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ARGENTINA | 26-09-2020 08:53

Land occupations and rising poverty pose problems for Peronism

The eviction of squatters at the Guernica encampment in Buenos Aires Province has been temporarily delayed – but the problems it poses and represents aren’t going away anytime soon.

After spending all winter with her five daughters and unemployed husband living in a rusty shack walled with rusty metal, roofed with nylon bags on occupied land, Cecilia Ávila thinks she has the right to stay there and build a better home.

Inside the precarious dwelling with its earthen floor is a double bed. Nearby is another small one with four somewhat battered dolls lying on it. There is also a kitchen with some saucepans. Those are the only belongings of Cecilia’s family, one of the 600 which last July illegally occupied a plot of almost 100 hectares in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Guernica.

 “They told us the place had no owner,” says the 40-year-old woman with long black hair, wearing a pink face-mask. They installed themselves there because her husband lost his job in the middle of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They could no longer pay the rent for their house in the suburb of Lanús. The family’s only income now is the peso equivalent of US$213 received by Cecilia as a monthly subsidy, given she is an unemployed mother. 

At Guernica, there are hundreds of shacks made of wood, cardboard and sheet metal, interspersed with tents, some made from garbage bags. The dwellings are distributed in improvised lots fenced with barbed wire, dry branches and plastic cords. Children run along the earthen tracks while others chase birds in search of food. Guernica is a living, breathing photograph of the social tragedy which the pandemic is causing to an already battered economy, in the face of which the welfare policies of President Alberto Fernández’s government are an insufficient palliative.

‘A structural question’

“In a situation which was already complex in Argentina, a structural question coming from decades back, sometimes aggravated and sometimes improved but which we haven’t been able to resolve for decades, the pandemic hit us. The shock to the social system, the economy, the standard of living of families and the capacity to recover is therefore much more serious than in developed countries,” Eduardo Donza, a researcher at the Observatorio de la Deuda Social Argentina told The Associated Press

That research centre, which depends on the UCA Catholic University, has estimated job losses from the pandemic stand at around a million, mostly among the informally employed. The observatory predicts that poverty will affect 45 percent of the population, compared to 35.5 percent in the second half of 2019, the last official measurement.

“Many of these families [such as the Guernica squatters] have lost their low-paid odd jobs [known as ‘changas’ in Spanish],” such as peddling, recycling waste, windscreen-wiping etc., which “were above all highly affected in the first months of quarantine,” said Donza.

Nelson Falcón, 39, is a building worker. He has been jobless since coronavirus halted construction in Buenos Aires. He was left penniless out on the street together with his wife and his 12-year-old son. On the occupied land, he built a wooden hut similar in size to those seen in children’s theme parks. It stands out in a landscape of precarious tents.

“We had a better life but unfortunately the pandemic evicted us all,” lamented Falcón.

"We do not feel 100 percent homeless. Most of us here voted for the government. We want to buy the land but that doesn’t exist here. The only way to have a house is to seize the land.”

Legal battle

The Buenos Aires Province Security Ministry has reported that during the coronavirus pandemic, the police evicted 868 squatter invasions, arresting 524 people.

The courts had ordered the squatters to be dislodged from the Guernica grounds last Wednesday, in line with the land-owner’s demand but on Tuesday, at the last minute, the judge in charge of the case postponed the deadline to October 1, while the provincial authorities negotiate a peaceful exit with the occupiers.

Fernández, leading a broad Peronist coalition, reached the presidency in late 2019, in large measure due to disenchantment with the austerity, increasing poverty and unemployment witnessed during the four years of Mauricio Macri’s centre-right government. 

With former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) as his running-mate, Fernández captured the vote of the most vulnerable sectors yearning for a return to the populist policies typical of Peronism.

His government destined almost a trillion pesos (US$12.18 billion, or eight percent of GDP) in the first half of the year to social protection policies to palliate the effects of the pandemic. Around 45 percent of households are receiving some kind of state assistance.

That help, however, is insufficient in the context of runaway inflation (at 18.9 percent so far this year) and social discontent is starting to affect the popularity of the president and his government, with large protests seen in recent weeks in cities across the country.

Fernández, who at the time of decreeing quarantine had approval ratings of over 60 percent, has fallen to 41.6 percent, according to a mid-September survey of Management & Fit consultants. Of the 2,200 respondents consulted nationwide, 56.1 percent believe that the economic situation will grow worse in the next few months. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.

The pocket

“The most sensitive gut is the pocket – that’s what ends up dominating everything,” says Celia Kleiman, director of the Polldata consultancy firm. “Social plans are not enough. Odd jobs are informal employment, temporary, enough to eat that day and nothing more.”

In their quest to attend to the demands of the most vulnerable, the Peronists are pushing an extraordinary one-off capital levy tax on the country’s biggest fortunes, counting on their Congress majority to push it through. 

However, the announcement has spooked businessmen and investors, already worried about state interventionism in the economy as well as fresh restrictions on exchange markets and imports to preserve the few remaining dollar reserves in the Central Bank.

Initial enthusiasm over the government’s recent agreement to restructure US$65 billion worth of debt with private creditors contrasts with the decision of a dozen foreign companies to abandon the country, among them the Falabella shopping chain and the Latam airline, due to a combination of external and internal factors.

Donza admitted that the social programmes were a palliative in this pandemic but “do not suffice to escape poverty.”

“Independently of political party, we have been unable to generate state policies aimed at production and employment, we haven’t achieved consensus in that sense. Policies and economic alignments have been very erratic. What could be the path? Calling for a grand consensus of productive and working sectors,” proposed the researcher.

In Guernica, needs must. “If they take me out of here, I’m going on the streets, we’ll sleep under a bridge because I cannot pay rent, I can barely buy food for the girls,” said Cecilia with a sigh.

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by Debora Rey (Associated Press)

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