Argentina’s presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, is on a small promontory overlooking the port of Buenos Aires. Until a year ago, a statue of Columbus stood in the park below it, looking out across the Rio de la Plata and back towards Europe.

But this reminder of Argentina’s colonial past was too much for the Peronist government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Columbus statue being dismantled
Columbus statue being dismantled

In July 2015 the Columbus statue was taken down and replaced with a dramatic representation of Juana Azurduy, a guerrilla fighter from Bolivia who battled to oust the Spaniards in the early 19th century.

The new statue was installed with great pomp in July 2015, in the presence of the current Bolivian president Evo Morales, a strong ally of Ms. Fernández, who together with her late husband Néstor Kirchner ruled Argentina from 2003 to 2015.

She suggested that the Columbus statue be relegated to Mar del Plata, a seaside resort several hundred kilometres away from the capital.

However, the government of Buenos Aires has decided it is part of the city’s heritage, and the statue is due to be re-erected on the main avenue by the Rio de la Plata in the north of the city.

This replacement is symbolic of the struggle taking place for the historical memory of Argentina, a battle that has waged between the populist Peronists and their opponents for six decades.

It has come to the forefront once more with the election at the end of 2015 of President Mauricio Macri, a millionaire businessman whose idea of culture seems diametrically opposed to that of his predecessors.

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One of his first moves was to close down another of Ms. Fernández’s pet cultural projects, the Kirchner Cultural Centre, housed in the former central post office also close to the presidential palace in the centre of Buenos Aires.

Ms. Fernández intended the centre to be a homage to her husband, Nestor Kirchner, who died of a heart attack in 2010. It provided free music, theatre and dance shows for the public, as well as rooms showing her husband’s career and achievements.

But it cost some $275 million dollars to convert, and employed almost a thousand people. ‘There were two employees on every door and escalator,’ as one Argentinian artist recalled.

President Macri ordered that the centre be closed, and had 600 hundred of the centre’s employees laid off. This was accompanied by the dismantling of the rooms dedicated to the late Nestor Kirchner.

According to Hernán Lombardi, the media spokesman for the Macri government: ‘in addition to being an ode to Néstor Kirchner, it was not being properly curated…it will probably be replaced with a rotating series of exhibitions devoted to Argentina’s constitutional presidents’.

The centre is closed until further notice, although the grand central hall has been used for gala receptions such as that for the French president François Hollande, and it was here that Barack Obama danced his tango.

A similar purge is being made of the ‘Museum of the Bicentenary’, also planned by the Kirchners to celebrate two hundred years of independence from Spain.

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The Kirchner Cultural Centre in Buenos Aires

Part of the presidential complex, it was inaugurated in May 2011 in what the right-wing Argentinian daily La Nación  has termed ‘a self-celebratory homage to Peronism, and in particular to Kirchnerism’.

It was closed down in May 2016 for what the local media has termed ‘a process of Dekirchnerisation’, in order to make it more inclusive.

Among the items likely to be removed, according to local observers, are the suits and shoes worn by Nestor Kirchner for official functions, as well as the Racing Club football shirt he wore on less formal occasions.

But perhaps the biggest row has been over the Biblioteca Nacional or National Library. This is another landmark building in Buenos Aires, but for years it has been seen as a white elephant that is little used, but employs many people and consumes vast amounts of money.

Another of the current administration’s first moves was to announce the appointment of Alberto Manguel, an internationally-known writer (author of books such as A History of Reading) to be its new director.

This was interpreted by many on the left in Argentina as elitism, since Manguel has not lived in Argentina for many years, and only rarely visited the country.

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Alberto Manguel at the BA bookfair 2016

There was even greater protest at the fact that this move was accompanied by the dismissal of 240 employees from the library. According to the library authorities, the number of people employed there had grown in the last years of the Kirchner-Fernández administrations from 300 to more than a thousand.

The new appointment and the dismissals led to over 100 Argentinian writers and intellectuals writing an open letter to the government in which they called for ‘the greatest care and precaution in dealing with an institution which, in recent years has not only aimed at preserving, increasing, registering the written memory of the Nation, but has also been a place for pluralism and freedom of thought’.

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Protestors over National Library cuts

In addition to all these measures, further attempts to undo the previous Peronist administrations’ legacy have included proposing changes that will water down the media law introduced in 2009 to prevent monopoly ownership in newspapers, radio and television.

President Macri has also withdrawn government funding from Telesur, a pan-Latin American television channel created by the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela to offer a more left-wing view of the world than that usually presented by the mainstream commercial media.

The cultural sector in Argentina is bracing itself for more lay-offs and market-led policies as President Macri seeks to erase the legacy of 12 years of Peronism. Perhaps Columbus will soon be returned to his perch above the port of Buenos Aires.

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