Teaching Institute or Dance Bar? Putting Local Freedom of Information Legislation to Use in Argentina

15 April 2005

By Martha Farmelo
Martha Farmelo is Co-Coordinator of the Access to Information Program at the Buenos Aires-based Association for Civil Rights (www.adc.org.ar).

I’ve never slept particularly well the first night in a new home, what with the excitement of the move and all the strange, new sounds. Little did I expect the sounds of the first night in our new apartment in Buenos Aires to include pounding rock and roll. At two a.m. the music from the live band at the bar “Seventies” across the street sounded as if it were coming out of speakers set up in my living room. This is the first home we have ever owned. I sat in that living room full of half unpacked boxes with tears in my eyes, asking myself, “What have we done?”

Live bands at Seventies turned out to be unusual, but the constant overflow onto the street of lively young people yelling to each other turned out to be a constant disruption to our sleep each Friday and Saturday night from about one a.m. until closing time at six or so. The acoustics on our narrow street are deadly: our next door neighbor told us that for him, most nights it was as if a crowd of kids were having a conversation at the foot of his bed.

Over the following months, the administrator of our condo association filed a complaint on our behalf at the closest of the city’s 16 Administration and Participation Centers (Centro de Gestión y Participación, or CGP). City residents go to these neighborhood centers to do paperwork, take part in everything from cultural events to participatory budgeting exercises, and receive decentralized government services in areas such as health, education and employment. The results of our complaint and efforts to follow up regarding Seventies were nil.

One day my partner Alan called me at work at the Association for Civil Rights, where I am in charge of the Access to Information Program. “How do we ask the city government to tell us what kind of operating license Seventies has?” On November 30, 2004 I had a messenger on a motorbike take to the city licensing office two copies of a letter invoking the city’s 1998 access to information law and requesting information for Seventies and an adjacent bar that had recently closed. They sent the messenger to another office all the way across town, where a clerk stamped both copies, handed him one, provided him a phone number and told him to call back in two weeks-right at the end of the 10 working-day limit stipulated by the city law.

Ten days later I was told to call back in a couple days, and when I did so, was told the information was ready. My messenger then rode his motorcycle back across the city to pick up a letter dated December 21, 2004 informing us that Seventies was licensed as a “teaching institute, technical institute, [or] academy” and listed the relevant file number. The other bar, which sometimes had live jazz, was licensed as a café.

On December 30, 2004, just nine days after we received this reply, a fire broke out during a concert at an entirely overcrowded dance club in Buenos Aires called República Cromañón or Cromagnon Republic, killing 193 people-including numerous young children-and wounding hundreds more. According to local press reports, it was one of the world’s six worst fires in modern history.

In the midst of the country’s collective outrage and grief, Alan was anxious to write a letter to the editor about Seventies being licensed as a teaching institute. I wanted to write an opinion piece emphasizing our use of the city´s freedom of information law, and perhaps have it signed by someone senior at the Association for Civil Rights. Alan was unwilling to wait for me to find time to write an opinion piece, and I had to agree he was right. On Thursday January 6, 2005, Clarín, the country´s most widely-read daily, published his letter to the editor together with his email address under the title “Teaching Institute or Dance Bar?”

Translated, it reads:

On our block there is a bar whose obnoxious noise keeps the neighbors awake on Fridays, Saturdays and the nights before holidays. For a while now we have been petitioning the local municipal office with scant results.

Making use of the capital city’s access to public information law, we learned that this bar is licensed as a “teaching institute, technical institute, academy.” Nothing to do with a bar! Who is aware of and monitoring the conditions inside that place, which fills up with young people every weekend?

The possible causes of this situation are: 1) the license was changed and the city government never found out; 2) the inspectors are bribe takers and the place continues to operate because the officials are on the take. In other words, there is either a high degree of ineptitude in the city government or there is corruption (or both).

I think it is fine that they replace the Chiefs of Safety and Inspectors. However, the changes needed are much greater. The solution is to deepen democracy, including opportunities for citizen participation in the granting and verification of licenses.

The response was immediate. First off, Alan received an email from a journalist at Channel 13, the nation’s most important television station, wanting details about the case. He also received a message from a city resident sharing information and wanting to know where he could make a similar request to the city government about an establishment on his block. A little while later, Alan received an email from a city government official, sent at the behest of the Secretary of Decentralization (who runs the CGPs), asking for details and assuring Alan that he was available to resolve the situation. Another city resident emailed him that day and attached helpful information she had gathered after the fire at Cromagnon on how licensing procedures work in the city. We would still like to know how Seventies operated for so long without an adequate license.

City officials called several times to know when they could arrange to inspect the place with us present. However, in the wake of the tragedy at Cromagnon, the city government closed all such bars, increased the fire safety requirements for these establishments, and so far has authorized fewer than 20 to reopen. I’ve been told Seventies has one narrow staircase leading from the ground floor to a huge basement space, so I doubt it will pass fire inspection unless the owners make significant modifications.

If it reopens and we have any doubts whatsoever about the legality of its operations, we are prepared to stand outside the bar before television cameras, displaying the reply to our access to information request.

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