Skip to main content

Death in Chaco Sparks Debate Over Malnutrition in Argentina

By | [email protected] | September 14, 2015 4:40pm


In light of the unfolding Syrian drama, President Cristina Kirchner delivered a speech last Wednesday castigating “countries up north” for their callous attitudes toward human suffering.

“I do not want us to be like those countries that expel immigrants and let children die on their beaches,”she said in reference to the death of Aylan Kurdi.

An unfortunate word choice, it turns out: that very same week, newspapers the country over had their front pages plastered with images of an emaciated adolescent, member of an indigenous community from the northern province of Chaco, who died of malnutrition last Tuesday.

The pronounced contrast between Cristina’s words and the headline-making news sparked a ferocious debate about malnutrition in Argentina. Here we cover that ongoing debate.

What Happened?

Oscar Sánchez was a member of the Qom tribe, an indigenous community that mostly resides in a forested area in the northwest of Chaco called El impenetrable (the name refers to the zone’s dense vegetation). He was 14 years old and weighed 11 kilos when he died of malnutrition and tuberculosis.

His medical chart revealed he basically hadn’t gotten any medical attention throughout the long ordeal that led to his death.

The Qom teenager had been sick for a year,” the Nelson Mandela Center NGO  explained. “He was poorly taken care of at his town’s small clinic. He received poor care at Villa Río Bermejito’s Nestor Kirchner hospital. Miriam Benítez, the doctor who took care of him, did a terrible job.”

“A doctor diagnosed him with tuberculosis and a severe malnutrition linked to said disease, plus meningitis and an acute pneumonia.”

According to the NGO, malnutrition is an endemic problem among communities in El impenetrable:

“Tuberculosis, malnutrition and other diseases linked with poverty and the failure of the public sanitary system are wreaking havoc in the communities.”

Sánchez’s death due to malnutrition is the sixth in the region this year, according to the NGO.

Another relevant case involved 7-year-old Néstor Femenía, who also died of malnutrition In January this year. 

Talk of Death Due to “Cultural Reasons” Receives Severe Backlash

Jorge Capitanich, former chief of cabinet and current governor of Chaco, attributed the boy’s death to “cultural reasons” – a pointedly vague way of phrasing… what exactly?

According to BBC mundo, Capitanich was talking about indigenous tribes’ alleged reluctance to consult doctors.

“Of course we are hurt by a death that happens due to cultural matters,”

said Capitianich.

Though he did admit Sánchez’s death could have been avoided, he couldn’t stop the inevitable media shit storm that ensued as a result of his statement.

Cristina’s government jumped to the rescue. The government’s official Facebook page published several statements by Health Ministry official Gabriel Lezcano, who linked the boy’s death to a pulmonary infection which didn’t allow him to eat.

Jorge Capitanich

Jorge Capitanich

“Every citizen’s death is sad, especially when it’s a minor’s. However, it’s important to clarify that the family receives social welfare and the young man received the correct treatment needed in his condition,” stated Lezcano, thus refuting claims that the government had any responsibility in Sánchez’s death.

In an attempt to shed some light on this issue, The Bubble consulted Abel Albino, founder of the CONIN foundation, an organization dedicated to the fight to eradicate malnutrition among children in Latin America.

While he said he didn’t see any truth to Capitanich’s claim that indigenous communities don’t seek medical attention, he added that the government’s attitude toward the whole issue ought to be completely different:

“What do we do then, give up?  We have to double the effort. The kid’s parent said he didn’t get any medical or financial help. These are important facts, not to blame anyone, but to consider it and apply them as state policies,” said Albino.

Cue the Political Blame Game

While the opposition has seized the opportunity to accuse the government of having turned a blind eye to an endemic problem in the northern provinces, Kirchnerite representatives are accusing their detractors of using the case to gain political capital.

Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández denied charges his administration was somehow culpable.

“Healthcare officials followed the case day by day and second by second, but there was nothing that could be done about it.”

“So we’re being linked with hunger and misery in Africa?”

questioned Fernández, who at the same time accused the opposition of using the situation for political gain: “They’re pulling anything they can on Capitanich so he doesn’t do well in the elections.”

Presidential hopeful Sergio Massa chimed in, saying that while it’s good to support the Syrian refugees, there’s a problem that’s being ignored here:

“I’d tell the President to step up and take responsibility for the deaths that happen due to malnutrition in Argentina” stated Massa, who also added that if elected president, he would use 1.5% of the GDP to create daycare centers aimed at addressing malnutrition.

Why Do Most Malnourishment Cases Happen in the North?

abel-albinoThe president of CONIN told The Bubble people without access to proper nutrition always tend to locate in warmer places. “That’s why there are more poor people in the north than the south, and in the east than the west, which is colder and has a wilder environment.”

About why indigenous tribes are hurt the most, he said:  “They’re the most vulnerable. Do they have sewers, feed properly or have enough income?They don’t. We have to take action, that’s what the state is for.”

Numbers That Don’t Add Up

Sánchez’s death also sparked a debate about the differences between INDEC and private groups’ statistics regarding poverty in the provinces with less resources, especially Chaco.

On the one hand, INDEC published a controversial report which assured that Resistencia, the capital of Chaco, had successfully managed to eradicate unemployment during this year’s second trimester. However, there was a slight glitch: it counted people who receive social welfare as employed persons. According to the research, there was a 8.4% poverty rate and 1.4% of the population lived under the extreme poverty line.

On the other hand, the Social, Economic and Political Social Investigation Institute (ISEPCI) conducted a study revealing 48.1% of Chaqueños livedunder the poverty line and 14.4% under the extreme poverty line.

Deputy Alicia Terada leaned towards these last statistics: “The data published by INDEC are lies and do not coincide with our reality at all.”

Chaco Deputy Alicia Terada

Chaco Deputy Alicia Terada

“People from all around the province tell us there aren’tenough jobs and not enough money,” said Terada, who also had words for the President’s failure to address Sanchez’s death: “Argentines are being ignored.”

The province’s body in charge of statistics hasn’t published official data about malnutrition since 2007 and stopped publishing information on poverty, inflation and unemployment three years ago.

Disputes over these rates are not new. Let’s recall that earlier this year, Cristina claimed that poverty in the country is around 5% and shortly after her administration dismissed a report conducted by the Argentine Catholic University (UCA) which said 28.7% of the country lived under the poverty line.

How Can We Address Malnutrition in the Country?

“The country always gets better,” Abel Albino told The Bubble when consulted on whether there had been any progress in these last years. However, he added that “we could have improved a lot more if the state implemented policies to fight malnutrition.”

He outlined the most urgent issues the state should tackleto address malnutrition:

  • Sewers
  • Running water
  • Electricity
  • Properly nourish children, especially in the first year of their lives

“If we get these things done, we will be a world power within 30 years.”