In the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, the poor – many of them street children - scurry ahead of municipal lorries collecting in well-off areas. They are searching for glass, paper, cardboard, scraps of food - anything that can be reused. They also pick through rubbish dumps in search of food. But as political tensions rise throughout the country, the city’s right-wing mayor, businessman Mauricio Macri, has decided to curb their activities.
Last May, 30,000 people marched hundreds of kilometres to the capital under the banner “Hunger is a crime” demanding an end to poverty and a better life for the country’s children. Protests held around the country revealed seething discontent with poverty, low wages and state-sponsored repression. Over the last five years, shanty towns have been growing even though the economy has expanded by more than 8%, revealing continuing deep inequalities in Argentina.
Now the ruling elites are hitting back. Buenos Aires mayor Macri, has declared: “It is as much a crime to steal garbage as it is to rob a person round the corner.” The city government has set punitive rules for those try to survive off refuse.
Alberto Morlachetti, a campaigner for Pelota de Trapo foundation, that champions the rights of street children, says angrily: “Garbage has become a sacred value. It must not be tossed away, it cannot be mixed as if it lacked categories…. It cannot be left lying around because it has proprietors. The duty not to waste our rubbish has become a civil mandate. Mayor Macri was one of the precursors of this passion for garbage and the importance of urban detritus and their transformation into merchandise. Rubbish-tip pickers are now required to wear a vest, gloves, reflective tape and have official permits in order to be able to work and feed themselves. The governor’s whip must bear down hard enough so that the crime - of those who want to eat – does not start again.”
Macri’s election as mayor last June was seen as a tough challenge to the government of Nestor Kirchner, who is being succeeded by his wife, president-elect Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Yesterday it emerged that Argentina’s defence minister Nilda Garré sacked Brigadier General Osvaldo Montero, head of military intelligence, after discovering that he had plotted against her appointment. Defence minister Garré is part of the government being formed by Cristina Kirchner, due to take over as president on December 10. Taped conversations revealed that the Brigadier General had told interior ministry officials that Garré, who is well-known as a former Peronist left-winger and the first woman to hold office as defence minister, had to go. The plotting by the military intelligence chief incident speaks of uneasy relations between Kirchner’s civilian government and the military, whose brutal dictatorship during the 1970s led to the “disappearance” of 30,000 people.
Kirchner’s husband-to-wife handover cannot mask deep-seated problems economic as well as political problems. Tensions are mounting between the big power suppliers and Kirchner, who plans to continue her husband’s policy of keeping prices largely frozen for residential users since the country's economic collapse in 2001-2002 which hit middle-class voters particularly hard. During that crisis, millions became involved in a variety of actions, including takeovers of factories by workers whose bosses had gone bankrupt. The downturn in the global economy driven by the credit crisis will hit Argentina hard. Cristina Kirchner’s government is in for a rough ride.