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A Brit abroad: student reactions to Argentine assassination attempt

But have we got class tomorrow?

In the hours following the assassination attempt on Argentina’s Vice-president, Cristina Kirchner, the atmosphere in my uni halls was alight with excitement and confusion. 

Studying as an exchange student in Buenos Aires has come with its cultural shocks and unforgettable moments, but last Thursday night has to rank the highest among them. A little before 21:00, as the vice-president greeted the crowds outside her home in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, a gunman stepped out and aimed a loaded pistol at her from mere metres away. Though he pulled the trigger twice, the gun jammed and Cristina escaped with her life.

News of the incident soon began to break through official media channels and the story travelled predictably quickly through halls. A little after midnight, questions, jokes and memes flooded into the residence group chat. 

Messages discussed and celebrated the declaration of a national holiday the next day by the country’s President, Alberto Fernández. Screenshots were quickly sent in, spreading the news that the national Football Association had postponed any matches scheduled for Friday. In a country whose culture revolves around the game, and whose only undisputed national treasure is Lionel Messi, it was no great shock that this news produced debate. ‘A national holiday, but at what cost?’, read one such reaction. 

But the most important item on the agenda seemed to be whether the university would cancel class. Though the faculty was not to confirm anything till working hours resumed on Friday morning, there were great expectations that all lectures and tutorials would be cancelled. The mood in halls was lively. Some took advantage of the chaos to play Among Us in the common room into the early hours. Others patrolled Twitter and debated the night’s events with friends. More than one person met me with a cheery ‘Welcome to Argentina’, and another, rather creatively, described the incident to me as ‘another chapter of Argentina: the reality TV show’. 

What struck me was just how British the whole thing felt. It was remarkably familiar to witness knee-jerk humorous responses and jokes in the face of a serious crisis. Even more so, the mockery also tapped into universal student concerns: when querying the motives for the incident, one individual cited the university’s recent 20% tuition fee increase, as well as the price hike – just last week – of meals in the university canteen. 

But beneath the jokes, there was clearly a shared understanding of the gravity of the situation. On social media there was a small minority of comments showing genuine emotion and upset; some individuals examined the event from analytical perspectives. Here in halls, students recognised the full severity of what had occurred: one individual questioned how they were meant to explain the night’s incident to their roommate, who had gone to bed at 10pm. Write her a post-it note, someone joked.

In the midst of an ever-growing economic crisis – including a 50% annual inflation rate – as well as a starkly binary political scene, the country’s residents have grown accustomed to throwing jokes at the latest news. Humour has become a coping mechanism to process current affairs.

Argentine politics is governed by two catch-all coalitions, in a historical divide that is now colloquially known as “la grieta” [literally: the crack, rift]. On one side rule the current president and vice, Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; on the other, the former president Mauricio Macri and his political son, the Chief of Government of the City of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. The former bloc, the Kirchnerists, describe themselves as centre-left, while the Macrists – or anti-Kirchnerists – are traditionally seen as centre-right. 

The memory of the past century’s events still dominates today’s politics, above all, the rule of Juan Domingo Perón and Eva Perón. The Kirchnerists have long been associated with Peronism and the anti-Kirchnerists, with anti-Peronism. This tight link between history and the present has meant that popular fervour for certain historical movements or individuals can easily be manipulated into support for current politicians. Only two weeks ago, videos showed Cristina encouraging crowds to sing “La Marcha” [the Peronist March, anthem of the Peronist movement] as a demonstration of solidarity with her.  

A true political icon in Argentina, Cristina weaves a major cult of personality and wields an impressive base of fans and fanatics. She has been in the public eye for the last 15 years, initially as the First Lady for former President Néstor Kirchner, then as President herself, and now as Vice-president. It is allegations about her conduct in these early years that seem to have led to the assassination attempt in the first place. 

On Monday 22 August, two prosecutors requested 12 years imprisonment for the vice-president and disqualification from holding future office because of alleged corruption in public works during her own time in office and in the government of Néstor Kirchner. From then up until the night of the attempt, there had been commotion in the streets outside her home, as her supporters gathered in a show of solidarity, waving banners and banging saucepans.

In a country where, in the words of Kamila Hofkamp, a student of International Relations here, “everything is so extreme”, the attitude to national politics is fascinating. Political factionalism looms large in the public consciousness, frequently entering conversation among family and friends and present in all aspects of life, in what is taught in public schools, shown on national cable, and reflected in popular music and art. 

Equally, “la grieta” seems to be a topic about which people tire quickly. The web of national politics is messy and complex, with many actors in play and with scandals and conflicts coming often. It can also be difficult to get a good hold of the facts. Some news outlets align themselves with specific political factions and drive their own stances; misinformation and disinformation are rife. 

Under these circumstances – as, I would argue, is also the case in the UK – it is unsurprising that humour becomes the first line of defence. The overwhelming tone on Thursday night was not one of grave solemnity nor political reflection, but of mockery and exasperation at yet another national crisis. I felt right at home.

Image credit: CC-BY-3.0

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