Olympic torch meets little protest in Buenos Aires

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The Olympic torch made the only Latin American stop of its beleaguered world tour in this city Friday without hitting the kind of chaotic, pro-Tibet protests that have followed it across two continents.

While protest leaders had promised "entertaining surprises" along the eight-mile torch route, the heavily guarded event encountered few disturbances, other than three water balloons lobbed at the torch as it passed the city's central cathedral.

Instead, several hundred red-jacketed China supporters waving the Olympic host country's red flag welcomed the torch along with thousands of cheering Argentines. The torch is scheduled to pass through 135 cities before reaching the games' host city of Beijing this summer. It moves onto Tanzania after Buenos Aires.

Yang Yanting, a teenager who immigrated to Argentina from China at age 5, said the Chinese Embassy in Argentina had helped bring her and other pro-China supporters from around the South American country to the torch run.

"They told us that this kind of thing only happens every 100 years, so I wanted to come and see it," Yang said.

With protests about local issues a daily occurrence in Buenos Aires, many had expected bigger problems Friday. Earlier this week, Jorge Carcavallo, a member of Argentina's Free Tibet group, had interrupted a press conference about the torch's visit warning of the protests his group had planned.

Carcavallo said Friday afternoon that many of his fellow activists didn't appear at the torch route after being threatened by Chinese counter-protesters.

"We did not come here to be violent," Carcavallo said. "We could extinguish the torch if we wanted to. We are here to show the Chinese that we can cause them problems."

Despite such threats, only scattered demonstrators lined the route, including about two dozen people supporting Falun Gong, a spiritual exercise banned in China.

Eighty Argentine athletes and celebrities carried the torch through the city's downtown and port area, at one point even rowing it down a canal of the River Plate. Some 6,000 security personnel, including dozens from China, were on hand to prevent the sort of protest that paralyzed the torch run in London and Paris and caused a major detour in San Francisco.

Protesters have condemned what they say has been Chinese persecution of Tibetans and a rise in human rights violations in the run-up to the games, which starts Aug. 8.

For many Argentines, however, Friday's torch run was more about celebration than politics. Mayor Mauricio Macri triumphantly held the flaming torch above his head at a kick-off ceremony before handing it off to the first runner. At some points along the route, confetti, music and applause filled the air, even as the day turned cold and windy.

Alejandro Di Yorio, a 36-year-old salesman, said he rode his bicycle from the southern Buenos Aires suburb of Quilmes just to see the torch pass by.

"The fact that they chose Buenos Aires for this event is recognition that our country is starting to do things right again," Di Yorio said.

For Argentine field hockey player and two-time Olympic medalist Vanina Oneto, the chance to carry the torch Friday overshadowed politics.

"It was such a moving experience," Oneto said. "I had a smile on my face the whole time. I could barely sleep before this. I knew the world would be watching."

(Turner is a McClatchy special correspondent in Buenos Aires. Chang is based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)