Housing struggles in Buenos Aires.
"In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal".... John F Kennedy.
Anyone who has been to Buenos Aires knows what a delightful place the Retiro District makes, bordered by Estacion Retiro, (the bustling and beautiful main rail way station), the Terminal de Omnibus, as well as subte line C (Metro) and city's busy port on the River Plate. Every day, the luxury shops catering for Buenos Aires" rich and powerful, are full to overflowing with locals and commuters alike. Across the street opposite Eastacion Retiro is the leafy Plaza San Martin, with its statue of the indepedence hero on horseback and a memorial for those who died in the 1982 Falklands War, and surrounded by magnificent palaces and expensive hotels. Along Retiro's western edge are the huge new skyscrapers, along with the ritzy apartment blocks, full of upper class Argentinian families as well as the expatriate executives, on Avienda del Libertador, with their plush balconies overlooking the River.
A hop and a skip away from these apartments lies Villa 31. Its a delightful, vibrant and densely packed community of local artisans, together with the service workers who clean the plush offices and hotels. This community was thrown together seventy years ago, during the Depression, when newly arrived immigrants from the rest of Argentina as well as from Poland and Italy, came in search of work. Slowly, they established roots in the city, built their homes with whatever they could muster, putting the rooms in place as their hard earnt wages permitted.
But the military dictatorship in the 1970s stopped all that. It bulldozed many of the dwellings. Their owners were forced into military vehicles, dumped outside the city boundary and left to their own fate.
Villa 31 survived. Fortysix families stood up to the junta and refused to move. They got a court order preventing their removal. When democracy returned to Argentina, many of the others returned to Villa 31. Two hundred families a day moved in, both ex-residents and newcomers. They rebuilt the houses.And many of those families are there today. Only now, Villa 31 has grown to 40,000 people living on the villa miseria's15 hectares.
There have been battles galore over the years. In the mid-nineties, the city offered money in exchange for the land and tried to build a highway cutting through Villa 31. But the residents resisted the bulldozers and fought the police for two years. They won. And along the way, they have built up their social and political networks as well as the community's facilities. Sports clubs, restaurants, youth groups, food networks are all thriving. Democracy reigns! Each block elects their own delegates to act on behalf of Villa 31 as a whole. Like all people who live in shantytowns for a long time: they have developed their skills, improved their strategies and honed their cunning, just like their neighbours.
The city has always claimed the buildings were unsafe, and their middle-class neighbours complain villa miseria 31 is full of drug dealers, thugs and thieves. Mauricio Macri, the city's mayor (since 2007) has promised to clear the shantytown, and earlier mayors promised to urbanise Villa 31. Some Villa 31 residents would like to be rehoused. The Economist this week, in an article of the villa miseria quoted Amanda Jimenez, a Bolivian immigrant as saying there are robberies and her house floods with sewage. Yet others simply want Villa 31 to become a properly integrated Buenos Aires neighbourhood, attached to proper services. "We want to pay our electricity bills and be Argentinians like everone else", said Maria Martinez, another resident.
But they have other allies. Villa 31 stands on land that does not belong to the City. It is owns by the national railways as well as the Port. And the left-leaning national government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner owns this land and supports the right of Villa 31 to exist.
Like the others, this battle could run and run. As JFK said - we all share the same small planet!
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