State Intervention in the Villas of Buenos Aires: A Story of Tragedy and Triumph

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On entering Villa 21-24, a colourful and modern building stands out from roughly constructed and unfinished houses that surround it. This is the villa‘s new cultural centre, which was opened by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on 9th September. It is the result of a groundbreaking collaboration between the residents of the villa and the national government.

The centre, which is located in a shantytown (villa) in the neighbourhood of Barracas, was financed by the national government and will also house the office of the Secretary for Culture, Jorge Coscia. The state-of-the-art building boasts a 300-person auditorium, a dance studio, a large hi-tech IT space, and a spacious exhibition space in the foyer.

The new cultural centre at Villa 21-24 (photo: Romina Santarelli / Secretariat of Culture /Télam/cf)

The new cultural centre at Villa 21-24 (photo: Romina Santarelli / Secretariat of Culture /Télam/cf)

The centre is an impressive example of a community project. It was built by the residents of Villa 21-24 and much of its programme of workshops will be led by them. The initiative has created many jobs for local people and there is a commitment to train others for employment through activities offered at the centre.

For those residents who have spent years campaigning for the problems in their villa to be acknowledged by the government, the inauguration of the cultural centre was an emotional moment. For them, it is a tangible example of what can be achieved through hard work that expresses how far they have come and represents a commitment from the national government to improve their living conditions.

Although this building symbolises a triumph for the residents in their battle to be heard by the state, it is only the first step on a long journey towards full integration of the villas into the city of Buenos Aires.

History of the Villas

The first villa appeared in the 1930s when Argentina’s nascent industrialisation caused mass migration from rural areas to the city. Unable to find housing in the centre, new arrivals began to settle in the outskirts of Buenos Aires in areas which became known as ‘villas de emergencia‘. Numbers increased as immigrant workers from neighbouring countries also travelled to the city looking for work and settled in the villas.

Villa 21-24 in Barracas (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Villa 21-24 in Barracas (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Between 1976 and 1983, the military government led a violent campaign to eradicate the villas and, as a result, their population reduced dramatically. But after the dictatorship ended, moves to eradicate villas ceased and they began to consolidate and grow. New waves of migrants arrived and residents began to provide domestic services to middle class families in nearby neighbourhoods. Today, the government of Buenos Aires estimates that between 170,000 and 180,000 people live in the villas. Despite these numbers, the villas have always struggled to gain recognition from the government. Many of its residents feel that they have no voice in society and that their rights and needs are largely ignored.

However, things seem to be changing. Over the past few years, through persistence and enterprise, residents have begun to find their voice and to use it to push for change.

Political Recognition

Passed in 1998, law 148 signalled the integration of the villas into the City of Buenos Aires and called for the creation of ‘Participative Committees’, a series of locally elected councils that would represent the villas politically and be recognised by the City government. However, it was not until 2008 that the first elections to form local councils took place.

In October 2012, the Kirchnerist political group ‘Unidos y Organizados’, led by Cristian Heredia, won the second election ever to be held in the Villa 21-24 and formed a council comprised largely of young residents with a commitment to the villa in which they grew up. “Because public policy is not applied to the villas, the existence of a council that can fight for the rights of the residents, knock on doors, and make phone calls is fundamental,” says council President Heredia. “We won a very important election in which many of the residents went out and voted for change.”

But their drive for change and to demand rights for their residents, along with their dream of a villa integrated into the city of Buenos Aires, stalled because the Buenos Aires government does not recognise the new authorities as valid representatives.

“What do you do if the Mayor does not recognise your post?’ says Heredia. “Unfortunately, we will have to make ourselves heard through protests, but that is not what we want. All we want is to be integrated into the city and for the city government’s policies to apply to everyone. At the moment they apply an exclusion policy to us.”

Lorena Martínez Galos and Cristian Heredia from the Villa 21-24 council, and Walter Torre from Vientos Limpios del Sur.

Lorena Martínez Galos and Cristian Heredia from the Villa 21-24 council, and Walter Torre from Vientos Limpios del Sur.

The Realisation of a Dream

Despite the difficulties they faced, the group did not give up. Eventually, their persistence paid off and they were received by the National Secretary for Culture who, in an unprecedented move, agreed to make their dream of a cultural centre a reality.

Heredia believes that a cultural centre is fundamental to improving conditions in the villas. The mixed heritage of its residents has resulted in a vibrant cultural legacy. Many participate in dance classes or form bands with specific cultural influences. There are also many talented graffiti artists. “Although in the villas we have a very rich artistic culture, many are confined to practising their art in the street and we thought, ‘why don’t we have a place where they can show their talent?’” says Heredia. “Culture is also a very important tool to ensure that our kids stay out of trouble,” he adds.

The Council also sees the cultural centre as a way to bring the villas and the wider city closer together. “This centre is open to everybody,” says Heredia, “We want people to come to our villa and integrate, to shorten the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ because, in reality we are very close-by but it seems that we are so far away. Culture was seen as something for the elite, for the upper middle class, today we are showing that culture is for everyone.”

Work of art at the cultural centre in Villa 21-24 (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Work of art at the cultural centre in Villa 21-24 (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Improving Housing

Although the establishment of a cultural centre in the villas is an achievement that, a few years ago, many would have thought impossible, it is only the first step to improving life in the villas. There are still many issues to be addressed – one of them is housing.

According to Mabel Modanesi, Academic Coordinator of the Masters in Housing and Poverty at the University of Buenos Aires, government housing plans are not broad enough to cover the demand for accommodation, especially in the city of Buenos Aires. “We are talking about a deficit of thousands of houses,” she explains. In respect of the villas, Modanesi believes that residents will never enjoy the same standard of living as other citizens unless their housing arrangements are regularised. “How can someone provide you with a water or drainage service when, legally, you don´t own your property?” she asks.

Although the city government has begun a process of regularisation, the topic in itself is polemic and extremely complex. The haphazard way in which the villas have developed and the cost of legal representation makes it difficult for residents to prove ownership.

And there are environmental issues to address, too. “Many of the houses are built on very dangerous terrain,” says Modanesi, citing, as an example, the Villa of Itati in the district of Quilmes, province of Buenos Aires, where part of the population lives in extreme poverty surrounded by a rubbish dump. “Levels of contamination are unimaginable and the health of the residents, especially the children, is at risk. Residents are desperate for the government to come in and help them,” she explains. She goes on to point out that it would be unfair to regularise the situation of people living in these conditions. “Once you are legally the owner of your house, you have to pay taxes,” says Modanesi, “but paying taxes implies that your accommodation meets basic living standards.”

Modanesi also points out that there may be economic motives for the government’s reluctance to legalise housing in the villas. Villa 31, for example, is situated on commercially valuable land and work to urbanise the area would amount to a commitment to keep the residents there permanently.

Government Intervention

Basic rights to emergency services can also a problem for residents of the villas. “We are locked in a constant struggle with the ambulance service because they do not come into the villa if they are not accompanied by the police,” says Heredia, “but now we have our own police system in the southern area that protects the citizens and keeps peace in the streets, so this should no longer be an issue.”

Yesterday's Festival in Memory of Kevin Molina  (Photo: La Poderosa Gargantua Facebook)

Plaza Kevin, on Villa Zavaleta
(Photo: La Garganta Poderosa Facebook)

Despite Heredia’s claim, prefecture came under fire just three weeks ago when it was accused of abandoning an area of Villa Zavaleta during a 3-hour shoot-out between two drug gangs, during which nine-year old Kevin Molina was killed in his home by a stray bullet. Paola Vallejos, who writes for La Garganta Poderosa, a magazine operating within the villas and cousin of the boy killed, reported, “In three hours more than 100 shots were fired, with no response from the prefecture even though their base is less than 150 metres away.”

In response to what is perceived as lack of action and abuse of authority from the security forces patrolling the villas, an elected committee of residents from Villa Zavaleta has taken matters into their own hands. This weekend, they launched a model of ‘popular control on security forces’ which will aim to expose and denounce abuse from authorities towards residents of the villa.

The tragic story of the death of a child comes amidst announcement of further budget cuts to the city government’s social services funds, destined for the villas.

“A lot of the time, governments like to do cosmetic operations in the villas,” says Modanesi. “They paint a house and make the villas prettier, when what people really want is access to basic services such as water, electricity and a drainage system… The residents would be more than willing to pay for these services – they want to pay – no one likes living in a degrading environment” she adds. “Here no one is lazy, everybody works,” confirms Heredia.

Although there is still a long way to go, conditions in the villas are improving. In her speech at the opening of the Cultural Centre in Villa 21, President Fernandez promised to install water and drainage systems in eight blocks of Villa 21-24, bringing these services to 13,000 people. And plans to open a new subte station to be called ‘Padre Mujica’ just outside Villa 31, have the potential to promote greater integration.

Local Initiatives

In areas where the government has been slow to respond, ever resourceful residents have taken matters into their own hands. Initiatives such as micro-financing between neighbours are very common. Indeed, where residents have no access to credit, except through some NGOs and church help groups, a local solution is their only option. “The neighbours of each block or passage-way pool their funds,” explains Heredia. “Everyone who can puts in $50 and we install a drainage system, water, and electricity in the neighbouring houses… if you can’t contribute it’s no big deal. Sometimes we pay each other back in kind… through solidarity, everything can be achieved.”

There are many examples of how, in the absence of government backing, villas residents have collaborated to self-fund services. Vientos Limpios del Sur, an NGO founded in the late ’90s by a group of young villa residents desperate for change, is an example of this. “In the late ’90s life in the villas was very difficult,” says Walter Torre, one of the founders . “There was poverty, violence and gangs, everyone was stealing, even we were stealing. Then my daughter was born and I wanted a different life, a better life for my villa.”

With a group of friends, Torre approached the gangs and encouraged some of the teenagers living in the poorest conditions to redirect their efforts into improving the villa. Eventually, they persuaded a group of around 120 young people to give their time and meagre salaries to work together to rebuild the roads, install street lights, and paint and repair houses in the villas. One of their biggest achievements was the construction of a higher education centre which, having been adopted by the city government, now offers professional training courses to more than 800 people. Additionally, Vientos Limpios del Sur has set up a community centre where volunteers offer free medical services, advice on social issues such as gender violence and drug addiction, and educational and recreational classes for children.

Children take classes at Vientos Limpios del Sur in Villa 21-24 (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Children take classes at Vientos Limpios del Sur in Villa 21-24 (photo: Bodhi Stanberry)

Although the relationship between the villas and the state remains far from ideal, collaborative projects and locally-led initiatives are beginning to make an impact and to bring hope to residents of the villas for a brighter future. Heredia is optimistic. “We are seeing quite a lot of progress,” he says. “The determination of the villa residents, the solidarity of neighbours, and the support of the national government is bringing about improvements in areas of the city where it is most needed.”

 

Click here to find out what porteños think about initiatives such as the opening of the cultural centre in Villa 21-24.

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