Saturday, January 10, 2009

Villa 31

On Thursday evening after work, Nick sat down and read the following article in the Economist: "Misery in their midst: a fight over an iconic shantytown" ( Sometimes we get frustrated because it seems hard to find news about Argentina in international news sources, even though it is a place that is never short of newsworthy headlines. So, we were excited to find an article about Buenos Aires, and about the poverty-stricken side of Buenos Aires at that, in such a widely-read magazine. The article is specifically focused on Villa 31, a slum in the heart of Buenos Aires, next to the very busy Retiro train station. This is a neighborhood that almost every commuter in Capital frequents at some point during the week, and the slum that sprawls along its tracks is very well-known. The life filled with misery that these slum-dwellers face is a stark reality inside the city, and it is a very important subject to be investigated and reported upon.

However, after reading the article, both Nick and I were shocked by the over-simplified tone the author took with the situation. The writer spoke about the slum's origins as a place built by Italian and Polish immigrants that had come to seek jobs in Buenos Aires during the Great Depression and settled near Retiro for its proximity to the port and downtown, and the jobs offered in both venues. The writer spoke about how that is still true today, except that the immigrants are now largely Bolivian instead of Polish and Italian, but they have come to Villa 31 for the same reasons as their predecessors--for "its proximity to downtown schools, hospitals, entertainment and jobs."

The author went on to characterize the legal situation of Villa 31 of that of a wealthy mayor versus a socialist government, with the people of Villa 31, a tight-knit community, caught in-between and fighting for survival. He wrote that "The settlement has become the focus of hostilities between Mauricio Macri, the conservative city mayor, and the left-leaning national government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner." All of this dramatic struggle was simplified in one page of text, ignoring huge details that significantly change the meaning of the situation.

Nick immediately went onto the homepage of the Economist to find out how to write a letter to the editor, and subsequently drafted a response to this article. This is what he said:
"As a commuter who frequently passes through the Retiro district in Buenos Aires, I took particular interest to your article on housing in Argentina ("Misery In Their Midst", January 8th). However, I was struck at how your article over-simplified the situation between Villa 31 and the interested parties of the city and federal government. You seemed to boil the situation down to a few brave and noble citizens defending their historic working class neighborhood against the aspirations of the greedy property developer in Mr Macri. While Mr Macri is known for gentrifying historic neighborhoods, Villa 31 is a far cry from such a community. With a population of over 40,000, Villa 31 is an overcrowded lawless slum, characterized by violence, drugs, and sexual abuse. You mentioned that Villa 31's inhabitants "prize its proximity to downtown schools, hospitals, entertainment, and jobs." However, the majority of these people do not attend school, cannot afford entertainment, and their so-called "jobs" consist of humiliatingly selling trinkets to passersby. So while gentrifying the shantytown is not desirable, preserving Villa 31 as is would be irresponsible."

I really hope that what Nick wrote gets published in the Letters to the Editor section of the magazine. I don't hope this because I think we have more insight to shed on the situation than an obviously very-accredited journalist, but rather because I think that over-simplifying facts is a very dangerous thing to do in writing. From reading this article, I know that had I read it in the States before coming to Argentina, I would have thought of Mayor Macri as a greedy "capitalist" out to benefit the rich and hurt the poor. I would have taken this journalist's words that the Kirchnerista administration was by the people and for the people. And I would have pictured Villa 31 as, yes, out of place within perhaps ritzy-Retiro, but respectable and communal.

And such an image is innapropriate. I want to ask this journalist, What about the Kirchners is left-leaning? The fact that they nationalized pensions? Well, wouldn't they have to redistribute the wealth for that to be considered leftist? And they didn't. Instead, Cristina is off meeting foreign leaders such as French President Sarkozy, spending $15,000 on a pair of earrings in one day, spending millions of American dollars on her wardrobe, while her people spin lower and lower into economic deprivation. Are they leftist because they proclaim they are Peronistas, descendants of Juan Peron's party? Well, not even the Peronist Party can be said to be leftist anymore. Take Menem, the infamous Peronista of the 1990's, from the so-called "People's Peronist Party." And take a look at his legacy: the privatization of everything from the utilities, to the post office, to the national oil company; his country's dependance on foreign credit; and its shocking fall from grace in 2001.

Most Argentines would say that all politicians here are corrupt, and there is certainly evidence to fit the accusation: Menem has been found guilty for illegal arms-sales, but is currently unable to be indicted as he is currently an acting Senator (and no acting Senator can be indicted); Nestor Kirchner is being tried for acts of corruption during his presidency; Cristina Kirchner is currently under suspicion for campaign money that can be traced back to drug-dealers. The corruption does not seem to cease, and it is not fair to sum up Nestor and Cristina Kirchner as left-leaning socialists who use their time in office to fight for their people.

As for Macri, it is also unfair to characterize him as just a conservative roadblock to the country's socialist leaders. He is certainly no angel--while he is embarking on a number of campaigns to clean up the city in a progressive direction, such as starting recycling initiatives, the middle and upper classes readily confess that he benefits them more than he does the poor. He is guilty of wide-spread gentrification, polishing up neighborhoods like San Telmo without offering better locals for the original inhabitants there. Such gentrification makes the neighborhood dangerous as the locals bitterly look at the foreigners and trendy portenos who now take up residence on their blocks, making for an uncomfortable and sometimes violent clash in socio-economic status. If his plans for restoration of Retiro involve simply pushing out the slum-dwellers without helping to create a new home for them, that is inappropriate and irresponsible, and neither Nick nor I would ever advocate for such a thing.

However, just as Nick wrote in his letter to the editor, it would be equally irresponsible in the Kirchnerista method, preserving Villa 31 as is. Villa 31 is not a tight-knit working class neighborhood characterized by an under-privileged but respectable life. It is a sprawling, poverty-stricken mass of makeshift lodging quarters. Often a family of five lives in a home the size of a bedroom; sexual abuse is rampant, even within families; children do not go to school but instead spend their days outside of the train station selling useless trinkets to commuters. At night, street violence and drug abuse are the laws of the land; and currently a drug supposedly more addictive than crack is making its way into the crevices of the villas. It is populated by thousands of Argentines and migrants, many from Bolivia, who came to Buenos Aires searching for a better life. I think the arms of the villa in which they now find themselves is far from the life they sought.

To sustain the status quo of Villa 31 is to say that it is acceptable for a large part of a city's population to live in squalor, as second or third or fourth class citizens. Many, perhaps most, of the residents of Villa 31 are undocumented people, without records to their existence. They are residents that don't exist, and by keeping them in the slum that is their home, their Buenos Aires, it is allowing them to keep not-existing. And that way the Kirchners get to keep alive their image of fanning the flame of the companeros without having to lift a finger. Why don't the so-called Kirchner leftists put their money where their mouth is, redistribute the wealth they've seemingly stolen in broad daylight. Let's see some subsidized housing and national programs addressing sexual education, abuse rehabilitation, drug addiction, and education, like a real progressive, like a real Peronista. The corruption in Argentina is heart-breaking, but displays like these in which a government disguises its apathy as a fight for its people is nauseating.

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