BUENOS AIRES ( Associated Press) — Holding his cloth bag, Bahiano Arévalo waits for a worker at the Los Leoncitos picnic area to help him. When his turn comes, the seven-year-old Argentine boy checks that he has received some milk and a cake filled with sweets.
As he leaves, he goes to his mother, Evelin Benítez, who is waiting for him near the soup kitchen in the Carmen de Alvear neighborhood, in the municipality of Tigre, more than 30 kilometers from Buenos Aires. “I come because I have three boys and everything helps. Just as I come here later, I will look further afield for food,” Benítez told The Associated Press a few days ago.
The life of the 29-year-old woman has been influenced by social organizations. She is part of the Barrios de Pie group, where she arrived a year ago from the Evita Movement, and three times a week she goes to “Los Leoncitos”, which opened another of these groups. If the woman did not go to the kitchens that these groups have opened massively during the pandemic, she and her three children, her partner and her mother, could hardly survive.
In the midst of an economy that is trying to recover from the pandemic and one of the highest inflation rates in the world, millions of Argentines survive thanks to the welfare work of the State and social organizations to which they are affiliated. These provide them with food and, thanks to their links with political power, they accept the effective arrival at their hands of subsidies and work programs that are paid with a precarious salary.
These organizations with a leftist and Peronist tendency hold a double-edged power, since they mediate with the authorities and contain the demands of members who demand higher incomes, avoiding a social explosion and at the same time constitute a latent threat to President Alberto Fernández due to his enormous ability to mobilize on the streets.
In recent weeks, their anger with Fernández has increased and has been reflected in protests where they demand more work, better wages and the benefits that workers in the formal economy have, such as health insurance, paid vacations or retirement.
Argentines deal with accelerating inflation. In April it was 6% and in the year-on-year comparison the rise was 58%, well above that of other countries also affected by the war in Russia and Ukraine, such as the United States, which registered 8.3%. Economists estimate that inflation in Argentina will reach 70% by the end of the year. If so, poverty would skyrocket, which at the end of 2021 affected 37.3% of a population of some 47 million people.
Evelin Benítez sweeps the streets, a job for which she receives about 20,000 pesos (159 dollars) a month as she is a beneficiary of a labor program within the framework of this state welfare system. The day she gets paid, she does the shopping. Her money lasts a few days and then she has to go back to the soup kitchens.
According to Jorge Cabral, a member of the Darío Santillán Popular Front, if it weren’t for these organizations, “everything would explode.” He assured that “during the pandemic there were no politicians who came to say what you need. The things we achieve is through the struggle, because we cut off the streets; They will never answer you on the phone”. His group recently summoned thousands of demonstrators in one of the main avenues of Buenos Aires that lasted several days demanding more aid.
These groups ideologically related to Peronism and the most extreme left were strengthened after the economic crisis of 2001, the worst in the country’s memory. Back then, half the population fell into poverty amid the largest debt default in history. They were never dissolved because poverty persisted in an Argentina, whose productive structure has been progressively weakening and suffers from a sustained inflationary process, a problem for which Fernández, a Peronist who came to power at the end of 2019, cannot find a solution.
The president recently affirmed that the economy is recovering from the bump of 2020, when it fell almost 10% in the midst of the pandemic, but said he was very dissatisfied with the inflation rates. However, the productive reactivation is far from being sufficient and the government must continue to rely on an assistance scheme with which it seeks to lift millions out of poverty.
It currently manages the Empower Work program with the active participation of organizations, the main one at the national level and which reaches more than 1.2 million Argentines. Its beneficiaries receive more than 19,000 pesos per month (150 dollars) for the tasks they carry out, half of the minimum wage.
This program is designed to train and generate formal employment in a society where half of the more than 19 million workers are not registered in the social security system, an objective that seems increasingly difficult to achieve. It integrates the universe of multiple programs, subsidies, bonuses and other monetary transfers managed by the State at the national, provincial and municipal levels, which change their name as the years and governments in power go by.
For the Ministry of Social Development, the main supplier of aid, Empower Work represents a disbursement of 26,000 million pesos per month (about 207 million dollars).
“In the country, three out of ten households benefit from some social program. If this were not the case, the homeless would go from representing the current 8% of the population to 18%,” Eduardo Donza, a researcher at the Social Debt Observatory of the Argentine Catholic University, told the Associated Press. These aids cover basic needs of the most needy population, avoiding a social explosion, according to Donza. Even so, many beneficiaries are forced to get temporary jobs outside the state system to bring a little more money home.
Critics of this assistance scheme affirm that it is one more tool of the ruling party to secure votes. The groups are intermediaries with the Ministry and some have their leaders occupying positions in the portfolio or direct contacts with it. The referents of the groups in the popular neighborhoods receive requests for help from militants who have aspired to the programs through a process carried out before the State and the “administration” sector of the organization strives to make it effective. In recent times, these groups are demanding “more quota” from the government so that Empower Work reaches more beneficiaries than the current 1.2 million, more than double the number who received it at the end of 2019.
Referents of groups assured that they carry out an internal control to verify that their members effectively fulfill the assigned tasks. If someone does not receive the salary on time – which must be deposited by the government in a bank account – they take action on the matter demanding that it be paid as soon as possible. According to the researcher Donza, this state system is very complicated and for this reason “it seems to be a success that 80% of the recipients (of Empower Work) are doing or receiving work or are being trained.”
The same referents interviewed – who did not want to identify themselves – admitted that some groups do not supervise that their militants carry out the assigned tasks. Many of the latter – who are contemptuously called “planeros” – are forced to contribute money to the organization, which in exchange for ensuring the benefit of the plan uses them as firepower in the protests to achieve its objectives. These “irregularities” are limited, limited social activists, who claimed the work of the groups within the framework of a State that is often absent.
“We do something, we work hours and we want to work more,” Andrea Montero, of the Darío Santillán Popular Front organization, who makes bread and sweets in a small kitchen in the Carmen de Alvear neighborhood, told the Associated Press. Then her companions sell them at an affordable price in the neighborhood and with the income obtained they get fresh food for the “Los Leoncitos” picnic area.
Dressed in a hat and an apron with the logo of the organization where she is a member inscribed, Montero said that the small baking business conceived within the framework of the “Potenciar Trabajo” program will eventually become a bakery with more employees.
Near the city of La Plata, the work of the Front of Organizations in Struggle (FOL), one of the groups most involved in the protests, is vital in the “El Peligro” neighborhood, a forgotten place, without sewers, drinking water and gas. . His soup kitchen receives dry food provided by the authorities, but it is not enough and he supplies himself with vegetables from his own garden. Several women work in that neighborhood sweeping the streets with brooms and other equipment that they themselves provide.
In a room of the place there is a nursery where Xoana López works. “I’m a little worse off than in the pandemic because something goes up every day” in price, the woman said. In this setting of troubles, she highlighted the importance of belonging to the FOL because she has a paid job and she can fight for her “rights”.
Militants of the groups take it for granted that with triggered inflation the protests will increase and they trust in their power. “Being massive, the government moves the board; now we should get together to see what we do”, said FOL referent Karina Sebastián.