Last week, thousands of poor families (13,000 people according to initial government counts), mostly non-citizens from bordering countries, took over a huge Indoamericano park nearby the Buenos Aires city town of Villa Soldati, and began constructing makeshift homes. The lack of immediate government response to the public park squatters, led angry neighbors to attempt to forcibly kick them out. The result was dramatic civilian riots and clashes reminiscent of 2001 that led to three dead, two Bolivians and one Paraguayan. More than just an embarrassing scene for both national and city governments, the act, which has led to a propagation of similar take-overs, reveals major socioeconomic deficiencies and highlights real concerns over political extortion and sabotage.
Shortly after the Villa Soldati riots, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner acquiesced to demands to send the Gendarmerie and Navy Prefectorate to control the park. The president, however, refused to clear the park and decided instead to erect barricades to protect the protestors as the government conducted a census. Somewhat ironically, televised reporting revealed caged, angry squatters demanding provisions like food and water from the government as if they were being held prisoners.
If he had the equipment and manpower at his disposal, the city´s conservative mayor, Maurcio Macri, would have cleared the park, but his newly created metropolitan police force does not have mob control capacity. In the initial stages of the fiasco, the mayor argued that the national government is responsible for maintaining public order. But the president refused to treat the squatting as illegal, referring to it rather as a protest and demanding that the mayor provide suitable housing for the masses.
The episode was so dramatic and disturbing, that shortly thereafter that President Fernández de Kirchner ordered the creation of a new security ministry and appointed the acting minister of defense since 2005, Nilda Garré, at its helm. She then appointed the former governor of Santa Cruz Province, Arturo Puricelli, as the minister of defense. Most of the political opposition criticized the move as rash decision-making, but most agree that the country is in desperate need of a clearly defined security policy. According to the local media, the first mission of the newly created ministry will be to purge the federal police and create strict government control of the forces to ensure a focus on human rights and transparency. Ms. Garré has also announced the creation of a “citizen participation” commission to incorporate representatives from civil society to control security forces.
Regardless of this high-level political change, less than a week after the Villa Soldati fiasco, other similar take-overs occurred in city parks located near poor slums, one of which—Villa Lugano—is a privately owned, abandoned factory. Meanwhile, protests and roadblocks overwhelmed the Buenos Aires city center with the infamous piqueteros (unemployed worker protestors) lighting fire to the door of the national government´s ministry of social development.
Chaos and frustration abated in the Indoamerican park after consultative meetings between the national and city governments and citizen groups. By Wednesday, December 15, it was agreed that those who still occupied the park would not be eligible for government housing, and that the national government would match the funds that the city puts toward creating public housing. While some resisted, all occupants cleared the Indoamerican park. As of today, however, occupants of Villa Lugano have refused to leave despite the housing condition. As a result, police forces have been deployed to evacuate the occupied land. Some protestors are defending themselves with sticks and stones.
These recent episodes legitimize concerns of working- and middle-class Argentineans about security and rampant delinquency associated with lawless slums known as villas miserias. They also reveal serious economic structural deficiencies despite years of economic growth and millions of pesos spent on subsidies for the poor. The national government’s careful, protective response has also induced more take-overs by the poor (mostly non-citizens) in search of housing. With nearly 3 million people with housing problems in the country, this could be the start of a new phenomenon akin to the piquetero road blocks—yet another slap in the face to already fatigued citizens trying to make ends meet and keep their families safe.
The disturbing episodes also highlight political wrong-doing should the accusations be true that these take-overs were indeed politically induced. The President blames former President and rival political strongman Eduardo Duhalde and Buenos Aires City Major Mauricio Macri. Others believe the presidential administration itself was behind these acts, but its plan to destabilize the city mayor and 2011 presidential contender backfired. The implications of any one of these scenarios, if true, are saddening. Once again, rather than working to foment national unity and development, politicians are choosing self-serving, dangerous guerrilla tactics. Argentina needs a unifying leader to step forward.
*Janie Hulse Najenson is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is an analyst based in Buenos Aires, Argentina and the editor and producer of Insights from the Field, a quarterly publication promoting perspectives from within Latin America on politico-economic and security issues affecting the region.