Argentines in their thousands have been descending on downtown Buenos Aires since Wednesday, which was revisiting the Bicentenary spirit last seen in May when well over a million people marked Argentina’s 200 years with a massive celebration thrown by the national government.
Unusual, given that these thousands are mourners who have headed to the capital’s focal point, Plaza de Mayo and Government House, to pay their final respects at the wake of former president Néstor Kirchner, and husband to Argentina’s current president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who died of a heart attack on Wednesday morning.
Visitors that first day were solemn and respectful as the sudden news started shuddering its way into reality. But yesterday was the time to bring out what you’ve got because “we’ve got to stand by our President,” Nicolás, a father and government worker from Avellaneda told the Herald.
“Get your Kirchner flag” catcalled street sellers, while florists intricately wound up bouquets on every other corner, discarded flower heads strewn carelessly about their temporary workplace. The mood was more carefree, there was a faster pace to everyone’s walk, the patient, dignified ambling of Wednesday long gone. With only 24 hours to pay respects at Government House, people were on a mission.
With main roads such as Diagonal Norte and Avenida de Mayo completely shut off, the city felt like it had been reclaimed by its people, as if it was May 25, national day, all over again. Car-free, with chanting, banner-baring crowds down on the square replacing the usual relentless noise of traffic and obnoxious horn honking, the mourners had upped the ante and morphed into well-wishers. Out in large groups, a queue heading west up Rivadavia Avenue was preparing to snake its way back down into the square, aiming to finally reach the wake inside Government House which began at 10am yesterday morning.
Then, a crush of people. Frustrations emerge, bodies pressed together, Avenida de Mayo is worse than a rush-hour train. “You can’t go past me,” says one woman haughtily, facing Government House. “I’m standing here.”
An unusual form of road-crossing rescue appears in the shape of a minibus filled with some elderly ladies from the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group. As they are applauded and well-wished, respect shown all round, a gap emerges to slip across the avenue. A street closer to Government House. A step closer to entering Government House for the first time for so many, and a step closer to getting a close look at the President albeit under the saddest of personal circumstances.
Going against the tide of snarled-up people traffic makes movement fairly simple but what a difference 24 hours make. Plaza de Mayo is ablaze with flags outwaving each other, bigger is better, one asking, “what if Evita were here?”.
And in 24 hours, security is another story. Groups of between 150 and 200 mourners at a time are allowed to make that walk, right up to the gates of Government House, and step through them. What a privilege! But what a moment to be allowed in.
Passing the iron railings which are bedecked with the national colours, the patio spaces either side of the main doors are piling up with wreaths. Associations, trade unions, sports clubs, the lesser known have been relegated to the harsh sunlight next to the famous pink walls of the palace, yet still the flowers stand firmly to attention, doing their duty.
Two grenadiers are also on guard at Government House, which is undergoing an ad-hoc 24-hour transformation of duty as a mausoleum. Switch off everything electrical, please, then the awe of being “in”, the awe of the daffodil-yellow Latin American Patriots’ Room, of O’Higgins’ and Bolívar’s images captured forever.
But with the admiration comes realization. Now the wreaths are serious. Enormous. Courtesy of the AFIP tax agency, the Relaes family, the Governor of Entre Ríos province, Diego Armando Maradona, the Actors’ Association, the Federal Police…
Looking up at the triangular glass roof, sporadic applause reverberates around the double-divided room. Perhaps mourners are demonstrating their support for the President, maybe it is a comment that touches her and the mood is followed. A celebrity may have come through to show respect, which could be worth a handclap in itself. It’s difficult to tell in this passageway, shuffling along before gravitating to the filled, closed coffin.
Turning a left corner, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, mother of two, President of Argentina, but a widow for barely a day, sits with her legs crossed on an upright chair with her husband’s coffin laid out directly straight in front of her.
The biggest, blackest sunglasses cover her face, while her support team stands behind, poker-faced and in mourning clothes, including her children Máximo and Florencia.
Impassive, expressionless at that particular moment yet so dignified, the President gives nothing away. In response to a simple nod in recognition of her awful personal situation, there isn’t a single hand movement or wave.
However, the dignity is overwhelming. There, not a metre from her, lies her recently deceased husband, and she is obliged to share that most private of moments under scrutiny.
Around 1,000 mourners have been passing every hour through those gates into that normally private world to wish her and her family well. And thousands more will continue until 10am this morning.
Plaza de Mayo remained packed to the barriers’ brims yesterday evening and not everyone will have a chance to say goodbye. But Carla from Avellaneda did.
“I felt so sad going into the wake but at the same time so happy that we live in a democracy that has allowed us to to go in and have a word close up with the President,” she said.
Two more grenadier guards keep a check of the barrier protecting the coffin and the widow. Then it’s time to move along, a fleeting look back, watching tears silently trickle down mourners’ faces. The wake, the crying, it is all so intrusive.
But out of this wake, a spark of positivity. The President has received personal friend and fellow Tweeter Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo, local politicians and the man on the street. But it is the latter who is nourishing her. Later yesterday afternoon, embraces and kisses became a more regular exchange between President and her supporters.
Nicolás, from across the river in Avellaneda, sums up. “We’ve lost a leader and friend in Néstor but we’ve found the way to discover what route we need to take. Although this is a painful moment, it’s also a happy one as so many people have come out onto the streets to support the President. This is all part of the new reconstruction of Argentina,” he said.
First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on October 29, 2010