On 10th July 2011, after 15 long years of legislative indecision, the city of Buenos Aires finally held its first elections for the representatives of the juntas comunales (community boards). Each of the city’s 15 comunas, approved definitively in 2005 by the Organic Law of Municipalities (ley de comunas), elected seven representatives to their new local governing units.
In the weeks leading up to the elections, which also reaffirmed incumbent Mayor Mauricio Macri for a second term, the city government polled a selection of 1050 residents of Buenos Aires. When asked about their awareness and knowledge of the comunas, a staggering 82% responded that they had no idea what they were.
Finally active after years of political struggle, the basic purpose of the comunas is to address the needs of their neighbourhoods and involve greater citizen participation in the life and governance of local affairs.
“The comunas are completely open to their communities,” says Juan Carlos Quiroga of Movimiento Comunero, an NGO dedicated to forming a non-traditional political movement based on participation and power for the common citizen. “We invite people to get involved in their communities, to freely debate the problems and solutions, and to modify the reality of their neighbourhoods,”
Faced with the reality of their low public visibility, the comuneros’ principal challenge now is to inform the public not only of the promise, but the direct advantages of bringing new voices into the mix of democracy in Buenos Aires. To this end, the history of the comuneros’ struggle can bring to light the factors that have led and shaped their current predicament, as well as their priorities moving forward.
Decentralisation in the City Constitution
“As in fairy tales,” says a 2009 report from the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLASCO), “the decentralisation of the municipalities of Buenos Aires is a never-ending story: one is always near the end, but it never arrives.”
Consistent with the six-year gap between the passage of the ley de comunas and last year’s elections, a chronic history of delay may be the best general explanation for the lack of public knowledge regarding the function and active status of the comunas.
The plan to create local administrative units in Buenos Aires originated in the ratification of the autonomous City Constitution of 1996. Providing five years for the city to adapt to its decentralised role, the Constitution obligated the municipal legislature to create and define the function of the comunas no later than October 2001.
More significant at the time, however, was the newly elective nature of the mayoral office in Buenos Aires, previously a role appointed by the federal government. The overall move toward decentralisation and the city’s autonomous status now signified a novel political space.
Introduced as part of the same constitutional process, the call for comunas and the adapted role of the mayor in the city initiated spheres of decentralised power, often antagonistic, that have since shared important links in defining themselves and the new political space.
Crisis and Opportunity
As the end of 2001 approached, Argentina was spiralling into an economic, political, and social crisis of historic proportion. The emergence of extreme opinions and public confrontation polarised attitudes toward radical positions.
Characterised by the cry, “Que se vayan todos!” (“They all must go!”), the agitated stance of the public, reacting to administrative dysfunction, served simultaneously to support differing ideas of reform.
Citizen activists, driven by the extensive loss and distrust sweeping society, could genuinely claim an urgent need for participative democracy to reform the broken politics of Argentina. The city government, meanwhile, vulnerable and in crisis mode, could effectively dismiss the comuna question as a step into further chaos or systemic collapse.
“In the 90s and during the economic crisis, the city experienced tremendous social fragmentation,” Quiroga explains. “The instability in this context, intensified by unemployment and hardship in many sectors of the population, created a scenario for participative democracy to offer hope, opportunity, and better health for the people of our neighbourhoods.”
Since the City Constitution already provided the legal grounds to establish the comunas of Buenos Aires, private citizens and neighbourhood organisations embarked on their long fight to make the constitutional mandate a reality.
‘The juntas comunales were envisioned in the Constitution as the governing power, delegated by the neighbours, to their 7 elected officials, as in traditional representative form,” says Ismael Reaño, a retired agronomist and comunero in comuna 14 (Palermo). “The other governing bodies, consejos consultivos, were to provide the new participative space led freely and voluntarily by residents of the comuna to inform the actions of the juntas comunales.”
Confronted with mounting public pressure, the city legislature returned to the problem of drafting the ley de comunas after the worst of the crisis had passed. While independent neighbourhood networks coordinated to raise motions in the courts, the city government favoured its own transitional centres of citizen participation, the Centros de Gestión y Participación (CGPs), which had served since 1998 as forums for testing administrative models of decentralisation.
With the issue indefinitely relegated to a question mark, the fervour for democratic participation during the critical years of the crisis succumbed to inertia in the eyes of the wider public. Compared to an improving status quo, the comunas lacked the kind of meaningful progress and institutional support on which city residents could base practical expectations.
Not surprisingly, as the traditional party organisations positioned themselves for control of the evolving mayoral office, little was done officially to discourage empty forecasts for the comunas and citizen-led democracy.
The Long Road to Elections
Far from producing definitive answers, the eventual ley de comunas of 2005 exposed fault lines between the city government and neighbourhood organisations fighting to launch the comunas. Gradually, the neighbours’ struggle intensified around securing elections and limiting the degree of executive power the mayor could exert over the comunas’ implementation.
While the ley de comunas called for fulfilment by the end of May 2007, the government at the time did not call for elections. Aware by 2008 that Macri’s position was to thwart or fatally amend the comunas altogether, the neighbours’ groups proactively re-engaged the courts. Finally, in 2009, at the order of a judicial decision, the legislature set an election date for June, 2011. The mayor, however, moved the date of the elections to 10th July, making it coincide with citywide elections, and placed the candidates for the juntas comunales on the full city ballot.
“This is a very important factor to consider in our first elections,” says Alberto Silber, coordinator for Movimiento Comunero in comuna 7 (Flores and Parque Chacabuco). “Article 20 of the ley de comunas clearly states that if the elections coincide with other city elections, there must be a measure for separate ballots or commissions.”
The mayor, executing his interpretation of the law, timed the first public action to establish the comunas in the shadow of mayoral and legislative elections.
For the 18% polled who were knowledgeable about the comunas beforehand, the outcome was nevertheless a victory that displayed clearly the government’s complicity in the perception that nobody cares about the comunas.
Local Authority: Limits of Macrismo
As of last December, the 15 comunas operate freely with legal status and territorial jurisdiction. Their limited scope, as per the ley de comunas, defines only green spaces and secondary roads as exclusive competencies. Other powers the comunas share concurrently with the central government to meet local needs and demands, include the execution of plans for public works, projects, and services.
What remains uncertain, in both the long and short terms, is the comunas’ destiny in the realm of city politics.
Looking at the big picture, the elaboration of future goals depends necessarily on the citizens, NGOs, and other social organisations that participate to create an impactful role for the comunas in Buenos Aires. Right now, however, with the consejos consultivos formally opening only last month, the focus is on asserting the comunas’ immediate practical authority against Macri’s rival policies of local administration.
“The situation between the Macri government and the comunas is full of tension,” says Pablo Nanini, a comunero and activist with the Asociación Civil Eudemocracia, which advocates incorporating technology into the exercise of direct democratic decision-making. “There is a void of distribution, a budget held to the minimum, and efforts at co-optation.”
With respect to the last point, Nanini was referring to the mayor’s creation of Units of Citizen Attention (UACs after their name in Spanish) to overtake the previous CGPs. The UACs, enacted by decree of the mayor, consist of 17 units staffed directly by the mayor and charged with duties that interfere with the transfer of local functions to the comunas, diverting their resources and cutting back their already minimal budget.
Prohibited from imposing taxes on residents in their respective territories, the comunas are dependent on allocations from the city budget. For the first two years of operation, this amount is not to exceed 5% of the total city budget, divided as chosen among the 15 comunas. However, in the 2012 budget the comunas were given a scant 0.002%, or $71.8 million, for their first year of operation.
“If we don’t have money, we don’t have real autonomy. We can’t serve the people in our comunas,” says Ernesto Altamiranda of comuna 14. “This is why we are so focused on preparing our budget for 2013.”
Local Participation: The Future of the Comunas
It could be argued that the city government’s basic attitude toward the comunas all along—that they first need to prove their worth among the citizenry—was not so wrong in light of the poll numbers published prior to the elections.
Active members of the comunero movement are well aware of the need to reach a wider demographic; and in essence, given the city government’s feeble attempts at promoting the new system, this is the comunas’ de facto bottom line for survival.
“Salud. Siempre, salud…por el 5%,” Altamiranda jokes over a round of beers following much discussion of what is wrong instead of right—corruption, waste, the corporate nature of traditional politics.
Many of the men and women long involved in the creation of the comunas understand that what they have fought for will be for the benefit of future generations.
“For these guys,” says Pablo Nanini, indicating his elder peers, “the struggle came from the generation of the dictatorship, to first rebuild democracy. For my generation, it’s about carrying that idea through and bringing direct participation to the people.”
Alarmingly, however, per the government’s poll, the demographic least informed about the comunas fell between the ages of 18 and 29.
“I think this is one of our most important tasks,” Nanini reflects. “We need the participation of young people, and we are working online, with the technology we have, to bring the comunas to the to the attention and interest of all to participate.”
To see what porteños think about the decentralisation process in Buenos Aires, click here.