Knox College used funds from the Joseph and Clara H.E. Johnson Distinguished Lectureship in Modern Languages to bring Alejandra Vasallo from Argentina to speak on “gender, class and conflict in Argentina.” Vasallo is the assistant director of the Buenos Aires program in Argentina. She is also a writer, dancer, activist, historian, and translator and is currently experimenting in film-making. She has published articles on gender and politics in Argentina, focusing on the famous Plaza de Mayo, a hotspot for demonstrations.
Vasallo began the presentation with two films found on YouTube. The first was of Eva Peron addressing the country as she turned down the vice-presidency. Peron is shown as a strong, charismatic woman as she bellows into a microphone to cheering crowds. The next film Vasallo showed was of the current president of Argentina, Cristana Kirchner of the Peronist Party, addressing the nation. In the clip of Peron she is boldly addressing the nation, with her husband and leader Juan Domingo Peron, standing close behind her. Though she “built up power and was a good politician, [she] attributed everything to her husband.”
“Because of Eva, women were an important part of the Peronist movement…because of the men they represented,” said Vasallo.
Cristina Kirchner stands alone on stage. Like Eva, Kirchner’s husband was president of Argentina. Cristina has led her own political life separate from that of her husband.
Cristina has only been president since December and already she is facing difficult problems. She is trying to put the pieces back together to keep the economy headed in the right direction after the 2001 economic and political collapse of the state that “left our salaries on the floor,” said Vasallo. The country had been suffering from high inflation after implementing neo-liberal policies in the ‘80s as recommended by the IMF, which included privatization of state subsidies, unfortunately leading to an increase in unemployment.
Many of these unemployed formed groups called “piqueteros” who used roadblocks as a form of protest. Vasallo recounted in ’97 when a roadblock on a trip to look at Argentina’s beautiful landscape stopped her and group of Knox students. The Knox students left their bus and went to talk to the piqueteros. They found they agreed with the message the piqueteros were trying to send, and turned the bus around to head back. The students found the piqueteros movement more important than enjoying the scenery. Vasallo was very proud of that.
In December 2001, the government froze its citizens’ bank accounts and Argentines took to the streets, banging their pots and pans in protest and demanding that the government resign. Vasallo was there. She said, “I can’t believe I’m living through this experience, it’s like democracy in action.”
Now that Cristina is president, she has to pick up the economic and social problems left over from the dirty war and the disappearances of more than 20,000 people. Vasallo found it interesting that it was not until Argentina entered a recent period of relative stability, that the country was able to address gender and past social crimes regarding the disappearances. It is the “year of the trials, justice, memory, and truth,” said Vasallo.
Recently Cristina implemented a new tax on the agricultural sector. Opponents of the law demonstrated against Cristina’s decision by blockading the major highways between the country and the cities, cutting off food supplies, most notably fresh red meat.
The blockade divided classes previously aligned after 2001. Larger landowners, farmers, and their supporters crowded into the Plaza de Mayo in protest of the tax they claim to be unfair. They insulted her with racist and sexist comments, something uniquely used against Cristina; people had not insulted a president like this before. Every move Cristina makes is being analyzed explained Vasallo.
“It plays double, for her and against her, because she is a woman,” she said.
It was from here that Cristina made her next wise move. She addressed the nation, asking [which was unusual for a Peronist party member] to stop issuing insults against someone’s race or gender. She said that if someone had a problem with the law they could sit down with her and work out compensation for farmers, but that the sexist and racist comments must stop.
The landowners have had a difficult time negotiating with her. She is a Peronist female, and “For the men it was something they couldn’t really deal with.” This is because “the idea of masculinity is woven into the country side.”
Though Vasallo grew up in a family that hated Peron, she found herself oddly in support of what Cristina was doing, and decided to go to the Plaza de Mayo where supporters of the president had gathered to offset the anti-government protests.
“Gender empowerment” was the tone of the crowd, said Vasallo, even though Kirchner is not a feminist.
Part of the reason Vasallo attended was “to see with [her] own eyes who was supporting what. The media had been so biased.” Another part was because Vasallo was interested in the “social plans and redistribution of wealth” Cristina was trying to implement. Despite her practical reasons for attending the pro-government rally, Vasallo wondered if it, too, had something to do with the fact that Cristina was a woman.
“I decided for the first time in my life I was going to believe the person in the role of the president…. I found myself in a strange place after protesting three or four times a year.” Cristina “was forced to talk in a gendered language” something unusual of Peronist party members, said Vasallo.
Vasallo explained that now she “[feels] a strange kind of sorority,” with Cristina. Vasallo has looked at the changing world and considering other cases such as the United States, asks “are we at the dawn of a new female leadership?”