September 19, 2019
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Dirt-floor shacks a perpetual symbol of Argentina's gaping social divide

By Tono Gil

Buenos Aires, Aug 16 (efe-epa).- Makeshift homes made of sheet metal, wood or cardboard, dirt floors and a lack of basic services are a daily reality for 4 million Argentine residents of "barrios populares" - precarious shantytowns that are a glaring symptom of the country's wide socioeconomic disparities.

Argentina's cyclical economic crises have pushed a large proportion of its population into these type of housing arrangements, which are the clearest manifestation of the gulf between social classes in a country once again experiencing a currency plunge and sky-high consumer prices.

Techo, a social organization that works to improve people's living conditions in the "barrios populares," brought attention to this situation on Wednesday when it used a crane to place a small shack - the "Casilla Rosada" - outside the Casa Rosada, the mansion housing the Argentine president's office.

"The person chosen by the people goes to the Casa Rosada. Those who can't choose live in the Casilla Rosada," Virgilio Gregorini, Techo's executive director in Argentina, said in an interview with EFE.

The symbolic use of the shack - painted baby pink like Argentina's most emblematic building - is aimed at highlighting the tenuous living conditions in the "barrios populares," a problem the government has failed to comprehensively address, Gregorini said.

"A government comes in and says, 'I'm going to solve (the problem),' and they can't solve it because it can't be solved in four years and you need long-term agreements."

"Barrios populares" are defined as settlements in which at least eight families are grouped or contiguous and more than half of the population does not have land tenure nor regular access to two or more of the basic services (running water, metered electricity and sewage).

A total of 4 million people - or roughly 10 percent of the population - are estimated to live in these 4,416 neighborhoods dispersed throughout Argentina, according to the most recent nationwide census in 2010.

The Techo organization says the shantytown problem has become more acute in recent years, with new precarious settlements having sprouted up and the population density having increased in the "barrios populares" that were already in existence.

Around 32 percent of Argentina's population was living in poverty at the end of 2018, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census.

The economy has continued to deteriorate since then, with the annual inflation rate in July standing at 54.4 percent.

This week, the Argentine peso plunged relative to the dollar after the results of last Sunday's primary elections suggested that market-friendly President Mauricio Macri will be voted out of office later this year.

Gregorini said there is a common stigma in Argentina that the settlements are "collective takeovers" with political interests behind them.

Though acknowledging the some fit that description, he said the majority came into existence because Argentines could not access housing other than by occupying land, generally in a peaceful manner.

While the normal process is to buy or rent a house and then inhabit it, residents of the "barrios populares" invert the process: they first occupy the land, then build the homes and later try to gain access to basic services.

The Techo representative said these residents often consume well water of dubious quality.

He added that they also use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders for cooking and heating and end up paying more for that essential product than residents of the wealthiest neighborhoods.

Last year, a law was enacted in Argentina to bring about the socio-urban integration of precarious villas and settlements and improve the living conditions of inhabitants of those areas.

While Techo hailed this legislative victory, it lamented that regulations have not yet been established for the law. Gregorini, for his part, fears that the budget allocated for this initiative will be small due to Argentina's latest economic woes.

In the meantime, initiatives like "Casilla Rosada" serve to remind Argentina's political elite of an uncomfortable socioeconomic reality affecting a growing number of the nation's inhabitants. EFE-EPA

tgf/mc

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