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I slipped past a huge police barricade and into the protest, immediately faced with a wall of smoke. Too early for that, surely - less than an hour into the protest? Braced, I held my sleeve over my face, already too late.
But the smell which hit my nostrils wasn’t the acrid sting of tear gas – it was asado: Argentina’s famous grilled meat. I looked up and all around the edge of the square stood smoking charcoal grills, laden with pork, meat patties, and sausages - queues were exchanging pesos for rolls stuffed with meat, onion, and a fried egg for some.
Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo was packed – thousands crowded onto the grass under the fragrant jacaranda blossom which has filled the city this week. The scent of the purple flowers mixed strangely with the barbecue smells as children played in the square’s central fountain, cooling from the oppressive humidity of the day in an oasis of splashing and coolness amid a close-knit crowd.
A multitude of colours wave brightly against low grey cloud. Hundreds and hundreds of flags: huge Wiphalas – the checkerboard rainbow flag of some indigenous Bolivian communities, and the red, green, and yellow tricolor of Bolivia’s State flag. As of 2009, both of these are, jointly, Bolivia’s official flag.
Alongside these flap a startling range of other flags – often attached to the same wooden pole, waved in unison, or even layered. There are Argentinian flags, workers union flags, political groups, neighborhood associations, flags with Che Guevarra’s face on them, flags depicting former (and new Deputy-) President Cristina Kirschner.
Many placards bear the central message of the protest 'No to the coup in Bolivia' – a rejection of what has been seen by many as an ousting of Evo Morales after fraudulent elections caused violent protests and Morales flew to Mexico, where he is still. Elections are to be held again, but Morales will face investigation if he returns to Bolivia.
The broad range of imagery and placards announces a sense of unity well beyond Bolivia's current crisis: speeches given from the main stage declare solidarity with protesters in Chile and with other indigenous and popular struggles across the contininent – many flags bear the full map of South America have broader messages - 'Yanquis fuera' - yanks out.
I moved falteringly through the crowd, occasionally hit in the face or entirely engulfed by a flag blown my way in the wind - blinded by a wiphala or trapped in a tricolor. I tried to find a polite way to extract myself and keep moving towards to the back, to get a view of a large stage from which music and speeches were booming.
Though these protests happened across the country, solidarity goes beyond the streets of Argentina - President Elect Alberto Fernández himself offered asylum to the ousted leader, prompting Bolivia’s interim leader Jeanine Añez to announce that he had ‘bad information.’
New political faultlines are emerging across the continent, as Argentina's incoming president looks to draw closer to Mexico’s new leftist leadership, and away from Brazil's hard-right premier, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro announced that Argentina had ‘chosen poorly,’ after the Peronist left won this year’s election.
In the back of the square, I caught sight of a tent of the national human rights ombudsman, stationed to prevent the violence with which security forces have treated protests across the continent this month, with mortalities in Bolivia and Chile.
This demonstration feels calm, however: music from various speakers and small groups crosses in the air. I stopped to listen to a circle of musicians in traditional Andean dress – bowler hats and pleated skirts - playing something rousing on Andean siku – bamboo panpipes - and skin drums.
Just as they finished the number, the choking humidity gave way to a storm, huge raindrops causing purple flowers to fall in clusters and the charcoal grills to hiss and smoke even more than before.
Soon flags of all colours and sizes became makeshift umbrellas, hats, and shelters – babies were quickly wrapped in tricolors and wiphalas alike, as thunder cracked overhead. Many retreated, still chanting solidarity in Quechua as they sought shelter from the rain - 'Ayaya Evo' - ‘Ayaya the people’.