly mediating in a crisis in the Buenos Aires province branch of the Peronist party headed by a group of Peronist mayors who are refusing to accept the union boss as party leader of the district.
First published in Buenos Aires Herald on OCtober 28, 2010