Understating the Argentine Slums “Villas” in times of Corona-virus
Like any major city, Buenos Aires has its poor parts. These parts of the city are called the villa miseria, or villas for short. The phrase “villa miseria” actually translates to “misery village” in English. Though if someone is talking about this place they’ll almost always just say “villa”. They are communities of people who have very little resources so they settled together and made buildings out of whatever resources they had. These buildings aren’t government approved and can be very dangerous because the people that made them don’t have carpentry backgrounds.
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According to Democracy Now:
“In Argentina, security forces have sealed off one of the poorest neighborhoods in the outskirts of the capital Buenos Aires, preventing people from entering or leaving, after more than half of the slum’s 300 residents tested earlier in the week tested positive for COVID-19. Local activists and some members of Argentina’s leftist government condemned the move, saying it felt like the country was building “ghettos for poor people.” Argentina’s slums are often overcrowded and lack proper sewerage or running water, making it nearly impossible for residents to isolate or maintain proper hygiene.”
According to a 2016/17 survey there are 4,100 villas in Argentina. 1,612 of those are in Buenos Aires province. That’s almost 40% of the villas, which makes sense because about 32% of Argentina’s total population lives in Buenos Aires. Over half of the total number of Villas in Argentina were established before 2000, and almost 1/4 of them were established after 2010. 38% of the residence are under 20 years old and 3% are over 65 years old. In villas where 8 or more families live together, called “Popular Neighborhoods”, about half the people that inhabit these villas lack proper access to running water or electricity. This are the perfect conditions for Covid19 to spreed. Argentina just reached TOP 5 in terms of amount of cases and it will soon be TOP 10 in terms of fatalities.
In 2007 one of the poorer villas in Buenos Aires had a fire that wiped out everything that the people living there owned. It was called Villa Cartón. The government tried to pay the people to move away from Buenos Aires city to the Buenos Aires province after the fire but half of the inhabitants refused to take the money because there was a lack of jobs in the Buenos Aires province, and they wanted to stay in the Buenos Aires capital. So the government said they would replace the houses for the people whose homes were destroyed.
The Washington Post wrote an incredible article about the Villa Cartón burning down, referencing a woman who lost her job as a domestic servant in the city and was forced to either move to a villa or live in the streets. Her name was Maria Benitez. Benitez later made a living selling clothes to her fellow inhabitants but the fire burned all her merchandise. Benitez was one of half the population that wanted to stay in Buenos Aires Capital. The problem with getting the housing to the people from the villa according to the Washington Post is that “inefficiencies has plagued government efforts in providing adequate housing for the poor”. Meaning that the government over-paid for materials, had high administrative costs, and employed too many workers. How did the government mess up the accounting so much? It’s commonly assumed across Argentina that many of the government officials are corrupt and steal from the people. With these “inefficiencies” all playing a role in the building of housing, the people whose houses got ruined in the fire should have their own homes in 80-100 years. *
In Buenos Aires there are a few well known villas. Among them, the most commonly know is Villa 31. This villa gained popularity because of its visibility to part of the city, as well as being one of the oldest villas dating back to the 1930s. It is located in Retiro, one of Buenos Aires’ wealthier neighbourhoods. Just across the train tracks from this villa is the Four Seasons hotel, and an incredibly wealthy part of Buenos Aires. In 2016 the government spent $6 billion pesos to urbanize this villa which included paving roads and fixing the buildings. Villa 31 has about 9,500 families.
Villas started to pop up during the Great Depression. Immigrants arrived to Argentina with nowhere to go and started to settle in warehouses. Only a few years later in the 1950s there were already 21 villas in Buenos Aires. Since then the government has been trying to alleviate some of the poverty in the villas, but has yet to be successful. In fact, the population in villas has continued to grow to this day.
Originally the government tactic was to force those who lived in the slums over the boundary of the city, where the people just settled again and then the villas grew. In Villa 31 27% of the youth has a high school degree and 52% lack running water. There is talk about moving businesses into Villa 31 in an attempt to incorporate them into the city. As of now, there is electricity and some running water and there are plans to expand that. Some of the people in the villa are asking to pay for electricity because it’s a requirement for a bank loan.
According to Fox news, the government wants to improve quality of living in the villas stating that, “The Buenos Aires government is trying to better integrate Villa 31 into the fabric of the city by offering its 40,000 residents improved homes, credit to buy land, sewage, running water, and a connection to the power grid by 2020. There are also plans to open a bank branch, schools and even a McDonald’s restaurant in Villa 31.” While this is all great news, the people don’t trust the government to actually follow through with what they say. History has shown through the Villa Cartón fire, and other such accounts, that what the government says doesn’t always happen in a timely manner. The people in the villa want to be integrated and are still waiting for that to happen. **
It’s important to know about what’s going on around you when you travel. While this isn’t the most attractive topic for tourism it affects a large portion of Buenos Aires’ population. 30% of the population here lives in poverty. By just being aware of what they’re struggling with we can become more compassionate to their situation.