When asked to picture Argentina, most tend to visualize Buenos Aires: city scenes of bright lights blurring together in a colorful mass around the Obelisco, Puerto Madero’s iconic Puente de la Mujer, bright colors of La Boca’s Caminito, jacaranda-lined streets blanketed in a fresh coat of lilac snow.
Yet, right across the train tracks from one of Buenos Aires’ wealthiest neighborhoods lies Villa 31, the city’s largest villa miseria (shanty towns). While few tend to conjure up images of these slums when envisioning the trite “Paris of Latin America,” such glaring inequality is hard to escape in Argentina, where according to national statistics agency INDEC the richest 10 percent controls over 60 percent of the country’s wealth and a 31.4 percent poverty rate was recorded in December 2017.
Yet, while Buenos Aires has its fair share of poverty, it is still far wealthier than the rest of Argentina’s provinces. When it comes to its wealth inequality, Argentina mirrors much of the world in its concentration of poverty in rural and minority communities. This is a consequence of many factors, including a biased public funding system that favors Buenos Aires and Argentina’s other prominent cities, leaving public service provisions such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure scarce in rural areas. According to a 2005 World Bank report, “ The rural-urban wedge in Argentina is the consequence of the highly skewed public investment distribution that disfavors rural people and provinces… the lack of public investments and services in rural areas have hit the rural poor the hardest as they cannot afford to buy privately provided services such as health and education as they do not have the assets, incomes, etc.”
Thus, even though Argentina’s macro and micro economy remain highly dependent on its rural sector—with agricultural products accounting for 60.9 percent of the country’s exports—a strict north/south socio-economic divide exists, in which most of the nation’s poverty is concentrated in the rural north. There is also a widespread socio-economic and political marginalization of indigenous communities within the country, the majority of which live in rural areas and exist— for the most part— in a state of exclusion, structural unemployment, and poverty.
Much of this wealth polarization in Argentina, both in terms of the rural/urban divide and the marginalization of indigenous communities, has deeply embedded historical roots of foreign interference and systematic corruption within Argentina’s elite ruling class.
Systemic corruption of the ruling class has contributed to Argentina’s wealth polarization since the country’s independence roughly 200 years ago. According to the documentary Argentina’s Economic Collapse, since the country’s first foreign investment by the British Bank Baring Brothers— negotiated in 1824 by Argentina’s first president— the foreign money went toward enriching a small portion of Argentine elite financiers and ensuring that foreign investors and their Argentine allies controlled the country’s wealth. According to the documentary, “the debt was used to enrich Argentinean financiers, to control the finances, and empty the country of its wealth.”
As time wore on, foreign money and interests, big business, and government complicity became inextricably intertwined within Argentina. According to the documentary, with “the complicity of nearly ever government from Miter and Quintana to Menem and De la Rua,” this phenomenon gave rise to a “generation of technocrats and bureaucrats [in Argentina], who favored banks and international corporations over their own country.” This set the scaffolding for generations of a foreign-educated elite in Argentina who controlled the majority of the country’s wealth and prioritized their own enrichment over the wellbeing of the country as a whole.
This system of institutionalized corruption undoubtedly had a significant role in creating the dramatic wealth polarization within the country. Rural dwellers faced systematic exploitation by Argentina’s ruling elite, who became rich from the exports of agricultural products abroad while systematically disenfranchising rural workers. After all, wealthy, land-owning Argentines’ main priority was having cheap, expendable labor under their control to work their land. It was thus in their best interest to keep these groups and areas poor and uneducated, with little access to public services and instead fully dependent on the elite. Education in particular remained under the monopoly of the rich ruling class.
As generations passed, the Argentine ruling elite did not change their ways when it came to funneling money into their own pockets instead of bettering public services, especially in rural areas. One notorious way in which they did so was through a so-called “patronage system”. This, system—still prevalent today, especially in Argentina’s rural provinces—essentially replicates the rural landlord relationship of dependence, replacing the landowning elite with modern-day government members.
Today, in many of Argentina’s northern provinces, patronage systems ensure that government jobs are not distributed based on merrit, but are given to the friends and family of the local ruling elite. These privileged few use government funds to enrich themselves with small fortunes, while residents of the impoverished provinces struggle to meet their most basic necessities.
Brink Lindsey of the Wall Street Journal, for example, noted in 2002 how roughly half of all formally employed workers in the province of Formosa— one of Argentina’s most impoverished— work for the government, yet many only show up just once a month to pick up their paychecks. Meanwhile, Lindsey wrote that government jobs in Tucumán largely exist as fronts for patronage jobs, with the primary purpose of enriching local politicians. Lindsey writes: “Out of a formal workforce of some 400,000, there are nearly 80,000 provincial and municipal government employees and another 10,000 federal government workers. Elected officials siphon off small fortunes for themselves: The annual salary for provincial legislators is roughly $300,000.”
Thus, the glaring inefficiency and corruption of many segments of local provincial governments ensures that their residents remain marginalized and impoverished, with little access to public services such as education, infrastructure, and healthcare, and almost nonexistent opportunities to better their future.
Meanwhile, Argentina’s history of institutionalized government corruption and a ruling elite that consistently prioritizes its own enrichment and foreign interests has also played a significant role in the current state of indigenous disenfranchisement and poverty. Since Argentina’s foundation, especially near the end of the nineteenth century, the ruling elite carried out policies of targeted genocide and oppression of the indigenous community, especially in Chaco, La Pampa, and Patagonia. This process allowed the elite to enrich themselves not only by taking large swathes of indigenous land, but also by capitalizing off of the dislocated people, whom they exploited as sources of cheap, expendable labor.
Today, indigenous communities in Argentina remain largely disenfranchised and marginalized. While, according to the 2005 World Bank report, education has been one of the only reliable methods for increasing the incomes and opportunities of impoverished rural Argentines, illiteracy among indigenous groups is three times higher than the national average according to 2005 census data. Without any government intervention to better their situation, and with little resource to do so on their own, it is unlikely that their plight will improve any time soon.
Meanwhile, the Argentine government continues to encroach upon indigenous land at the behest of both state and private companies who seek to develop these areas, violently repressing those who resist their advances. Mutuma Ruteere, U.N. special rapporteur on racism and related intolerance, stated in 2016: “Most alarming are the reported trends of repression, in several parts of the country, against the mobilization by indigenous groups to claim their rights; and the reprisals against indigenous civil rights defenders and leaders as well as members of their families.”
Chaco: One example of many
The northeastern province of Chaco is Argentina’s poorest, with 80 percent of its residents living in poverty and a large number suffering from malnutrition. Meanwhile, the province is home to the highest proportion of indigenous communities in Argentina—nine different ethnic groups comprising mostly of hunter-gatherer communities. This large presence is mirrored by widespread reports of Chaco’s indigenous groups being forced to move from their ancestral lands to smaller, more restricted spaces with little access to food, water, and healthcare after the government illegally sold their land to commercial farmers for logging.
While some indigenous communities in Chaco find the means to scrape by, a number live on a single meal a day. The most impoverished residents are its indigenous groups, the poorest of whom live in tents made from upright poles covered in plastic garbage bags. Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2014, 2,000 children died in Chaco from hunger, malnutrition, and disease due to a government failure to provide their residents with basic necessities—including medicine and running water.
The Toba people, one of the indigenous communities in the province, live in wood or mud huts within clearings in the area’s densely forested region. A number of them grow their own food or live as hunter-gatherers to survive, yet their livelihoods are increasingly threatened as the government continuously encroaches upon their land, sending in loggers to clear the woods so soybeans—one of Argentina’s most valuable exports—can be planted. The Toba people recently made national headlines due to a string of deaths from malnutrition in the community, including the death of 14 year-old Oscar Sánchez as recently as 2015. Sánchez weighed a mere 20 pounds when he died.
In 2007, the Argentine Supreme Court emphasized that there had been a “failure of the provincial and national states to provide minimal humanitarian and social assistance to these communities.” That year, it issued a statement ordering both the national and provincial governments to provide food and clean drinking water to the indigenous people of Chaco. However, in spite of this ruling, indigenous residents remain largely voiceless. Easily preventable deaths from disease and malnutrition have continued, complaints of government encroachment have been met with brutal police repression, and local politicians, who profit from the system currently in place, simply do not listen.
Meanwhile, there is little done to hide the blatant government corruption in Chaco. While people struggle to meet their most basic necessities, Chaco’s politicians pocket small fortunes—while the national government remains largely silent in the face of such injustices. According to a report by the Argentine news channel C5N, roughly 1,900 houses that were going to be built in Chaco’s poorest areas of Resistencia, the capital, have not been constructed due to government corruption. Meanwhile, many around Resistencia are left living in dangerous, precarious shacks and shanty towns around the outskirts of town. Venture into the city, however, and you’ll see the homes of Chaco’s politicians—mansions and chalets within private, gated neighborhoods.
Upon being interviewed by the news channel, a local resident stated: “As a mother I am abandoned. It’s been 7 or 8 years that I’ve been waiting for a home and I can’t have one. I have two children with special needs, and two little girls, but they’re not giving me any solutions, and I need a special place for them. They stole AR $1,000,000,000 and they say that there’s no money for 40 little houses.”
As the capital, Resistencia is still Chaco’s most affluent area. Once you leave the city, things get even worse. The supermarkets, gas stations, and restaurants gradually disappear, paved roads are replaced by dirt, and finished houses are increasingly taken over by improvised shacks.
Las Palmas, only 50 miles away, is in desperate need of proper infrastructure and widespread unemployment has forced a significant exodus of residents to Buenos Aires in search of better opportunities. In 1991, the closing of La Palma’s local industry left 1,200 residents out of work. Today, a job scarcity remains. While residents have been denouncing the current situation to the government for years, asking for paved roads and power to make the area more attractive to prospective employers, nothing has been done. The town has stagnated, and locals have existed in an effective limbo for almost three decades.
Meanwhile, over in Villa Río Bermejito, the former Kirchner administration made a show of building the 2013 hospital “Néstor Carlos Kirchner,” a colossal structure with a helicopter landing pad. Yet, most of the money for the construction made its way into the pockets of federal politicians and their local accomplices, and what was left was the shell of a hospital, almost completely empty of equipment or supplies, with medical staff who are rarely paid and have been striking regularly since the hospital’s inauguration. There is a staggering total of two doctors available to attend to patients.
Miriam Benítez, director of the local health center, told Todo Noticias the state of widespread malnutrition in Villa Río Bermejito, which most acutely affects the local indigenous Qom community. Benítez explained how the operating room in the hospital has never been used because there are no anesthetists or surgeons, and the ambulance doesn’t even have a driver. “The government is deaf, it does not want to listen, it’s been a month since we’ve been asking the governor for an audience and he does not answer us.”
While regular protests take place in the city, those who march are contained, cut-off, and pushed back by lines of police in riot gear. Rodolfo Schwarts, who is running to be a local representative, is one of many who regularly protests. “We are here with the slogan: hospitals, but with doctors, nurses and medicine, because today in the hospital there is no aspirin,” Schwarts stated in an interview with La Voz del Chaco. “There are inaugurations of these large, important constructions that cost millions of pesos, but then they don’t accommodate all the conditions to actually attend to the health of the people, and that is precisely what was lacking before. These are the inaugurations of propaganda facades.”
Schwarts also added that, at the same time that they were building empty hospitals, the Kirchner administration was installing roadblocks in the Chaco neighborhoods of Pampa del Indio, San Martin, Castelli, La Palmas, and La Leonesa in the face of rising protests against growing health problems, a lack of food and potable water, and a rising number of deaths from malnutrition and tuberculosis.
Meanwhile, Abel Galeano is a member of the Corriente Union and, like many of his colleagues, works at the hospital in spite of meager pay because he knows it is the only healthcare option for most local residents. He told La Voz del Chaco that the construction of the hospital was “another circus act for the provincial and national government to demonstrate that here in the Chaco everything is good.” Galeano noted that he and his colleagues had been denouncing the situation since the hospital opened, but nothing has been done.
Local activist Sandra Aguilar added: “This was the act of a populist, propaganda reliant government, a hospital that is empty, has no machinery, no workers with decent salaries…this is a sham.” Aguilar added, “There are sectors that are struggling, and so we will continue to raise the red flags because nothing has been resolved, we ask for work, education, healthcare and there is nothing of that. We are not against the opening of the hospital but we want to have staff, machinery, decent work, and supplies, and there is nothing in the hospital.”
Of course, wealth inequality is far from a strictly Argentine issue. Neither is the concentration of Argentina’s poorest in its rural and minority communities, or the existence of institutionalized corruption that facilitates such realities. Yet to point to the global nature of these phenomena to excuse their pervasiveness within Argentina is to send the message that this injustice is excusable because it exists elsewhere.
Instead, Argentina’s Justice must take concerted steps to remedy the situation, and ensure that the mandates that they do issue are actually followed by federal and local governments. If they do not, Argentina’s elite will continue to get richer—as they have since the beginning—while the stagnant condition of much of the country’s population will continue to impede its growth and prosperity from reaching the levels it otherwise could.
“The breach between the rich and the poor continues to grow, even though the number of people living in poverty is declining,” stated Maria Laura Alzúa, an Argentine economist, in an interview with the New York Times. “There is growth, but more of it is going to those at the top of the pyramid than any other sector, and so the Argentine dream of social mobility is disappearing.”