The Least of These: Buenos Aires (Pt. 1)

It won’t take long visiting Buenos Aires to discover that not everyone’s living large in this “Paris of the South,” even if you’re comfortably sequestered in a posh condo in Palermo or a swanky hotel in Puerto Madero. Argentina’s unemployment rate is currently lower than that of the United States, but this country’s own painful Great Depression still haunts a place that is now mercifully on the rebound. Less than eight years ago the employment rate was up to 25%, with nearly 2/3rds of the population living below the poverty line. Like too many other developing countries, their economic bust was the result of free-market reforms perpetrated, in part, by the monetary gangsters at the IMF.

As we close out this decade, the reminders of those horrid depression years are still everywhere, but never more obviously than at 8 or 9pm every night, on every street, all across Buenos Aires. This is when the cartoneros come out: they’re recyclers, using Argentine ingenuity to manage the budget crunch by sorting the day’s trash and selling it to factories on the outskirts of the capital. Most of them travel to the city centers via El Cartonero, a special train that transports the cartoneros, their carts, and that night’s haul. The train is one of many rights the increasingly-organized group have won for themselves, but it’s still not a luxury. The trip is obviously crowded, dirty, and smelly, with no lights and no seats. It leaves early evening and returns to the city edges in the early morning, when the cartoneros unload and sell off their collection of bottles and cardboard. A good night’s work can bring in AR$15, or about US$4, a day. This is roughly equivalent to the salary of a public elementary school teacher, but is barely enough for a meal of empanadas from a downtown confiteria.

It’s hard to fully identify where the cartoneros lie in the Argentine social stratum. The crash in 2001/2002 absolutely decimated the middle class, so portenos know that, but by the grace of God, that could’ve been them. Perhaps was them, for a while. Or they have a friend, an uncle, somebody, who still has to sort trash on the side of the road late into the night. Since these are former blue collar workers, they’ve still got their work ethic and their smarts, and former labor managers have begun organizing cartoneros. Their efforts have helped erase some of the social stigma, especially when the government promises tetanus shots and encourages other citizens to pre-sort their own trash to help out the recyclers.

Yet the government is simultaneously engaged in a war on the poor that is not wholly dissimilar to the one in the U.S. Perhaps, if anything, they’re more transparent down here. The governor of Buenos Aires City, Mauricio Macri (former president of Boca Juniors, the futbol club popular with, ironically, the working class) has done little to hide his desire to clean up the streets to appease the tourists. He is an admirer of Cacciatore, his predecessor from 30 years ago, and a man who first began the eradication of low-income housing during the military junta. He declared at the time that, “Buenos Aires is not for anyone, but for those who deserve it. We must have a better city for better people. For these thugs, sorting and recycling trash post-meltdown means you’re one of those who don’t “deserve” to be in this city.

From a tourist perspective, the efforts of the city of Buenos Aires to better its image appear to be working. There are certainly some beggars on Florida, a popular pedestrian avenue. And you’ll see homeless men sleeping on filthy mattresses in the nooks of Plaza de Congreso. But the numbers and density are not really what you’d expect; compared to Manila or Bangkok, the homeless presence is not nearly as noticeable. But the price for this facade is appalling. Since 2007, over 10,000 families have been forcibly evicted in order to better the city’s image. Much of this is done courtesy of Buenos Aires’ Public Space Control Unit, an Orwellian-named outfit in charge of ousting squatters and ensuring that the city’s plethora of parks aren’t overrun with squatters.

Most of these people have no choice but to relocate to one of Buenos Aires’ many villas; slums & ghettos that are akin to Brazil’s favelas. These shantytowns contain the truly marginalized people in this metropolis, socially excluded even more than cartoneros. The villas hold between 200,000 to 235,000 residents, a good proportion of them children; the average age is only 25. Another 11,000 people make up the homeless of Buenos Aires proper. These are the people we most traditionally think of as destitute, as beggars & bums — the cartoneros are, in fact, at least gainfully self-employed (ever since a recent law decriminalized a decades-old prohibition on garbage-picking).

Understandably, the recent Argentine depression and the country’s fatal flirting with laissez faire economics have led to fairly widespread disillusionment with capitalismo and its gung-ho promises of wealth & happiness. Anarchist graffiti and anti-capitalist tags are common; protesters clog up Avenida Callao at least twice a week; the national parliament is housed just blocks from the national communist party offices. Post-crash, Argentina has become known for its empresas recuperadas, or recovered factories. These industries (even a hotel) have become models of worker-run businesses & anarcho-syndicates, made famous in the English-speaking world by the film The Take (2004). Facing loss of livelihood, laborers decided to take over the businesses and run them themselves. They’ve pioneered the concept of horizontalidad, or horizontalism, which stresses ground-level democracy instead of hierarchical domineering.

Furthermore, with the physical and social exclusion of the Other from public space and the rapid growth of villas, it won’t be surprising to see even more political radicalization in the future. Some of this radicalization has occurred in theology as well. Liberation theology was borne out of Latin American slums not at all dissimilar to Argentina’s, and an activist Catholic faith is still important to many portenos. In the midst of the continuing assault on the villas, “slum priests” have played a decisive role in fighting for the poor and keeping them spiritually & physically fed. In 2007 they issued an inspiring manifesto entitled “Reflexiones sobre la urbanizacion y el respeto a la cultura villera”:

“Reflections on Urbanization and Respect for the Slum Culture” begins by saying that “life in the slum” has meant that the priests have a “particular perspective” that differs from the one that those living in other places might have. Contrary to the politicians and formal society, who believe that among the poor everything is “need” and negativity (drugs, violence, poverty), defend “a positive perspective on the culture that exists in the slum.”

“The slum is not a place that needs only help; rather it is a sphere that teaches us a more humane and therefore more Christian life. We appreciate the culture in the slum that arises from the encounter between the most noble and true values of the interior of the country and neighboring countries, and urban reality. The slum culture is nothing but a rich popular culture of our Latin American peoples.” It considers this culture part of “popular Christianity,” a Christianity that is “not ecclesiastic,” and that “the people have always lived as their own, with autonomy.”

The slum priests affirm that the slum culture “celebrates life, because it is organized around it.” They highlight the values of fraternity and solidarity: “giving life for the other,” “preferring birth to death,” and above all, “offering a place for the sick in their own house and sharing the bread with the hungry.” While “liberal society is organized around, and celebrates, power and wealth, which are expressions of the ideologies of the right and the left,” the slum culture teaches “values that are based on the idea that every human being is God, and not money.”

In this way the priests reverse the discriminatory discourse of the authorities and a large part of society that aims to criminalize poverty. When it comes to confronting the proposal to urbanize the slums, they say: “The slum culture has its own way of perceiving and using public space. As such the street is the natural extension of one’s home, not simply a transit point, but a place where one creates ties with the neighbors, where one finds the possibility to express oneself, the place for popular celebrations.” [source]

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