Hope Amid Death and Destruction in La Plata, Argentina

As the catastrophe caused by torrential rains that flooded Buenos Aires and La Plata cities in Argentina this week unfolded, political rivals tried, as always, to take advantage of the situation for shameless political profiteering.

Because Buenos Aires was first to experience major disruption and material damages, supporters of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner went immediately for the kill, harshly criticizing ideological arch-enemy Mayor Mauricio Macri, of the right-wing PRO political party, highlighting the anger of neighbors at the slow response of the city’s police, fire and civil defense departments.

The fact that similar floods occurred during October last year made clear  there had not been much progress in terms of infrastructural preventive work in the city. And to add insult to injury, Macri was vacationing abroad when all hell broke loose during the two episodes, reinforcing his elitist image to the point where some people compared him to George W. Bush getting caught during his month-long vacation at his Texan ranch when hurricane Katrina struck the US Gulf Coast  in 2005.

But just when it seemed like mother nature had delivered a heaven-sent political win to the casa rosada, and only 12 hours after the first storm, La Plata city, 60 kilometers away from the capital and governed by Mayor Pablo Bruera of the same political party as the president, endured twice as much rain as Buenos Aires during a 160-minute storm. At the time of writing this article, the death toll at La Plata had reached 51 people, and thousands of homes had been lost or heavily damanged.

Quickly after La Plata drowned, it was revealed that Bruera was also vacationing abroad, and that he tweeted a false picture of himself supposedly distributing potable water to the victims on Tuesday, while he arrived in the country on Wednesday morning.  Echoing the story of Buenos Aires, La Plata had also suffered important floods during the last decade, the most recent in 2008, also under Bruera’s administration. On top of that, the media immediately started refreshing people’s memories about promised infrastructure projects that could have prevented the floods but were never performed, and which depended on the central government for their funding.

With political leaders of supposedly diametrically opposing ideologies all of a sudden displaying strikingly similar incompetency and cynicism, collective anger began to subtly shift toward the state per se rather than a particular political party. One could almost hear a faint echo of the “out with them all!” shout that rocked the country during the 2001 financial crisis.

But more than people directing their anger at the right target, what was truly remarkable was the spontaneous eruption of solidarity they showed toward each other, in sharp contrast with the clumsy and slow governmental response. Across the country, organizations from civil society collected funds, clothes, food and drinking water for Platenses. The media haven’t stopped portraying stories of La Plata neighbors who risked their lives rescuing children and the elderly.

The only hero policeman was Alejandro Fernández, a 44-year-old man who pulled out his rubber boat and rescued almost 100 people, according to eyewitnesses in Tolosa. Remarkably, Fernández was off-duty,  acting out of genuine solidarity with his neighbors rather than on orders from a governmental bureaucracy.

One can only hope that by exercising direct, spontaneous cooperation in this way, the people will come a little bit closer to realizing the wider implication: If this sort of cooperation works so much better than the state even in the worst of circumstances, we might as well substitute the former for the latter in all other spheres of our lives, once and for all.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory