BUENOS AIRES — Silence reigned on the streets of Buenos Aires. At times it seemed the only sound piercing torrential rains was the squish of wet shoes tramping through puddles, but the march on Wednesday in memory of the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who died a month ago, went on for three and a half hours. The rain never let up. The sound of the shoes during the “Silent March” became a kind of quiet thunder.
The metropolitan police estimate that 400,000 people braved the elements for the commemoration of Nisman's ever more mysterious death and their silence, and their anger, could not be quieted.
The march was a political Rubicon for Argentina, a line in the sand in the midst of a volatile and unpredictable political moment: the first time an Argentine head of state has faced legal charges while still in office. Nisman had tried to indict President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for covering up the involvement of Iran in the horrific bombing of a Jewish community center more than two decades ago. After Nisman’s mysterious death, his successors went ahead with the indictment of Kirchner and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman.
"This marks a moment of before-and-after for the government, but also for Argentine democracy,” said Laura Alonso, a legislator from the opposition. “It marks a change in the demands of the citizenry, after a period in which freedom has been put in question and death has been returned to the political sphere.” At last, she suggested, “We're seeing a shift towards democratically controlled political power."
Viewed from above, it appeared that a huge swathe of the city encompassing the House of Congress and the Plaza de Mayo, the seat of government, had been repaved by an intricate pattern of umbrellas. Tens of thousands of Argentines filled the streets in almost every other town and city in the country, and simultaneous sympathy marches were held from Santiago de Chile to Paris, Madrid, Rome, Tel Aviv and Washington, D.C.
Nisman's demise, caused by a single bullet to the head while he was supposedly alone at home, only hours before he was scheduled to deliver testimony to the Argentine Congress detailing charges of corruption and concealment of evidence against President Kirchner, has touched a chord worldwide.
Nisman devoted the last ten years of his life to solving the 1994 bombing of the AMIA, Buenos Aires's Jewish community center, in which 85 people were killed.
A group of Nisman’s fellow federal prosecutors organized the march as a protest distinguished by silence, but under the tropical storm, the throngs clogging central Buenos Aires sometimes erupted in rounds of applause, sometimes in spontaneous renderings of Argentina's national anthem. Occasionally someone woud cry out for Justicia!. And the day’s cri de coeur: “Yo Soy Nisman. I Am Nisman.”
For Argentines, it was an astonishing scene to see. An ocean of interlocking umbrellas sheltered young and old, men and women and entire families as they stood motionless in a march too crowded to really move. Their message, many said, was twofold: to demand accountability for Nisman's death and to warn the government to stop interfering with the courts.
"We have come to demand justice in memory of a man who worked to try to get to the truth about this country and who was murdered with impunity," said Rodrigo Perez, 55.
Gloria Plakchof, 68, agreeing, added, "We need justice, we can't let this just pass. We're feeling anger, helplessness, sadness and shame."
It's an electoral year in Argentina. Term limits prevent Kirchner from running again. But while the march was billed as a non-partisan event, government representatives were conspicuously absent and opposition candidates conspicuously present. Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri and his family mixed with the masses, as did Kirchner's former chief of staff, now her opponent, Sergio Massa.
"People joined the march as a call for justice and an expression of their fury and their outrage,” Margarita Stolbizer, a center-left opposition member of Congress and a candidate for the governorship of the province of Buenos Aires, told The Daily Beast. “The government tried to discredit us by saying we're the opposition. That's fair enough and we have nothing to hide, but the federal prosecutors are not opposition, and the people are clearly angry with the government."
Another lawmaker from the opposition, Patricia Bullrich, claimed "the message was that people are fed up with the executive manipulating everything, the courts, the parliament. There is a limit."
Adrián Pérez, an opposition lawmaker from yet another faction, agreed, adding that the march's message is unmistakably "there must be a separation of powers, justice must be independent, and prosecutors and the attorney general must be able to work freely rather than act as puppets of the ruling party's line."
But no representative of any of the four opposition blocks thought that the march would, in any way, alter the course of Kirchner's administration.
Making no effort to hide her sarcasm, Laura Alonso said, "This government is incapable of understanding the demands of the people. The president doesn't get the message because she communicates directly with God; it seems to prevent her from communicating directly with her citizens. Those in the ruling party who were concerned about the march ahead of time have only more reason to worry now."
Ahead of the march, Kirchner dismissed its participants as rabble-rousers trying to score a "soft," meaning non-military, coup against her government.
"If you look at the history of this government it is difficult to believe that there will be any reflection about what has happened,” Perez said. "It seems not to hear the people.”