Monday afternoon took us to Santiago, Chile, for a very friendly and elegant reception by the Santiago YMCA. Their building is grand, really beautiful, and downtown Santiago. A rich variety of programmes and activities are offered, and we took a walk of the building. But first an overwhelming reception in the lobby. I observed that the lobby was full of people, and I wondered how we should find our hosts there. It turned out that the whole crowd was our hosts! Folklore, dancing, welcome rituals, music – wonderful!
Later on a very elegant meeting with staff and volunteers and again the story of the Sleeping Giant and again lots of interested questions and comments. I am finding the reception of the NEW WAY strategy more and more encouraging. Wherever I go in Latin America I only get positive, interested and motivated feedback. The same as in Africa! It is also a second meeting with my singing friend from the international committee, a wonderful artist!
Friends from Santiago YMCA and from Valparaiso
Tuesday morning comes surprisingly early to us, and Ingunn is taking a flight to Lima and onwards to Amsterdam and is heading for a family event in Norway, where she is representing both of us. Sad to say goodbye, but then my Latin American Odysseus is ongoing, and having waved goodbye to the plane flying to Lima, I find the gate for Buenos Aires and then, before I know it, the beautiful Andes are underneath us in all their splendor. Just have a look for yourselves!
Eduardo is picking me up in Buenos Aires, he is one of Norberto Rodriguez’ close partners, responsible for the travel department of the National Office. Norberto is waiting for me in the hotel, and we have a first briefing on the programme for my visit.
Norberto is an old friend, already in 1998 we were sitting in the Global Staff team together, and we have met from time to time, a couple of years ago in Montevideo, last time in Hong Kong. The President of YMCA Argentina, Eduardo Ibichian, is also there to welcome me.
The President of YMCA Argentina, Eduardo Ibichian to the left.
Soon we are on our way to the Lord Mayor of Buenos Aires, or as his title goes in Argentina: Mr Mauricio Macri, Chief of Government of Buenos Aires Town Hall.
We are saluted by the guards and shown to the reception hall. A few minutes later the Mayor enters the room, a rather young, energetic man. I introduce the World Movement to him, and of course touch base with the needs of young people in the world. He immediately responds, he agrees with me and explains how the city government cooperates with NGOs in their attempts to improve the situation for young people. He is well informed about the YMCA, and explains to me how he as a young man stayed in the Boston YMCA when he played basket ball in the USA. An interesting personality, and I am going to meet him again next evening. A beautiful coffee table book on Buenos Aires with the greetings of the Mayor will add to the already considerable weight of my luggage!
We walk back to the YMCA, big, centrally located and with all the good programmes of the YMCA. There I have a meeting with the whole staff team in the National YMCA, maybe 17-18 people, including my old friend Santiago Prieto. On the programme is presentation of the new WAY Strategy, and I get going again. Again very insightful questions and comments, and I can feel a strong support in the room. After an hour the audience is changed, now I am sitting in front of the National Board and the programme is the same, NEW WAY. Also here an interesting exchange of opinions and perspectives. They like it!
A meeting with the General Secretary, Norberto, and the President, Eduardo follows, we discuss the celebration of the 110 years of Argentina YMCA and we also touch base on the issue of LACA and Argentina. Argentina YMCA always used to play a leading role in the YMCA of Latin America, but they decided not to become a member of the new Area Organization, LACA. After my visit to Argentina I will meet the LACA General Assembly, so this is a relevant theme. We have a good exchange, Norberto, Eduard and I, of which there are no minutes.
Another old friend from Argentina YMCA is Raoul Gonnet, and he is waiting for me in the hotel lobby to take me to a typical Argentinian dinner. We enjoy a wonderful evening together, memories of days gone by and he tells me about his work in Rosario YMCA where he is posted just now. Together with us is a good part of an Argentinian ox with all the garniture you expect in Buenos Aires!
Wednesday comes early as well, rainy and wet and we drive out of Buenos Aires. On one of the building we pass is a huge portrait of Eva Perron.
Amazingly I see her portrait on the other side of the same building as well. One is kind, one is angry, and my friends tell me that when the President gives a speech, she shows the kind portrait of Eva Perron on TV if she has a good message, or the other one if she has a difficult message. In the early morning silence I can hear her voice: “Don’t cry for me, Argentina…”
We are on our way to a less affluent part of Buenos Aires, and visit a school for children from less resourceful backgrounds. Carlos Salvo, to the right in the photo below, is responsible for the educative programmes. The social profile of YMCA Argentina is very strong and here I meet children in all ages and from first school year up to Vocational Training level.
Again I feel proud to represent the world movement of YMCA in a deeply relevant context of children without a very fortunate starting point in life.
They smile and laugh openly when I tell them about my cold, little country up north where the sun disappears for months during winter. I tell them how it feels to be born and raised in a refrigerator. As the sun is heating up in Buenos Aires and the humidity is unpleasantly high, I do not tell the children that even a fridge has its advantages! A beautiful coffee table book on Argentina from the teachers will add to the one from the Mayor.
Back in Buenos Aires I look up at Eva Perron again. Still a controversial figure in Argentina!
We are on our way to the Cathedral and the offices of the Cardinal of Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The conversation with the Cardinal is very open and very friendly.
We talk about the needs of the young people, and we talk about the YMCA and the Church. After the meeting he walks us to the door. I really enjoyed his company. He was very close to be elected Pope a few years ago. A very nice book on the Cathedral completes my collection.
After the meeting with the Cardinal Norberto and I had lunch with 5 top leaders of Argentinian Human Rights Movements and important NGOs. This was really the highlight of my visit to Argentina and demonstrated for me the position of the YMCA in this society and the respect it is shown by other organizations. Here was the General Secretary of the Islamic Centre in Argentina, Dr Sumer Noufouri, the leader of the Israeli Mutual Association in Argentina, Leonardo Chullmir, the Governmental leader of the commission against Racism and Xenophobia, Daniel Maglioco. The famous Methodist Bishop, Aldo M. Etchegoyen, who had been a leader in the fight against the Military Junta. And last, but not least, Mrs Estela Carlotto. President of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers from the Mayo Plaza. Famous people and highly respected in this country. Now they were sitting around me on Norberto’s invitation to tell me the stories of their fight for human dignity and justice during very difficult years.
It was two hours of immense impressions. I cannot tell you all what we discussed and all what I learnt, but Bishop Etchegoyen told me that he had been invited to the World Alliance of YMCAs World Council in Estes Park back in 1981 to be the key note speaker for the YMCA. He was denied passport by the military. Then he told them that if he was not allowed to travel, the YMCA, as a big world movement, would create enough noise for the military to feel uncomfortable. The Bishop got his passport and travelled to the Rockies.
Mrs Carlotto told me about the famous Grandmothers of the Mayo Plaza. At least 30 000 people had been murdered during the years of the dictatorship. Thousands of children also disappeared. They did not kill babies. They stole them and gave them new names and parents and life stories. Her daughter had been one of the opponents to the regime. She was imprisoned, but since she was pregnant, she was not killed. After some months she gave birth to a daughter, and was then killed, the baby disappeared. “We have found hundreds of children,” says Mrs Carlotto. “They are now adults, of course, but we find them and help them to be reunited with their real families. I am still searching for my daughter’s baby, my granddaughter,” she adds slowly. I am almost moved to tears. We talk for two hours. I get warm invitations to visit their different headquarters when I return to Buenos Aires. “When are you coming back next?” I am tempted to say next month. But I know my travel schedule.
Bishop Etchegoyen, me, Mrs Carlotto, Norberto, Mr Chullmir, Mr Maglioco and Dr Noufouri
During the military dictatorship the Grandmothers gave their first televised speech – in the building of the YMCA. Meeting those personalities made me feel proud, respectful, humble. As well as enriched.
A few hours later the Cathedral in Buenos Aires is full. To celebrate the 110 years anniversary of YMCA Argentina an Inter-religious ceremony is presided over by the Cardinal Bergoglio and celebrated by Bishops from different churches as well as the Rabbi of Buenos Aires and the Imam of Argentina.
In the late evening an impressive crowd of YMCA leaders and representatives of different Church and Governmental Institutions assembled in the famous Alvear Palace Hotel for the official dinner. My friend Edgardo from Peru was there together with a young YMCA delegation. I met again the Mayor of Buenos Aires, the Deputy Mayor as well as representatives of the President of the country and the Government.
I am not so impressed with titles, I have to say. I am impressed with personalities. This time I was impressed by the outstanding position of the YMCA in the society of Argentina.
If you are from Latin America you will know the “Opus 4”. Until now I was only familiar with something called Opus 1, which I shall not comment on here, Bob, but “Opus 4” is worth searching the net for. Outstanding music and elegant performance filled the late evening in Buenos Aires with enjoyment. And none of us cried for Argentina that night….